Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy

  • Written and directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit
  • Produced by Aditya Assarat
  • Starring Patcha Poonpiriya, Chonnikan Netjui, Krissada Sukosol Clapp
  • Released in Thai cinemas on November 28, 2013
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

It's the world's first Twitter movie – Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy – a fancifully weird comedy about teenage angst by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit.

The inventive writer-director took 410 consecutive messages from the Twitter feed of a Thai schoolgirl named Mary Malony (@marylony) and created a story around them.

The result is a dense narrative that is repetitive and sometimes hard to follow. Mary’s tweets are displayed as intertitles, accompanied by the click of a computer keyboard’s return key. Sometimes they will quickly be followed by Mary pretty much repeating the message. Other times, what’s happening will be completely different.
And if you’re stuck reading the subtitles, good luck at keeping up.

But Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is the kind of movie you might want to see two or three times, just to get feel of it.

And it’s fun to watch, for Nawapol has succeeded in creating an intriguingly bizarre world, a place that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere.

Mary (Patcha Poonpiriya) is an often-depressed, accident-prone high-school senior. She’s constantly in need of encouragement from her more-level-headed friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui). They are assigned to work on the school’s yearbook.

Their boarding school seems to be in a warehouse, which is stacked up with old computers and dusty school desks. They walk to school along a railroad track, often stopping along the way to hang out by a pancake vendor, whose cart is right by the tracks.

It’s the same kind of insular universe Wes Anderson creates for his movies, and of those, Mary is most like the schoolboy comedy Rushmore. And the comic-strip nature of a film formed by 140-word snippets also reminds me of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts and by extension the Charlie Brown animated TV specials.

The cartoon-character feel is enhanced by the girl’s uniforms – they wear the same 1983 school sport day T-shirts and red shorts everyday, just like Charlie Brown has his zigzag shirt.

The school’s faculty are a bunch of oddballs, especially their first yearbook sponsor, played by SEA Write Award-winning author Prabda Yoon. His nose is bandaged for some reason. And then he abruptly announces he’s quitting to become a movie stuntman.

His replacement is the quietly intimidating singer-actor Krissada “Noi” Sukosol Clapp, whose awkward intensity is harnessed for laughs. He’s always invoking the name of the school’s headmaster, a man who never actually appears, but is filling the classrooms with the canned coffee and soup his factory makes and forms the basis of the student body’s diet. His picture is on the cans. Turns out it’s Noi’s brother, musician Sukie.

Several Thai indie film figures make cameo appearances, including director Kongdej Jatruranrasmee as a drama coach. Veteran filmmakers Pimpaka Towira and Boonsong Nakphoo are Mary’s mother and father. Musician, photographer and actor Apichai “Lek” Tragoolpadetgrai has a crucial role as head of the audio-visual department. And there’s a chuckle to be had when producer Soros Sukhum’s name comes up in the credits – he plays “Uncle Boonmee”.

Seems relevant at this point to mention the teachers’ uniforms look like something a prison guard or security guard might wear.

Mary’s tweets are often a launchpad for fantasy sequences, including a whirlwind trip to Paris, which mopey Mary sleeps through because she is so jetlagged.

Other moments are repeated, such as Mary’s insistence at taking photographs only during the “magic hour” when the light is just right at the end of the day at a certain location of the school’s roof.

It seems that the yearbook will never be finished.

There’s Mary’s fleeting romance with a boy who hangs around the pancake cart.

But mostly the stories are about the friendship between Mary and Suri. Until one day Suri is no longer there. Her absence leaves Mary rudderless, and the story also suffers a bit because Suri isn’t there to propel things along.

Nawapol made his feature directorial debut last year with 36, an experimental effort that constructed a story out of 36 static camera setups with a story that involved a movie location scout losing her digital images when a hard-drive fails. She then tries to reconstruct the memories of those photos. It shared Busan’s Currents Prize in 2012, and won praise for creating a new cinematic language.

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy continues that experiment in creating new ways to tell cinematic stories out of our fleeting, digital consciousness. It’s much more complex than the stripped down 36, and also almost twice as long, running 127 minutes.

But, as it turns out, that’s exactly the time needed to make a story out of 410 tweets.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

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Brunei enters the picture at Luang Prabang Film Festival

In a historic first, all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will be represented at next weekend’s Luang Prabang Film Festival, which has completed its schedule.

With all the other Asean countries involved in filmmaking – Laos stepped up production in just the past few years – only Brunei has been left out of the spotlight.

But now the sultanate on the island of Borneo has produced its first feature film since 1968 – Ada Apa Dengan Rina, aka What’s So Special About Rina?

“This is the first time we have ever been able to showcase films from all of the Asean countries, as Brunei never had anything to submit,” festival director Gabriel Kuperman says.

Rina, the first feature in the Brunei Malay dialect, is a romantic comedy about a 30-year-old man named Faisal who is still searching for his true love. Turns out the perfect girl is a work colleague, but winning Rina’s heart won’t be easy.

Featuring an all-Brunei cast and crew, Ada Apa Dengan Rina was shown Brunei cinemas in February. It also screened at this year’s Asean International Film Festival and Awards in Kuching, Malaysia, and won a special jury prize.

Directed by Harlif Haji Mohamad and Farid Azlan Ghani, it’s among the highlights of the Luang Prabang Film Festival’s screenings at the Amantaka, a five-star hotel that is back as the festival’s daytime venue.

There were persistant technical problems with the daytime screenings last year, but Kuperman says it’ll be better this year with the movies projected from a file on a hard drive that will be looked after by the festival staff. It should be a vast improvement over the previous unreliable method, which involved a balky DVD player attached to a TV and no one around to fix things when it broke, which was often.

What Kuperman is really excited about is the number of filmmakers and celebrities who will be coming to the festival.

“More than half of our feature-length films will have filmmakers in attendance, more than we have ever had,” he says.

Among them will be Thailand’s Chookiat Sakveerakul, who has two films in the fest, the teen comedy Grean Fictions, which is showing in the home of the festival’s now-iconic blue plastic chairs – the big outdoor screen in the 1,000-person-capacity Handicraft Market. It’s where the popular crowd-pleasing films are shown. Meanwhile, Chookiat’s three-segment family drama Home, which covers several thorny topics, will be featured indoors, where the audience is smaller, with around 40 seats.

Joining Chookiat on his Lao sojourn will be his Love of Siam star Witwisit Hiranyawongkul, who also appears in Home, and Kittisak Phatomburana from Home and Grean Fictions.

Chookiat will take part in “Distribution Methods in Southeast Asia”, talking about getting his films out there with Indonesian director Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni, whose documentary Denok and Gareng is featured this year. Others panellists will be Lao director Anysay Keola, Hong Kong film critic Clarence Tsui and Vietnamese producer Tran Thi Bich Ngoc.

Another panel talk will cover a subject that's near and dear to the hearts of Southeast Asian film folk, “Fund-raising for Low-Budget Filmmaking”, with Thailand’s Nontawat Numbenchapol taking part. His Thai-Cambodian border documentary Boundary is another “indoor” movie. Others joining the talk will be Filipino critic Oggs Cruz, Vietnamese director Siu Pham, whose Here ... or There? is showing, Cambodian producer Fatily Sa and Lao filmmaker Vannapone Sittirath.

And Phil Jablon, the American scholar behind the Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project, will show his photos and give a talk about the cultural significance of saving what remains of the region’s landmark single-screen cinemas, such as the Scala in Bangkok.

The world premieres of two Lao movies take centerstage at this year’s fest. The boxing drama Big Heart directed by Mattiphob Douangmyxay is the opening film. The other is I Love Savanh by Bounthong Nhotmanhkong, about a Japanese expat falling for a traditional cloth weaver.

Another intriguing title is 13.00 Sunday, a Thai-Lao mystery by Bis Srikasem and Pume Peerabun, about a hospital where deaths occur at exactly an hour after noon on Sundays. Not taking any chances, the festival is screening it outdoors at 9pm on a Tuesday.

Thai films are always a big hit with the Luang Prabang crowd. Among them will be the lively comedy-drama Tang Wong, which will give folks in the Handicraft Market a chance to laugh at how Bangkok schoolboys can’t master a traditional dance. Director Kongdej Jaturanrasamee will be on hand for that, and he’ll take questions after an indoor screening of another of his films, the weird and subversive pyscho-drama P-047.

Another Thai pick for the outdoor screen is Karaoke Girl, with director Visra Vichet-Vadakan on hand to see the response to her hybrid documentary-drama about a young woman caught up in the seedy (but beautifully filmed) world of Bangkok’s hostess bar scene.

In all, there’s 28 features, screening from 10am indoors and then two outdoor shows each night from 7, along with live performances.

If that’s not enough, the festival’s centre offers dozens upon dozens more films, including a “best of” programme from the Vientianale shorts fest and documentaries from Indonesia’s Chopshots. And nearly a dozen more venues around town are also showing films as a sidebar to the fest.

The Luang Prabang Film Festival runs from December 7 to 11. All screenings and activities are free and open to the public. For more details, see or

Also, check out the festival teaser, embedded below.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

Pee Mak nominated for best art direction at Asia-Pacific Film Awards

The venerable Asia-Pacific Film Festival, an industry-oriented awards event now in its 56th edition, has announced its nominees for this year, with the GTH ghost comedy Pee Mak the sole nominee from "Bangkok".

It's nominated for art direction by Arkadech Keawkotr.

Others in the category are The Grandmaster from "Hong Kong" and Snowpiercer from "Seoul", along with the Unforgiven remake and Why Don't You Play in Hell from "Tokyo".

Leading the nominations is Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmaster, with nods in nine out of 12 categories including Best Picture.

Other leading nominees are Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer with seven nods, including best director, and The Lunchbox from "Mumbai", with six nominations, including Best Actress for Nimrat Kaur.

Film Business Asia has more details.

Interestingly, the list of nominees only notes what "city" the films are from, not the "country". Presumably, this is to alleviate the sensitivities of authorities from such places as "Beijing" and "Taipei".

Other nominees from around Southeast Asia include Ilo Ilo from "Singapore" (the city, not the country). It got four nods, including screenplay, best actress for Angeli Bayani (who comes from country where the capital is "Manila") and best supporting actress for Yeo Yeo Yann from "Singapore". What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love from "Jarkarta" [sic], a tuneful coming-of-age romance and social drama, is up for best music.

The Asia-Pacific Film Festival is set for December 13 to 15 in "Macau".

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy rides acclaim into Thai cinemas

Messages from a teenage girl's Twitter stream – 410 consecutive tweets – are adapted for Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy, a fancifully weird comedy by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit.

It's getting a limited release in Thai cinemas this week, going head-to-head with a couple of mainstream Thai studio efforts, the horror comedy Oh! My Ghost Khun Phee Chuay (โอ้! มายโกสต์ คุณผีช่วย, a.k.a. OMG!) and the musical comedy Ruam Phol Khon Luk Thung Ngern Laan (รวมพลคนลูกทุ่งเงินล้าน).

And while it might not command as many screens as those two major-studio efforts, Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy has something neither of them have – positive critical acclaim and at least one major award from the festival circuit.

This week, Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy was named Asian Film of the Year by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival. The Nation had more on that.

It's a win that adds to the personal triumphs of Mary producer Aditya Assarat, whose wife Yuni Hadi was behind the Golden Horse Awards best feature, Ilo Ilo from Singapore, which scooped three other trophies, including Best New Director for Anthony Chen.

For Nawapol, the acclaim for Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy adds to the accolades he won last year for his experimental feature debut 36, which won the New Currents prize in Busan. And 36 is still winning awards on the festival circuit, most recently the Best Feature Film Screenplay at L'Alternativa A 20 Festival de Cinema Independent in Barcelona. It also took part in the competition at the Three Continents Film Festival, which wrapped up on Tuesday in Nantes, France.

Mary is the quirky story of a mopey, accident-prone high-school student (Patcha Poonpiriya) and her level-headed friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui) as they work on the school’s yearbook. The film is peppered with all sorts of strange characters, mainly the teachers at the girls' boarding school. Among them is Krissada Sukosol Clapp, whose the awkwardly intense manner is played for laughs. Seriously, the dude is kind of scary.

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy was developed out of the Venice Biennale College – Cinema, which picked Nawapol to direct one of three micro-budget films that premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival. It's since screened at several other festivals, including Busan, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei and Torino, earning glowing reviews.

In some Thai cinemas, it's playing alongside Oh! My Ghost, a comedy starring sweet cherub "Tukky" Sudarat Butrprom. She's an ordinary young woman haunted by the ghost of a tall, gorgeous lady – hey, it's Cris Horwang! It's directed by Puttipong Promsakha Na Sakon Nakhon, one of the guys behind the hit teenybopper romance Crazy Little Thing Called Love or First Love and last year's 30+ Singles on Sale. It's produced by Workpoint Entertainment and released by Sahamongkol. The other major Thai release this week is Ruam Phol Khon Luk Thung Ngern Laan, a comedy featuring a cavalcade of luk thung singers. It's directed by Pornchai "Gun" Hongrattaporn (Bangkok Loco, Second Sight) and is released by M Pictures.

But it's Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy that I'm already saying is one best Thai films of the year. Catch it at Apex Siam Square's Lido, House on RCA and Esplanade Ratchada, as well as at Major Cineplex Chiang Mai Airport Plaza and EGV Lotus Khon Kaen. I'll have more to say about it in a day or so.

Meanwhile, check out the trailer, embedded below.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Chanthaly in outdoor double bill with Pee Mak in Bangkok

Lao's first horror film Chanthaly (also the first Lao feature by a female director) will make its Thai debut in an outdoor screening next month as part of the Asean Arts Festival at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

Chanthaly will play on December 14 as the first of an all-horror double feature. It precedes the blockbuster Thai ghost comedy Pee Mak Phra Khanong.

Directed by Mattie Do, Chanthaly premiered at last year's Luang Prabang Film Festival (this year's is set for December 7 to 11). It's since screened in a few other fests, most notably Austin's Fantastic Fest. It made its U.K. premiere earlier this month as part of the Abertoir fest in Wales.

In Bangkok, Chanthaly is part of a three-day festival, Asean Nights: Asean Beyond Frontier, featuring music and films from December 13 to 15.

The Thai-Muslim band Baby Arabia will open the festival, playing its ear-wormy blend of Malay and Arabic folk and rock at 5pm on December 13, followed at 6.30 by the Indonesian childhood drama The Rainbow Troops

Music by the Paradise Bangkok Molum International Band precedes the screenings of Chanthaly and Pee Mak on Saturday, December 14.

And the fest's closing day on December 15 offers music by DJ Maft Dai and a double feature of Chou Davy's Golden Slumbers, a documentary on Cambodia's lost golden age of cinema, and Kongdej Jaturanrasmee's teen Thai culture drama Tang Wong.

You can read more about the festival in an article in The Nation.

And check out the trailer for Chanthaly, embedded below, or if you'd rather, there's the "director's cut" so you can experience the film as Mattie intended – "from the back of a crowded Asian cinema surrounded by 300 people who won't shut up."

WFFBKK 2013 capsule reviews: The Isthmus, After Farewell, By the River

The Isthmus (ที่ว่างระหว่างสมุทร, Teewang Rawang Samut) – Hypnotic and mesmerizing ... okay, I'll just say it – this film almost put me to sleep. And it was the middle of the day, just after I'd had coffee. Directed by a pair of university film-studies lecturers, Sopawan Boonnimitra and Peerachai Kerdsint, The Isthmus isn't a boring film, and there are in fact some amusing moments. But it does have a sedate, deliberate pace. Sangthong Gate-U-thong (Citizen Dog, Muay Thai Chaiya) stars as a hi-so single mother whose daughter (Marisa Kidd) starts speaking only Burmese after her migrant-worker nanny dies. Desperate to find out what's wrong with the girl, the mother journeys to Ranong, a coastal border province on that skinny part of Thailand that's between two oceans. It's home to a vast community of Myanmar migrants, and it's believed the late nanny's sister lives there. Their first stop is a local doctor, portrayed by the wonderfully named Saw Marvellous Soe. "Why does everyone come to me when someone goes missing," he laments. "You go to the police for missing persons." But, as an activist and musician in the Myanmar labor community, as well as their primary physician, he knows well that the Thai police won't do anything to help. So, wearily, he sets about helping the mother. The daughter bonds with local kids and starts drawing pictures of red umbrellas. And for added quirk, there's a weird Japanese priest who hears reports about sinkholes opening up all over the area. A former geologist, he turns catatonic and hilariously freezes up when he sees one of the sinkholes. The action, such as it is, culminates in a festival and musical revue at an immense half-built resort hotel on a hilltop, featuring a parade of red umbrellas. Previously reviewed at the Busan film festival, it's a worthy attempt to address the issue of Myanmar migrant workers and show their place in society, but I'm not sure the audience for this type of film are the ones who need to be told about it. (3/5)

Cambodia, After Farewell – Cambodian filmmakers are still finding their voice, and as they do, more stories about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era are coming out. Directed by young French-Cambodian filmmaker Iv Charbonneau-Ching, Cambodia, After Farewell will seem familiar to anyone who's watched any of Rithy Panh's films, particularly S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Indeed, Panh's Bophana Center film archive was one of the backers of this film. What makes Charbonneau-Ching's film unique is that it's from a very personal point of view, that of his mother and aunt, who were sent to France by their parents during the dark days leading up to 1975. When the KR took over, the Ching family felt hopeful and were among the Paris-schooled elite who supported the Khmer Rouge. Two of his uncles actually went back to Cambodia. Neither were heard from again. In Cambodia, After Farewell, the filmmaker accompanies his mother and aunt on their first trip back to their native land in an effort to find out what happened. Among their stops is the Documentation Center Cambodia. They get bad news that leads them to Tuol Sleng, the former high school that became the S-21 torture center. They meet Bou Meng, the last of the seven surviving prisoners from that center. He's a wiry and tough little old man who, like another survivor, the late Vann Nath (featured in Killing Machine), was an artist. He was spared because he made a great painting of KR leader Pol Pot. The aunts also meet a surviving nephew, and it's an emotional, tearful reunion. Cambodia, After Farewell is an engrossing documentary and packs a punch thanks to the director's discovery of home-movie footage and photos of his mother, aunts and uncles in their youth in Phnom Penh. (4/5)

By the River  (สายน้ำติดเชื้อ, Sai Nam Tid Shoer) – Boundary director Nontawat Numbenchapol's award-winning new documentary turned out to be a polarising choice for the closing film of the 11th World Film Festival of Bangkok. Most folks didn't like it. Some even hated it, saying beautifully filmed images are not enough to make a documentary. But I liked it. I appreciated Nontawat's approach. Instead of launching right in with important-sounding narration or boring talking-head interviews as a lot of pure documentaries tend to do, he simply shows the rural scene, and follows a lone man who walks with the aid of one crutch as he checks a fishing line by a pretty little creek. The scene then moves to a schoolhouse, where the man chats with some of the boys about spearfishing, and you get the sense that there aren't many fish these days. It's not until about halfway through this hour-or-so documentary that there's text intertitles that explains the village of Lower Klity was settled by the Karen people 300 or 400 years ago. They paid tribute to the Ayutthaya kingdom with lead. Later, when a mining company turned up to extract those lead deposits, they dumped the waste in Klity Creek, ruining the livelihood for the village. Today, death and illness are the legacies of that history. A recent court ruling said the Thai government is responsible for fixing the environmental damage, but not much is being done. "Don't eat the fish," the villagers are told, and that's that. By the River is admittedly short on the information you'll need to be fully brought up to speed on the Klity Creek case. Ideally, it would be part of a bigger multimedia project or television series (Thai PBS is one of the backers). It is nonetheless an engaging portrait of the current state of the village and a handful of its inhabitants who are scraping by to survive. (3/5)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Apichatpong named Tropfest SEA ambassador

Apichatpong is flanked by Tony Nagamiah of Malaysia Major Events and Joe Sidek of Tropfest SEA.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been appointed "ambassador" of Tropfest Southeast Asia ahead of the inaugural regional edition of the short-film competition, which is set for January 25 in George Town, Penang, Malaysia.

Here's more from a press release:

The celebrated Thai independent film director, screenwriter and producer will attend Tropfest SEA's festival day on 25 January. He joins a distinguished judging panel at the live judging ceremony, including Tropfest founder John Polson.

Weerasethakul is the first of Tropfest's regional Ambassadors who will be announced in the weeks leading up to the festival.

The support and involvement of film personalities around the world is one of the trademarks of the festival, as seen in Tropfest editions in Australia, New Zealand, Arabia, and United States. Southeast Asia is Tropfest's newest edition.

Weerasethakul is currently developing a multi-platform feature film with Illuminations Films in London, Primitive, about a sleeping sickness in a small town near the Mekong River in Thailand. His work as a visual artist has seen participation in international exhibitions and galleries including at prestigious biennale dOKUMENTA (13) in Kassel and at the Sharjah Biennial. His recent solo art exhibition Photophobia in Oslo, Norway was unveiled in November; exhibitions in London and Mexico City are scheduled for 2014.

"We are honoured to have Weerasethakul's support to represent narratives and personalities for our region. His journey as an independent filmmaker and winning the 63rd Cannes Film Festival's highest award, the Palme d'Or, is an inspiration to us; similarly, his support for independent filmmakers and experimental film works," said Tropfest SEA managing director, Joe Sidek.

"Adding to Malaysia as the first ever country to host Tropfest South East Asia in January 2014 is Weerasethakul's engagement and involvement in Tropfest's debut. This is a big boost for the event's programme which will also add value to the international promotions of the event. Hopefully, with such an Ambassador, the profile of Malaysia as an exciting hub for creativity, arts, lifestyle and entertainment events will also increase exponentially," added Tony Nagamaiah, general manager of Malaysia Major Events (MME).

On DVD in Thailand: Paradoxocracy

Paradoxocracy (ประชาธิป'ไทย, Prachatiptai), Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Pasakorn Pramoolwong's documentary on the paradoxes of Thai democracy, has been released on DVD in Thailand.

It's a limited-release two-disc set, with the package adding deleted scenes, a music video and a poster. Oh, and it has English subtitles, which hardly ever happens with DVD releases in Thailand. It's available at Boomerang, B2S and other retailers.

The film, which interviews around a dozen academics and activists, surveys Thai contemporary politics since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, was back in cinemas last month during the 40th anniversary of the October 14, 1973 student uprising.

It was originally released on a limited run in Bangkok in June and July, but was poorly handled by a cinema that apparently didn't want people to see it.

Shakespeare Must Die wins in Tripoli

Banned in Thailand, Ing K.'s Macbeth adaptation Shakespeare Must Die  (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย, Shakespeare Tong Tai), is finding its way onto the big screen in other countries, most recently winning the Grand Prize in Fiction and NETPAC Prize at the inaugural Tripoli International Film Festival in Lebanon.

The NETPAC Prize, from the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema, was shared with Liberta by Kan Lume.

Shakespeare Must Die, which is a political satire, has been banned on the grounds that it is a "threat to national unity".

The banning of the film was extensively covered in a followup documentary by Ing K. and her producer Manit Sriwanichpoom, Censor Must Die.

Shakespeare Must Die previously screened overseas at last year's Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

WFFBKK 2013 capsule reviews: Stray Dogs

Stray Dogs – I didn't fall asleep during Tsai Ming-liang's latest piece of contemplative cinema, but I did hear snoring. And it's easy to be lulled by this hypnotic film, reputedly Tsai's last. It holds its gaze for long periods of time on people sleeping, or just standing there staring at a painting in an abandoned building. Staring at people staring. It's at it's best for the first 100 minutes or so, as the story follows a homeless family through their daily routine. While dad works as a "human billboard", holding a sign at a busy city intersection, the young son and daughter scavenge for food in the supermarket, filling up on samples. Wearing a brightly colored poncho, dad braves the typhoon-like wind and cold rain. The camera zooms in on his face. Hey, it's Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai's go-to leading man! Dad is at first loving, but becomes creepier and creepier as the movie goes on. Smoking more cigarettes and turning to booze, he's like a desperate animal as he devours his daughter's cabbage-head doll. Later, in a interminable scene that is likely still playing, he stands behind a woman and the tension mounts as he gets closer and closer to her, and I half expected him to take a big chomp out of her face. There are three actresses – Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-ching and Yang Kuei-mei – and I'm not certain if they are playing the same woman. I liked Lu Yi-ching the best. She's a frozen-foods manager at the supermarket who takes sympathy on the kids. (3/5)

Tabu – And now for something completely different. This Portuguese drama Miguel Gomes left me gape-mouthed in wonder. It's an homage to a 1931 F.W. Murnau film of the same name that I've never seen. In fact, Tabu is like nothing I've ever seen, though it did remind me of Aki Kaurismaki or early Werner Herzog. There's actually three segments, beginning with a prologue about an explorer in Africa a long time ago. The scene then cuts to present-day Lisbon, where a woman named Pilar frets over the well-being of her elderly neighbor. I suppose Pilar is attracted to the colorful neighbor lady because her own life is so rather dull. As the feisty old Aurora is dying, Pilar is dispatched to track down an acquaintance, a rugged old man who lives in a nursing home. They are too late, but the man tells Pilar his story. And so the scene flashes back to 1960s colonial Africa, following a steamy romance between upper-class white expats – the fiery, big-game-hunter Aurora and the adventurous Ventura. The man's narration is the sole source of dialogue during this segment, so it is almost a silent film, except for key atmospherics, crucial sound effects and some great music from the rock band Ventura drums in. Also, there's a scene-stealing little crocodile. The aspect ratio is old-school squarish, and caused the subtitles to be cut off. But someone noticed, and they fixed it. They then stopped the film and started it over, about five minutes in. (4/5)

Instant Mommy – "It's about a woman who fakes a pregnancy," director Leo Abaya told me. So it's a comedy, right? "Not exactly," he replied, an answer that intrigued me enough that I made the trip across Bangkok in the middle of the day to catch this entry from the Cinemalaya Film Festival. Eugene Domingo stars as a middle-aged Filipina who's in the midst of an online love affair with a Japanese man. Through their Skype chats, it's revealed that she's pregnant. She's shopping for a new house in the suburbs for him and his new family, but he's also bogged down by a messy divorce in Japan. Meanwhile, Bechay continues working as a wardrobe mistress at a film company, an occupation that comes in handy later. Because she ends up having a miscarriage, and her life falls apart. The Japanese dude cuts off contact and Bechay, biological clock exploded, questions her self-worth. But she somehow gets through to her boyfriend, and impulsively tells him "false alarm ... baby ok". Borrowing a fake belly from the wardrobe department, she then has a hectic time, racing around, constructing her illusionary pregnancy. This includes enlisting the help of her brother's pregnant ex-girlfriend (he's not the dad), and getting a film crew to pose as doctors in a hospital's operating room while Bechay acts out a birth scene. It's a plan she really hasn't thought through, but is going ahead with anyway. The real fun comes when the Japanese dude comes to town, and Bechay has to navigate her way through a succession of awkward situations. (4/5)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Tony Jaa to go Hong Kong in SPL 2

Tony Jaa, finally free of the shackles of Sahamongkol Film Interational, has now officially been signed to star in a Hong Kong production, SPL 2, with martial-arts star Wu Jing.

Jaa's entry into Hong Kong cinema has been the stuff of rumors for years, but he's been kept from actually making any movies there because of his contract with Sahamongkol, which he walked away from recently and set about working in Hollywood on Fast and Furious 7.

Now, with Film Business Asia reporting the news of SPL 2, his entry into Hong Kong seems real.

With Jaa's latest Tom-Yum-Goong 2 wrapping up its run in Thai cinemas, and the star posting on Facebook about his Hollywood exploits making Fast and Furious 7, the move to Hong Kong is a logical next step. had the official word:

Tony Jaa has signed to star in SPL II, which is being produced by Sun Entertainment Culture Limited. The film stars Tony and Legendary Assassin star Jackie Wu (Wu Jing), who probably has the fastest spinning back kick on planet earth.

Jaa is thrilled to be part of this film, and you can expect some surprise appearances in the film. The action choreography is being handled by Dion Lam who was heavily involved in the stunt work on Spider-Man 2. Wilson Yip remains very much involved ... The film, while targeted towards the China and Asian markets, will also be released in the Americas, Europe and the Middle East. The collaboration represents a breakthrough effort in Chinese film making between a non-Chinese action star and an all-star Chinese line up. The film will be shot in Thailand, China and Hong Kong. The story is an action/drama that should keep the audience very much on the edge of their seats.

Sun Entertainment will release more complete information shortly, and will update on a regular basis. Shooting begins in early Spring of 2014
Film Biz Asia says Soi Cheang is directing.

The the story is about a Thai prison guard who works to free an undercover cop who can save his daughter's life.

So no elephants involved. And it's not really a sequel to the first SPL, or Sha Po Leng, a.k.a. Kill Zone, director Yip's ripping 2005 Hong Kong police procedural starring Simon Yam, Donnie Yen, Wu Jing, and the great Sammo Hung.

So far only Wu Jing is signed up for this entry, so maybe it's a prequel. I'm still kind of hoping Sammo will show up with his golf clubs.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

WFFBKK 2013 reviews: Mother, Baan Sai Thong

Documentary filmmakers routinely take on dangerous subjects, such as grizzly bears, powerful corporations, shadowy government agencies or the volatile actor Klaus Kinski. But perhaps the bravest of all is the director who turns the camera on himself and his family.

Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul is one of those most-courageous souls. For his debut feature, Mother, he films the mental breakdown of his mom, putting her suicide attempt on the screen for all the world to see.

Mother’s plunge from her second-storey balcony to the concrete driveway left her partially disabled, adding to various other ailments.

She then turned into a compulsive shopper, wandering off in the middle of the night to a grocery store, pulling random items from the shelves and filling her cart. This is one of the most electrifying segments in the film, with a camera mounted on the cart. The troublemaking matriarch also stuffs items under her clothes, which gets her hauled in by the police for shoplifting.

The problems mount as mum refuses to take her medication or submit to treatment for her failing kidneys, and puts further strain on a family that’s at the breaking point.

Vorakorn describes his 67-minute film as a “hybrid documentary”. Some segments – like mom face down on the driveway – are re-enacted. A young actor stands in for the camera-shy director.

Other segments are dreamlike fantasies, such as a scene where the mother is walking in a park-like setting and the trees are super-saturated with white leaves. Another scene has an fancy goldfish floating above the bed-ridden mother’s face.

Kierkegaard’s “The Poet” is quoted in intertitles: “What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music.” Now, I'm not one who usually troubles to look up literary references in films, but this one struck me. It provides valuable context to depression, a sometimes debilitating condition that is largely misunderstood and doesn't get much sympathy in Thailand.

Fights were common in the household, and so capturing an argument on camera was just a matter of waiting until one started. During one shouting match between the blubbering mother and her sister, the camera maintains its focus on the mother’s diaper-clad bottom. It’s uncomfortable to watch
But the discomfort faded during the question-and-answer session at the World Film Festival of Bangkok screening, where one audience member asked Vorakorn if his family had seen the movie.

“They’re right up there,” he replied, pointing to the back row, where his mother, beaming a big smile, sat with other family members.

So in spite of all the pain, it’s a happy ending.

Mother debuted on the festival circuit last year, screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival, the London fest, the Torino International in competition and ChopShots in Indonesia. Vorakorn had previously worked as a director of photography on Thunska Pansittivorakul’s controversial experimental documentary-drama Terrorists, and he took part in the Berlin film festival’s Tokyo Talent Campus. He’s another bright new talent to keep on eye on. (4/5)

Monday night’s screening of Baan Sai Thong (บ้านทรายทอง) at the World Film Festival of Bangkok attracted a number of die-hard Thai cinema buffs, academics, filmmakers and film experts, who then proceeded to giggle like schoolchildren throughout the running of the 1980 drama.

A scathing indictment of the divide between the classes in Thai society, it’s an important landmark for Thai cinema, and set box-office records in its day. But it hasn’t aged well, being melodramatic to the point of absurdity, with laughably exaggerated acting and overly obvious exposition. But all that nostril flairing was the style back then, and it still is, at least on TV. After all, Baan Sai Thong is the template upon which all Thai TV soaps are built on, and the story has been remade in countless series.

Running as part of the festival’s Lotus Award tribute to the movie's star Jarunee Suksawat, it’s the story of a young woman named Pojjamon who comes from the countryside to a mansion in the city. She’s there to claim her share of an inheritance left by her father, but the mansion is inhabited by the awful Sawangwongs, who are distant relations of her father. You’d need a family-tree chart to map it all out, and it likely still wouldn’t make sense.

Anyway, the blue-blood Sawangwongs, particularly the mother and the younger sister, feel threatened by this upstart country outsider, and they do all they can to make her keep her place and show them the respect they are due, owing to their wealth and high-born status.

But Pojjaman will have none of that. Ordered to scrub floors, she defiantly places a bucket of water in front of the matriarch so the snooty old woman steps right in it. And during one of the family’s frequent slapfests, Jarunee holds her own.

She immediately bonds with the developmentally disabled youngest son, and eventually wins over two other family members, the older sister, who was at first skeptical of Pojjamon, and then the pipe-smoking oldest brother, whose heart she captures (even though he's probably a second cousin).

Baan Sai Thong might have been the dramatic debut for Thailand’s onetime “queen of action films”, but she still gets her licks in, so there’s plenty of fun to be had watching Jarunee in her pigtail braids kicking hi-so butt.(4/5)

30 days left to help Cirque du Cambodia

Cirque du Cambodia: From the Rice Fields to the Big Time is a documentary project about Phare Ponleu Selpak, a circus school in the off-the-beaten path town of Battambang, in northwest Cambodia.

It's being put together by Bangkok-based journalist and filmmaker Joel Gershon, who has a campaign page up at IndieGoGo. Running until December 19, the crowdfunding campaign is about fifth of its way to reaching a goal of $25,000.

Along with focusing on the school itself and its history, Gershon aims to profile two students, Sopha Nem and Dina Sok, who were accepted into the prestigious National Circus School of Montreal in 2011. They actually have a shot at performing with Cirque du Soleil in the future.

"It's like Hoop Dreams except with circus performers from the rice fields of Cambodia," Gershon says.

You can read more about it in a Phnom Penh Post article.

There's also an extended 6-minute trailer, embedded below.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

WFFBKK 2013 capsule reviews: I Have Loved

I Have Loved – Well, I'm glad I got that out of the way. This is the type of film I only see in film festivals, because I can't fathom why I'd see this otherwise. A gauzy, dreamlike swirl of romance and sadness, I Have Loved infuriated me with its pretentiousness and seeming pointlessness. But here I am days later, still thinking about this Singaporean film made in Siem Reap, Cambodia. So good job 13 Little Pictures, and directors Elizabeth Wijaya and Lai Weijie. Mission accomplished. Taking place mostly in the sterile confines of a Siem Reap luxury hotel, with a few sojourns to Angkor Wat, Tonle Sap lake and the city's streets, the story has to do with a sad young blonde woman. Mostly she's courted by a long-haired young dude. He's probably in a boy band, judging from the several verses of a sappy song he sang to her, a cappella. Shut up already. The other guy is older, rocking the white linen suit and white fedora, like he's stuck in French colonial times. T.S. Eliot is quoted, but I can't remember what was said and still don't know what the heck it all means. (2/5)

Peculiar Vacation and Other Illnesses – For my next viewing, I was relieved to find this less pretentiously arty than I Have Loved. But Peculiar Vacation is a rudderless journey. It's a story about a guy and girl moving a couch, and it seemed familiar because Indonesian director Yosep Anggi Noen made one before. He expands on his earlier short film with this feature debut. It's about a lovely young woman (Christi Mahanami) taking a job in a furniture store. She sells a sofa and then has to help deliver it, with help of a young man who drives the truck. The customers live only two hours away, but the trip takes forever, with a few overnight stops in hotels and many other meandering other side trips that bring them, ahem, closer together. "We should deliver this sofa quickly," she says to the guy, about 80 minutes in, and I swear the audience died laughing. Meanwhile, because there's always a meanwhile, there's this sad fellow who starts a business selling gasoline out of Coke bottles by the side of the road. What's that you say? He's the woman's husband? I did not know that. (3/5)

The Cleaner – This Peruvian drama was the best of my picks from the first full day of the 11th World Film Festival of Bangkok. It's about a solitary old man who works as a cleaner for a health service during a devastating epidemic in Lima. He cleans up after dead people, going into their homes, collecting their belongings and burning them. He also mops up their blood wherever they fell. There are haunting images of deserted train stations, malls and other public places, and Eusebio is the only guy around, scrubbing away with his mop while wearing his white isolation suit. Then one day, he finds a strange little boy. He has no choice but to bring the kid home and take care of him while he tries to find the boy's family. It's a very dry, quiet tale, told very simply with not much dialogue or big actory moments. I appreciated the guy's routine. He comes home to his little shambles of an apartment, tosses his keys on the table, and they miss and fall off. He picks them up and puts them on the table. Then gets a little spray bottle of disinfectant from a rickety little cabinet and sprays it on himself. Then one day the keys land on the table and stick. (3/5)

Rebirth – This Malaysian-Tamil drama goes the other extreme of I Have Loved in that the exposition is so bloody obvious that a bunch of us were giggling the whole time, which likely annoyed the heck out of director M. Suurya. Rebirth is about a Forrest Gump-like savant who is forced to perform traditional dances by his money-grubbing sister and his philandering thief of a brother. The dancer Kuttan also performs menial tasks at a goat farm. But what he really wants to do is play badminton, and he stitches up an old racket and cobbles together a pair of worn-out sneakers. He even makes a dummy to practice with in his room, in a bit that reminded me of King of Comedy. The guy's a bit insane. It's a very old-fashioned movie, not just in terms of the rustic setting, but also in the method of storytelling, which wouldn't be out of place in the silent era. Add the colorful characters and over-the-top performances, especially the domineering sister. She treats Kuttan harshly but is also protective of him, because after all, he's her cash cow. Mean as she is, and as big a jerk as his brother is, I'm not sure they deserve what's coming. (3/5)

What They Don't Talk About, When They Talk About Love – Winner of the NETPAC Award at this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, this is likely one of the best Indonesian indie films of the year. Directed by Mouly Surya, with handsome production values, it's a coming-of-age romantic drama set in a school for visually impaired youngsters. Two girls take centerstage. One is a partially sighted teenager who wears big goggles for glasses. Having just come into womanhood, she sets her cap for a blind classmate who at first seems more interested in another girl who feeds him cake. Meanwhile, her blind roommate gets into a steamy affair with Doc, a deaf punk rocker who hangs around the school. Played by Nicholas Saputra, his character comes off skeevy at first, the way he hangs around the place at night, seemingly preying on the blind girl. Water is usually involved in their lovemaking, with them meeting in the therapy pool, and later in the shower. The film meanders about sometimes, losing its way. At times, I wasn't sure what was going on, or who the characters were. Had a girl regained her sight? It all comes together beautifully in the end though, and is bookended by colorful musical numbers. (4/5)

Stepping on the Flying Grass – This Indonesian tale of idealized childhood involves a close-knit group of schoolkids who are assigned to write about their biggest dream or aspiration. A bossy kid wants to be in the army. A girl wants to be famous actress. Another kid just sits and picks his nose, and says he wants to make people happy. But a fourth kid, Agus, only wants to eat in a nice restaurant and have a "meal fit for a king". The others laugh at him. And so the next 70 minutes or roll harmlessly and uneventfully by, as Agus puts together his case. He rides his bicycle, delivering chicken to earn spending money. Meanwhile, more about him is explained. He has a sweet mother who's a good cook. But she only cooks tahu (tofu), which his father makes in a local factory. So it's all forms of tahu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No wonder the boy wants to eat in a Padang restaurant. (3/5)

Rock the Casbah – It's 1989, during the First Intifada, and a squad of young Israeli troops are almost ready to rotate out of fighting, and return home, or head to Amsterdam. They are sent on one last mission into the Palestinian settlement in Gaza, to show 'em who's boss. But they are taunted and lured into the warren of alleys in the city, where they are pelted with rocks and cinder blocks. Then a washing machine is pushed from a roof and crushes a soldier to death. The remaining squad members are ordered by their gung-ho commander to stay on the roof of the Palestinian family's home, keep watch on the neighborhood and find the guys who shoved the appliance. It's a tense situation that ratchets up as this taut, well-made little Israeli war drama goes on. (4/5)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

WFFBKK 2013 review: The Rocket

  • Directed by Kim Mordaunt
  • Starring Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Thep Pho-ngam, Bunsri Yindi, Sumrit Warin, Alice Keohavong
  • Opening film of World Film Festival of Bangkok, November 15, 2013 (additional screening on November 24)
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Having seen the Lao-Isaan family tale The Rocket, it's now easy to understand why it's been winning awards on the festival circuit and why Australia was so enthusiastic about submitting it to the foreign language category of Hollywood's Academy Awards, where many critics believe it might actually have a chance at being nominated.

Written and directed by Kim Mordaunt and filmed in Laos and Thailand with a mostly Isaan-Thai cast, The Rocket is a rousing, crowd-pleasing, inspirational story of a boy who is cursed with bad luck from birth. But he remains determined to escape his ill fate and hold his family together, even if they are the ones who believe he's an unlucky burden.

Young actor Sitthiphon Disamoe remarkably anchors the cast as Ahlo, a boy born under portentious conditions. When it's discovered he has a stillborn twin brother, the boy's Akha grandmother (Bunsri Yindi) says that he should be killed according to traditional beliefs that one twin is good while the other brings evil. "What if he's the bad one?" granny asks.

But the mother (lovely Australia-based actress Alice Keohavong) is immediately protective. She gets granny to agree to not tell the boy's father (Sumrit Warin) about the twin and dotes on the kid.

Flash forward to years later, and Ahlo has grown into a clever, good-natured brat, who loves to spend his days in his boat, fishing in the river.

But a string of heartbreaking tragedies cause the grandmother and father to think the boy really is bad luck.

The latest indignity is they've been ordered to leave their home to make way for dam construction. They are packed off to a hellish relocation camp, where everyone is living under makeshift tents made of waste plastic and bits of tin. Meanwhile, fatcats involved with the Australian-backed dam project are living in houses and have electricity and running water.

Ahlo makes it his main goal is to find land for his family, so he can plant the seeds to the prized "Mali's mangoes" of his mother.

But Ahlo's penchant for mischief gets the family thrown out of the camp. Joining them on the road are a couple of other outsiders who very nearly steal the show – drunken Uncle Purple and the little orphan girl who lives with him.

Purple, an elderly man who fashions himself after James Brown, with a lavender outfit like the Godfather of Soul, is played by veteran Thai actor-comedian Thep Pho-ngam. Usually bald, Thep completes his ensemble with a thick head of black hair, styled just like Brown's. He's an interesting character, whose love for American funk and soul stems from his days serving with the Americans during the Vietnam War-era "Secret War" in Laos. A bumping Brown tune is licensed for the soundtrack, and really livens things up. But Purple has been through a lot, hence his love for liquor, and it's his dark past that provides knowledge that proves helpful to Ahlo.

Joining Ahlo in his quest is the orphan Kia, a girl who is just so darn cute, it's actually a bit scary. A screen natural, she's played by Loungnam Kaosainam, who was in a recent Lao production, the country's first thriller, Anysay Keola's  At the Horizon.

But the real revelation in the extremely strong cast is Bunsri Yindi, another veteran Thai thespian. She's been in countless Thai films, TV series and commercials, these days usually playing a very sweet or benign granny. But as the Akha matriach Taitok, she shows a commanding mean streak, and if the movie has an evil villain (aside from the dark forces relocating families for dam construction), it's her. Nonetheless, when push comes to shove, Taitok is just as devoted to the family as Ahlo, and it's the silver pieces from her tribal headdress that keeps them going through the tough times.

Eventually, the family finds their way to a rocket festival, where Ahlo suddenly he decides he's a rocket scientist and believes he can win the contest, earn the cash prize and buy his family some land in the area.

The chaos of the rocket festival is an entertaining glimpse into a quirk of Lao-Isaan culture that will likely fascinate foreign viewers and attract backpacking hipsters to the Lao-Isaan countryside. Aside from the hilariously casual acceptance of the unpredictable, ever-present danger posed by amateurs handling huge, explosive projectiles, there's also the "dick committee" – village elders sitting around measuring the giant wooden penis amulets that are also part of the fertility rite.

Another element that threads its way into the movie is the millions of tons of unexploded ordnance littering the Laotian countryside, thanks to the American military's carpet-bombing of the country during the Vietnam War. At one point, Ahlo and his family hitch a ride on a cart full of rusted bomb shells. It's driven by a one-armed, one-eyed man who presumably lost his limb and peeper trying to salvage one of the many "sleeping tigers" to sell as scrap.

The Rocket is in fact an outgrowth of a documentary Mordaunt did in 2007, Bomb Harvest, about an Australian bomb-disposal specialist who trains locals in his skill while also trying to educate children about the dangers of scavenging bombs.

Criticism of The Rocket has mostly come from Laos' nascent filmmaking community, and their knock against the picture – the first Lao-language film to be an Oscar hopeful – seems to be that the writer-director is Australian and the cast and crew were mostly Thai.

The Rocket is also contentious for Lao government officials, who've bristled at several things shown on screen – particularly the depiction of forced relocation of villagers to make way for hydroelectric power projects, which is a huge industry for Laos' old-school communist government. As the "battery of Asia", Laos and its dam-building spree is feeding an insatiable hunger for electricity, particularly for Thailand and increasingly China.

Other elements that will keep The Rocket from ever being publicly shown in Laos include a traditional naked birth scene, and those carts full of bombs, which are an unpleasant sight that Lao minders would likely rather be forgotten.

Related posts:

WFFBKK 2013: Lotus Award to Jarunee Suksawat

The Rocket director Kim Mordaunt, Lotus Award honoree Jarunee Suksawat and World Film Festival of Bangkok director Victor Silakong. Via the Nation.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, one actress dominated the Thai big screen – Jarunee Suksawat.

In an era when 120 Thai films were being made each year, she was appearing in perhaps 100 of them, says Kriengsak "Victor" Silakong, director of the World Film Festival of Bangkok, which this year honors Jarunee with the Lotus Award for lifetime achievement.

Victor recalls going to see her movies when he was a youngster. "She was the star of Thailand. The whole country was crazy about her," he says.

While still in her teens, she made her debut in 1977's Sawasdee Khun Kroo, according the festival's catalog. She was catapulted into the spotlight later that year when she was cast in Rak Laew Raw Noi opposite the era's most popular leading man, Sorapong Chatree.

With her tomboyish looks, the young starlet was a natural for action flicks, and for a time she reigned as Thailand's "action movie queen".

Among the films from this period was 1979's The Mountain Lion (Sua Poo Khao), a romp through the hills directed by Kom Akadej and also starring Sorapong. She even donned the red mask as a vigilante crimefighter for an Insee Daeng flick.

However, her breakthrough as a dramatic actress came in 1980 in the film adaptation Baan Sai Thong, a sweeping story of class conflict that's also been depicted in countless TV series. Victor calls it "our Gone with the Wind."

Directed by Ruj Ronnapop, Jarunee portrays a young woman from a poor background who arrives at a wealthy family's mansion to claim her inheritance, setting off a struggle for power.

Baan Sai Thong was a record-breaking hit in its day and is still regarded as one of the best of the many adaptations of the story.

Jarunee again took the lead in the sequel, Pojjaman Sawangwong, in which she's assumed control of the estate, but family members are plotting behind her back.

Jarunee's popularity and heavy workload took a toll. She was injured in accidents while working on a movie in 1985 and faded from the scene as she struggled with health and financial problems.

Raised by her grandmother, she never knew her father and took her stepfather's surname.

It wasn't until around 13 years ago that she tracked down her dad, just before he died. He was a Frenchman named Ferdinand Desneiges, and until she made contact, he never knew he had a Thai daughter.

Having proved her biological relationship, Jarunee, now 51, took the name Caroline Desneiges and today devotes most of her time to running a health products company, Thaidham Alliance.

But she still takes the occasional acting role, most memorably playing one of the three titular ladies of action in Nonzee Nimibutr's 2008 high-seas swashbuckler, Queens of Langkasuka, aka Puenyai Jom Salad or Tsunami Warrior.

As part of its Lotus Award tribute to Jarunee, the World Film Festival of Bangkok will screen both Baan Sai Thong and Pojjaman Sawangwong, with the first film showing on November 18 at 8.30pm and November 23 at 3.30. The sequel screens at 8.40pm on November 19 and 6pm on November 22, all at the festival venue, SF World Cinema at CentralWorld.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review: Hashima Project

  • Directed by Piyapan Choopetch
  • Starring Alexander Simon Rendell, Pirath Nithipaisalkul, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Sucha Manaying, Mek Mekwattana, Sho Noshino
  • Released in Thai cinemas on October 31, 2013; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Filmmaking sucks. So kids, don't try this at home. That's this week's lesson from a Thai horror film.

Hashima Project (ฮาชิมะ โปรเจกต์, a.k.a. Project H) has a talented jerk of a director and his crew hunting ghosts on Hashima, Nagasaki, the legendary "ghost" island off the coast of Japan. Bad things start happening to them when they return to Bangkok.

Veteran helmer Piyapan Choopetch (My Ex, My Ex 2) directs this fairly slick effort for studio M-Thirtynine, with seasoned support from producer-editor-writer-jack-of-all-trades Adirek "Uncle" Wattaleela. What's notable is they actually went to Nagasaki and filmed the island.

Alex Rendell heads the cast as the young director Off. His team are actor Nick (Pirath Nithipaisalkul), actresses/love interests Nan (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) and May (Sucha Manaying) and cameraman Doc (Mek Mekwattana, whose name in the subtitles was hilariously given as "Dog". Woof).

In Bangkok, the youngsters make a jumping little short-film ghost thriller. They use it as a showreel in hopes of getting hired on by a major studio.

Uncle rips a page from his 2005 directorial effort, the hilarious filmmaking-sucks horror-comedy Ghost Variety, which had an endless parade of cameos from actual Thai directors. Here, there's a guest appearance by actual Thai director NOnzee Nimibutr (Uncle can be spotted walking by as the kids are leaving). Nonzee seems impressed with the short, but only says he'll call.

Discouraged by the response, the impatient tykes decide to upload the ghost clip to YouTube, and are soon scaring the bejesus out of hundreds of thousands of students and office workers who ought not to be wasting their time with such nonsense. The number of views soon attracts the attention of the "reality" TV show "Ghostland", and the producer calls the kids in to offer them a project, something he calls "project Hashima", which puts them on the next commercial flight to Nagasaki.

They are met by their fixer, Mr. Sato, and after the obligatory tour of Nagasaki's tourist attractions, they check in to their hotel. It turns out to be an eventful night, during which they encounter a young woman in traditional Japanese garb. They see her picture on the wall the next morning, so you know what that means.

She's played by Show Nishino, the ex-AV star who made her Thai film debut in the remake of Jan Dara, and ended up stealing the show. Playing the ghost, she's also an enjoyable highlight of this movie.

Next day they visit Hashima Island, a bulwark of concrete apartment blocks and industrial structures, built to mine coal up until whenever Wikipedia says they did.

They split up and film the ruined buildings. Off, a non-believer in ghosts, writes his name on a wall where other names are written. He's generally disrespectul of the place and has no reverence for what might have happened there. A creepy toy is played with, and a jar full of dust is broken, which is bad news for the crew. There's an earthquake and everyone runs screaming. The special effects are simple but effective.

Back in Bangkok, the film gang tries to get on with their lives. Doc eats insects, which comes back to bite him later.

Off works to get on with editing his film for the TV show, but encounters difficulties, among them a bookie who comes to collect Off's debts from gambling on football. It's a bit of character development for Off that is only half-baked, which is too bad. What is clear though, from his arrogant demeanor, is that he's a jerk and will get what's coming to him.

Aside from Show Nishino's ghost, the director Off and bug-eating goofball Doc, the other characters are a bit bland, except for Nan, but that's because she's seasoned player Apinya, whose wide eyes are made for being a victim in horror movies like this.

The picture falls apart in the last 30 minutes or so and drags to a crawl as it struggles to find an ending. The phone's ringing, but nobody's answering.

Man, filmmaking sucks.

See also:

Official trailer

Thursday, November 14, 2013

No love for To Singapore, with Love at World Film Festival of Bangkok

Lack of "necessary permissions" are being cited as the official reason for the 11th World Film Festival of Bangkok dropping To Singapore, with Love from its program.

The politically sensitive documentary by Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin interviews Singaporean exiles, some who haven't been back to their country in 50 years.

One of the exiles was staying in Thailand, but the film shoot wasn't cleared beforehand with the Thailand Film Board.

Here's the official statement from the festival website:

We regret that To Singapore, with Love by Tan Pin Pin has been withdrawn from the 11th World Film Festival of Bangkok. The reason we have been given is that the film was not submitted to the Thai Film Board prior to shooting on location in Thailand. Films selected by us have been similarly withdrawn in previous years. We are deeply sorry for this and thank you for your understanding. – Kriengsak Silakong, Festival Director

Tan Pin Pin issued a response on the film's Facebook page:

We are regretful that the World Film Festival of Bangkok has decided to withdraw To Singapore, with Love from the Festival. It was an oversight on our part not to have gotten the necessary permissions from Thai Film Board to shoot in Thailand. We were informed only the day before that one of the exiles had passed away and so had to travel to Betong immediately for the funeral. We hope to make the necessary applications and eventually screen in Thailand. - Tan Pin Pin, director and producer, To Singapore, with Love

To Singapore, with Love premiered earlier this year in the Wide Angle documentary competition at the Busan International Film Festival.

I suppose it seems like every other year or so the World Film Festival of Bangkok runs afoul of Thai bureaucrats over one film or another, but I guess the last incident I remember was in 2009, when Thunska Pansittivorakul's This Area Is Under Quarantine was banned.

Featuring many Thai highlights that are not banned, the 11th World Film Festival of Bangkok runs from November 16 to 24 at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld.

Monday, November 11, 2013

36, Ilo Ilo win in Warsaw

Nawapol Thamrongrattanrit's 36 continues to win awards, picking up the Best Film prize at the seventh Five Flavours Film Festival, which wrapped up today in Warsaw.

And Singapore's Academy Awards submission, Ilo Ilo, which is still showing in Bangkok at House cinema, earned a special mention.

Here's the jury statement:

The Jury members decided to award 36 for "[being] a proposal, in which a bold visual statement becomes an integral part of the story about the role of memory, [which is] more and more frequently replaced by digital recording. For combining this perspective with a simple, nostalgic story about a blooming feeling."

The Special Mention was granted to Ilo Ilo for bringing a story about "dynamic interpersonal relations, in a personal and unpretentious way.

We appreciate the efficient use of artistic means what allows us to admire the details of this seemingly ordinary story", the Jury members pointed out in their verdict.

Other films in the New Asian Cinema competition were Bends by Hong Kong's Flora Lau, Homostratus by Vietnam's Siu Pham, Jiseul by South Korea's O Muel, Lethal Hostage by China's Cheng Er, Longing for the Rain by Hong Kong's Yang Lina, Poor Folk by Myanamar-Taiwanese director Midi Z and With You, Without You by Sri Lanka's Prasanna Vithanage.

Five Flavours also had a Horror Cinema program, which included Thailand's Oscar pick, Countdown.

Meanwhile, Nawapol's latest film, Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy, is also on the festival circuit, most recently screening in the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival.

Mary has also secured a limited release in Bangkok, opening at select cinemas on November 28, and in the run-up to that, producer Aditya Assarat and his Pop Pictures are staging a "rewind" of all their films at House cinema, starting last week with Aditya's Wonderful Town. This week it's Sivaroj Kongsakul's Eternity (Tee-Rak) followed on November 21 with Hi-So, all screening in 35mm.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

High hopes as Tom-Yum-Goong 2 heads to AFM

Tom-Yum-Goong 2, which at last count had total domestic earnings of 49.4 million Thai baht (about US$1.57 million), is at the American Film Market, which opened yesterday.

Film Business Asia has a look at the movie's chances there.

Meanwhile, Tom-Yum-Goong 2 (ต้มยำกุ้ง 2, a.k.a. The Protector 2) has fallen to No. 3 at the Thai box office.

It was in first place during its October 24-27 opening weekend, but didn't have much competition as it was really the only live-action wide release at the time.

It's now behind the No. 1 Hashima Project (ฮาชิมะ โปรเจกต์), a ghost thriller from Thai studio M-Thirtynine, and the Hollywood sci-fi Ender's Game.

At the same time it opened in Thailand, Tom-Yum-Goong 2 also made its bow in Malaysia, where it was No. 3 with $438,786.

In Thailand, promotional efforts hit a snag because of star Tony Jaa's ongoing feud with his studio, Sahamongkol Film International and its boss Somsak "Sia Jiang" Techaratanaprasert. Just as the movie was released, Jaa jetted off to the U.S. to take part in production for Fast and Furious 7. He's also been busy teaching Vin Diesel Muay Thai, over Sia Jiang's objections.

So while the Thai press wasn't too keen on reporting about a movie without the main star on hand, the Malaysian press was happy to make do with the movie's director, Prachya Pinkaew. He talked to The Star about the movie's stand-out action scene. You know which one.

“The fighting scene is between Tony Jaa and the motorcycle gang, which lasts for 14.50 minutes. It took us eight months to film this scene.

“Unlike the previous movie, we didn’t shoot any scenes abroad. We used Bangkok as the backdrop as we wanted to present a side of Bangkok that a lot of people have never seen before.

“Sometimes it’s very difficult, like shooting from a helicopter. Helicopter shoots may be normal for other countries, but it’s very difficult in Thailand. Not only that, we filmed the action scene with 300 moving motorbikes.”

But, hey, look! The New Straits Times scored an e-mail interview with Jaa himself. He talks about being injured during that big motorcycle chase:

"There were some injuries from action scenes because we worked with metals and objects coming at you at a high speed, which we could neither predict nor control. There was a scene where I had to push away a speeding bike and I injured my legs in the process. The villain who rode the bike was slashed on the neck by a sheet of metal. It was a terrifying experience.

Critical consensus is mixed, with reviews ranging from "probably Tony Jaa's worst movie thus far" in Malaysia to "just enough punches to satisfy action fans" from the Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee.

Channel News Asia chips in with an unenthusiastic review as the movie opens in Singapore this week.

For more on how Tom-Yum-Goong 2 has been doing, check out my old Rotten Tomatoes pal Senh Duong at Movies With Butter.