Friday, April 18, 2014

Bond movies, Killing Fields, Glory Days, action and more at Destination Film Festival

Two Bond movies, classic war stories, Hong Kong and Indian productions, gritty action flicks and a host of premieres are on tap for the second edition of the Thailand International Destination Film Festival.

Put on by the Thailand Film Office under the Department of Tourism, the fest is a showcase of the foreign films that have made the Kingdom their backdrops. It’s a big business, with 717 foreign productions registered here last year, generating revenues of Bt2.17 billion.

Among the selection, perhaps the most iconic is 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun, in which Roger Moore’s 007 duelled with villainous gunman Christopher Lee on Phang Nga Bay’s spike-shaped Koh Tapu, a stunning location that’s known today as “James Bond Island”.

More than 20 years later, the place was revisited for the 18th Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, in which Pierce Brosnan was aided by the toughest of Bond ladies, Michelle Yeoh. The story was actually set in Vietnam, with Bangkok and Phang Nga standing in for Saigon and Ha Long Bay.

Thailand again substituted for its neighbours in two acclaimed classics, Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields, the Oscar-winning account of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran’s harrowing odyssey under the Khmer Rouge, and Barry Levinson's Good Morning Vietnam, in which Robin Williams portrays a motor-mouthed Armed Forces Radio shock jock who energized American troops with rock ’n’ roll. Watch for veteran Thai leading lady Chintara Sukpatana as the woman who brings the clowning deejay to the frontlines of the war.

World premieres include Trafficker, in which a young Vietnamese man, portrayed by Guy Ratchanont Suprakob, is involved with a criminal gang. It’s directed by Larry Smith, best known for his work as lensman for Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut.

Smith also won praise for his vivid cinemtography on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bangkok crime drama Only God Forgives, starring Ryan Gosling. It’s also part of the festival and is anchored by a solid performance from Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm, portraying a mystical avenging-angel vigilante.

Another world premiere will be Glory Days, a shaggy-dog comedy about a broken-up 1990s American rock band that’s offered a deal to reunite for reality TV. The lads end up in Pattaya, where they aim to turn back the clock on their mid-life crises. Long in the works, it’s directed by pop-music scion Roy Alfred Jr. Producers include veteran Thailand-based casting director Kaprice Kea, Ivy Isenberg and Tim Carr, a music-industry veteran who died in Pattaya a year ago.

An ambitious adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer will also flicker to life for the first time. Directed by Peter Fudakowski, producer of the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, The Secret Sharer involves a troubled ship’s captain (Jack Laskey) who rescues a young Chinese woman (Zhu Zhu from Cloud Atlas) from the sea.

Most of the foreign film productions in Thailand are Indian, and among those from the past year was Bhaag Milkha Bhagg, an award-winning biopic of “the Flying Sikh”, runner Milka Singh, who represented India in three Olympics and won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games.

Hong Kong and Chinese cinema have long had close ties to Thailand, ties perhaps best represented by Hong Kong twins Danny and Oxide Pang, who started their careers working in Thailand with such films as the original Bangkok Dangerous and The Eye.

The Pang brothers' latest is Out of Inferno, which has Bangkok standing in for a southern China metropolis. The disaster drama follows firefighters battling a high-rise blaze on the hottest day in 50 years. Notably, it'll be screened in 3D.

Also from Hong Kong/China is Benny Chan's The White Storm, about an undercover Chinese cop infiltrating a drugs gang in Thailand. Sean Lau, Louis Koo and Nick Cheung star. Among the local talents taking part in the film is transgender beauty queen “Poy” Treechada Petcharat, who has a huge fanbase in China and Hong Kong.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Thailand – Take 2 – Action!” And in keeping with that, many films will showcase the talent of Thai stunt performers. They range from older films like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li to big-screen premieres of direct-to-video sequels like the well-regarded Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, starring Scott Adkins.

There's also the cheese-laden cable-TV staple The Scorpion King 3, which features Krystal Vee, a Thai starlet who is the current reigning queen of international film productions in Thailand. She also appears in Street Fighter, Trafficker and another festival entry, The Lazarus Papers, a thriller that also stars Gary Daniels, Danny Trejo and Bai Ling.

Also premiering will be A Stranger in Paradise, a crime thriller directed by Corrado Jay Boccia and starring Colin Egglesfield, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Byron Mann and Stuart Townsend.

And there's the apocalyptic thriller The Mark: Redemption, directed by James Chankin and starring Craig Sheffer, Sonia Couling, Eric Roberts and Gary Daniels.

Many of the screenings will have question-and-answer sessions with the film crews.

As with last year’s first edition of the Thailand International Destination Film Festival, the centerpiece is the Amazing Thailand Film Challenge, in which dozens of young filmmakers from around the region are given airfare, four nights’ accomodation, a budget of 30,000 baht and local production support to make short films and compete for prizes totalling 1.2 million baht.

The Thailand International Film Destination Festival has three screenings daily from April 22 to 28 at Paragon Cineplex. All are free.

For the schedule, check or or download the festival guide.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Buenos Aires está contenta with Mary Is Happy

Following its success at the awards in Thailand, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is pleasing juries as it travels around the world, most recently picking up a special mention in the international competition at the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival (BAFICI), which wrapped up on Sunday.

Mary Está Contenta, Mary Está Contenta was joined by another entry from Thailand's Mosquito Films Distribution, Las Canciones Del Arroz – Uruphong Raksasad's The Songs of Rice, which was in the Panorama section.

Mary also screened at the recent Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival and in Singapore as part of the Italian Film Festival, owing to Mary's genesis at the Venice Biennale College.

The Songs of Rice, meanwhile, is heading to Hot Docs in Toronto, running April 24 to May 4.

More coverage from Buenos Aires can be found at Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

As always, you can keep track of the comings and goings of all the Mosquito Films at the company's website.

(Via Pop Pictures' Facebook)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Five projects in works by Asean Filmmakers in Residence

The Asean filmmakers in residence, from left, Sun Koh from Singapore, Anysay Keola from Laos, Ifan Ismail from Indonesia, Universe Baldoza from the Philippines and Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi from Myanmar. Nation photo by Anant Chantarasoot.

Filmmakers from Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Singapore have been chosen for the Thai Culture Ministry's Asean Filmmakers in Residence program, which pairs them up with prominent Thai directors as they work on feature films that are set in Thailand and explore cross-cultural issues that have resonance in other Southeast Asian countries.

Launched last September, the project sought entries from across the region. The finalists then came to Thailand to stay for a month, during which they were paired with Thai filmmakers as mentors as they worked on treatments for a feature-length screenplay and visited possible filming locations.

There's more about the project in an article in The Nation today. The filmmakers are:

  • Anysay Keola, Laos – Best known around these parts for his stunning debut feature At the Horizon, Anysay has fittingly collaborated with Slice and Muay Thai Chaiya director Kongkiat Khomsiri on a gritty drama involving prostitutes and boat robbery in the lawless Golden Triangle border area of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
  • Ifan Ismail, Indonesia – He's working with Nonzee Nimibutr on A Fishy Adventure, about an Indonesian fisherman who becomes entangled in a web of conflicts common to the region, including fish poaching, human trafficking and homegrown terrorism.
  • Universe Baldoza, Philippines – She's paired up with Pen-ek Ratanaruang to make a very Pen-ek-sounding film. Set in the Thai jungle, the fantasy follows a woman who is the only victim to remember what happened when an entire Filipino town vanished in one night. At the heart of the mystery is a strange fruit that's poisonous in Thailand but is a cure in the Philippines.
  • Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, Myanmar – With October Sonata writer-director Somkiat Vituranich, Min is working on the romantic drama Love One Another, about the star-crossed relationship of a Burmese artist and a woman from a proudly anti-Burmese Thai family.
  • Sun Koh, Singapore – Mentored by Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, she has written The Wedding Proposal, about a Singaporean-Thai lesbian couple who plan to get married in Chiang Mai after Thailand passes a law permitting gay marriage.

The program is overseen by producer Pantham Thongsang, and all the films are in various stages of development. According to The Nation, the filmmakers will be back in Thailand in June to pitch their projects during a market event at the Culture Ministry's yet-to-be-unveiled Bangkok Film and Digital Content Festival.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hi-Jaa! The Protector 2 streams, SPL 2 now even better with Yam

In case you missed it, this is a new occasional feature of the blog, in which I catch up on news of Tony Jaa.

Tom-Yum-Goong 2, Jaa's martial-arts swansong with his former studio Sahamongkol Film International, is [link to Amazon removed per DMCA takedown notice – I don't have time to deal with this bullshit Magnolia, so thanks for nothing].

Even though folks are pleased to see Jaa in action, reception is generally along the lines of "Tony Jaa loses fight with CGI".

Fans are more excited about Jaa's upcoming projects, such as Skin Trade, his action drama with Dolph Lundgren, Ron Perlman, Michael Jai White and Selina Jade.

The guys at Twitch, having seen Jaa's sneak peek at Skin Trade, were raving, noting that the director – Ekachai Uekrongtham of Beautiful Boxer fame – makes a big difference. They go on to lambast TYG and Ong-Bak helmer Prachya Pinkaew, and they make fair points, especially about the godawful Elephant White. I think Prachya has a better track record and more promising future as a producer – taking a supporting, mentoring role behind more distinctive directorial voices, such as Panna Rittikrai, Chookiat Sakveerakul and Tanwarin Sukkhapisit.

Back to news of Tony Jaa – you can follow his official updates on Facebook – work is continuing on Skin Trade and he'll also soon resume production on Fast and Furious 7. Much of that and more is covered in an interview with Asian Movie Pulse.

Also coming up is Jaa's Hong Kong debut SPL II, the sequel-in-name-only to the 2005 knock-down-drag-out that had Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung whacking each other with golf clubs. Neither of those two have been mentioned for the sequel, which stars Wu Jing. But Senh Duong's Movies With Butter notes that original SPL star Simon Yam will join the cast along with Max Zhang, the baddie from Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster. Soi Cheang (Accident, Motorway, The Monkey King) directs, taking over for Wilson Yip, who is still aboard as producer. Senh's still holding out hope for a Donnie cameo.

Apichatpong-a-rama: Dilbar, For Monkeys, Cactus River stream online

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is "this week's visionary" at the arts-and-culture website Dazed, which is streaming three of his short films – Dilbar, For Monkeys and Cactus River.

Dilbar is a work by Apichatpong and Chai Siri, commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation. Dilbar, which means beloved, is a black-and-white portrait of a migrant laborer of the same name. One of the million of Bangladeshi workers who currently live and work in the United Arab Emirates, Dilbar is a voiceless soul who moves between construction site and labour camp. Ghostly images grace the screen amid the hypnotic rhythms of a machine and the buzzing of high-tension electric wires.

For Monkeys is an outgrowth of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. "The terrifying ghost monkeys rear their heads again in this hypnotic short film, which overlays chattering automation and an all-seeing neon eye on top of stone statuary to disquieting effect."

Cactus River, which I had trouble viewing, tells the story of Kick the Machine company player Jenjira Pongpas. "Her life unfolds along the Mekong River as she changes her name for good luck and marries Frank, a retired U.S. soldier from New Mexico. Weerasethkul documents their domestic lives alongside the ebbs and flows of one of Asia's largest rivers."

If you are also having trouble viewing Cactus River, fear not, it might turn up at a film festival near you. As noted by Mosquito Films Distribution, Cactus River recently flowed at the Next International Film Festival in Bucharest. It's among many Mosquito films buzzing their way around the world.

Also at Dazed, there's the Da-zed Guide to Southeast Asian Cinema, an A-to-Z primer on notable films and filmmakers. Although A is not for Apichatpong (it's for Vietnam's Ahn Hung Tran), it's still a very Apichatpong-centric list, with notes about Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee. Others on the list include Bangkok and Only God Forgives, the Luang Prabang Film Festival, Gareth Evans and The Raid 2, Tony Jaa and Ong-Bak, Filipino auteur Lav Diaz and the Pang Brothers. However, for the letter P, I would have picked Pen-ek.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Review: The Teacher's Diary (Kid Tueng Wittaya)

  • Directed by Nithiwat Tharatorn
  • Starring Chermarn Boonyasak, Sukrit Wisetkaew
  • Released in Thai cinemas on March 20, 2014; rated G
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Toeing a fine line between sweetness and mawkishness, the sentimental GTH romance The Teacher's Diary (คิดถึงวิทยา, Kid Tueng Wittaya) mostly sticks to that line thanks to a fairly tight script, top-notch technical work, a memorable location and, of course, appealing performances by two fine lead actors.

Directed by one of GTH's "Fan Chan six", Nithiwat Tharatorn (Season's Change, Dear Galileo), the comedy-drama follows the stories of two lonely teachers, a woman and a man, who are posted to the same rural school a year apart. The setting is on a houseboat in the middle of a lake up in the mountains of Chiang Mai. Stuck out the boonies, with no electricity, phone service or Internet, one of the teachers turns to keeping an illustrated diary, pouring her thoughts and frustrations into it. When she transfers to another school, she leaves the diary behind. The well-worn notebook is then found by the young man who takes up the rural post. He reads the diary, falls in love with the writer and writes some of his own things in it. After the guy leaves, the woman resumes her former position and finds what he has written, and, having heard a few things about him, she also starts to fall in love, even though the two have never met.

Country schoolteacher dramas are a time-honored subgenre of Thai cinema. They used to be more frequent in the 1970s and '80s, when filmmakers tackled social problems. The setting is the same, thanks to that stunning lake with no cellphone service, so The Teacher's Diary is able to recall the feel of the classic old films while blending in bits of contemporary society. But the issues are more personal, detailing the growth of two young characters who rise to a challenge and accomplish more than they ever thought they would.

The Teacher's Diary also captures the spirit of another GTH film, The Tin Mine (มหา'ลัย เหมืองแร่, Maha'lai Muang Rae), about a college dropout learning life lessons at a Phuket mining outpost in the 1950s. The ramshackle little floating school in Teacher's Diary reminded me of the massive dredge GTH built as the centerpiece for The Tin Mine. Jira Maligool, director of the 2005 film, is a producer of Teacher's Dairy and he helped shape the project. Just like the dredge and jungle setting of The Tin Mine, the ragged diary and the floating schoolhouse of Teacher's Diary become strong icons to build a story upon.

"Ploy" Chermarn Boonyasak is Ann, and totally convincing as a stubborn young woman who butts heads with the school district's principal after she gets a small tattoo of three little stars on her wrist. After she refuses to have the tat removed, Ann is assigned to the tiny elementary school on the houseboat. There, her animated style of teaching and informal hipster wardrobe endear her to the half dozen or so impossibly cute students, all children of fishermen.

Ann's story unfolds in parallel to that of Song – No. 2 – a washed-up former Thai national-team wrestler who compensates for his lunkheadedness with sheer enthusiasm. But exuberance isn't enough, so he is assigned to the district's lowest post – the houseboat school. He arrives to find the place empty, Ann having moved on and no schoolchildren around.

Sukrit “Bie" Wisetkaew makes his much-touted big-screen debut as the lovable goofball Song. A runner-up on the Exact/GMM Grammy TV talent show "The Star" eight years ago, he's dropped the show's title from his nickname, but is probably the best-known of its discoveries, having performed on TV and stage and become much-sought-after for product endorsements and appearances. In addition to movies, the singer-actor is even being groomed for a role on Broadway.

Of the two teachers, Ann adapts the easiest to life at the lake school. When there's a crisis, she jumps right in to save the day, even though she can barely swim. (Indeed, Ploy had to take swimming lessons and overcome her fear of water for the role.) Song has a rougher time. On his first outing in the school's boat, he breaks his arm when he engages the longtail motor. Ann is the better teacher – smarter and more skilled. Song has to work out the algebra problems in private before presenting them to the kids. But Song's dedication is heartwarming. He faces his own crisis, and rebuilds everything, even the diary itself. He tracks down a former student and persuades the boy to return to his studies. Without Song, the school would likely not be afloat.

Outside of school, Ann and Song are in unhappy relationships. Song's girlfriend takes up with another guy, and Ann's boyfriend is a controlling jerk. It's the stringing along of whether Song and Ann will ever meet that keeps the movie going but also starts to wear thin as the 90-minute mark passes. It seems natural that Ann and Song would connect through the diary and fall for each other, but various circumstances, missed connections and a missing tattoo keep that pairing something that happens only in dreams.

Of course this is a GTH movie, which are all so very happy and uplifting, even if they are depressing psychological horrors. So, well, you know ...

Related posts: