Monday, December 9, 2013

LPFF 2013 reviews: I Love Souvanh, Ah Boys to Men, A River Changes Course

I Love Souvanh – The opening film was supposed to be Big Heart, about a young boxer and his romance with a young woman. But it wasn't ready for its world premiere on the opening night of the 2013 Luang Prabang Film Festival. So the program was switched to another world premiere, I Love Souvanh, a romantic drama about a young Japanese businessman who is sent to Laos to buy textiles. Skeptical at first of being in a "less developed" country, he falls in love with a local lass, a designer at a small company that weaves traditional fabric, and is charmed by the local culture.

Produced and directed by Bounthong Nhotmankhong, a managing director of a textile handicraft company in Savannakhet, I Love Souvanh is a throwback to the propaganda films that extolled the virtues of hard work and traditional culture. It's a chore to sit through, especially because of the sound, which is brutal. If car doors aren't being slammed right in your ear, there's an endless wash of Lao classical music to drown everything out. It's beautifully shot though, and it better be, since it's also a tourism reel for Savannakhet. The Japanese man is shown the various sights around the Mekong River city, which is joined to its Thai neighbor Mukdahan by the Second Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge. Of course praises are also sung in the name of Savannaket's most famous native, the late former prime minister Kaysone Phomvihane.

The camera-toting Youki is quickly sized up by three young ladies at the textile shop, and two of them are flirty. But of course he's immediately drawn to the shy and standoffish one, Phim. She storms off in a huff when he picks up a piece of fabric she's working on to examine the detail. Turns out it was a skirt, and it's improper for a man to touch the hem of a good Lao lady's garment, even if she's not wearing it.

The kindly uncle who runs the textile firm takes Youki under his wing. They get stinko on the local brew. Hah hah. Drinking and driving is funny.

But eventually Youki and Phim end up working closely together and much screen time is devoted to her prattling on about the natural and organic ways of Lao cotton and textile production (Thai fabrics have too much chemicals, we're told early on), as well as the Lao work ethic and how wonderful in general life is in Laos.

With sales pitch like that, Youki decides to stay on a bit longer and learn the ways of the Lao people. And eventually an actual story starts to happen when the truck Phim is riding in gets stuck in the mud. It's the most authentic moment in the whole movie. (2/5)

Ah Boys to Men – Singaporean director Jack Neo can do whatever he wants. He can even blow city landmarks to hell, lay waste to Housing Development Board flats and kill thousands of his countrymen. It's all CGI of course, involving a slick Top Gun style air attack by a shadowy invasion force, which also has troops on the ground, in a Black Hawk Down urban warfare scenario, shooting and killing civilians. Good thing Singapore has its own formidable military, with well-trained fighter pilots, tanks and seasoned infantry, ready to sacrifice their lives.

It's the fantasy opening to Ah Boys to Men, a comedy about young men doing their National Service bit. It's like Full Metal Jacket, but with more comedy and without all the swearing and lethal insanity.

The main focus is on a hot-headed rich kid who is angry about being separated from his girlfriend. He'll do anything to get back with her, even play sick. Along the way, a few old-timers remember their time in the National Service, and their flashback basic training scenes are among the most entertaining.

Through his comedy on the National Service, Neo is able to portray the vast tableaux of Singaporean culture. He even works in a way to comment on the news scandal a couple years or so ago in Singapore, when a family's Filipina maid was photographed carrying a young soldier's backpack, running up behind the uniformed man. Another fun fantasy bit has the boy's mothers as soldiers, who send their eager-to-please Filipina maid running ahead to see if the coast is clear. It's not.

In the end, the rich kid buckles down and concentrates on his training. "Singapore has no enemies," he says. "The enemy is us." (3/5)

A River Changes Course – An opposite bookend to I Love Souvanh, cinematographer-director Kalyanee Mam (Inside Job) paints a dire portrait of her native Cambodia, where the traditional rural ways of living off the land are quickly being outpaced by modernity and environmental degradation. The focus is on three families – subsistence farmers in the forests of northern Cambodia, a Muslim teenage boy working with his father on small fishing boat on the Tonle Sap lake, and a young woman on a rice farm in the central plains near Phnom Penh.

For the forest dwellers, the threat is logging, and all around their property, the trees have been cleared to make way for other plantations. On the Tonle Sap, the fish are scarce and it's no longer possible earn a living. And for the rice farmers, the family makes the tough decision to send the daughter to Phnom Penh to work in the garment factories, where she in fact earns a pittance and can't really afford to send as much back home as everyone hoped. The farm girl remarks that she feels like she's been split in two, having yearned for city life but wanting to be back in the country and belonging to neither place.

The fisherman's family decides that it too must send a child away in order to have one less mouth to feed, and so the oldest boy is shipped off to a Chinese casava plantation. His story is especially sad, and he starts to tear up when the filmmaker presses him about what he said three years before when she started her project. He wanted to go to school, get a degree, get a good job and get his family off the water and onto a piece of land. Now he likely never will.

And the forest family finally bows to mechanization, buying a small rice mill. The father, who is always seen weaving baskets, looks the saddest, even though it appears he no longer has to spend hours on end as a basketmaker.

An honest, unflinching portrait of modern Cambodia's rampant, unchecked development, it won an award at Sundance and other fests, and was such a hit in Luang Prabang, the 40-seat screening room was filled to the gills and another screening was added. (4/5)

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