Friday, December 27, 2013

Top 10 Thai films of 2013

Slickly commercial horror thrillers and comedies, among them the record-setting blockbuster Pee Mak Phra Khanong, were the dominant force of 2013 and made for an entertaining year.

But the joy was balanced by documentaries and indie productions such as Boundary and Tang Wong, which offered sobering commentary on contemporary Thai society and politics.

Furthermore, politics and censorship left marks on two documentaries, Boundary and Paradoxocracy, and were directly addressed in a third, Censor Must Die.

Looking back, here’s 10 films that made 2013 a memorable year.

Tang Wong (ตั้งวง)

What’s it about? Four Bangkok schoolboys pray for success in their various endeavours at a spirit house. In return, they must fulfil a vow by performing a traditional Thai dance, which they know little about. A transgender dancer tries to teach them.

Who directed it? Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, the veteran screenwriter-director who made his debut as an “indie” filmmaker last year with the critically acclaimed P-047.

Why’s it good? Tang Wong has a refreshingly pessimistic view of contemporary Thai culture. While other teen comedies bubble with idealised optimism, Tang Wong doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality that cultural traditions are in a constant state of flux, influenced by technological advances and globalisation. Kongdej keeps things grounded, setting the action in a lower-middle-class apartment block, where life is an uphill struggle. And Thailand’s political problems also colour Tang Wong, with the backdrop being the 2010 red-shirt anti-government protests.

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy

What’s it about? The tweets of a schoolgirl, 410 of them to be exact, are fashioned into a teen comedy following the ups-and-downs of Mary and her best friend as they work on their school’s yearbook.

Who directed it? Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, who continues to innovate after making his feature debut last year with the award-winning experimental romance 36. Mary was a low-budget project generated out of the Venice Biennale College – Cinema.

Why’s it good? On an ultra-low budget and with an interesting cast of characters, Nawapol has succeeded in creating a fantastically entertaining and weird little world out of snippets from our fleeting digital conscious.

Boundary (ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง, Fahtum Pandinsoong)

What’s it about? The Cambodian border conflict around Preah Vihear temple is the main focus for this documentary that also surveys the colour-coded political divide in Thai society.

Who directed it? Nontawat Numbenchapol, making his feature debut with “Boundary”, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Why’s it good? With an artful, observational style, Nontawat takes a snapshot of a timely, complex issue. Though it was well received in Berlin, at home the director had to overcome censorship issues, and his film was initially banned when he sought a commercial release. After an outcry in the social media and coverage in the international press, the ban was rescinded. But the film’s political subject caused Thailand’s Major Cineplex movie chain to have second thoughts about showing it. In the end, Nontawat had to make his limited release even more limited as he hired out the theatres and sold tickets himself, shepherding the film around the country.

Censor Must Die (เซ็นเซอร์ต้องตาย)

What’s it about? Filmmakers chronicle their efforts to appeal against the banning of their controversial and politically tinged Macbeth adaptation, Shakespeare Must Die.

Who directed it? Ing K., with producer Manit Sriwanichpoom.

Why’s it good? While on the long side, as Ing’s films tend to be, Censor Must Die is an important and instructive look at the Culture Ministry and its role in administering a brand-new bureaucracy – the film-ratings board that was created by the Film and Video Act of 2007-08. Censor Must Die hasn’t been banned, but in a paradoxically non-committal ruling, the censors said “Censor Must Die is exempted from the film censorship process ... because [it is] made ... from events that really happened.” However, it wasn’t given a rating that would clear it for commercial release. nonetheless, Ing and Manit gave it a limited one-week run in Bangkok at a new private cinema, the Friese-Greene Club, which opened this past year.

Prachatiptai (ประชาธิป'ไทย), a.k.a. Paradoxocracy

What’s it about? Featuring interviews with academics and activists, this documentary covers the history and paradoxes of Thai democracy since the establishment of the constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Who directed it? Well-known filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang and former A day magazine editor Pasakorn Pramoolwong. Thailand’s continuing political crisis spurred them into finding out for themselves why things are so messed up and confusing.

Why’s it good? In a relaxed, conversational tone, academics and activists patiently explain the history of Thai politics and the cycle of coups replacing democratic rule with dictatorships. The film was censored, with a few words about the monarchy muted out. But it was given a G rating and cleared for commercial release. However, during the film’s initial run at Paragon and Esplanade, the theatre chain removed it from the schedule, making it difficult for viewers to determine if it was indeed showing. Happily, there was a later limited release at House cinema, and now it’s out English-subtitled DVD.

Last Summer (ฤดูร้อนนั้น ฉันตาย, Rue Doo Ron Nan Chan Tai)

What’s it about? High-schoolers are haunted by the spirit of a classmate, a star pupil who died during a weekend of partying at a beach house.

Who directed it? Kittithat Tangsirikit, Sittisiri Mongkolsiri and Saranyoo Jiralak each helmed different segments of the story, which was scripted by Kongdej Jaturanrasmee. The first release by a new film shingle, Talent One, producers included industry veterans Rutaiwan Wongsirasawad and Pimpaka Towira, with further behind-the-scenes help from indie film figures Aditya Assarat, Soros Sukhum and Pawas Sawatchaiyamet as line producers.

Why’s it good? Indie filmmakers who are better known for their slow-moving arthouse dramas proved they can craft a cracking horror thriller that’s as slick as anything put out by the big studios. It’s also notable for strong performances by the two more-experienced of the young cast, actor Jirayu La-ongmanee and actress Sutatta Udomsilp. They usually play more-wholesome teens, so it’s refreshing to see them rise to the occasion of portraying darker, flawed characters.

Pee Mak Phra Khanong (พี่มาก...พระโขนง)

What’s it about? It’s the classic ghost story of Mae Nak Phra Khanong – husband Mak returns home from war to his loving wife and newborn child. But he doesn’t know that she’s a ghost, having died giving birth to a stillborn baby. The tragic tale is given a comic spin as Mak’s four war bumbling war buddies try in vain to clue him in.

Who directed it? Banjong Pisanthanakun, co-director of the GTH studio’s immensely successful horror thrillers Shutter and Alone and director of the hit romantic comedy Hello Stranger.

Why’s it good? Banjong and his co-writer Chantavit Thanasevi put a fresh twist on a ghost legend that’s been told dozens of times already. It’s the usual historic setting of a hundred or so years ago and hits all the expected story beats, but is updated with contemporary comic references. But more than being hilarious, there’s real heart and sweetness to the romance, which is lifted by appealing turns from Mario Maurer as Mak and especially Davika Hoorne as the powerful ghost wife. They are well supported by Nattapong Chartpong, Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasuk, Pongsatorn Jongwilak and Wiwat Kongrasri, the quartet of actors from Banjong’s comedic contributions to GTH’s Phobia horror compilations. Further polish on the production comes from art director Arkadech Keawkotr, who also was the set designer on Nonzee Nimibutr’s version of the tale, 1999’s Nang Nak. Everything clicked into place and Pee Mak proved to be a winner at the box office, earning more than Bt500 million to beat the 12-year-old record held by Suriyothai. GTH estimates it’s earned more than Bt1 billion, which may or may not include revenue from releases all across Southeast Asia and other Asian territories.

Thongsuk 13 (ทองสุก 13, a.k.a. Long Weekend)

What’s it about? Teenagers head to an isolated island for a weekend of merriment. They are met there by the disabled classmate they hoped to leave behind, and the savant is in turn possessed by evil spirits who pick the kids off one by one.

Who directed it? Taweewat Wantha, director of the genre-blending zombie comedy SARS Wars and the sci-fi comedy The Sperm. Long Weekend was the first release from a new company called Wave Pictures, with veteran producer Adirek “Uncle” Watleela among the guiding hands.

Why’s it good? Taweewat’s trademark outrageousness is toned down only a bit for this slasher-thriller. Just when you think things can’t get any crazier, they do. In a memorable turn, Cheeranat Yusanon emerges as the film’s heroine, and it’s her character’s lifelong friendship with the disabled kid Thongsuk (Chinnawut Intarakusin) that gives the story emotional depth.

The Cop (สารวัตรหมาบ้า, Sarawat Maa Baa)

What’s it about? A hard-driving, hard-drinking “mad dog” cop investigates the murder of a government minister’s daughter while a figure from his past aims to cause him more trouble.

Who directed it? MR Chalermchatri “Adam” Yukol, son of veteran director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, making his feature directorial debut.

Why’s it good? In a year dominated by horror, horror-comedies, documentaries and indie dramas, “The Cop” provided a welcome change of pace with gritty police-procedural action. Somchai Khemklad is perfectly cast as the hot-headed police inspector, supported by veteran comedian Note Chernyim as his cooler-headed world-weary partner and fresh-faced actress Krystal Vee as a rookie lieutenant with a hidden agenda. Unfortunately, The Cop received only minimal marketing support and didn’t exactly set the box office on fire – I’m not even sure it registered on the charts. Hopefully that won’t deter Adam from directing another feature.

Oh! My Ghost Khun Phee Chuay (โอ้! มายโกสต์ คุณผีช่วย a.k.a. OMG!)

What’s it about? A talent-show contestant (Sudarat “Tukky” Butrprom) gets hair extensions and is haunted by the spirit of her new hair’s former owner – a dancer-model (Cris Horwang) who seeks Tukky’s help in patching things up with her old boyfriend.

Who directed it? Puttipong Promsakha Na Sakon Nakhon, co-director of the 2011 cult-hit teen romance First Love and director of last year’s romantic comedy 30+ Singles on Sale.

Why’s it good? The initial appeal is in the pairing of diminutive cherub Tukky with the lithe and long-limbed actress-model Cris. Lifted by the unlikely pair’s easy chemistry, the ghost comedy sticks to a script that clears the way for Tukky to show off her considerable comic talents, playing an essentially ordinary northeasterner trying to make it in Bangkok.

See also:

(Cross-published in The Nation)


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