Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How to Win at Checkers, Blue Hour and So Be It at Berlinale

Three Thai film are featured in the Berlin International Film Festival this year. Two of them, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) and The Blue Room are world premieres, while the third is the Buddhism documentary So Be It, which makes its European premiere.

Directed by Josh Kim, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), is based on the best-selling book Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and is the coming-of-age story of brothers struggling to survive and stay together in a land plagued by social and economic inequality.

Originally called Draft Day, but presumably changed to avoid confusion with the Kevin Costner sports drama, the story involves Thailand's military conscription, in which all males turning 21 must participate in the military draft lottery. Drawing a black card grants exemption. Drawing a red card results in two years of service. When his older brother, Ek, faces the possibility of being drafted, 11-year old Oat must begin to learn to grow up and take care of himself.

Representing one possible future of Southeast Asian filmmaking in the Asean Economic Community era, the producers of Checkers hail from Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand and the US. They are Edward Gunawan, Chris Lee, Andrew Thomas Tiernan and Anocha Suwichakornpong.

The Blue Hour (อนธการ, Onthakan) is garnering solid buzz among those in the know. Described by them as a "gay murder mystery", it's directed by Anucha Boonyawatana, an indie helmer who made his debut in 2004 with Down the River, and was in competition in Berlin in 2012 with the short Erotic Fragments No.1,2,3. Here's the synopsis:

Tam, a loner gay boy is always bullied by his friends at school. At home, his father who works in the army always beats him. His mother and brother never trust him. One day, Tam gets to know Phum, a mysterious boy on the Internet. He goes to meet him at an abandoned swimming pool. The begin their relationship which will lead Tam to commit the biggest crime of his life.

Checkers and the Blue Hour are both in the Panorama section, while the Generations program has So Be It, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee's documentary about two very different boys and how Buddhism touches their lives. It's the second consecutive year for Kongdej in Berlin, who was there last year with his teen drama Tang Wong.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Vanishing Point – no, not that Vanishing Point – appears in Rotterdam's Tiger competition

Each year, the International Film Festival Rotterdam provides a good look at things to come in indie Thai cinema, and this year's big highlight is the world premiere of Vanishing Point (วานิชชิ่ง พอยท์), a new feature from video artist and indie helmer Jakrawal Nilthamrong.

Containing a car – though likely not a 1970 Dodge Challenger – and twisted wreckage, Vanishing Point is not a remake of the cult-classic car-chase drama, though like the characters in that 1971 flick, the folks in 2015's Vanishing Point are also dealing with existential crises.

It's actually a partly autobiographical picture by Jakrawal, who opens it with photos and words from Thai newspaper articles from 1983, reporting on a horrific car-train wreck that left his mother severely injured and his father permanently disabled. From there, he branches out with a fictional drama, involving various characters struggling with their beliefs.

Here's the festival synopsis:

A serious film about serious, complex issues (including a dramatic car crash), presented in a light, playful way. The film follows two very different men, each of whom changes his life in his own way. This doesn’t seem to be a direct result of the choices they make. Change can be like that.

Vanishing Point is an exercise in self-examination, even if Thai director Jakrawal Nilthamrong doesn’t appear directly in the film. It opens with images of a car crash involving Nilthamrong’s parents. Disturbing original news photos are initially used, but the director quickly switches to a fictional reconstruction at the scene of a crime, deep in a wood. We don't yet know how this shocking crime is related to the car accident. Various facts and stories are cautiously presented; the pieces of the puzzle don’t fall into place straight away.

Vanishing Point follows a young reporter who attends the reconstruction without being particularly impressed. He is against injustice, but is unable to give concrete expression to this feeling. Another storyline involves motel owner Yai, a joyless voyeur with little feeling for his family. His attempts to escape his day-to-day existence don’t really help.

The film is not sombre, however. Nilthamrong makes good use of diverting elements such as karaoke videos and popular music to develop his themes with a light touch. The question of how his parents’ accident has affected his life is a serious sidelight: how all of our actions affect the rest of our lives.

For more details, check the production PDF or Facebook. There's also a trailer. Just keep scrolling.

As usual, IFFR has a passel of Thai short films as well. Here's the line-up:

  • Auntie Maam Has Never Had a Passport – Sorayos Prapapan's well-travelled festival entry satirizes Thailand's foreign affairs and even film festivals like Rotterdam with a story about an elderly lady who appears in Thai indie films who gets a chance to travel overseas to a film fest.
  • Deleted – Nitas Sinwattanakul directs this 2013 short, about a man who continues to post on Facebook even after he dies, and his wife is powerless to block him.
  • Endless, Nameless – Pathompon "Mont" Tesprateep's wacky experimental short was shot on Super 8 film that was hand-processed. Yes. It's a flm made on actual film. Not sure what the heck it's about, but it won the top prize at last year's Thai Short Film and Video Festival.
  • Thursday – Festival regular Anocha Suwichakornpong, who got her big break in Rotterdam with her debut feature Mundane History, collaborates with Sarajevo filmmaker Sejla Kameric on a 44-minute visual dialogue that offers wordless impressions from old Europe and changing Asia.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from January 21 to February 1.

Songs of Rice hooping into Thai cinemas

My favorite film of 2014, The Songs of Rice (พลงของข้าว, Pleng Khong Kao), opens in a limited release in Thai cinemas on January 22.

Directed by Uruphong Raksasad and produced by Pimpaka Towira, The Songs of Rice is a joyous celebration of the often-lively (and even explosive) rites and festivities that accompany rice cultivation in Thailand. It premiered about a year ago at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it won the Fipresci Award, and made several other festival appearances. I saw it twice, at Salaya Doc and in Luang Prabang, and both times I was blown away by the film's gently building tempo and the vivid intensity of the images.

A documentary, it is the completion of a trilogy of farming films that Uruphong began with in 2005 with The Stories from the North, a collection of short stories from around his native Chiang Rai province. He followed that up with the ambitious documentary Agrarian Utopia, which followed two families growing rice by hand for a year on a small plot of land, also in Chiang Rai, way up in Thailand's North.

With The Songs of Rice, Uruphong starts out in that same location, but then moves further afield, travelling the length and breadth of the country as he documents religious ceremonies, beauty pageants, parades, communal food preparation, dancing and music. He covers the rocket festival in Yasothon in the Northeast, the buffalo races in Chonburi in the East and falls in with a travelling band of workers and their rice-harvesting spaceships in Roi Et.

Released by Extra Virgin, The Songs of Rice opens on January 22 in Bangkok's SF World Cinema at CentralWorld, and then spreads to other SF cinemas in the following weeks, hitting Chiang Mai's Maya on January 29 and Khon Kaen on February 5.

For more details, check the movie's Facebook page. There's also a trailer.

Oh, it's nothing, it's just The Isthmus

Thai cinema has started off 2015 with the release of an independent film that's been around the festival circuit for the past year or more, The Isthmus (ที่ว่างระหว่างสมุทร, Teewang Rawang Samut).

A drama, surreal comedy and road movie, the singulary strange film is about a young single mother's search for answers after her precocious little daughter starts speaking only Burmese following the death of the family's Myanmar maid.

Directed by a pair of university film-studies lecturers, Sopawan Boonnimitra and Peerachai Kerdsint, The Isthmus premiered way back in 2013 in the New Currents competition at the Busan International Film Festival (Concrete Clouds, released here last year, was in the same slate) and came to Thailand courtesy of that year's edition of the World Film Festival of Bangkok.

Now it's back, with the mind-boggling new poster tagline, "A celebration of nothingness". Thing is, the clever bit of marketing places The Isthmus alongside other recent contemplative Thai indie fare, such as the enigmatic W., which generated steady social-networking buzz in its limited release at Bangkok's "boutique" cinema, House on RCA.

Similarly, The Isthmus is also at House (alongside the indie Thai documentary The Master), as well as at the venerable Lido multiplex in Siam Square.

More posters can be found around, and there's a trailer.

Meanwhile, The Nation has a story offering a bit more on the Thai films in 2015, so check that out.


Friday, January 9, 2015

Top 10 Thai films of 2014

As the military strongmen took over and began to map out the country’s future, independent Thai filmmakers soldiered on in 2014 with more of their unique stories, told in a string of documentaries and dramas. And the mainstream film studios offered their own distractions, with a handful of gems among the usual crop of cross-dressing comedies, horror and weepy melodramas. Here are the 10 Thai films I most enjoyed over the past year.

The Songs of Rice (เพลงของข้าว, Pleng Kong Kao)

What’s it about? The colorfully festive rites that accompany rice cultivation across the length and breadth of Thailand are surveyed in this documentary that screened on the festival circuit last year. I saw it twice, and it blew me away both times. In Thailand, it comes to SF cinemas on January 22.

Who directed it? Uruphong Raksasad, completing his trilogy of rural films that began in 2006 with The Songs of the North and was followed by Agrarian Utopia in 2011.

Why’s it good? A genius lensman, Uruphong continues to demonstrate his knack for astonishing viewers with amazing photography. His eye-popping images are coupled with expert editing and sound design, so the blasts of those rockets in Yasothon or the thwacks of a whip on a racing buffalo in Chon Buri are all the more vivid.

Village of Hope (วังพิกุล, Wangphikul)

What’s it about? A young man on leave from the military returns to his poor farming village and feels uneasy as he gets reacquainted with his elderly relatives and the slow pace of life.

Who directed it? Boonsong Nakphoo, an indie director who specialises in hardscrabble stories, filmed with members of his own family around his hometown of Wangphikul in Sukhothai province. Village of Hope is a sequel to his 2011 effort Poor People the Great.

Why's it good? Somboon’s films are unpretentious and compelling portraits of folks who have been surpassed by society and are out of step with the increasingly urbanized, digitized, plastic-coated modern Thailand.

Concrete Clouds (ภวังค์รัก, Phawang Rak)

What’s it about? During the 1997 financial crisis, a New York currency trader (played by Ananda Everingham) returns home to Bangkok to settle affairs after the suicide of his father. While trying to bond with his younger brother (newcomer Prawith Hansten), he also seeks to rekindle romance with an ex-girlfriend (Jansuda Parnto), a former actress having mixed success as a businesswoman. And the brother strikes up a relationship with a lonely neighbor girl (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk).

Who directed it? Lee Chatametikool, making his long-awaited feature directorial debut after having helped shape Thai indie cinema as an influential film editor for the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Anocha Suwichakornpong.

Why's it good? A fantastic cast, eye-popping visuals and cool ’90s music lift Concrete Clouds, which captures the anxiety of the era with karaoke-video vignettes – super-saturated dreamy asides to the bittersweet twin romances of the screenplay.

Vengeance of the Assassin (เร็วทะลุเร็ว, Rew Talu Rew)

What’s it about? A young man (Chupong Changprung) becomes an assassin while looking for answers about the death of his parents. As he gets closer to the truth, his brother (Nathawut Boonrubsub) joins in to help.

Who directed it? Action maestro Panna Rittikrai, who died last July at age 53 of liver disease. Aside from his string of gritty action films like Born to Fight and Dynamite Warrior, Panna was best known as mentor and martial-arts choreographer to Ong-Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong star Tony Jaa, who last year broke from studio Sahamongkol to strike out on his own in Hollywood with Fast and Furious 7 and in Hong Kong on SPL2.

Why's it good? The first two minutes alone are worth seeking this out. Panna pulls out all his bone-crunching stops as he has his fighters playing combat football in a burning warehouse next to a lake of gasoline.

The Swimmers (ฝากไว้..ในกายเธอ, Fak Wai Nai Guy Ther)

What’s it about? Speedo-clad high-school swimming champions Perth and Tan come into conflict over a girl, who fell to her death from a diving platform into a drained pool.

Who directed it? Sophon Sakdapisit, GTH studio’s resident scare specialist. He previously did the 2011 psycho-thriller “Laddaland” and 2008’s “Coming Soon” and had a hand in writing the hit horrors “Shutter” and “Alone”.

Why's it good? The slickly produced flick keeps viewers off kilter with a taut psychological drama that has the added horror of having a message about teen sex.


What’s it about? A brainy college freshman is thrown into the deep end of campus life when she is assigned to the faculty that was her last choice – sports – where her only friend is a slacker classmate who hopes to copy from her test papers.

Who directed it? Chonlasit Upanigkit, who made W. as his undergraduate thesis film at Silpakorn University. He had previously served as film editor on director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s indie hits Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy and 36. A jaw-dropping three hours when he turned the film in, W. was shepherded by veteran indie filmmaker Aditya Assarat, who became a producer and guided it through an editing process that trimmed an hour off. It became bankable enough to enter the Busan film fest and secure a limited run at Bangkok’s House cinema.

Why's it good? With a burbling electronica soundtrack, moody natural lighting and overall dreaminess, W. fits solidly in the realm of “contemplative cinema” or “shoegaze”, sort of like Drive, though instead of Ryan Gosling staring blankly in silence over his steering wheel, you have college girls nattering as they double up on a bicycle for a ride across campus.

The Teacher’s Diary (คิดถึงวิทยา, Kid Tueng Wittaya)

What’s it about? A man and a woman, teachers at the same rural schoolhouse, but a year apart, fall in love over their writings in a shared diary.

Who directed it? Nithiwat Tharatorn, one of six directors of 2003’s Fan Chan, the film that built the highly successful GTH studio. He went on to direct the hit romantic dramas Season’s Change and Dear Galileo.

Why's it good? Toeing a fine line between sweetness and mawkishness, the sentimental romance mostly sticks to that line thanks to a fairly tight script, top-notch technical work, a memorable location and, of course, appealing performances by two fine lead actors, Sukrit “Bie” Wisetkaew as an ex-jock teacher whose enthusiasm makes up for his lack of brains, and Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak as a bright schoolteacher whose rebellious streak lands her in the rural post.

Fin Sugoi (ฟินสุโค่ย)

What’s it about? A young woman’s boyfriend becomes jealous after she gets to be in the music video of the Japanese rock star she’s been obsessed with all her life.

Who directed it? Tanwarin Sukkhapisit followed up the critically acclaimed transgender drama It Gets Better with two well-made, solidly commercial entries this year. In addition to Fin Sugoi, Tanwarin made Threesome, an entertaining romantic comedy about a woman who breaks up with her boyfriend and starts dating a ghost.

Why's it good? A surprisingly provocative script and a fun premise gives Fin Sugoi the edge over Threesome as well as the overly formulaic GTH blockbuster rom-com I Fine … Thank You … Love You. But the highlight of Fin Sugoi was the bravura performance by Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, whose portrayal of an obsessed fan was quite a departure from the usual quiet dramatic roles she lands in indie films like Concrete Clouds. She also was in a third film last year, the lesbian marriage drama 1448: Love Among Us.

Somboon (ปู่สมบรูณ์, Poo Somboon)

What’s it about? The documentary follows an elderly man as he cares for the overwhelming medical needs of his chronically ailing wife of 45 years.

Who directed it? Krisda Tipchaimeta, making his feature debut.

Why's it good? Documentaries were huge in 2014. Veteran writer-director Kongdej Jaturanrasmee turned in his first doc, So Be It, a portrait of two boys and Buddhism; and Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit did The Master, in which Kongdej and other film folk share memories about Van VDO, the infamous pirate-movie dealer. But the bittersweet Somboon, about a stand-up guy who doesn’t shirk his responsibilities, felt the most pure and poignant.

The Last Executioner (เพชฌฆาต, Petchakat)

What’s it about? The biographical drama spotlights Chavoret Jaruboon, the executioner at Bangkwang Prison, the “Bangkok Hilton”. He was the last to dispatch death-row inmates with a rifle before the switch to lethal injection.

Who directed it? Tom Waller, a Thai-Irish filmmaker who has for many years run a company that provides services to foreign movie productions. He broke into making his own indie arthouse films with 2011’s Mindfulness and Murder.

Why's it good? Chavoret struggled to reconcile his lethal duty with his Buddhist spirituality, and whether his killing in the name of justice was good or bad. Giving weight to that conflict is another excellent performance by Vithaya Pansringarm from Mindfulness and Murder and Only God Forgives, and a fine supporting cast that includes Penpak Sirikul as Chavoret’s wife and David Asavanond (Countdown) as a shadowy spirit figure. The backdrop, the inner-workings of Thailand’s prison system, is also interesting. Unfortunately, Thai audiences didn’t find the film’s morbid subject matter compelling, and The Last Executioner was largely gone from cinemas after just one week.

(Cross-published in The Nation)