Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: Concrete Clouds

  • Directed by Lee Chatametikool
  • Starring Ananda Everingham, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Janesuda Parnto, Prawith Hansten
  • Limited release in Thai cinemas on September 18, 2014; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Like its English title, Concrete Clouds, the movie Phawang Rak (ภวังค์รัก)0 is full of contradictions. It’s breezy, but deals with heavy emotions. It’s a romance, but there’s little real love. It feels unstructured, even though the minds behind it have very specific ideas about what they want to say and how they want to say it.

The much-anticipated directorial debut by long-time film editor Lee Chatametikool, Concrete Clouds is set during the complex and uncertain days of the 1997 financial crisis. It feels newer, yet is somehow still timeless.

Ananda Everingham stars as Mutt, a currency trader in New York who must suddenly return to Bangkok when his father takes a shortcut to the ground floor from the roof of his four-storey shophouse. After the funeral, Mutt tries to reconnect with Sai (Janesuda Parnto), his old girlfriend from high school. Meanwhile his younger brother Nic (Prawith Hansten) has struck up a relationship with Poupee (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk), a teenager who lives in a low-income flat behind their shophouse.

They are all conflicted characters. Mutt, who quite possibly enriched himself and his New York firm by betting on the Thai economy’s downfall, has a Westerner girlfriend back in the Big Apple. Yet he’s pursuing Sai, an actress and model in the midst of remaking herself as a businesswoman. But she’s not as happy nor as successful as she appears to be, and her pricey riverfront condo sits mostly empty.

Nic is too young to know what he wants out of life. Much younger than Mutt, he has little in common with his brother. Mutt, sitting at this father’s old desk, lectures the boy, in English, basically telling him it’s time to get out of Thailand. Mutt, who wants rid of the rundown family home, seeks to uproot Nic.

Poupee, meanwhile, is introduced while inhaling the vapours of a pink ya ba pill, which she quickly puts away when cops show up on the roof of the house across from hers. It seems likely she’ll follow her sister into the bar industry, but is content for the moment in her burgeoning romance with Nic.

As the couples pair off, the movie falls into a rhythm. Static scenes of the characters staring off in sadness are filled with silence that is stifling. But they are interchanged with livelier activities, such as Mutt visiting a Bangkok gentleman’s club with his old pals, or Sai doing a modelling gig and reconnecting with her friends.

Nic and Poupee are the characters in fantasy karaoke-video segments, which are complete with the lyrics for singing along. The karaoke dreams are vividly presented in the super-saturated colours of 1990s videos, making for eye-popping images that also recall Thai films of the time.

It’s a stuttering, shattered reflection on 1997 by Lee, who returned to Bangkok that year after being schooled overseas. In the years since, he’s gone on to be a major figure in the Thai movie business. As an editor, he’s helped shape such films as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cannes prize-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History, as well as various mainstream Thai movies.

Both Apichatpong and Anocha are producers on Concrete Clouds, along with veteran Thai independent-film hand Soros Sukhum and Taiwanese actress-director Sylvia Chang. It’s been supported along the way by various cinema funds and project markets, including Visions Sud East from Switzerland, the Busan film fest’s Asian Cinema Fund and the Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Concrete Clouds is a tribute to Lee’s stunning resume and it shows just how big an influence he’s been on Thai indie cinema, even if it’s hard to tell just whose hand is on the tiller. Really, it’s a dizzying blend of all the usual elements of Thai indie films. There is the stillness and silences that punctuate Apichatpong’s offerings, and the jittering, jazz-like narrative structure reminded me of the chopped-and-diced timeline of Mundane History.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s 1997 debut Fun Bar Karaoke is specifically referenced, with a poster on Nic’s wall, but also in the dream-like karaoke sequences.

The presence of Ananda, well suited for the role of Mutt, recalls another project Lee edited and Ananda starred in, Aditya Assarat’s Hi-So, which dealt with the cross-cultural conflict of a Thai-American actor.

Spirited young actress Saipan Apinya again spreads her magic pixie dust, enlivening yet another film in much the same way she did in her debut in Pen-ek’s Ploy in 2007. And her character here feels like an extension of the one she played in Tongpong Chantarangkul’s 2011 road-trip drama I Carried You Home. Not only does she smoke ya ba (the main reason for the movie’s 18+ rating), she strips down do her knickers for a daring sex scene. Deft lighting, editing and probably makeup ensure that outspoken Saipan’s very un-’90s tattoos stay hidden.

And, like most indie films, there are startling discoveries of new talent, like the lovely brooding Janesuda and Prawith, making his screen debut as the angst-filled teen.

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