Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Fantasia Film Festival features eight Thai films

According to this article, Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival will feature movies and animation from Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Korea and other countries. The three-week event starts on July 8 and runs until August 1.

The festival features eight Thai films:In past years, Fantasia has screened Bang Rajan and Oxide Pang's Nothing to Lose.

Review: Beautiful Boxer

  • Directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham
  • Starring Asanee Suwan, Sorapong Chatree
  • International director's cut screened in limited release in Thailand in 2004
  • Rating: 4/5

Beautiful, but not quite a knockout, Beautiful Boxer nonetheless has plenty of heart and some decent laughs as it tells the story of Nong Toom, a devastating male Thai kickboxer who went on to have a sex change.

Told as one long flashback, the story begins with a foreign reporter wending his way through Bangkok's seedy Patpong area, heading to a gay cabaret club where Nong Toom is a performer. He just misses her in her dressing room (having a funny encounter with another transgendered performer), but sees her heading out the backdoor of the club. So he follows. In his haste, he bumps into the wrong crowd and proceeds to have his butt kicked, but soon, some well-placed roundhouse kicks are thrown by a high-heeled foot and the reporter is saved. He's also found his interview subject.

Recalling her life as a young boy, she figures she first wanted to be a girl when she was at a temple fair in Chiang Mai. Her friend, a girl, wanted to check out the Thai boxing. Toom was repulsed by the blood and violence and went to check out the likay (Thai folk opera) instead.

The film then follows the boy's hardships in growing up in a poor family and his struggles with his identity as he was sent to a temple at a young age to be a monk.

Cut to years later. Toom is an effeminate teenager, hitting on the backpacker boys. Back at that same temple fair, he is coerced into taking part in a Thai boxing match, though he had no training. Much to his family's, and his, surprise, he wins.

Eventually he joins the boxing camp run by Phi Chat (Sorapong Chatree), who sees promise in Nong Toom.

What's most heartwarming about this is the support of Toom's family, friends and his trainer, even as he was open about wanting to be a transvestite.

There's plenty of humor, too. Like Toom's manager, who instead of being disgusted by his wearing makeup gives Toom money so he can go out and get waterproof makeup, because the regular kind runs when Toom perspires and makes him look ugly.

The epic tale is beautifully photographed, with plenty of dance-like training, all enshrouded by fog or silhouetted.

The performances are remarkable as well, especially Asanee Suwan, a Thai kickboxer who was chosen by Nong Toom and the director. It's his debut film role. He was recognized for his work with the best actor award last year by the Thailand National Film Association, a big surprise since he was up against Japanese leading man Tadanobu Asano, who starred Last Life in the Universe. Beautiful Boxer also won best make-up, which was fitting.

This was a special press screening of the director's cut, the version that is shown internationally at film festivals. I spoke with the director afterward and he was glad to find out this was the first time I'd seen the film.

For the Thai theatrical release, it was cut down about 15 minutes, with the film concentrating on the boxing action. The longer version concentrates more on the drama.

While I don't mind the length, there were some pacing issues that felt draggy to me, like some of the training sequences and some of the portions later in the film as Toom was struggling with her identity.

This was also the debut feature film from the director, who comes to motion pictures from the theater, where he directed an acclaimed musical about Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins. So if some parts of Beautiful Boxer seemed stagey, he can be excused.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Cannes effect

Nation reporter Parinyaporn Pajee shed some light on the Thai movie industry's activities at the film market at Cannes. Her feature story yesterday is actually a bit scathing in tone, talking about a breakdown in relations between the Federation of Film Associations of Thailand, led by the President Somsak Techarattanaprasert, and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), which is charged with promoting Thailand as a film location and a vacation spot.

TAT put on a big dog-and-pony show with its governor, Juthamas Siriwan, giving a talk. Yakity yak. Thai traditional dancing was the entertainment. Nice I'm sure, but contrast this to 2003, when Tony Jaa from Ong-Bak wowed the French with a Muay Thai demonstration. Somsak apparently wasn't excited and walked out of the affair. TAT also puts together the Bangkok International Film Festival, held annually around January or February.

It should also be noted that while the TAT spent a lot of money to put on this big party, they didn't give one satang to prize-winning director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who flew to Cannes at his own expense.

The article also dishes up some dirt on the buyout of indie distributor Nonthanand by multiplex leader Major Cineplex, which recently merged with No. 2 EGV. Somsak, by the way, is also the head of Saha Mongkol Films, the country's biggest film distributor and film studio. His company also owns SF Cinema, the now-No. 2 multiplex player (by a wide margin).

Monday, June 28, 2004

Review: Tropical Malady

  • Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  • Starring Sakda Kaewbuadee, Banlop Lomnoi
  • Limited theatrical release in Thailand in 2004; availabe on English subtitled DVD

It would seem like a cop-out to say I don't want to write much about this because to write about it would reveal too much.

Actually, it's really hard for me to write a review about this film, even after all the reading and writing I've already done about it.

It's a strange, fucked-up movie. And that's a good thing.

It's really two movies, with part one being a romantic comedy-drama about a soldier and a small-town boy getting into a relationship.

It's pretty sweet. The characters I liked best were the older "aunties" -- one who joins the boys at a park and then takes them into a cave, another who runs a mini-mart and invites them to smoke some pot.

Also, there's an older woman who's a lukthung (Thai country) singer who has a beautiful voice. She is joined in a duet by the small-town boy who sings a dedication to the soldier.

Part one is really charming.

Part two is exceedingly weird and mysterious. It's the part I liked best because it was a pure art film, with lots of darkness and creative lighting.

There was a story to it, based on a Thai legend about a shaman who is a shape shifter. He runs around causing trouble for the villagers. One day the shaman appears in the form of a beautiful woman and entices a hunter to follow her. The hunter sees a tiger's tale slipping out from underneath her dress and shoots her, causing the shaman to freeze in the form of a tiger. From then on, the tiger's spirit haunts the forest.

The soldier from part one is in the woods alone, looking for a missing boy. The small-town boy from part one is the spirit of the shaman-tiger. The pursuer (the soldier) from part one becomes the pursued.

There are parallels between the two stories but my brain isn't working very well to be able to explain them very well.

The movie opens with a quote, something like all people are wild beasts; in order to be good, people must try to be like the trainer, taming the bestiality and possibly teaching the animals tricks.

Chew on that one for awhile.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Ong-Bak: The dubbed version

It took me some time to figure out they were talking about Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, which stars Thai boxing hero Tony Jaa.

According to this, a four-member distribution company in India has now bought "a Thai movie Ang Baak and are dubbing it in English, Hindi, Telugu and Tamil languages. The dubbed version has been titled as Enter the New Dragon."

Here's more:

It was a big success in other parts of Asia and now we are bringing it to India since it has breath-taking action,” revealed Dr Sunil Kumar Reddy who joined hands with two other doctors and a friend to establish this banner. "Thailand star Tonija’s fights are on par with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan," revealed another medico Niranjan who described it as an 'unique' martial arts film for every section of the audience. “It will depict the ancient Thailand martial art Miyothai,” disclosed Reddy who intended to release it all over the country in the last week of June. How different will it be, remains to be seen."

Body Snatchers of Bangkok in Boston

A Singapore director's look at the bloody traffic situation in Bangkok is screening at the Boston International Film Festival this weekend.

Body Snatchers of Bangkok is about the volunteers who race through the insane traffic to whisk the injured to hospitals or deliver the dead to grieving relatives.

I live near a busy motorway, which is often the scene of teen motorcycle races, and have seen firsthand the grim work of these volunteers. They supposedly get 500 baht (about $12) for each body they bring in to the morgue -- nothing at the emergency ward -- so it's joked (or maybe not) that they'll drive around with the injured until the person dies so they can collect the reward.

The director, Michele Guai, talked about her documentary in the Boston Herald.

Guai spent a month in Bangkok, speeding around in pickup trucks with rescue workers on the overnight shift.

"I don't think I truly had a concept of what death was about," Guai said. "You watch movies, but when you see real blood, it's completely different: the smell, the texture."

Bringing out the dead is stigmatizing and potentially dangerous work. To touch a corpse is to tempt a ghost to enter your own body, many Thais believe. And gangs have been known to fight over victims at accident scenes for the right to ransom the bodies to families.

But money wasn't the motive for Guai's subjects. Most are driven by the Buddhist concept of making merit: A good deed in this life will earn bonus karma in your next incarnation. For one young karaoke-club manager, the work was also a way to overcome her own fears about spirits; for a fearless 13-year-old schoolgirl who dreamed of becoming a nurse, it was a way to have quality time with her parents, who both volunteer.

"Their perception of death is very different from us living in a Westernized world,'' remarked Guai. "We tend to see accidents, violent death, as horrific events. They see it as, it was your time, and your soul moves on another life.''

Which must explain the body snatchers' own aversion to passive-restraint systems.

"Nobody in Thailand wears a seat belt, even these people," said Guai. "And God knows how many accidents they go to a day."

And they do have accidents! See this story.

Friday, June 25, 2004

The sight of a sobbing man

Here's the review of The Letter by Kong Rithdee of the Bangkok Post (page 6, Friday, June 25, 2004):

Some say the sight of a sobbing man is the most beautiful thing ever captured in a movie. I see how melting masculinity could trigger such fascination but I'd still root for the total heart-crunching effect of seeing a beautiful woman cry her eyes out.
Perhaps that's the best thing in The Letter, a Thai remake of a Korean weepie that sets out with inexorable determination to unlock the audience's floodgate of tears.

Anne Thongprasom -- showing why she's one of the best actresses around -- plays a Bangkok computer programmer who marries a Chiang Mai botanist (Attaporn Teemakorn) only to find her nuptial bliss snatched away forever by the machinations of cruel fate.

It's an effective melodrama, a movie of well-executed cliches and retro sensibilities. But only Anne's performance -- especially her ability to switch on a fountain of tears -- conceals the insubstantial nature of the film's build-up and its banal, I-love-you-forever kind of dialogue. Don't forget to bring a handkerchief. Or better still, a towel.
More information:

Marketing Thai films overseas

Another excellent article in the Bangkok Post today by Kong Rithdee. He talked to Wouter Barendrecht of Fortissimo Films and Carrie Wong of Golden Network Asia about marketing Thai films overseas.

Since the early 1990s, the name Wouter Barendrecht has become synonymous with the rise of Asian arthouse flicks. The high-flying Dutchman and his Hong Kong-based company, Fortissimo Film Sales, are internationally recognised as experts in driving small Oriental films onto the global stage. Reportedly fierce at the negotiating table, Fortissimo pursues its business agenda while playing a big part in facilitating the cultural export that Thai films only dreamt about barely a decade ago.

"For one thing, the trend of globalisation means Thailand is not so far away as it used to be," says Wouter. "But more importantly, the new generation of Thai filmmakers -- after the era of Cherd Songsri and M.C. Chatrichalerm Yukol -- are much more international in their outlook. Without sacrificing the Thainess, these filmmakers have developed a film language that people outside Thailand can relate to."

In 1990 Wouter was programming the Berlin and Rotterdam Film Festivals when the sudden outbreak of Asian sensations took place. Filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-wai, and Tsai Ming-liang churned out some of the world's most exciting cinema; the Far East had boiled up a typhoon of New Wave moviemaking, and Wouter's newly-founded Fortissimo rightly gauged the weather when they started handling the world sales of Asian arthouse movies.

The typhoon swept through Thailand in 1997 when young Thai directors began making eye-catching flicks that grabbed attention beyond their homeland. In 1999 Fortissimo was entrusted by a Thai studio to manage the international sales of Nang Nak. Subsequent deals followed, and currently the agent is handling about 15 Thai titles in its catalogue, including the gay comedy Satree Lex (Iron Ladies), neo-noir 6ixtynin9, weird Thai-Western Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger), erotic drama Jan Dara, bittersweet Monrak Transistor and minimalist love ode Last Life in the Universe. And the latest two additions in Fortissimo's repertoire are Thailand's two top hits of the past 12 months, Fan Chan (My Girl) and Home Rong (The Overture).

With such diverse stock, Fortissimo, unknowingly perhaps, could shape the perception of foreign audiences about Thai cinema -- or, even more significantly, about Thailand as a nation.

"There's a thin line between what's 'very Thai' and what's 'universal'," says Wouter. "Something that's very culturally specific can be very universal too. As it happens, the best international filmmakers are those who're extremely specific in their own culture _ like Ozu [master Japanese director] or Zhang Yimou [Chinese] or Pedro Almodovar [Spanish]. Some Thai directors like Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who did Monrak Transistor and Last Life in the Universe, or Nonzee Nimibutr of Nang Nak and OK Baytong seem to have that quality.

"We pick films to represent not because of their nationalities -- not because they're Thai -- but because of their quality. Say, if I'm selling Zhang Yimou, I'm not selling China, but I'm selling the director. But the contradiction is that Zhang Yimou is so good because his movies are so Chinese. The same goes for Thai directors who're doing good stuff without leaving the Thai roots."

For example, look at the kid flick Fan Chan. Wouter believes that the film -- a nostalgic childhood flashback which became the country's top-grossing pic last year _ relies heavily on the audience's complicity in terms of cultural understanding. But at the same time the film projects certain sensibilities that everybody can share. Fortissimo recently sold the film for theatrical release in Mexico, where the buyer expressed rapt appreciation about how the story relates his own country.

"When you Thais see Fan Chan, you know all those old songs, you know the games the characters play, so you easily feel the sweep of nostalgia," Wouter says. "But the movie's theme of transition, of a society going through modernisation -- that's universal. The little details, like when a mom-and-pop grocery is replaced by a 7-Eleven, is something everybody understands, certainly the people in Mexico."

How to get a Mexican distributor to see a little movie made at the other longitude of the equator is exactly the job of sales agents. In that process, the usual meeting points are international film fests where agents, producers, and buyers from all over congregate to look at new stuff and probably strike new deals. The significance when a Thai film is invited to screen at foreign cinefests -- especially the major ones at Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto -- is both in terms of artistic showcase and business opportunities.

And since different film festivals attract different industry crowds, a shrewd sales agent needs to be prescient in choosing which title to push at which festival. "I believe that each film has its own natural festival," says Wouter. "For example, a Chinese film we handle called Shower, was invited to the Venice festival a few years back. Now, Venice is a prestigious event, but I convinced the director not to send his film to that festival, since Venice is only frequented by critics, and Shower is a feel-good film with a commercial front that wouldn't score an impression with serious critics.

"I saved the film and launched it a few months later at the Toronto festival, where both critics and general audience had to watch movies in the same theatre. And when the public liked it -- because it's a feel-good film -- the critics found it impossible to be harsh about it, and the overall reaction was good. If Shower had been in Venice, I think we wouldn't have made the sale."

Such strategy, Wouter added, is what he plans for Home Rong. "It's a beautiful film that will impress the viewers," he says. "Everybody usually thinks about Cannes, but one setback about Cannes is that there are way too many movies competing for the attention of buyers to the point they feel overloaded. Perhaps for Home Rong, it's better to use Cannes as a place to make people slowly aware of the film, to build up the curiosity."

In all it boils down, Wouter explains, to the directors' reputation and the films' quality itself. "Though the industry here is small, it's quite rich in variety," he says. "You might say that most Thai movies are not of recommendable quality, but what's important is to have the actual production going on all the time and to have enough volume. That's the basis of future development."

While popular Thai films have yet to attain the universal stamp of approval from foreign audiences, a crossover has proven possible -- and lucrative. With selling points more glaring than those of obscure cultural arthouse flicks, an agent pushing commercial Siamese movies believes in the irresistible pull of bloody actioners and scare-high horrors. It needn't be a masterpiece, for this agent knows the golden rule of marketing: no need to give the viewers the best, just give them what they want.

"I was introduced to Thai film in 2001 with Bang Rajan," says Carrie Wong, general manager of Hong Kong-based Golden Network Asia. "That historical action movie was very exciting, very formulaic, and very Hollywood, which meant it had a brilliant opportunity abroad, and it actually did."

Carrie started Golden Network 10 years ago as a sales consultancy firm for Hong Kong's giant producers Golden Harvest, and later for Shaw Brothers. When Hong Kong cinema slipped into the doldrums in the '90s, she began looking for fresh inspiration in other Asian offerings. Her first foray in selling Bang Rajan led to her carving out a speciality in mass-market Thai flicks unrepresented by other sales agents. Currently Carrie handles the foreign sales of roughly a dozen Thai pictures, from the gaudy comedy-action Jed Prachanbarn [also titled variously as Seven Heaven or Seven Streetfighters], triptych ghost stories Pee Sam Baht (Bangkok Haunted), monster saga Garuda, to the crummy folklore Khun Pan.

"I see that Thailand has recently produced many new directors who make movies with ideas and energy, which is what happened in Hong Kong 10 or 20 years ago," Carrie says.

The biggest fish Golden Network has caught is the exuberant Muay-Thai martial arts film Ong-Bak. Carrie has sold theatrical rights of the sensational kick-ass actioner to a dozen countries, from Japan to France to the US, and as the word spread out how fun the flick is, the momentum has kept rolling. In May Ong-Bak opened in Paris with a huge marketing blitz and went on to collect some seven million euros in ticket sales, a whopping number considering that it's a small movie from Asia.

Even though out-and-out commercial movies rarely need critics' approval, Carrie insists on the importance of film festivals as springboards to promote Thai movies. At last year's Toronto Film Festival, a key event in North American territories, Ong-Bak whipped up a buzz when it received a standing ovation, which gave the agent a level of confidence to push its campaign ahead.

Last month at the Cannes Film Festival, the company put up giant billboards announcing the pre-production of Ong-Bak's sequel (rather unimaginatively called Tom Yam Kung). "Many Thai films have a kind of ready-made appeal that foreign audiences can appreciate, especially the action movies," Carrie says. "Even ones that weren't really a big hit in Thailand, like the recent 102 Pid Krungthep Plon [Bangkok Robbery], attract interest from buyers from many countries.

"You may think that Korean movies are doing well on the global stage, but my feeling is that sometimes their stories are so specific that it's difficult to sell theatrical rights, and it seems to be easier to sell a remake right for them.

"The success of Ong-Bak may be exceptional, but it shows that with the right timing and ingredients it is possible."

In the meantime Carrie thinks new action panache Kerd Ma Lui, or Born to Fight, boasts a similarly successful formula. Now in production, the film has generated plenty of interest and pre-sale contracts since the company showed 15-minutes of footage at Cannes. The film, directed by Panna Rittikrai, former B-pic maestro and stunt choreographer of Ong-Bak, sets out to be a showcase of athletic, awe-inspiring fight sequences performed by many real-life athletes. As the movie nears its finish date, and even though it has no fixed date for local release, the agent has already drawn up a marketing blitz for its international sale.

"First of all we can tie in the success of Ong-Bak with Born to Fight," says Carrie. "But our bigger plan is to hype up the movie with the upcoming Olympic Games, because it's a movie that shows wonderful athletic tricks. This strategy worked when Shaolin Soccer was tied in to the World Cup and it became a big hit. Then later in September we'll try to get the film into the Venice Film Festival, in the 'Midnight Madness' programme, which will be sure to give it the exposure it deserves.

"Each film needs a different treatment," Carrie says, confirming the motto of all sales agents. "So each time we handle a new title, we have the job of coming up with a fresh new idea."

More merger action

Now that Major Cineplex has bought up its rival and given itself a commanding 70 percent market share, the company wants more control over the movies it is showing. This week, Major Cineplex announced plans to swallow up Nonthanund Entertainment, a distributor of indie and B-grade films.

Among the titles Nonthanund has brought into Thailand was Amelie.

Major had already been moving toward distribution, buying up the Thai rights to Fahrenheit 9/11 at Cannes.

This causes more concerns for the state of the Thai film industry, which already fears being shut out of the nation's biggest theater chain. When the Major-EGV merger was announced, Sahamongkol Film, the country's biggest distributor (and owner of the now-second-largest multiplex chain), announced none of its films would be shown at Major.

There were also fears that the merger would lead to higher admission prices, but it looks as though prices will be held down. Possibly, they may even become cheaper, as Major is exploring "niche markets."

“Why does a movie that has been playing in theatres for three weeks have the same ticket price as a film in its first week?” asked Major Cineplex executive chairman Vicha Poolvoraluck in an interview with The Nation. “Why are tickets for a children’s movie the same as those for a film for adults?”

Good questions, Vicha. Such think leads me to believe that Major is looking to become more family friendly by lowering prices.

Already this week, Shrek 2 has been brought back in a re-release with a special promotional admission of 70 baht. Normal ticket prices run from around 80 to 140 baht.

Meanwhile, a Nation editorial (temporary link) is trying to make sense of the situation.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Review: Monrak Transistor

  • Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
  • Starring Supakorn Kitsuwan, Siriyakorn Pukkavesh
  • Theatrical release in 2001; released on DVD with English subtitles (out of print)
  • Rating: 5/5
Not long ago, I loaned the DVD of this to a friend, hoping to turn him on to Thai films. I thought this was the most accessible, most entertaining of the bunch I have. Sadly, he couldn't get past his prejudice against Thai cinema and television. "It looked like any other Thai soap opera," he told me. I was crestfallen. This is anything but typical Thai soap opera.

Monrak Transistor is one of those rewarding films that reveals something new with every viewing. Embodies all the traits I've come to recognize for the Thai films I enjoy - mirthful humor, gut-wrenching sadness and frenetic, bone-jarring action.

Encompassing all these traits, Monrak Transistor is an epic love story that gets sadder and sadder the longer it goes. Yes, there is a bit of soap opera melodrama involved, but that is just part of the style, and it's presented in a manner than I find more palatable than the everyday television shows.

The story opens in a jail, where a prisoner is being interrogated. The action is taking place in the background, behind bars and is blurred. The focus is on a bottle of laxative. Seems the prisoner has stolen something and swallowed it. Ah, here it comes. And it's not even real gold.

The jailer picks up the thread, narrating the strange tale of the prisoner, a boy from his village named Pan (Supakorn Kitsuwan).

Pan is a simple country boy who loves music. That's how we meet him, singing his heart out at a village fair. Besides music, he's in love with Sadaw (Siriyakorn Pukkavesh), a village girl. He sings for Sadaw. When a local rich kid shows up with his thugs and dances with Sadaw, Pan is indignant. He spills soda on the guy and then spits on his shoes to clean it up. A fight breaks out, and the music keeps going, with the guitarist switching into high gear to spur the fighters on.

Pan and Sadow retreat to Sadaw's home, but aren't left in peace for long before Sadow's father shows up with a shotgun, causing Pan to hightail it for the canal.

But Pan is not easily deterred. He shows up the next day to dig a pond for Sadow's father. He insists on calling the man Dad.

"Stop calling me Dad. When did I fuck your mother," the old man cruelly admonishes Pan.

Pan offers to get the old man some medicine, something involving foot pollen, which because of the cultural association of the foot being the basest part of the body, gravely offends the old man.

But despite her father's dislike of Pan, the two are married and have a baby on the way.

The movie could end here, the narrator chimes in, and you'd be heading for exits with a happy ending. But there is more to this sad tale.

Pan is drafted into the army. One day he sees an ad for a singing contest and enters. He wins and without giving thought to the consequences, is on a bus headed for Bangkok, where he hopes to become a big singing star.

He instead ends up mopping floors at the talent office for 27 months. This seems pretty unrealistic, but it is part of the absurd charm of this movie.

After more than two years of mopping floors and being the errand boy for the transgendered dance instructor at the office, he asks his boss (Somlek Sakdikul), a slimy promoter who insists Pan call him Daddy, when he will get his break.

The break eventually comes, just when Sadaw comes for a visit. But the joy is short lived. Tragedy strikes and Pan is on the run.

Sadaw is not totally forgotten. Back up in the village, a sweet-talking medicine salesman woos her. He screens a free film for the village, showing them Tears of the Black Tiger (which co-starred Supakorn), narrating the action and adapting the lines in the film to fit his sales pitch and his advances on Sadaw.

The performances by all involved, especially Supakorn and Siriyakorn, are stupendous. Supakorn especially is a physically gifted actor who displays a subtlety that is rare. Siriyakorn, who gets a role that critics have blasted for being undeveloped, does what she can with the role, turning on the water works at just the time they are needed. She's amazing. A better display of her talents is in One Night Husband.

Of the supporting actors, talented veteran comic actor Somlek Sakdikul is particularly funny as the shady Daddy. Ampon Rattanawong is notable as Pan's friend Seaw. He turns up in a small role in Pen-Ek's next film, Last Life in the Universe.

The main highlight is the music. Along with being a romantic comedy and drama, Monrak Transistor is a musical. There most memorable interlude is staged during basic training at the army camp, with soldiers singing as they crawl on their backs under barbed wire, and during their haircuts. The barber moves Pan's head to the side to help sing the chorus.

The music is by famous Thai country artist Surapol Sombatcharoen (1930-1968), whose Don't Forget is a repeated refrain. The music gives way to drama and action during the third act, but Don't Forget is brought back one more time for a summation encore.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Review: Last Life in the Universe

  • Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
  • Starring Asano Tadanobu, Sinitta Boonyasak
  • Theatrical released in Thailand in 2003; released on English-subtitled DVD

Kenji, a young Japanese living in Bangkok, is no ordinary man. He's a neat freak, whose obsessive compulsive traits are revealed in his book-filled apartment, from the colour-coordinated stacks of socks in his closet to the neat row of clean plates drying by the spotless kitchen sink.

His big kick though, is suicide, which is how you first meet him, hanging by his neck from a noose. It's only a possible reality, as is most of what happens in this darkly surreal romantic comedy.

Kenji (Asano Tadanobu) comes close to offing himself in several various ways, but is always interrupted by a noisy buzzer, bell or other alarm. He has an even darker side that is slowly revealed in a humorously warm, low-key manner.

And as more is revealed, a small cast of progressively sleazier characters are paraded by for the audience's enjoyment. There's a Thai gangster ex-boyfriend who's overwhelming, but a trio of yakuza (think Three Stooges) steals the show.

Kenji's obsessive compulsive traits are put to productive use as a librarian at the Japan Cultural Centre. It's there where a uniformed schoolgirl (Chermarn Boonyasak) captures his attention. But she vanishes, almost before his very eyes.

She is seen later, at the culmination of a chain of events that brings Kenji together with the girl's older sister Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak).

Anyway, the action is brief and tragic -- as is all the action in this film. There's a little bit of gunplay -- sudden and violent, yet so subtle, you wonder if you're dreaming.

Driving a beat-up old white Volkswagen Beetle convertible (a car that is just as much a character as the actors), the pair drive out to Noi's rundown seaside home. There, Kenji sees that Noi is everything that he isn't. There are mounds of dirty dishes everywhere. Books and magazines are strewn all over. The goldfish is floating dead, upside down in the aquarium. She's a slob, too, in contrast to Kenji's button-down appearance. She's also a pothead.

The mess is captured with moody realism by Hero cinematographer Christopher Doyle, in much the same manner he brought a smouldering feel to Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. Even the flotsam and jetsam washing up at the beach evokes some emotions.

Just as Kenji is out of the ordinary, so is the film. For a Thai film, there's hardly any Thai spoken. Most of the dialogue is in Japanese, and Kenji and Koi converse in English (as well as some Japanese as, by a mind-boggling twist of coincidence, she is moving to Japan).

Highlights include an appearance by Riki Takeuchi, as Kenji's brother, as well as director Takeshi Miike, as the leader of a Three Stooges-like trio of gunmen. Takeshi's and Asano's collaboration, Ichii the Killer, is referenced in a poster hanging up at the Japan Culture Center.

Sharp-eyed Thailand watchers will see a spiky-haired actor portraying a doctor in a hospital scene, which is possibly a reference to Thailand's eminent forensic pathologist, Dr. Porthip Rojanasunan.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Macabre Case, OK Baytong at NY Asian Film Fest

Nonzee Nimibutr's Buddhist-Muslim conflict tale, OK Baytong and The Macabre Case of Prompiram, the Thailand National Film Association's best film winner of 2003, will be shown at the New York Asian Film Festival, which runs from June 18 to 27.

Macabre Case, written and directed by Manop Udomdej, is based on a 1977 murder case that took place in a remote village, where a young woman was found strangled to death. She had been raped. Two local cops pieced together what happened, and the film follows them as they go step-by-step on their plodding way, trying to uncover a crime that's darker than anything they ever imagined.

I missed this film when it played last year. It's out on DVD in Thailand, but as is common with most local DVD releases, it does not have English subtitles.

The Village Voice has this to say about Macabre Case:

The Thai film Macabre Case of Prom Pi Ram (2003) isn't a genre skin-crawler, but a clumsy true-crime look at a 1977 murder that unfolds, chillingly, into a portrait of backwater inhumanity.

OK Baytong was just added to the schedule, according to the New York Post.

It is described in the article as a "supernatural thriller", but it really isn't. Part comedy, part drama, it's about a monk who leaves the temple after his sister is killed in a train explosion. He must move to Thailand's Muslim south to take care of the family's affairs, which includes him taking over his sister's hair salon and taking care of her daughter. A monk since he was a young boy, he is suddenly confronted by all these crazy feelings -- lust, love, hatred, fear.

Here's what festival organizer Grady Hendrix tells the Post:

Baytong was a last-minute choice. Brian Naas, one of the guys who works with us, saw it and called me about midnight, and said we had to show it. He's putting up his own money to bring it over.

He also had this to say about Macabre Case:

Prom Pi Ram is a really intense film based on the true story of a murdered woman who was found in this tiny village, and nobody knows who she is. It's just mind-blowing in terms of horrifying.

The strange thing is the [male] director is a devout, devout, devout Catholic and a radical feminist. His basic feeling is that men are animals and all they do is victimize women.

A thread on the Rotten Tomatoes Critics Discussion Forum is seeking recommendations and has more reviews.

More information:

Coming from Wisit and Pen-ek: Citizen Dog, Invisible Waves

Wisit Sasantieng, director of Tears of the Black Tiger, hasn't been heard from since his 2000 cult hit western. But he's working on something.

Citizen Dog, a comedy drama stars Mahasamut Booyarak and supermodel Sangthong Kate Uthong. This is according to BK magazine, which had a mid-year look at films in its recent issue.

The magazine listed some other upcoming Thai films as well:
  • Invisible Waves - This suspense thriller is the second collaboration between director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Prabda Yoon [after Last Life in the Universe].
  • Meteor - Bandit Rittikol [Satang, The Moonhunter, Tigress at King River] directs a sci-fi comedy about two kids who were boen on the ay a meteor fiell to earth. The y both have supernatural gifts, which one uses for good, the other for evil.
  • Six - Writer/director Galtrai helms this occult horror flick. It's the story of a group of six friends who see dead people. In a game that turns serious, they unwittingly conjure up a demon that promises to kill all of them one by one. Starring Ray McDonald [Fake] and Inthira Jeoreonpura [Nang Nak].

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Vietnam goes to Hollywood

Vietnamese officials says they are trying to move away from its communist propaganda productions, this story says, and is looking to Hollywood for tips.

A group of 15 of the country's top directors and cameramen will attend courses at the University of Southern California from June 22 to July 22.

"Many Vietnamese directors and cameramen have studied and graduated from Russia or East Germany," said Nguyen Thi Hong Ngat, deputy director of the department of cinema in the culture ministry.

In an attempt to encourage the Vietnamese industry's development, the government has said private companies could make movies independently without having to work through state-run production houses. The new policy also abolishes the pre-filming censorship of scripts.

Review: Fan Chan (My Girl)

  • Directed by Vitcha Gojiew, Songyos Sugmakanan, Nithiwat Tharathorn, Witthaya Thongyooyong, Anusorn Trisirikasem, Komgrit Triwimol.
  • Starring Charlie Trairattana, Focus Jirakul.
  • Played commercially in Thailand in 2003, screens at film festivals, DVD with English subtitles available from Hong Kong.
Fan Chan, or My Girl, was one of the biggest Thai box office hits of 2003, which was surprising, because Thai films traditionally have not done very well at the box office. This one was a feel-good sleeper hit.

Sentimental is the word that best sums this up. It's a sweet sentimentality about childhood and a simpler time.

It starts off with a guy getting a wedding invitation from an old friend in his hometown. As he drives home, he recalls his childhood days.

The story is about a boy name Jeab (Charlie Trairattana) and a neighbor girl named Noi Nah (Focus Jirakul). They are best friends, even though their fathers are rival barbers with shops on each side of a mini-mart in the small town of Petchaburi.

Every morning, Jeap wakes up too late to catch the school bus. His father must then give him a ride on his motorcycle to catch up with the bus.

On the bus, we are introduced to Jeab, Noi Nah and all the boys, who are led by a big bully named Jack (Chaleumpol Tikumpornteerawong). They all talk about what they are going to do after school. The boys plan to play Chinese fantasy. The girls will play house.

Jeab longs to play with the boys, but they play in a park across a busy street, which he can't ride his bike across. So he's limited to playing with the girls.

In one of the most fantastic sequences, the boys are playing Chinese fantasy, dressed in the authentic period costumes and performing wuxia and wire-fu stunts -- right out of Crouching Tiger. That's only a fantasy, though.

Eventually, Jeab gets to join the boys club, but in doing so he betrays Noi Nah.

There is plenty more humor in this film, though it's been awhile since I've seen this so I can't remember many more specific instances.

All the children who acted in this are great, especially Jack. He won a best supporting actor award from the National Film Association.

It's a sweet tale that made me nostalgic for 1980s Thailand - and I didn't even grow up in 1980s Thailand. Still, it was a time before mobile phones and 7-Elevens and life seemed much simpler.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Ratings rate

The Culture Ministry wants to implement a ratings system, according to a story in The Nation.

Currently, there is no ratings system for movies in Thailand, and this has created problems for filmmakers whose works end up being heavily censored by authorities who apply overly broad standards. Or no standards. Sometimes the works are not censored, which is fine, except that the movies are being seen by inappropriate audiences.

But the Culture Ministry isn't so much concerned about preserving artistic integrity as it is in trying to legislate morality.

“We need to do this as a way of establishing our concerns about pornography and make those concerns a public agenda,” said Vice Minister for Culture Weerasak Khowsurat at a seminar.

Dr Phanphimol Lortrakul, of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, threw her support behind the ministry’s proposal on the grounds that attention should be paid to the so-called “grey” area of pornographic classification “Sometimes, the material is not sexually explicit and there are no nude pictures. However, it can have the power to stimulate sexual arousal,” she said. “When we have a rating system, parents will be able to give proper advice to their children. We are not going to bar children from these materials, but we want to make sure we determine what is appropriate to what age. Children should understand what pornography means when they grow up,” said Phanphimol.

Weerasak said he planned to ask the government to clearly issue a standpoint on his ministry’s ongoing crusade against pornography. The Culture Ministry will request financial support and legal aide for that campaign, he added.

“We would like to recommend harsh punishments against offenders in this area,” Weerasak said.

At the same seminar, Chulalongkorn University researcher Amornwich Nakornthap released a study that found about 40 per cent of senior primary students watched or read pornographic material.

“Boys watch pornographic VCDs while girls read erotic cartoons,” he said.

Amornwich added that nearly 50 per cent of senior secondary or vocational students have already had sexual experiences.

“I think this leads to abortions,” he said.

The researcher blamed a negative environment, where nighttime entertainment venues and brothels are rife, along with the availability of pornography.

“Media members need to exercise ethics when they decide what they should publish,” he said.

Weerasak said sex potions, pictures of rapes or sexual activities and other pornographic materials should be wiped out.

“This should be a national agenda that receives support from various government agencies,” he said.

An earlier brief said the ministry is planning to denote various levels of porn materials. Levels 1 through 7 would be for those deemed legal, and 8 through 10 for images deemed illegal and prohibited from distribution.

A big gay post

The Culture Ministry's recent call for television shows to tone down their gay characters continues to receive press and criticism.

The always entertaining Farang Affairs (temporary link) column in The Nation made a few good points:

We see the Culture Ministry has adopted rule No 3 from the charter of the Philosophy Department at the University of Woolloomooloo:

“No poofters”

Well, no poofters on TV, anyway.

The Culture Ministry will send a letter to television stations asking them to cut down on images portraying homosexual behaviour, a senior ministry official said.

Dr Kla Somtrakul, deputy permanent secretary for Culture, said some television programmes clearly showed homosexual behaviour and, if unchecked, some could cross the line to obscenity.

With the greatest respect to Dr Kla – he’s lost the plot.

Last time we looked, portrayals of homosexuality on Thai TV consisted mainly of male comedians dressed as women pretending to be men dressed as women who elicit howls of laughter from the studio audience every time they adjust their fake breasts.

It is not even homosexual stereotyping. It’s farce. Anyone with two brain cells left to rub together knows that.

Ironically, those most grateful for the clampdown will be the gay community, relieved that these stupid characters perceived by Dr Kla and his Culture Ministry to be typical homosexuals will vanish – at least to a degree – from TV screens.

Where’s my brain gone?

Ah ha! We have located the missing half of Dr Kla’s brain. Dr Taveesilpa Wisanuyothin, spokesman for the Mental Health Department, is using it.

“Watching homosexual behaviour on television could help arouse people with homosexual tendencies to act on their urges,” the doctor said.

Oh no . . . I have suddenly have the urge to tie two half-coconut shells on my chest, wrap a sarong around them, smudge makeup on my face and shove a creamy piece of cake in somebody’s face.

I must be gay.

Sounds like Dr Taveesilpa should be a patient at he Mental Health Department, not a spokesman.

One of the most pleasing traits of Thai culture is tolerance. So why is a ministry charged with maintaining the positive aspects of Thai culture doing its best to strangle this gracious social prerogative, burn its corpse and bury it where nobody can find it?

A pox on you Culture Ministry!

A Nation editorial further hammered on the point:
The Culture Ministry’s controversial idea of playing down the depiction of homosexuality on TV reflects the government’s backward thinking and broad misconception of the issue of gender. What’s worrying to the authorities seems to be the massive popularity of soap operas, game shows and comedic acts on TV in which homosexuals, mostly katoeys, play stand-out rolls, to the extent that some culture gurus fear these portrayals will have unpleasant effects on audiences, especially our more sensitive youth, who make easy prey for the influence of the mass media.
The fact is that gay men, katoeys and lesbians are a statistically measurable segment of our society, though a segment that is not often reflected accurately or realistically in our entertainment. Whatever their role on TV, homosexual characters tend to be indispensable as the objects of ridicule and humiliation. This is obviously not a realistic depiction of the gay community and most definitely not the kind of image this community wants to project to the rest of the world. These stereotypes are quite misleading. There is a large difference between gay men and kathoeys, though TV viewers associate the two in their minds. Katoeys, or at least an exaggerated version of them, are a daily part of most people’s entertainment. Soap operas featuring brash, outspoken transvestite characters tend to have higher ratings, much to the detriment of the country’s gay community.

The story of gay men and lesbians is a much different one. Gay men and lesbians generally do not have as much media exposure. It’s no exaggeration to say that homosexuals are relatively invisible in the Thai mass media. Some newspapers even prefer to run photos of Western homosexuals on their front pages when the news is about gay men or lesbians in Thailand. Indeed it seems hard for some Thais to understand the difference between sex, gender and sexuality.

Thais often associate homosexuality with sex, making it difficult to come to terms with the possibility of a gay identity. As a result, gay men and lesbians are not part of our entertainment. Being gay, like having sex, is seen as a private affair, and thus not fit for public consideration.

Whether the popular perception of homosexuality fostered by the media has anything to do with Thai youngsters wanting to eventually become homosexual is another issue: homosexuality is a fact, not a choice. It is a question of nature, not nurture. The authorities need to understand that their half-baked scheme cannot stop homosexuality. Being gay is a gender issue. Like race, gender is beyond a person’s control. Even Buddhism acknowledges that homosexuality exists and is not a form of sexual misconduct. Ill-informed officials would do well to learn from Theravada Buddhism, which states that all relationships are personal matters and develop by mutual consent. As long as a relationship extols the virtues of happiness and well-being without destroying and harming living beings, then it is a positive ethical action. Rape, sexual harassment and child molestation are unacceptable.

It’s ironic that the Culture Ministry’s desire to rein in homosexual activity is taking place at the same time the Tourism Authority advertises transvestite shows in its brochures. Perhaps it’s time for the authorities to be more open-minded and treat gender the way it should be treated, as something natural.

Here's more from the Bangkok Post, which finds that that Culture Ministry's push to eradicate gay characters from television is ironic, as homosexuality has long been a part of Thai culture.

"Homosexuals and transgendered persons are not new to traditional Thai culture," said Peter Jackson, gay activist and researcher of Thai history from the Australian National University, during a recent seminar on trans-genderism at the Princess Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre.

These individuals, he said, have coexisted, and have been assimilated and mentioned, in Thai society for centuries. Thailand's linguistic, mural painting and literary heritages have not shied away from their existence.

According to Jackson, the word katoey, a Thai term for transgendered persons, has its roots in the Khmer word that means "those who are different". There is also a term in the northern dialect that refers to trans-gendered individuals as those who have elements of both male and female.

"Clearly from these linguistic examples, we can infer that pre-modern Thais saw these individuals merely as 'different'. They did not have a stark distinction or description of straight, homosexuality or transgender like we do today," Jackson said.

He added that for ancient Thais, homosexuality was seen as a behaviour, not an identity. But people today see homosexuality as a fixed identity.

Erotic scenes depicting same-sex relationships can be found on mural paintings. "Ancient Thais talked openly about sex. There are erotic pictures of people engaging in sexual activities, representing a part of daily life in their time. Some of these include erotic scenes of same-sex relationships," said Jackson.

Literature, too, recorded stories that suggest homoeroticism and same-sex relationships. Cross-dressing was apparent.

"There are many heroes in Thai literature who felt attracted to women in the guise of men," said Teodsak Romjampa, a history graduate student.

If homosexuality and transgenderism have been part of Thai life for centuries, why is there a sense of discomfort today? According to Jackson, the changed perspective is a reaction toward Western colonialism and the concept of modernity. European imperialists viewed pre-modern Thais as semi-barbarians because of three main aspects in their culture: that Thai men had many wives, that Thai people were barely clothed, and that Thai men and women looked similar, sharing similar costumes and hair-dos.

"In order to escape colonialism, the Thai state recreated a Thai culture and civilisation based on the Western concept of what civilisation was," Jackson said.

From the time of King Rama V to Gen Field-Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, the Thai state went through a series of nationalistic policies, which modified, fortified and recreated "civilised" Thai citizens. Thais started to cover up their bodies. Monogamy was exalted. State propaganda demanded that husbands kiss their wives before leaving home for work.

Remarkably, Dr Jackson pointed out, it was at this point that Thai men and women started to see clear divisions between themselves. In order to accentuate their sexualities, men and women sported completely different costumes, hairstyles and dialects. Jackson also noted that after the time of King Rama IV (when Siam opened itself to Western powers), mural paintings never again depicted erotic scenes.

As a result, modern Thai society has maintained two sexualities, men and women, while marginalising "the others". Male and female homosexuals, and transgendered persons, are thus ignored, denied and discriminated against _ a subtle form of violence in society, he said.

Along this line of thought, sex, the "third" sex and eroticism have all become taboo.

"To me, the Thai state is a vigorous guardian of Victorian values. Modern Thai society allows people to do whatever they want, but it has to be done in the private space. Homosexuality exists, but must be kept behind closed doors. They shouldn't be in the mass media or express themselves in public," said Jackson.

He observed that an increasing number of people are resisting the state's monolithic structure that tries to uphold the dual sexual division.
"Members of the new generation now accept that there are varieties of sexual identities," said Teodsak.

Even in the government itself, there seems to be a new breed of thought.

"It's dangerous to set cultural policies without having adequate knowledge about it," observed a participant who came from the Ministry of Culture. "It creates mistrust among the public against the state."

Friday, June 18, 2004

Four new Thai releases

A heavy dose of horror is on tap in local theaters this week, with some new Thai releases. Actually, there's four films in all. Here's a rundown, with help from Movieseer:
Evil: After the death of her parents, Aui (Pumwaree Yodkamol) comes to Bangkok to live with her aunt, Bua (Ammara Assawanon) – a sorceress since she lost her husband and son. Bua has no one besides her weird nephew, Arm (Alexander Simon Rendell). Mai works in the house’s printing office and takes an instant disliking to Aui – and she reciprocates. The situation deteriorates until the days, hours, minutes and seconds drag unbearably and Aui is taking tranquilizers to reduce her stress. But she’s then faced with an evil so terrifying it will take more than medication to help her.

Khon Len Khong or Art of the Devil: Prathan (Tin Settachok) maintained an amorous relationship with Boom (Supaksorn Chaimongkol) even though he's married. But when he learned that Boom had fallen pregnant, he dumped her. But Boom cast a black magic curse, killing Prathan while Boom reaped the profits of his wealth, as she carried his son. But when her son died during an accident, Boom's fortune went to another minor wife of Prathan, Kamala, and her children. So Boom 's back to reclaim what she believes is rightfully hers - and she's ready to use black magic again to achieve her goal.

The Letter: After reading a letter detailing her grandmother's death, Dew (Anne Thongprasom) went to Chiang Mai where, by chance, she met Ton (Uttaporn Teemakorn), a kind officer at an agricultural research center. Dew started to feel true love for her new acquaintance. They eventually married and began a peaceful life together. Everything was fine until Ton died after a savage illness. Now Dew is alone again, but then something strange happens: she receives a letter -- a love letter -- inscribed in familiar handwriting. It's from Ton.

Pan X: Bank (Preeti Barameeanant), a hot-blooded young guy, was grieving the loss of his recently drowned younger brother. Deciding to join a teenage group led by Num (Yuthapong Sangsuwan) for extreme sports, the games provide Bank with friends and distraction, but when proceedings spiral out of control into danger, Bank decided to quit. Though Bank's gone, the extreme games continue. Now, Bank must do everything within his power to save his friends from the madness.

Of the four, Pan X sounds the coolest, as I'm not a big fan of horror, though I might give Art of the Devil a chance, since it's by Bang Rajan director Thanit Jitnukul. And Evil actually sounds interesting. I'll definitely steer clear of The Letter, a sappy remake of Korean melodrama.

Pad Thai Bride

Here's another review that I didn't write, because I'm not going to bother seeing this movie. The review of Jao Sao Pad Thai (Pad Thai Bride), is from an article by Kong Rithdee in the Bangkok Post, taking the Thai movie industry to task for churning out two stinkers.Here it is:

Two weeks after the euphoric triumph of a Siamese movie at Cannes, a couple of Thai films opened last Friday to testify to the reality of our local cinema. Jao Sao Pad Thai (Pad Thai Bride) and Choo (The Sin) are a duo of uninspired attempts to stage a coup on the audience's gullibility. Out and out commercial flicks, the former uses a series of unbecoming street ads to make sure the people know it is a silly comedy, while the latter opts for a pseudo-arthouse motif, with a swirl of montages and a curious, obviously unauthorised logo of Cannes Film Festival.

They say critics are harsh on "commercial movies". But like I've already said in this space a dozen times, there are good commercial movies and bad commercial movies. Likewise, silly entertainment could either be more entertaining than silly, or vice versa.

Pad Thai, the second work from critic-turned-director Mongkolchai Chaiwisut, suffers greatly from its poor script and the clumsy attempt to coax big jokes out of a preposterous situation; even Thep Po-ngam, the great artist of Thai farce who normally cracks the defence of every high-minded viewer, cannot rescue this collection of scattered, underwhelming gags. Sexy starlet Napakprapa "Mamee" Nakprasit isn't cut out to carry a comedy, and her role as a chef who promises to marry a man who can eat her pad thai consecutively for 100 days is simply infantile.

Mongkolchai's first movie, Girls' Friends, showed that he has a nice touch when the subject is close to his heart. But with Pad Thai, the director mounts a half-baked idea, and the whole thing seems artificial, as if he's not making a movie that he himself wants to see, but that he thinks the audiences want to see. Comedy is what all Thais crave, but with the television swamped with crude, though at times witty, comedy shows, are Thai filmmakers running out of ideas to score a big laugh on the big screen?

More information:

The Sin

If bad movies are to be reviewed, the reviews should ideally be kept short, leaving more room to talk about good movies. But that doesn't stop the Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee from going off about one of the recent offerings in local cinemas now.

Here is what he had to say about The Sin (Choo), which stars Sorapong Chatree, Helen Nima and Watchara Tangkaprasert, and is directed by Ong-art Singhlampong:

A soft-core bore that pretends to have elements of drama, The Sin is a mediocre remake of Piak Poster's classic of the 1970s. Instead of focusing on the tension between the three main protagonists -- the husband, his wife, and her lover -- from the outset, the movie is wired to explode into an erotic fantasy piece that takes place, supposedly, in a fishing village in [south Thailand] -- although the setting we actually see on screen looks more like a generic Polynesian doll's house.

Helen Nima plays the suffocatingly sexy wife of a fishing-boat skipper (Sorapong Chatree) who is seduced by her virile stepson (played, with maddening stiffness by Watchara Tangkapreasert). To its credit, the film has an old-fashioned, high-trash seductiveness that makes it easier to sit through its 105 minutes. It would've been much better, though, if the director had simply gone ahead and served up some soft-core porn without making any pretence at seriousness; instead, we get sex that's far from steamy and drama that's even more off the boil.

Actually, Kong wrote two reviews. What preceded was from his weekly Quick Takes reviews. He also wrote a story about The Sin. Here's part of it:

This is an erotic fantasy in the guise of an Oedipal drama. The film prides itself on its arty pretense, and in a move that baffles many, its marketing people decides to use the palm-frond brackets normally stamped on movies that are invited to screen at major international film festivals. In the poster of Choo, however, the text inside the palm brackets ambiguously reads: "a film that was brought to screen at Cannes Film Festival". Ho ho, the film wasn't invited to Cannes: It was "brought" there by its studio (a few hundred studios bring a few thousand movies to screen at Cannes' marketplace every year). Movies that can incorporate the palm brackets on its promo materials are those who're selected -- or honoured -- by the festival's committee, which number around 50 each year.

What Choo does on its poster is either an honest misunderstanding or an act aimed at misleading. That same ambiguity stuck to me like a stinker after savouring the movie. [It] is a mad jumble of bygone style and new-age cheesiness; I don't really know if the film wants to borrow nostalgic sensibilities of old Thai movies, or if it tries to position their characters (no pun intended) in an unreal futuristic waterworld, or if the filmmaker has any intention to pursue any of those ideas.

The wife is dressed up in the most provocative belly-baring, cleavage-clinging fashion, as if she has a personal stylist from Sports Illustrated working on her wardrobe. Any wife who clads herself up like this would cause a war far more epochal than the Trojan. That said, the film flaunts an ethnic ambivalence: from the look of their culture and costume, are these characters Thai, Sea Gypsies, Muslim or some obscure Polynesian tribe?

Then there's the disparity in the modes of performance. While veteran Sorapong Chatree anchors the story with his intensity of a realism actor, the two lovers, Helen and Watchara, are maddeningly insipid, Watchara especially regressing into a cold, lifeless acting of old-time movie stars. The lines he's forced to read seem lifted from the pages of forgotten melodramas of the 1960s. And the sex scenes themselves, which are supposed to be the reason this film was made, are a poorly-edited series of awkward fondling and unrhythmic fornication (the uncut version is reportedly steamier, though we won't get a chance to verify it).

To be fair, Choo has a kind of old-fashioned seductiveness; this is a movie whose idea of eroticism includes a lovemaking on the beach with the man sifting sand on the woman's naked body. But that's a small consolation in a film that has neither the tension of a real drama nor the inhibition of a porn fantasy. Well it just ends up stiff -- no pun intended.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Mistrust and the theater merger

The Bangkok Post ran an excellent package of stories the other day, following up on the merger of Thailand's biggest theater chains.

Other than the threat of a monopoly and rising ticket prices, the biggest worry is that Thai films will be left out the of the equation. Kong Rithdee reports:

Thai film producers have long complained that theatre operators tend to favour Hollywood blockbusters and limit the opportunity for local movies to make headway. The term "four days of danger" hovers like a dreaded skull-and-crossbones over Thai film-makers: If a movie doesn't show strong prospects during its first four days of showing (Thursday to Sunday), theatres will bump it to give way to lucrative American imports.

Local producers say they understand the nature of cinema business, but then the situation got complicated when Sahamongkol Film International, a giant producer and film distributor that held the biggest market share last year, announced last week that it would not screen their movies at Major Cineplex theatres, beginning June 24.

"Right now Hollywood movies dominate the theatres. Say, if Spider-Man opens this week, theatres won't show anything else at all," said Somsak Techaratanaprasert, president of SFI and also chairman of the Federation of Thai Film Producers.

"Last week two Thai movies opened [a soft-core romance, The Sin and the romantic comedy Pad Thai]. One of them is not doing well, the other has an okay potential, but there's no guarantee that the theatres will continue to screen either of them regularly with all the Hollywood summer flicks opening.

"I decided to pull out of Major Cineplex not because of any personal resentment, but because I believe that a movie can survive not only because it's shown in a lot of screens, but when it's shown over a long period of time, like it used to be 20 years ago."

One industry insider, however, pointed out that SFI, which also distributes foreign movies in Thailand, gobbled up the majority of screens when it released Lord of the Rings.

"That was the same scenario as when they say other Hollywood flicks shut out Thai films."

Rumour has it that what is deepening -- or actually, causing -- the conflict is the report that Major Cineplex plans to buy rights to screen foreign movies itself, thus heightening the competition among existing film importers/distributors. A widespread concern is that if a theatre chain starts to import its own movies, it's possible that other distributors' movies won't be treated fairly -- having fewer show times each day, for example.

"Moreover, if we have too many importers of foreign movies, it means we have to offer higher prices to the owners of the film rights, since they know there's intense competition here," said an expert who refused to be named.

"But don't rush to judgement, that the merger of Major and EGV is an unpleasant surprise," he continued. "The people still have choices, and it's good that they've become more selective. Theatres won't gain anything if they try to abuse their power."

To some people in the artistic side of the industry, the recent merger has not only business implications but cultural ones as well: When a theatre chain grows so largely dominant, it's possible that it will become an entity that makes decisions as to what audiences will see -- a monopoly of taste. So far Major has made no comment on whether its expansion of screens will translate into a variety in film titles. If not, the Thai film industry, standing on its shaky legs, will suffer a great blow.

Given the uncertainty, film-maker Pimpaka Towira (One Night Husband)believes it's time for a powerful third party to intervene: the government.

"I see nothing wrong with the merger, and I see nothing wrong if a theatre shows Harry Potter 100 times a day, because that's what they do to make money," Pimpaka said.

"But what's wrong is the lack of attention from the government to take movies seriously as culture. They cannot leave the business sector to shape the face of culture alone, which is what's happening now.

"For instance, in Korea, it's obligatory for theatres to show at least 30 percent local movies per year. China has more or less the same rule. I'm not suggesting we should copy their models, but it's obvious that we can do something about it.

"Movies are commerce, yes, but it's a cultural commerce that should not fall under the universal rule of free trade," Pimpaka said. "Sometimes culture should be planned, moulded and revised. And no, culture is not just about traditional Thai dancing. It should be the job of the government to start thinking hard about it."

A sidebar article voiced anger, fear and frustration over rising prices and limited showtimes for smaller films.

"Now that the duo has become the biggest in the film industry here, they can set prices and movie choices that promise to generate the most money. Movie-goers have already lost and the game hasn't even started," said Mana Sookananchai, an avid movie fan.

He cited the example of The Lord of the Rings: Ticket prices at both theatre chains soared from 120 to 140 baht, and have not gone down. Without legal protection, pricing is set by movie operators themselves.

Mana said it was a painful cycle: making a trip to a movie theatre just to wind up having to watch a Hollywood movie like Harry Potter that dominates most of the screens, leaving little space for other movies.

Showtimes were also unfairly arranged, he said: Most box-office movies get priority times, such as after-work hours and weekend time slots. Daytime and late night shows are usually set aside for non-box office films, or those on short runs, some for only a week.

"It's not fair. How many times do they expect us to watch box office films? There are other movies that I want to see, too," Mana said, adding that he's afraid the merger will exacerbate the scene, making it more difficult for film lovers.

"Don't expect me to stick with brand loyalty, not if prices continue to soar. I'll just buy quality pirated VCDs and DVDs instead _ the same price as a movie ticket, and I can watch them over and over with friends, conveniently at home," Mana said.
He hopes that competition will stimulate rivalry in the business, that other chains like SFX Cinema and Apex will improve their services and compete with the new merger with lower ticket prices and a great selection of movies to watch.

"I might like watching movies, but that doesn't mean I'm blind, that I will go for expensive entertainment unless it's worth it," he said.

The article also highlighted an annoying aspect -- the promotion schemes. Folks are nuts for membership cards and free promotions. At stores, it is difficult to get in and out of the door because the entryways are clogged up with people waiting in line to redeem their receipts for some free junk, or queuing to sign up for some sweepstakes prize. Restaurants all have coupon booklets that get a stamp with each visit, redeemable for the least desireable item on the menu.

The theatres were all trying to get people to buy a membership card that entitled the bearer to 20 baht (about 50 cents) off the regular admission price. The catch was that the discount card couldn't be used on new releases and certain big-name films like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. It's a swindle. The theater took 120 baht (about $3.50) for the membership card, promising a savings value many times more than that, but the card could hardly be used because of all the restrictions.

I have a solution for the schemes -- I ignore them. I hate all that junk clogging up my wallet anyway.

I choose restaurants and stores that serve what I want to eat and what I need, balanced with convenience of opening hours and locations. Discount schemes don't come into the equation.

Movie theaters I choose for what movie is playing. If they have what I want to see, they get my business. My next consideration is convenience of showtime and location. Price is a consideration as well. Rather than running out on a Friday night to catch a new Hollywood release at the nearby mall multiplex that charges 120 or 140 baht, I might wait until the middle of the week when I have more time to see the film at an independent theater for 100 baht.

Here's more from the article:

"Promotion schemes would become more tricky," said Thiti Ongsathirakul, who joined the recent, controversial contest sponsored by EGV. He watched 100 movies at all 100 EGV theatres in the hope of winning the one million baht prize earlier this year. There were about 120 qualified winners, though, each of whom paid about 16,000 baht just to split the prize among themselves, winding up with about 8,000 baht each. Meanwhile, EGV earned about two million baht from all the contestants.

"The promotional campaigns, such as discount cards and collecting points, already benefit theatre operators who set the rules and run the show. Thousands join the games, but only a few can win. So who makes the most money out of it?" Thiti asked.

Melbourne Thais one on

The Melbourne International Film Festival, from July 21 to August 8, is featuring a bunch of Thai films, including the Cannes prize-winning Tropical Malady, the martial arts hit Ong-Bak and six films in a special showcase category.

According to The Age, Ong-Bak will be the closing film, with the festival organizer describing it as "'an anti-Matrix' with a charismatic action star, Tony Jaa, 'a visceral experience to send people off into the night', at the end of more than a fortnight of intense movie-going."

The closer for the Bangkok International Film Festival in 2003, Ong-Bak is also the closer at this year's Auckland Film Festival.

In Melbourne, the spotlight showcase is called Thai Breakers: New Cinema from Thailand, and features six films:
  • Last Life in the Universe (Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
  • The Eye (Oxide & Danny Pang)
  • Mekhong Full Moon Party (Jira Maligool)
  • The Adventure of Iron Pussy (Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Michael Shaowanasai)
  • 6ixtynin9 (Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
  • Mon-Rak Transistor (Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
That's three, count them three films, from Pen-Ek at the fest. I really want to see 6ixtynin9, but I don't know about flying down to Melbourne just to get that fix.

Apichatpong has two films showing at the fest, in addition to Adventure of Iron Pussy, which is also showing at the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. His other film is Tropical Malady, which won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It's showing in the Direct from Cannes category, along with Palm d'Or winner Fahrenheit 9/11 and the Grand Prize winner Old Boy and 17 other films.

Also at the Melbourne fest is a photographic exhibition, Why I am not a Painter staged by cinematographer Christopher Doyle. The show will highlight his collaborations with such directors as Wong Kar-Wai (2046, In the Mood for Love), Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe) and Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence). Here's more on the Doylester:

Born in 1952 in Sydney, Doyle fled his suburban youth for a life of adventure: working as a well digger in India, a Norwegian merchant marine, a cow herder on an Israeli kibbutz, and a doctor of Chinese medicine in Thailand. In the late 70s, Doyle started working in theater, and then in film and television. Doyle's first film breakthrough occurred in 1981, when he was the cinematographer on Edward Yang's feature debut That Day on the Beach. Working primarily in Asia, Doyle gained international recognition in the 90s for his poetic camera work for director Wong Kar-wai, on such films as Chungking Express (1995), Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000), for which he won a Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Branching out to shoot features around the world for such directors as Gus Vant Sant (Psycho, 1998) and Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence, 2002; The Quiet American, 2002), Doyle also directed his first feature, Away with Words in 1999. His latest collaborations with Zhang Yimou (Hero, 2002), Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe) and Wong Kar-Wai (2046, 2004) cement his reputation as one of the world's most visionary cinematographers.

Iron Pussy, Iron Ladies in SF

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "lost" film, The Adventures of Iron Pussy is showing at the 28th San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, June 17-27. Also on the schedule is Satree Lex 2 (Iron Ladies 2).

I say "lost" about Iron Pussy because the film has never been shown in Thailand and I feared it had been forgotten amid all the hub-bub over Apichatpong's latest film, Tropical Malady.

Here's what the East Bay Express had to say about the film:

No shortage of permutations in The Adventure of Iron Pussy, a free-for-all from Thailand with a Bay Area pedigree. In this ultra-campy, lowbrow musical spy comedy, Michael Shaowanasai (who went to the SF Art Institute in the '90s) stars as a former go-go boy moonlighting as a 7-Eleven clerk, ready to change in a flash into crime-fighting superheroine Iron Pussy. The 2003 production, directed by another trained-in-US filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is that rare example of domestic Asian fare we rarely see at American film festivals -- sappy string music score, weepy-alternating-with-slapstick acting, corny long-lost-sister plot -- sending she-male Iron Pussy undercover as a housemaid in a mansion, along with his tuktuk-driving sidekick Pew, to catch a gang of crooks manufacturing a drug that turns people into zombies.

And from the festival catalog:

She’s gorgeous, she’s dangerous – and she sings! Male convenience store clerk by day, fabulous drag queen/ secret agent by night, Iron Pussy must yet again come to the rescue! In this feature-length reprise, award-winning Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Michael Shaowanasai (who also plays Iron Pussy) have created a spy-thriller-kung-fu-musical-western-forbidden-love story that, like our heroine, defies convention.

Iron Pussy is called into action to investigate a secret cache of foreign money that has turned up in Thailand’s banking system. Drug money? Funding for terrorism? Our fearless (and always impeccably dressed) heroine must go undercover and infiltrate socialite Madam Pomidoy’s mansion, posing as Lamduan, a maid. But Iron Pussy is no mere maid, she’s also a fabulous singer, as well as the epitome of the ideal Thai woman! When Pomidoy’s crooked son, Tang, falls for her (and she falls for him), Iron Pussy is torn to discover the truth about Tang…and about herself! In a shocking and glorious ending, Iron Pussy’s sidekick Pew comes to the rescue, and Madame Pomidoy, Tang, and Iron Pussy herself will never be the same!

The Adventure of Iron Pussy is a non-stop, karate-chopping, glamorous romp, with smart editing and a sharp sense of humor. (Especially clever are the dubbed vocal sounds [by veteran Thai voice actors] that are way over the top.) Iron Pussy sings, dances…and loves…her way to a safer world, the prequel to the smash hit Iron Ladies about a champion men's volleyball team

Also showing is Yongyoot Thongkongtoon's prequel/sequel Satrex Lex 2 (Iron Ladies 2). From the festival catalog:

This raucous sequel to the 2000 smash hit Iron Ladies is based on a real-life Thai volleyball team consisting primarily of katoey (drag queens and trannies). This episode finds trouble brewing with the superstar athletes, as infighting and fame-whoring threaten to tear the team apart.

It appears that Nong has been lured to the rival Tip-Top team with the promise of money and limelight. She gauchely boasts about her betrayal on TV, inspiring a vengeful Jung to reunite the team. Jung even travels to China to drag the cabaret star Pia out of volleyball retirement.

To offset the catty conflict (the rivals relish calling each other “buffalo”), we flash back to simpler times when the gals met at university, came out together, and learned to kick ass at volleyball. Nong’s transformation from butch bully to nelly androgyne is a highlight. Flash forward as the girls reconcile and reunite for a pivotal match against Tip-Top (with Nong playing once again for the Ladies). The regional championships are at stake, and some of the film’s most dynamic moments capture the kinesthetic energy and agile grace of playing the game (with occasional campy superhero flourishes on the court). This unlikely band of katoey prove that you can be glamorous, tough as nails, and play some mean volleyball.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Fan Chan directors honored in Shanghai

The six directors who collaborated on the childhood comedy Fan Chan (My Girl) were among the winners of the Asian New Talent Award, given at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

Actually two best director honors were given. According to the China Daily, they shared best director honors with Chinese director Zhu Wen, who won for his film South of the Clouds.

Of the Thai film, the jury said "My Girl gives a beautiful presentation of the purity of young men and women's first love."

"These movies are not only faithful to the local societies they portray, but also use diverse cinematic languages. The leading characters of these movies are not supermen or dandies but everyday heroes whom we meet every day and who struggle with common problems," said US critic and jury president David Bordwell, adding that all the submitted films were of high professional quality.

Two Thai films were screened at the recent Shanghai fest. In addition to Fan Chan, Nonzee Nimibutr's "fish out of water" tale about a former Buddhist monk who moves to Thailand's Muslim south, OK Baytong, was screened in the competition category.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Tropical Malady, Last Life, Ong-Bak at Auckland fest

An amazing lineup at the Auckland (New Zealand) International Film Festival, July 9 to 25, includes three Thai films: The Cannes jury prize winner, Tropical Malady, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe and the kickboxing smash Ong-Bak.

Other Asian films include:
  • Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids
  • Hero
  • Imelda
  • Infernal Affairs II
  • Infernal Affairs III
  • Nobody Knows
  • Old Boy
  • Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring
  • Tokyo Godfathers
  • Travellers and Magicians
  • Woman is the Future of Man
  • Zatoichi
As well as a Shaw Brothers' retrospective:
  • Blood Brothers
  • Come Drink With Me
  • Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan
  • The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
  • Vengeance!

Monday, June 14, 2004

Hollywood of Asia

More industry news. Thailand's Board of Investment has endorsed giving tax breaks to the film industry with an eye toward making the Kingdom the ''Hollywood of Asia''.

The deal has already attracted the RGM Group from Australia, a film-financing company that includes Lord of the Rings producer Barrie Osborne as one of its executives.

RGM is investing in a new studio with Kantana Group, which the Bangkok Post cited as the leading film production company in Thailand,

The 343-acre "movie town" in suburban Bangkok will include outdoor sets, pre- and post-production facilities and a university offering courses in movie production and broadcasting.

Kantana is negotiating with several companies to raise funds to produce 22 movies at the new facility over the next seven years, mostly films aimed at the international market.

The RGM Group was also considering setting up a $20-million fun to help finance movie productions in Asia.

Kantana is a large production company. Among its holdings is Oriental Post Co., Southeast Asia's biggest post-production house.

With its low wages and location costs and access to production facilities and trained crews, Thailand is increasingly attractive as a location. Malaysian and Indian filmmakers have been using Thailand for post-production work. Current Hollywood films made in Thailand include Around the World in 80 Days and the upcoming Alexander.