Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: Vengeance of the Assassin

  • Directed by Panna Rittikrai
  • Starring Chupong Changprung, Nathawut Boonrubsub, Ping Lumpraploeng, Nisachon Tuamsungnoen
  • Released in Thai cinemas on October 13, 2014; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Vengeance of the Assassin (Rew Talu Rew, เร็วทะลุเร็ว) wasn't supposed to be Panna Rittikrai's last film. It feels more like a middling placeholder, a fun slice of gritty action to tide folks over until something bigger from the director and martial-arts choreographer comes along. Heck, there's even a tag that hints at a sequel to Vengeance of the Assassin, which was completed around a year or so ago and kept in the vaults of Sahamongkolfilm. Sadly, Panna passed away in July at age 53 of liver ailments. So a sequel seems unlikely.

Vengeance of the Assassin also harks back to the original backyard stunt movies Panna made in the 1980s and '90s, before he blew up big in 2003 with his protege Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak, which made Panna a household name among action cultists worldwide. Before then, Panna's rough-and-tumble direct-to-VCD offerings were mainly only viewed in his native Northeastern Thailand, and were popular among farmers, truckers, cab drivers and laborers hailing from the Isaan region.

And the opening scene of Vengeance of the Assassin could be viewed as a standalone, a beautiful and moving tribute to Panna's talent at staging martial-arts setpieces. It has everything the late stunt guru became known for. The scene involves young guys squaring off at a game of indoor soccer, with deadly consquences. Panna dusts off all his tricks, with fighters swooping in from outside the frame to converge in a mass of swinging limbs and bone-crunching sound effects. Water is spraying everywhere, and there's tons of glass to break, for no apparent reason other than it just looks cool. With each moment, Panna one-ups himself, and for the players, the risks become greater and greater until they are essentially playing soccer in a lake of gasoline next to a red-hot charcoal grill. Boom!

"Diew" Chupong Changprung, who made his debut with Panna's first big mainstream directorial effort, 2004's, Born to Fight as well as another top-shelf Panna project, Dynamite Warrior, stars. He's Thee, a young man seeking answers about the death of his parents. Thee's drunken auto-mechanic uncle (scene-hogging comedian Ping Lumpraploeng) is mum on the details but his daily afternoon Beer Leo stupor makes it easy for Thee to sneak into a secret room and find clues.

So Thee lights out on his own, tracking down a mysterious Buddhist monk who knew his parents. He then bumps into a cardigan-clad man who is a member of a league of assassins. Brooding Thee joins this shadowy band of killers in zipper sweaters. But it's anything but a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

The plot becomes a bit muddled, but it boils down to Thee being framed for trying to kill Ploy, the daughter of a politically connected bigwig, and he has to go on the run with the girl (bright-eyed newcomer Nisachon Tuamsungnoen).

His quest for revenge and refuge leads him back home to his uncle and brother Than, who are reluctantly drawn into Thee's fight. Ploy's family doctor, a Chinese healer named Master Sifu, also ably pitches in. A fierce fighter, he's portrayed by a Malaysian actor, but I missed the fellow's name in the credits.

Nathawut Boonrubsub, who made his debut as a pint-sized warrior in 2009's Power Kids – another Panna project – is in fine form as Thee's kid brother Than. He teaches himself martial-arts moves and gun-fu by watching old videotapes of his parents that his uncle had hidden.

Bad guys clad in black are literally coming out of the woodwork as martial-arts battles ensue in the confines of greasy garages, grimy factories and abandoned office buildings.

Among the villains Thee and Than have to tangle with is an imposing female assassin portrayed by Diew's Born to Fight co-star, former taekwondo national athlete "Nui" Kessarin Ektawatkul. She's having a blast as the oversexed lead baddie, but her threat is short-lived. She has a boyfriend with a neck tattoo who takes over for her in the fight.

There's a lot of gunplay. And a gratuitous number of car chases. And a big setpiece atop a moving passenger train that is probably 90 percent CGI, but is still great fun. There's thrills and painful-looking spills aplenty during the train sequence, which involves the uncle and the Chinese healer chasing along in a Land Rover filled with machine guns and a misfiring RPG. Then a helicopter swoops in and it all goes crazy.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

EXpatZ sets Thai premiere

ExpatZ, a short film made in Thailand that has been screening and winning awards at fests worldwide, will make its Bangkok premiere next week at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

Directed by Jimmie Wing, ExpatZ is a psychedelic horror-comedy mash-up set in the totally fictional country of Wighland, which bears no resemblance at all to Thailand. Nope. Not one bit. Anyway, in this strange land, a foreign TV journalist encounters all sorts of colorful characters as he tracks down a rogue retired American military officer.

Here's more details:

A foreign television reporter specializes in interviewing bizarre foreigners living in Wighland. The reporter and his local partner, Professor Roasted Squid, take off to find an especially peculiar retired American military officer. Ordinarily, the boss of a local hamburger joint, the retired officer hides a secret culinary technology. When a few of the reporter’s jealous "friends" show up on the scene, they get caught up in a long and unexpectedly strange trip. The hilarious antics and cross-cultural relationships of these crazy white people perfectly set the scene for this wild adventure.

In awarding Jimmie Wing's film the grand prize for best short film, the Urban Nomad Film Festival (Taiwan’s largest independent film confab) said, "Adopting a humorous and visually alluring style, EXpatZ describes the strange and twisted stories of Westerners in Asia and the adventures of one Asian people’s turnabout in fortunes. The film is a satire on the ridiculousness of the superiority of white people and lampoons standards of racial stereotyping. Through extreme subversion and sabotage, EXpatZ presents a multi-faceted view of the relative relationship between the West and Asia within the ecology of Southeast Asian colonialism.”

The screening is set for Wednesday, November 19, at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. The event starts at 6pm with hamburgers, followed by the film at 7pm. Wing will talk and answer questions later, along with co-leads Soontorn Meesri and Lex Luther. Kamonrat Ladseeta, who plays Madame Quoits, the wife of Commander Quoits (Darren Potter), will also field questions.

Check out the trailer, embedded below.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: So Be It

  • Directed by Kongdej Jaturanrasmee
  • Starring Sorawit William Caudullo, Bundit Laocharoeysuk, Phra Sanan Titameto, Phra Marhalatsiam Thammutasiu
  • Limited release at House cinema in Bangkok on October 30, 2014; rated G
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Writer-director Kongdej Jaturanrasmee harnesses his flair for telling engaging stories about unusual people with So Be It (A-Wang, เอวัง ), his first feature documentary.

It's about Buddhism, but it isn't preachy. There are no talking-head interviews like ordinary documentaries. There's pleasant images of shaven-headed men and boys in saffron, but there's more to it than that. Its accessibility is boosted by clear, high-definition images and polished editing and post-production. A burbling acoustic guitar soundtrack provides ear candy, gently spurring the story along.

Like his narrative features, Kongdej takes an unconventional approach to his subjects. No lost elephant, or three-armed man, or cabaret dancers with amnesia. Here, there's two very real Thai boys from very different backgrounds. Their whose lives are entwined in Buddhism. Although it's an unscripted documentary, the story clicks along as if everyone is reading from one of Kongdej's weird but higlyh compelling screenplays.

It also helps that one of the stars is a celebrity, William, a half-Thai 7-year-old boy, went viral on social networks when he appeared on the TrueVisions reality series Samanean Pruk Panya, which followed boys as they become novice monks.

The other boy is Bundit, 10-year-old son of a Karen family. His family is poor and they sent him to live at Wat Sa Kaeo, a well-known Buddhist temple and boarding school in central Thailand's Ang Thong province.

Parallels are drawn to the stories of these two different boys with help from a Buddhist parable that's related in intertext titles, about Sakka and Pura, monks who each struggled with attaining enlightenment. Sakka seeks to hunt for answers outside the temple, while Pura remains inside, yet whatever peace he's looking for is elusive.

In the TrueVisions series, William is shown at first being bratty, impatient and hot-tempered, spoiling for a fight with another novice who taunts him. But as the spiritual practices of meditation and mindfulness take hold, William's demeanor changes, and he becomes genuinely interested in learning more about Buddhism, and thinks he might want to be a monk when he grows up. Back at school, he's chosen to lead the Buddhism club. With the kind support of his Thai mother and American father, he takes a trip to the rural northern temple of prominent monk Phra Sanan Titameto, who was featured on the TV series. William spends time as a temple boy and watching the monk's every move.

Bundit, who is introduced while he's in a classroom watching the TV show with William, is also bratty and hot-tempered, yet there's nothing anyone can do to control him. A rebellious little gangster who has issues with authority figures, Bundit skips classes, ducks off campus to go swimming in the river and sneaks out of the dormitory at night to sleep elsewhere. He is not the least interested in learning about Buddhism. For him, monkhood is a punishment.

While William makes morning alms rounds with the uncle-like Phra Sanan, Bundit is granted leave by his temple's abbot to visit his home, accompanied by an older relative boy. The angry little Bundit seems happier at the rustic wooden homestead, where the family hand-raises corn and chickens. But, overburdened with other mouths to feed, they can't afford to keep William there. So he must go back to school. And that anger, manifested by a scary look in Bundit's eyes, returns.

And like the monks in the Sakka and Pura tale, enlightment doesn't come easily for the devout and ever-curious William, and his time as a temple boy seems to have raised more questions than answers.

A documentary, So Be It might seem like an odd fit alongside Kongdej's other work, which includes commercial screenplays like Tony Jaa's lost-elephant tale Tom-Yum-Goong or the amnesiac transgender tale Me Myself, and the three-armed romance Handle Me With Care. It's closer in tone to Kongdej's more recent ventures into independent filmmaking, which he and producer Soros Sukhum kicked off with the weird P-047, about two guys – spirituality seekers of a sort – who break into people's apartments and "borrow" their lives while they are away. So Be It is also an examination of contemporary Thai culture, such as Kongdej's most recent narrative feature, Tang Wong, which had bratty teenage schoolboys struggling to learn a traditional Thai dance.

With So Be It, which was produced in part by cable-television company TrueVisions and intended for broadcast, Kongdej finds another angle for examination and reflection.

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