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.


YTSL said...

Am glad you caught -- and liked -- "Days of Turquoise Sky". This especially as you missed the screening at the HK International Film Festival that I attended (and, it turns out, Lawrence Lau (AKA Laurence Ah Mon) too!)

And thanks for having me know to steer clear of "12 Lotus". It's showing at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and I had been wondering whether it was worth checking out... ;S

The Great Swifty said...

Hi Brian, I'm Edmund Yeo, one of the producers and editor of Days of the Turquoise Sky. I think I've emailed you before quite a few years ago (or maybe I didn't and I hallucinated it, hmmm), during those days when I was reading View From The Brooklyn Bridge.

Anyway, I'm glad you liked DAYS OF THE TURQUOISE SKY. Thanks for the review.

Am still a little curious about Royston's latest. Seem to be getting decidedly mixed reviews, guess I'll have to witness it myself. Hah.

Brian said...

Hi Edmund,

I actually do recall receiving an email from you in the past. It is great to hear that you were involved with this film. I really enjoyed it as did a few other folks I know who saw it in HK. Do you know if this has played in a NY Fest yet? If not, it would be great if you could send us (The NY Asian Film Festival) a screener.

I may have been too negative on 12 Lotus because I went in happily expecting a replay of 881 and the mood was just so sour that I never adjusted to it. It really left me feeling angry but I wish now that I had stayed for the q&a and asked what reaction he expected to get from his audience. If you see it, please let me know what you thought of it.

The Great Swifty said...

Nope, as far as I know, the film hasn't had its American premiere.

Just email me ( the address I can send the screener to. Do you guys take short films too? We have a few and can include it in our package :)