Friday, January 8, 2010
Top 10 Thai films of 2009
Last year was historic for Thai cinema, with the enactment of a ratings system that was supposed to replace the 80-year-old censorship regime of cutting, blurring and banning. There are six ratings: P for films that are promoted as educational, G for general audiences, 13+, 15+ and 18+ age advisories (no ID check) and the 20+ restriction, with ID check mandatory. And there's a seventh hidden category -- films that are banned for broad and vaguely stated reasons of having to do with "national security". And movies are still being censored, particularly if they have any content about politics, recent history or current events. Seems the Culture Ministry's minders aren't quite ready to grant freedom of expression to filmmakers or audiences. Nonetheless, there were still Thai films released in 2009 that were worth seeing. Here's nine of my favorites, and one that couldn't be seen.
10. Sawasdee Bangkok
The full package of nine shorts, spanning three hours, from some of the best known directors in Thailand's film industry, Sawasdee Bangkok played just once on the Bangkok big screen, as the closer of the Bangkok International Film Festival. Sadly, the omnibus contains the last film by veteran director Bhandit Rittakol. I thought it was one of the highlights as the opening segment. Others are by Ruethaiwan Wongsirasawasdi, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Wisit Sasanatieng, Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, Prachya Pinkaew, Aditya Assarat, Chukiat Sakveerakul and Santi Taepanich. Among the crowd pleasers was Prachya's segment -- comic vignettes about the absurdities of life in Bangkok. The finale by Santi was a powerful documentary on street characters that pretty well blew away everything that came before it. A shorter compilation with the films by Aditya, Kongdej, Pen-ek and Wisit premiered in Toronto and is touring the international circuit. Commissioned by the Thai Public Broadcasting Service, they are all to be shown on TV Thai at some point, in some form.
9. Meat Grinder
Squeamish censors ordered cuts to director Tiwa Moeithaisong's Meat Grinder (Cheuat Gon Chim) because they feared the story of a woman whose beef noodle soup doesn't contain beef would be bad for the business of Thailand's food-stall vendors. It was still a bloody, violent and gore-filled dish, but also a satisfyingly and surprisingly tasteful thriller with a social message, served up by Mai Charoenpura. She's a noodle vendor who's led a hard life, struggling to survive the only way she's known how -- grabbing a big sharp knife and hacking away at the people who cause her problems. Mai and producer Poj Arnon and Phranakorn Film will go for round two with Die a Violent Death (Tai Hong, ตายโหง), due in cinemas on January 28.
8. Phobia 2
This sequel to GTH's 2008 horror hit See Phrang (4Bia) offered five more scary short stories. Phobia 2 (Haa Phrang, literally five intersections) was stronger, with moralistic parables seemingly ripped from the headlines. Young director Paween Purijitpanya offered his best work yet with a tale of a rock-throwing teenager whose growth is his karma in Novice. GTH executive Visute Poolvoralaks made his directorial debut in the sure and steady Ward, about a battle for the soul of a young hospitalized man (Dan Worrawech). Backpackers met zombie drug mules and a used-car dealer is taken for a ride in segments by Songyos Sugmakanan and Parkpoom Wongpoom. Banjong Pisanthanakul capped it with his laugh-filled In the End, with the crew of a horror film putting their star Marsha Wattanapanich through her paces as they search for the perfect ending while there's possibly a real ghost on the set. It's now out on English-friendly DVD from Hong Kong. Also, the success of the Phobia series seems to have inspired other horror anthologies, with Sahamongkol releasing the pretty good Haunted Universities (Maha'lai Sayong Kwan) by young director Bunjong Sinthanamongkolkul and Sutthiporn Tubtim -- another pair of horror directors to watch.
Prolific multi-hypenate comedian-actor-writer-director-producer Petthai "Mum Jokmok" Wongkumlao directed two features this year, with his country comedy Yam Yasothon 2 topping the box office last month, repeating the success of July's Wongkumlao, a broad satire of the type of high-society families that are seen on the nightly soap operas. With a fantastic cast of comedians that included Apaporn Nakonsawan, Sudarat "Tukkie" Butrphom and veteran character actor Somlek Sakdikul, it wasn't just slaps among bickering females that were traded -- it was karate kicks and non-stop insults.
Pen-ek Ratanaruang combined romantic drama, ghost story and nature show in this thriller about a marriage that’s lost in a thicket of dysfunction. When it premiered in the Un Certain Regard compeition at the Cannes Film Festival, critics didn't quite know what to make of Nymph (Nang Mai), which is set in a deep and forboding forest. Pen-ek joked that it was simple -- a man falls in love with a tree. Along with stunning work by cinematographer Charnkit Chamnivikaipong, whose cameras floated like fairies, there were outstanding performances from Wanida "Gybzy" Termthanaporn of Girly Berry as the cheating wife and Nopachai Jayanama as the cuckhold husband who finds what he's looking for from the forest spirit.
5. Colors of Our Hearts
Director Supamok Silarak and producer-writer Th’blay Paw of the Friends Without Borders relief group in Chiang Mai weave together four stories about Thailand’s migrant workers and minorities. Colors of Our Hearts expands on a short called Hongsa's Schoolbag, about a Mon schoolboy who wants to learn the Royal Thai language so he can write a letter to His Majesty the King -- the only person the boy sees as having the moral authority to deal with the violence and corruption that causes migrant workers to be treated as non-humans in Thai society. Other stories deal with women who are trafficked into the sex trade and an activist who works to foster dignity and pride in the migrant communities. The Colors team is starting work on their next project, a follow-up to 2007's documentary on Burmese schoolchildren, The Songs of Eh Doh Shi, looking at how the youngsters are doing now that they are grown up.
4. Mundane History
Taking the idea of non-linear storytelling to new heights, Mundane History begins in the middle and ends with a beginning. It reaches highs that zoom into outer space, into the heart of a supernova, and comes crashing back down to Earth with a big splat. A startling debut feature from Anocha Suwichakornpong, Mundane History (Jao Nok Krajok), is ostensibly a drama about a young paralyzed man from a wealthy family and the friendship that develops between him and his male nurse from upcountry. Full of symbolism and metaphor, the film comments on class-based society, shattered dreams and the fragile impermanence of life. It premiered at the Pusan festival last year and opened the World Film Festival of Bangkok. This month, it's headed for competition in the Rotterdam fest, and it's hoped there will be a general release in Thailand sometime this year. Containing a controversial bathtub scene of full-frontal male nudity, it's the first Thai film to be rated 20+, but was reportedly almost banned.
A bloody, dirty, depraved and violent thriller on its surface, Slice (Chuen) is at its heart a sweet tale of childhood love. Directed by Kongkiat Komesiri and co-written Wisit Sasanatieng, the story takes a convict (Arak "Pe" Amornsupasiri) out of prison. He's tasked by a corrupt policeman (Chatchai Plengpanich, at his sleazy best) to track down a serial killer. The case takes the convict back to his hometown, where he recalls his childhood and an intimate relationship with an abused outcast boy. The recollections gets closer to the truth and the noose tightens, leaving the story to kick, spin and violently twist. Released in October, Slice was rated 18+ and appears to have benefited from the ratings system in that nudity, sexuality and explicit violence were allowed to unspool without any apparent cuts. But audiences, seemingly turned off by the dark subject matter of Slice, stayed away. They opted instead to watch the romantic comedy Bangkok Traffic (Love) Story, which was the year's biggest hit and an indicator of more things to come.
2. This Area Is Under Quarantine
With its scenes of explicit sex between two young Thai men -- one a Buddhist from the Northeast and the other a Muslim from the South -- Thunska Pansittivorakul's documentary on Islam and homosexuality seems designed to provoke the censors. But, "nudity is not their concern at all. It's the politics," World Film Festival of Bangkok director Victor Silakong said of the censors' decision to ban This Area Is Under Quarantine. "Thunska's film is quite strong. It's really up front, about everything." What got the Culture Ministry's censors riled was footage of 2004's Tak Bai incident, in which Muslim men were rounded up, stripped of their shirts, made to lie on the ground, tied up, beaten and prodded by soldiers and then herded into trucks. Eighty-five detainees died, mostly of suffocation. The footage is widely available, but is also banned. So the World Film Fest couldn't show this challenging film, which had premiered almost a year ago at the Rotterdam festival. Thunska remains undaunted, and his new feature Reincarnate is set for this year's Rotterdam festival.
1. Agrarian Utopia
Everything is beautiful through his unblinking high-definition digital camera lens, but director Uruphong Raksasad does not shy away from the hardships of rice farmers in rural northern Thailand. For his documentary Agrarian Utopia, Uruphong engaged two families to work a plot of land. There is back-breaking labor in the blazing sun and pounding rain. And there are conversations, which turn to politics. But politicians of whatever stripe or color are about has helpful as the families' recalcitrant water buffalo. Mostly the talk is about food -- one evening's bedtime chat starts with the mention of a particularly large frog that was eaten that day, and circles back to it. Food is an obsession when there is little to eat. Agrarian Utopia (Sawan Baan Naa) was the toast of the festival circuit last year, and was featured in the Bangkok International fest. Its makers are hoping for at least a limited theatrical release in Thailand this year.
(Cross-published in The Nation, "xp" section, Page 2B, January 8, 2010)