Monday, September 29, 2008


Here are a few more short reviews of some films I have seen at the Bangkok International Film Festival.

Soi Cowboy
Director: Thomas Clay

When this film made its surprise appearance at Cannes this year critics weighed in with mixed but intriguing reviews often alluding to the film’s apparent stylistic inspirations of Antonioni, Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Though I found the themes of the film interesting I thought its execution dull, its narrative lethargic but even worse its attitude smug. Soi Cowboy in Bangkok is what is politely referred to as an “Entertainment Complex”, but is in fact an ungainly group of go-go bars where Farangs (foreigners) go to ogle unclad Thai women swivel robotically around chromium poles. This is fantasy land for many foreigners where they can fool themselves into thinking that love comes at the end of a dollar bill. At a snail’s pace Director Clay details the relationship between a Farang who gives Jabba the Hutt a run for fitness and a small childlike pregnant Thai woman. Giving it a black and white documentary feel, it begins with the start of another typical day as the two wake up, eat breakfast, putter about and have nothing to say to each other. This couple has no common ground and two distinct agendas – his sex and companionship, hers security and money. This certainly strikes a note of truth as one does witness numerous pairings like this around Bangkok with seemingly little to say to one another. Yet Clay’s choice of actors – an enormously obese male and a tiny female who appear to be from different species felt smug, obvious and judgmental as did the general tenor of the film. It becomes near caricature as the camera revels at times in the Falang’s rolls of fatty tissue and his simpering clueless smile. At about the two-third’s mark the film takes a peculiar turn that simply makes no sense and feels like a contrived attempt to be arty, modernistic and “profound”. The couple visit temples in Ayutthaya and in a mystical moment they seem to evaporate or possibly change into another couple – from whence the film suddenly blossoms into color and moves into a parallel universe in which the actors play different characters in a Thai gangster drama. Up until this segue the film though rather monotonous with the camera often lingering interminably on nothing or painfully following for no reason an elderly woman walking down a hall with her walker still had at its core a sense of truth, reality and a rhythm that echoes the slow pace of living in Bangkok – but the final ludicrous section destroys all this in a flash.

For a much more positive look at this film, check out Wise Kwai’s review.

Those Three
Director: Naghi Nemati

This Jack London like tale of survival in the frozen cold is in theory rather a tedious exercise of sameness and yet it managed to keep my eyes glued to the screen throughout. Three army recruits on exercise in the snowy west decide to desert and make for their hometowns. This is far from a sensible decision as they are in a cruel and unforgiving environment of blinding snow and freezing cold with no idea where to go. As they stubbornly trudge onward through deep rifts of snow, they attempt to reach civilization but find only more snow and a seed of hopelessness, doubt and fate creeps into their heads. The three men are inherently decent – loyal to one another and they slow down to assist a pregnant woman who has illegally crossed over the border. Only hints of their past are revealed but their character emerges in patches – Essi a bullnecked large man with little common sense but an overwhelming need to get home to his wife and children, Dariush the small bespectacled wise guy with black market cigarettes up every sleeve and Yousef the tough determined one who only came along to help his friend Essi. The majority of the film is simply them walking through the neverending snow with occasional conversations – but it is oddly compelling and poetic. Shot in what must have been incredibly tough conditions, the snow filled empty vistas are beautiful and frightening at the same time – dreamlike, harsh and eternal.

Days of Turquoise Sky
Director: Woo Ming-jin

I was surprised when the director mentioned during the Q&A that this film had been made for television and had not been released theatrically. I thought it was a very assured work with a wonderfully lyrical, charming and laid back mood to it. A gentle coming of age film with more than a nostalgic feel to it (the director said it was quite autobiographical), it reminded me slightly in tenor to “Summer of 42”. Ali is a fifteen year old boy with a dead beat dad (Nam Ron who played the father in Breathing in Mud) and a weak left hook that he is constantly trying to improve. His best buddy is Hassan and the two of them mope around a lot or try to catch fish – Hassan with an attempted home made bomb that he learned how to make from MacGyver. When the new teacher Carol arrives – played by the stunning model Carmen Soo (who the director admitted he had a crush on in high school – she was a year younger) – Ali begins to take an interest in school but an even bigger interest in Carol’s boyfriend who turns out to be a total fraud. Meanwhile his dad is being courted by their spinster next door neighbor (played by Mislina Mustapha who was the mother in Breathing in Mud) and courted even more so by two debt collectors. Throw in a high school bully that Ali has to face down and a new school girl who eats Italian noodles at lunch time that Hassan falls for and you have a tender sweet tale of growing up in rural Malaysia.

12 Lotus
Director: Royston Tan

Let me just get to the punch line – I hated this film. So much so that I left the theater before Tan came on for the Q&A in concern that I might be tempted to say this. He has had an interesting directing career in Singapore – initially critically well received for his rough edged social commentaries (15, 4:30) on the lower social strata in Singapore that the government prefers to remain hidden. Then he surprisingly turned out the biggest commercial hit ever in Singapore with a musical story (881) about two singing sisters in the Getai entertainment world. Though this received mixed reviews, I very much liked this sentimental dramedy that felt very 1990ish Hong Kong to me. With 12 Lotus Tan returns to the world of the Getai musical but this time he is in a very milk curdling sour mood. It’s as if he combined his first few films with his last one to create a nasty hybrid that is relentingly downbeat. There is not a moment of humor, warmth or good will in this film – just abuse, rape, mental illness and tragedy. Lotus is the small daughter of a Getai musician and at the age of twelve he tells her that it is time for her to earn a living – she tells him that she wants to sing – and he beats her into being one – and once she (Mindee Ong) becomes successful he takes all of her money and gambles it away. But wait – love comes her way in the form of a handsome male singer – but wait – no – he is just setting her up to be gang raped by some men who pay him to deflower a virgin. After this trauma and his disappearing act, she cracks up and doesn’t leave her apartment for 20-years (now played by Liu Ling Ling) as she waits for her love to return. Don’t hold your breath waiting for redemption or a spark of happiness to come to this woman – just more misery comes her way. Other than the musical numbers (which I thought much weaker than in 881) this was torture to sit through and I noted many folks making their escape long before the credits came on. I only wish I had been one of them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The Bangkok International Film Festival has begun and runs from September 23rd to the 30th with about 65 features and 11 documentaries on display. The BKIFF has had more than its share of bumps in the road over the past few years in its goal of becoming one of the premier film festivals of Asia. Though buckets of money were poured into the budget it has never able to gain the respect of the festivals in Pusan, Hong Kong and Tokyo. For many industry professionals the BKIFF was looked on as one of the best boondoggles on the fest circuit with folks having their travel and hotel paid for by the fest and then they would happily jump down to Phuket after putting in a token appearance. These free spending ways came to a messy end last year amid a scandal that involved some shady dealings and million Baht bribes thrown around like candy on Halloween. The old cadre was thrown out (and some may face jail time) and a new group consisting of many folks who are real film people were brought in to run the festival. Though the budget is much smaller than in the past at around $900,000 it is still an enviable amount to many of us who help run film festivals. As a measure of comparison, the New York Film Festival showed some fifty films this year with a budget of just over $85,000. Note to any concerned parties – we are more than open to bribes coming our way but I can’t imagine for what in return.

A good chunk of this budget has been spent on two items of great value to filmgoers – tons of guest directors will be available for Q&A and the films actually have Thai subtitles! In the past Thai subtitles were not available and in truth the fest primarily became an event for ex-pat audiences and tourists. Having seen four films so far, I can see a much larger proportion of Thai’s in the audience than in the past. The NYAFF have had to create English subs on a few occasions and it is an arduous undertaking – so the effort that must have gone into subtitling all these films in multiple languages is truly mind-boggling.

Looking through the program it strikes me as a very eclectic one with a focus (as most film fests tend to do) on serious dramas and social commentaries – though it does have a Swedish vampire film and a German gay zombie film! The Asian focus is on films from Southeast Asia – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. China and Taiwan have a few as well but there is practically nothing from Japan, Korea or Hong Kong. Lately, I have become interested in films from these smaller Asian industries and so this suits me fine. The venues for the films are located in Central Mall that is likely a little larger than the town of Wasilia, Alaska and though as far as I know it hasn’t banned any books the festival did ban a documentary that dealt with child prostitution in Thailand. I have myself down for about fifteen films to see, but past experience has taught me that my eyes are generally bigger than my appetite. Here is what I have seen so far.

Breathing in Mud
Director: James Lee

Breathing in the Mud is a curious turn for director James Lee who is known primarily for his opaque, slow moving (some would say tedious) relationship films that center entirely on Chinese living in Malaysia. Breathing is an intimate Malay family drama of infidelity and past bonds returning to complicate the present. Din is a reticent balding middle-aged man with a small taxi/driver instructor business and a mistress Liza (his secretary) on the side. He is married to Nina and has brought up two children with her, but when her first husband Meor and father of her son returns after a seven year absence it forces this family to face some hard questions – who does Nina really love, what rights does Meor have over the son and his wife from whom he had never been officially divorced. Meor and Din are childhood friends and Din only stepped in when Nina needed him financially. Din has to decide if this is the family he really wants or does he want to break this off and marry the charmingly cute Liza. There are no fireworks here – though a few low ranking gangsters get banged up a bit – just a slow mulling of what family means in the modern world.

Director: Mong-Hong Chung

Showing in Cannes this year, this debut from Chung is a crackling good tale of one chaotic character building night in Taipei that jumps back and forth between black humor, pathos and everyman heroics. The director gathered some fine actors for this effort – Chang Chen, Jack Kao and Chapman To – and they are all terrific – as is the cinematography which is at times a little Wong Kar-wai like. An inability to conceive a baby has created a rift between Chen Mo (Chang Chen) and his wife and in an effort to reconcile he stops off to buy some cake for their dinner later that night. But when he leaves the shop he discovers that another car has double parked and has blocked him from leaving. An effort to find out who owns the car jumpstarts a series of encounters that brings him into contact with gangsters, pimps, prostitutes, one-armed barbers (Jack Kao), indebted tailors (Chapman To) and a little girl whose parents have died. In a sense though he really encounters himself – and discovers what he is made of during this small scale Odyssey of getting home to his waiting wife. This mood shifting film never lags and is constantly surprising and finally surprisingly poignant and in its way powerful.

Autumn (Sonbahar)
Director: Ozcan Alper

The very few Turkish films I have seen over the past few years are moody silent evocative pieces of cinema adorned with stunning cinematography and startlingly beautiful landscapes. Autumn certainly falls into this category and its melancholy weariness slowly works its way into your bones. University student Yusef (Onur Saylak) had been sentenced to jail for twelve years for his political activities – F-type prisoners – but is released after serving ten years because his lungs are shattered (though in true Turkish fashion he stubbornly refuses to stop smoking). The world has changed dramatically since his incarceration and his socialist political leanings are passé and his inspiration the Soviet Union has collapsed and taken up the capitalistic cudgel. He returns to his rural mountainous hometown near the Black Sea to live with his elderly mother in their small isolated stone house perched on the hillside of a mountain. It is late autumn with a stiff chill in the air and snow has already settled in the mountains above them. Yusef though is more ghost than human, unable to shake his past memories and is coming to terms with a life that seems to have come to nothing and has no future. A lost soul; a lost life. He finds solace in a Georgian prostitute in the nearby town – an ironic reminder of his lost ideals. She tells him “You went to jail for socialism. Are you crazy” to which he has no answer, only an empty look in his mournful eyes and a hollow cough. Haunting, beautiful and thoughtful, this film is another reason why I always seek out Turkish films in festivals.

The Shaft
Director: Zhang Chi

This somewhat bland slice of life mining town tale feels too generic to have any real impact on the viewer. As detailed in so many Chinese films life in a mining town is dead end and depressing with few options. The director posits a family against this background and in three sections focuses on the daughter, the son and the father. Nothing overly dramatic really occurs – just the flow of life – the daughter is falsely accused of having an affair and leaves town, the son comes to terms with having to work in the mines and the father comes to terms with his retirement. In the final shot a bus is shown leaving town and as the camera pulls back it shows a road that is a near infinite series of twists and turns symbolizing I suppose the fact that life is never a straight line.