Friday, July 31, 2015

In Thai cinemas: There's Something About Tott

There's only one new Thai movie in cinemas this week, a romantic comedy called Love Hiao Fiao Tott (เลิฟเฮี้ยวเฟี้ยวต๊อด, a.k.a. There’s Something About Tott).

It's about a hapless hipster who the ladies think for some reason is super handsome. They fall all over themselves trying to be close, making it difficult for him to carry on in life and hold down a job. Played by Khunathip Pinpradab, he needs to raise money to get his grandmother out of the nursing home.

The director is the prolific Poj Anon, who this time around is being credited with his real name, Anon Mingkhwanta, perhaps in a move to rebrand and distance himself from his many critically assailed movies of the past.

Aside from young Nick Khunathip, who appeared in Poj's recent films, such as the Mor 6/5 (Make Me Shudder!) schoolboy horror comedies, his Iron Ladies remake and one of the Die a Violent Death horror antholgies, There's Something About Tott features veteran stage and screen actress Duangta Tungkamanee as Tott's mother and celebrity make-up artist, media personality and actress Ornapha Krisadee.

Friday, July 24, 2015

In Thai cinemas: Red Wine in the Dark Night, Latitude 6, Mon Love Sib Muen

(Here is another recurring feature I will attempt, supported by my other blog, Bangkok Cinema Scene, in which I will repost entries about the new Thai movies opening each week in Thai cinemas.)

Along with How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), released here last week, and next month's release of The Blue Hour, fans of Thai queer arthouse cinema have been anticipating Red Wine in the Dark Night, the latest from writer-director Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, who previously surveyed transgender culture in the award-winning It Gets Better (ไม่ได้ขอให้มารั, Mai Dai Kor Hai Ma Rak).

Following the successful string of indie gay romances that have been getting limited releases in Bangkok cinemas, Khuen Nan Red Wine in the Dark Night (คืนนั้น Red Wine in the Dark Night), is getting a wide release from Thanadbuntueng Production, Artfo Production and Tanwarin's own Am Fine Production.

There's an intriguing vampire vibe with the plot about an innocent soul named Wine (Pongsatorn "Fluke" Sripinta from My Bromance) who encounters a blood-sucking amnesiac he names Night. He's played by Steven Isarapong Fuller, who previously appeared in Tanwarin's mainstream ghost romance Threesome.

Other stars include Krittachapon Thananara, (It Gets Better, Hug Na Sarakham, Teacher and Student), Nontapat Intarasuan (Feel Good) and Sutthinat Uengtrakul (Love’s Coming).

"I would like to make this film simply to remind all of us that love can really make us blind. Love is definitely a beautiful thing, on the other side, love creates obsession and makes us do whatever it takes to make a person love us and be with us as long as possible. I believe love requires lots of thoughts to make it really work," says Tanwarin in a director's statement issued ahead the movie's release.

Restive southern Thailand is the backdrop for Latitude 6 (ละติจูดที่ 6), a propaganda film produced by the Internal Security Operations Command and UCI Media, the provider of Motorola two-way radios and other products in Thailand.

A romantic drama, its aim is to "promote better understanding", as the military spokesmen are always saying. There are various stories of cultural and religious conflict, mainly having to do with actor-musician Peter Corp Dyrendal, who portrays a Bangkok banker assigned to Pattani. There, he is charmed by the laid-back southern lifestyle. He falls for a young Muslim woman and hopes to prove he is worthy to the girl's strict father.

Though the Army means well (and doesn't it always?) the film's release is poorly timed, with the motorcycle-enthusiast actor embroiled in social-media-fueled controversies over his private affairs and failures to turn up to work on TV shows.

However, The Nation today has a bit more on the actual film, including details on making it from Thanadol Nualsuth, who wrote and directed Latitude 6. A former assistant under Poj Arnon, he previously co-directed the snakes-in-an-apartment thriller Kheaw Aa-Kaard (เขี้ยว อาฆาต), had a hand in the first Die a Violent Death anthology and the 2011 flood romance, Rak Ao Yoo (รักเอาอยู่, a.k.a. Love at First Flood), which was actually filmed during the floods.

Just like Hollywood, the mainstream Thai movie industry isn't terribly inventive, and when one studio has a big box-office hit, the others follow it with something that looks similar, in hopes it will also catch on.

The latest attempt is Mon Love Sib Muen (มนต์เลิฟสิบหมื่น), a reworking of the 1970 classic Monrak Luk Thung, which starred the legendary screen duo of Mitr Chaibancha and Petchara Chaowarat, and was a massive hit in its day, remaining in theaters for something like six months. There were (and still are) tons of other rural Thai musical romantic comedy-dramas, but none caught on like Monrak Luk Thung.

Pariphan “Toh Phantamitr” Vachiranon, a member of the Phantamitr film-dubbing team, directs this new version, which is tarted up with CGI fighting roosters and hipster comedians. Chaiyapol Julien Poupart (Threesome, Jan Dara, The Scar) stars as a country boy who is hopelessly in love with a local lass, but can't marry her until he raises a lavish dowry.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: P'Chai My Hero (How to Win at Checkers (Every Time))

  • Directed by Josh Kim
  • Starring Ingkarat Damrongsakkul, Thira Chutikul, Arthur Navarat, Natarat Lakha
  • Released in Thai cinemas on July 16, 2015; reviewed at Bangkok Gay and Lesbian Film Festival; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

A much-needed fresh perspective in Thai cinema emerges in the indie drama P’Chai My Hero (พี่ชาย My Hero), a.k.a. How to Win at Checkers (Every Time).

It’s the unique view of outsiders – Chicago-born, Thai-raised writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap and Josh Kim, a Korean-American filmmaker from Texas. To tell the heart-warming, bittersweet tale of orphaned brothers growing up, writer-director Kim added flourishes of his own to two stories from Rattawut’s Sightseeing anthology, “Draft Day” and “At the Cafe Lovely”.

Checkers, which premiered to much acclaim at the Berlin film fest and is re-titled for Thailand as P’Chai My Hero, centers on the tender bond between insecure 11-year-old Oat and his openly gay older brother Ek. Orphaned at an early age, the working-class boys live with their aunt and her pest of a young daughter. They also have a tight-knit group of friends, including Ek’s higher-class boyfriend Jai and transgender pal Kitty.

The gay characters are naturally drawn, avoiding the tendency to turn such figures into shrieking, flailing comic relief. Ek is positively masculine as he tinkers with the motorbike his father left him. And it’s this ordinary treatment of queer folk that makes P’Chai My Hero so refreshing.

They are also quirky characters that seem plucked from the New Thai Cinema Movement of the late ’90s and early aughts, when the now-snoozeworthy Thai film industry was awakened by such figures as writer-directors Wisit Sasanatieng, Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Kongdej Jaturanrasamee and writer Prabda Yoon.

The aunt (Vatanya Thamdee) is superstitious to a fault, and spends her hard-earned dough buying eels to release in daily merit-making rituals. Her urchin of a daughter always seems to come out of nowhere, catching the boys at inopportune moments, and her forthcoming appearance is forever mystically presaged by a clucking red hen.

The boys hang out at a swimming pool with their ladyboy friend Kitty (Natarat Lakha), who is the embodiment of confidence as she struts past admirers in her red one-piece bathing suit, which shows off her prominent bulging groin. No one seems to care that she is a he, and Kitty points out that plenty of the guys at the pool are actually “into that”, albeit secretly.

So being gay is not really the issue. The real conflict of P’Chai My Hero is one that has always dogged Thai society – class differences. And those differences are highlighted by the approaching annual military draft lottery, which is unique to Thailand and thus compelling for the rest of the world. Ek pessimistically believes he is fated to pick a red card, be drafted into the army and sent to the restive South. It’s a subject Kim previously covered in his 2013 short documentary Draft Day, which covered transgenders taking part in the drawing.

Jai (Arthur Navarat) believes he can buy his way to picking a black card, and thus dodging military service. Yes, it’s our old friend corruption. This gives Oat an idea, but following through on his plan will have dire, life-shaping consequences for all.

Oat, portrayed remarkably by Ingkarat Damrongsakkul, begins to come out of his shell. Along with scheming for ways to keep his brother from being drafted, he also wants desperately to beat Ek at checkers. It’s a deal the brothers have, and if Oat wins, he’ll get anything he wants. Looking for a winning strategy, Oat scrapes together a few coins to buy one of those self-help books from a newsstand. The title is "How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)", but he’s too young to realise that that’s merely metaphorical and the only person being helped is the book’s shyster author. But, with his new win-at-any-cost ethos, Oat is finally granted his wish – to go with Ek for a night out in Bangkok.

And here’s where the extremely dark “At the Cafe Lovely” story kicks in. It takes the boys to the gay bar where Ek works for explosive events in a night that will haunt Oat forever. It’s this segment where the actor portraying Ek, Thira Chutikul, is particularly potent.

Having previously portrayed the young Chavoret Jaruboon in The Last Executioner, he’s one to keep an eye on.

Oh, and Michael Shaowanasai, a pioneering New Thai Cinema filmmaker known for his crossing-dressing Iron Pussy character, turns up as a bar patron who takes a creepy interest in Oat.

The tumultuous tale is bookended by segments that show Oat all grown up and portrayed by brooding singer-actor Tony Rakkaen. He’s haunted by nightmares and bad memories, but somehow has escaped the cycle of poverty and death that claims so many young Thai men. That might be another tale for Kim to tell.

Not only is this Thai film cobbled together from the English literature of a Thai-American writer by a Korean-American director, the producers hail from all over – Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand and the US. They are Edward Gunawan, Chris Lee, Andrew Thomas Tiernan and Anocha Suwichakornpong. This spirit of multinational collaboration could well signal a direction to follow in the Asean Economic Community as Southeast Asia’s filmmakers look for ways to tell stories that resonate with home audiences as well as those abroad.

(Cross-published in The Nation)

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

In Thai cinemas: Y/our Music, F. Hilaire, The Scar International Version

Urban and city beats blend in the tuneful documentary Y/our Music, which finally comes to Bangkok cinemas this week after a spin on the festival circuit.

I've seen it twice, and it kept my toes tapping both times. Directed by David Reeve and Waraluck “Art” Hiransrettawat Every, Y/our Music is a bifurcated look at Thailand's social divide through the benignly harmonious prism of music.

In Bangkok, there's an esoteric blend of city folk, playing Western-influenced folk, jazz and rock, while in the countryside, there are National Artists, performing the traditional Isaan country-folk music of mor lam, on traditional instruments, such as the electric pin (Isaan banjo) and the khaen (Isaan reed pipe).

It's those Isaan sounds that mostly come through, thanks to ever-present transistor radios in market stalls, taxi-cab stereos, masked street performers and, eventually, the Northeastern legends themselves.

Here are the performers:

  • Wiboon Tangyernyong – A Khao San-area optician who developed a worldwide following as a maker of bamboo saxophones.
  • Sweet Nuj – Young musician and indie record label entrepreneur Bun Suwannochin formed a duo with his singer mother-in-law Worranuj Kanakakorn, and they sell their discs online.
  • Happy Band – Following the tradition of The Who, Velvet Underground and Talking Heads, some Bangkok artists thought it'd be a swell idea to create a rock band as an art project. Eventually, they learned to be musicians.
  • Captain Prasert Keawpukdee – A gentleman who sells used violins and Buddha amulets at Chatuchak market, he hosts old-timey fiddle jam sessions on weekends.
  • Nattapol Seangsukon – Otherwise known as DJ Maftsai, he is a DJ who collects old mor lam, luk thung, string and Thai funk, and is the glue that holds this all together.
  • Chaweewan Phanthu – National Artist singer and academic.
  • Chalardnoi Songserm – National Artist singer.
  • Thongsai Thabthanon – Phin master. "Borrowed" telephone wire from American GIs to string up his Isaan banjo and play with rock bands.
  • Sombat Simlhar – A blind virtuoso of the khaen, the Isaan bamboo reed pipe. He lost his sight in early childhood and turned to music, becoming a major recording artist and performer who is still much sought-after.

Critical reception is pretty great. Y/our Music screens at 6.45 nightly until July 22 at the Lido in Siam Square. Rated G

F. Hilaire (ฟ.ฮีแลร์) – The writer of the widely used "Darun Suksa" Thai-language textbook was not Thai at all: he was a French Roman Catholic missionary and schoolteacher. Brother Hilaire was one of the key educators behind Thailand's Assumption College and taught many of the statesmen who would lead the Kingdom into the modern era. His story is recalled with help from a present-day scholar (Pharunyoo "Tac" Rojanawuttitham) who is looking for a new angle as he tries to write a thesis. Jason Young portrays the bearded clergyman teacher. Rated 13+

The Scar International Version – Dramatist ML Bhandevanop "Mom Noi" Devakula's adaptation of the classic tragic romance Plae Kao (แผลเก่า) is back in Bangkok cinemas for one week as The Scar International Version. Adding 40 minutes of further exposition, the longer director's cut premiered at last month's Thai Film Festival in London. Adapted from a novel by Mai Muengderm, The Scar is set in the Bang Kapi countryside of the 1930s, where poor farm boy Kwan is hopelessly in love with Riam, the daughter of a wealthier farming family. The star-crossed romance has been adapted for film and TV many, many times before, including a beloved 1977 film version by Cherd Songsri. This new version stars Chaiyapol Julian Pupart from Mom Noi's Jan Dara remake as Kwan and Davika Hoorne from Pee Mak Phra Khanong as Riam. It's playing at House on RCA.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Review: Y/our Music

  • Directed by David Reeve and Waraluck Hiransrettawat Every
  • Starring Wiboon Tangyernyong, Bun Suwannochin, Worranuj Kanakakorn, Nadda Srithongdee, Thaweesak Srithongdee, Boonchai Apintanaphong, Jarinee Liwarewitaya, Captain Prasert Keawpukdee, Nattapol Seangsukon, Chaweewan Phanthu, Chalardnoi Songserm, Thongsai Thabthanon, Sombat Simlhar
  • Reviewed at Salaya Doc 2015; release at Lido cinemas, Bangkok, July 9-22, 2015; rated G
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

It's happened both times I’ve seen Y/our Music – there’s a magical moment when what’s happening on the screen is so overwhelmingly powerful and joyously incredible that the audience breaks out into applause, as if it were a live concert.

I imagine that same scene will be repeated many more times as the documentary by co-directors David Reeve and Waraluck Hiransrettawat Every comes to Bangkok cinemas next week.

A picture of contrasting music tableaux – from precious indie musicians in the city to veteran National Artists in the rural Northeast – Y/our Music toggles back and forth between the traffic-clogged streets of the capital and the sleepy villages of Isaan. Almost imperceptibly, the hum of the urban machine is replaced by the buzzing of insects in the rice fields.

Yet there’s a divide between the two scenes, which is acknowledged by that curious oblique slash in the movie’s title. But, rather than wringing worried hands over our nation’s political divisions, Y/our Music seems to embrace and accept the differences, and be content with just letting the city folk and their country counterparts do their own thing.

Made by a small crew using often-borrowed equipment, Y/our Music has an easy-going style, keeping out of the way so the musicians can tell their own stories. And, despite its low-budget roots, the film has polished production values, with the highlight being a top-notch sound design that’s best appreciated in a proper cinema.

Bangkok is represented by an oddball array of performers, while the Isaan artists are more obviously talented.

Among the Bangkok bunch is Wiboon Tangyernyong, an optician who fell in love with the sound of the saxophone and decided to make one himself out of bamboo. Very much an amateur, it took Wiboon much trial and error and many years to perfect his construction process. But, adapting his lens-grinding expertise to fashioning bamboo sax parts, he’s now made more than 800 of the warm-sounding woodwinds, which he sells along Khao San Road and to clients around the world.

There’s more do-it-yourself spirit with Bun Suwannochin and his mother-in-law Worranuj Kanakakorn, who form the cute indie-pop duo Sweet Nuj. With Bun strumming a ukulele and his mum-in-law singing, they release their music through their own Baichasong record label, and have attracted a niche following.

Even quirkier is Happy Band, a rock group put together as a pop-art project. Despite having only one member who could actually play an instrument – famed graphic designer Nadda “Lolay” Srithongdee on guitar – the band became sought after. The other members, Thaweesak Srithongdee on bass, Boonchai Apintanaphong on guitar and Jarinee Liwarewitaya on drums, improved over time, and Happy Band went from being merely art objects to a real band. They even performed at Bangkok’s Fat Festival back when it was still a thing.

The spirit of Suntharaporn Big Band leader Eua Sunthornsanan and his violin is recalled in segments devoted to Captain Prasert Keawpukdee, a gentleman who should be well known to shoppers at Chatuchak Market. It’s there where Prasert, 75, sells used violins, other instruments and Buddhist amulets. Weekends usually bring together fiddlers and other amateur musicians who go through the classic old tunes. At one point in the film, a farang customer grabs her male companion and the two start waltzing around the crowded market.

Merging the city and country scenes is Nattapol Seangsukon. Better known as DJ Maft Sai, his Paradise Bangkok nightclub parties sparked a hipster revival in mor lam and other music from Isaan. With a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips, he’s shown sorting through vinyl LPs and 45s at Zudrangma, his vintage record store, and creating dance mixes of mor lam and retro Thai funk.

The talents from the countryside are more formidable and awe-inspiring. Among them are two National Artists, singers Chaweewan Phanthu (nee Damnern) and Chalardnoi Songserm, along with pin master Thongsai Thabthanon and the blind khaen virtuoso Sombat Simlhar.

Among the segments is a concert featuring Chaweewan and Chalardnoi backed by a handful of younger musicians, which offers reassurance that traditional Isaan folk music remains vital. What’s troubling, though, is that the only attendees at the concert are middle-aged and elderly women and a few children – all the men are away working in Bangkok.

A die-hard professional, Chaweewan is an especially domineering performer, neatly composed with her grey hair in a tight bun, despite the humid conditions and a quickly approaching monsoon storm that signals the end of the gig.

Thongsai, a master of the two-string pin or Isaan banjo, recalls developing his style during his military service in the 1960s, when he was among the first to add wiring to the ornately filagreed instrument. He plugged in and played alongside Western-style rock bands. He makes it look easy as he shows youngsters how to rock out Isaan style. Later, while holding court at his Ubon Rachathani home, he adds a dozen or so drummers for a scene that’s particularly memorable.

Finally there’s Isaan reed-pipe player Sombat, who became blind as a child and took up the khaen to earn a living. He’s recorded with most of the well-known mor lam and luk thung singers and often turns up on TV variety shows. Still based in the Northeast, where he’s shown sitting by a rice field as he teaches a young woman how to play the finicky instrument. He remains much in demand as a performer, and, after awhile, a crucial phone call from Bangkok brings Y/our Music full circle.

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(Cross-published in The Nation)

Last Executioner wins more prizes, sets Ireland date

The Last Executioner, the independent biographical drama about the last marksman to dispatch death-row prisoners with a firearm in Thailand's prisons, continues to make its way around the festival circuit and win awards.

The latest accolades come from Manila's World Premieres Film Festival, where it won the Intercontinental Prize for Best Feature, and from here in Thailand, where The Last Executioner took the top prize in the fourth Suan Dusit Thai Movie Poster Awards.

In Manila, The Last Executioner (เพชฌฆาต, Petchakat) is taking part in the Asean Skies section of the World Premiere Film Festival. The regional line-up also has the oddball Japanese-Thai production Hand in the Glove as well as entries from Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Even Laos has an entry, with the four-director omnibus Vientiane in Love. The WPFF continues until July 7.

For the Suan Dusit Thai Movie Poster Awards, put on by Suan Dusit Rajabhat University, The Last Executioner got the top prize for its striking image of lead actor Vithaya Pansringarm taking deadly aim with a rifle.

Other movie posters recognized were the gibberish GTH romantic comedy I Fine ... Thank You ... Love You (ไอฟาย..แต๊งกิ้ว..เลิฟยู้), Poj Arnon's Wai Peng Nakleng Kha San (วัยเป้งง นักเลงขาสั้น, Dangerous Boys), which is filled with schoolboys in shortpants, and The Unreasonable Man (ไม่รู้.มันคืออะไร.แต่ชอบ), the indie drama starring "Tao" Somchai Kemklad as a barber that had a limited release in Bangkok last year.

Directed by Tom Waller, The Last Executioner will next screen in Ireland, at the Galway Film Fleadh, on July 10, with Waller himself in attendance. Check the Facebook events page for more details.