Bangkok International Film Festival 2004
by Toh Hai Leong
ACCORDING to official figures, over 50,000 tickets were sold at the 1st Bangkok International Film Festival in 2003. This year, only some 30,000 seats were taken, a sizable drop despite the massive budget of US$5 million, an improved film program and a change of management: Craig Prater is now Executive Director and Jennifer Stark is Program Director. Altogether, some 150 Thai and international films and digital videos from more than 24 countries were presented. The Festival (22 Jan to 2 Feb 2004), also saw the 1st Bangkok Film Market amidst the festivals glam, glitz, pomp and stargazing.
The opening film honor went to The Siam Renaissance by former experimental filmmaker Surapong Pinijkhar (Tawipop, Thailand, 2003). This stylish and fantastical blending of The Double Life of Veronique and Frequency stars the exotically pretty Florence Vanida F. as a Paris-based archivist who moves back in time to a Siam of a hundred years ago after reading a mysterious document. The feature is adapted from the classic Thai novel Tawipop by Tamayanti.
David Mamets Spartan, was shown as the prestigious closing film but without Thai subtitles! Just marginally better than the usual Hollywood conspiracy theory thriller, this is about a senior secret service agent (Val Kilmer) on a mission to rescue the Presidents missing daughter, held in a white slave brothel somewhere in the Middle East. A more appropriate closing film would have been The Overture (Homrong, Thailand, 2003) by Ilthisoonthon Vichailak about the clash between tradition and modernity through the story of an unorthodox bamboo xylophone player who challenges his old music master and who later struggles to keep Thai music alive.
In Ferzan Ozpeteks Facing Windows (La finestra di fronte, 2003), Giovanna Mezzogiorno gives an accomplished performance as a bookkeeper who comes to understand her womanhood and desires more fully when her husband suddenly takes in an old amnesiac Davide, and when she becomes romantically entangled with her neighbor Lorenzo.
The newly created Windows on the World is a comprehensive selection of global, Asian and Asian American films in all, a total of 95 features and documentaries.
Bernardo Bertoluccis The Dreamers (UK/ France/ Italy, 2003) pays homage to past movie masters, from Chaplin to Bresson, in a diverting story of three youths in their hermetic world of sexual liaisons in 1968 Paris, as passionate about sex as they are about the left-wing politics of confrontation and violence. Another homage to the old film masters is Tsai Ming-Liangs Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu San, Taiwan, 2003), a haunting requiem for the death of classical Chinese cinema that also provides wry commentary on the changes in contemporary Taiwanese society.
Arguably, the best Asian American film to come out in years, Face (USA, 2003) by Bertha Baysa Pan is about the coming-of-age of a mother and daughter, set in the 1970s and 1990s Queens borough in New York City. Based on a short of the same name, this incisive feature explores inter-generational conflict on sexual mores and the search for ones identity.
Fresh from the Golden Globes Best Foreign Film triumph, Afghanistans Osama by Siddiq Barmak, raised the crowds interest in this movie about a 12-year-old girl forced to cut her hair to pass off as a boy so that she can find work to support her mother and grandmother.
Jim Sheridans In America is an understated and moving study of the trials and tribulations of an Irish immigrant family struggling to make ends meet in a sordid New York tenement. The semi-autobiographical film, supported by an excellent cast with a voiceover narrative by Christy, the familys elder daughter, won Sheridan the Golden Kinnaree for Best Director.
Canadas top rebel filmmaker, Denys Arcand, created a sequel of sorts to his seminal Decline of the American Empire with The Barbarian Invasions (Canada/France, 2003) which deservedly won the Golden Kinnaree for Best Film. The film reunites the key characters from the former film through the last days of the sensual leftist academic, Remy, who is dying from liver cancer. This powerful humanist tract is arguably Arcands greatest film to date.
Blind Shaft (China, 2003), deftly directed by first-timer Li Yang, is based on a true story about two miners who concoct a murderous scheme to get the 30,000 yuan in compensation money via the apparent accidental death of their relative.
A most impressive contribution to the Windows section was the Canadian Love That Boy (2003). Originally shot on mini DV, this indie feature about the coming-of-age of an immature 14-year-old boy and his sophisticated neighbor girlfriend is directed by Andrea Dorfman and shows that a small film can evoke as much admiration as films by more prominent directors such as Arcands The Barbarian Invasions.
Two new inclusions, the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) competition and the Asian Short and Documentary Competition, expanded the coverage of Asian cinema for the first time. Six out of ten Asean nations including Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia presented a total of 13 fictional features and one docudrama, (Amir Muhammads The Big Durian), for Best ASEAN Film.
Thailand alone submitted five entries, including last years top-grossing sleeper hit, My Girl (Fan Chan, 2003), a nostalgic return to childhood made by six unknown filmmakers. The winner, however, went to Pen-ek Ratanaruangs Last Life in the Universe, in which a suicidal Japanese library clerk living in Thailand meets his match in a working girl from Pattaya. Like his earlier 6ixtynin9 (1999), the protagonists in both films accidentally kill some mafia guys and are on the run. Japans Broken Blossom by Matsuoka Naomi truly deserved the Best Documentary prize for its 30-minute treatment about the directors own miscarriage.
Mekong Interior (France/ Cambodia, 2003) by Vanessa Ly, focusing on the tension between a couple on a visit to Cambodia, won overall Short Film. Vietnamese-American Ham Tran won the Live Action prize with The Anniversary (Vietnam/ USA, 2003), shot on 35mm film, about a Buddhist monk haunted by the guilt of his betrayal of his brother on the anniversary of the latters death.
The Best Animation award went to Singapores 3 Feet Apart by Jason Lai, a quirky tale about the impossibility of love between a boy born with a mobile phone in his head and a girl with speakers in her ears and a small TV set in her right palm!
With the exception of Thanit Jitnukuls 17th century epic Sema, The Warrior of Ayodhaya, the other seven features which comprised the Thai Panorama was a mishmash of generally weak films made for the mass market. The politically incorrect comedy The Adventures of Iron Pussy (Hua Jai To Ra Nong, 2003), co-directed by maverick filmmaker Apichatong Weerasethakul and Michael Shaowanasai was withdrawn from the line-up at the very last moment on the excuse that it was shot on DV.
What is perhaps more alarming is the apparent neglect to feature the upcoming new generation of Thai film directors whose films often display an overseas sensibility, such as Yuthlert Sippapaks February (2003), a love drama shot mostly in New York City and Smith Thimsawats Province 77 (2002), a gangland thriller set in Los Angeles.
The rise in the number of films made in recent years attest to the growing strength of Thai cinema, both in quantity and quality. On record, 53 films were made in 2003 compared to 25 in 2002 while more than 60 films are anticipated in 2004.
International Competition: 4 Awards
Best Film - The Barbarian Invasions (Canada/ France, Denys Arcand, 2003)
Best Director - Jim Sheridan for In America (Ireland/ United Kingdom, 2002)
Best Actor - Shared by Li Yixiang, Wang Shungbao, Wang Baoqing (Li Yang, China, 2003)
Best Actress - Giovanna Mezzogiorno in Facing Windows (Ferzan Ostepek, Italy/ United Kingdom/ Turkey/ Portugal, 2003)
FIPRESCI Award - Best Asean Film:
Last Life In The Universe (Penek Ratanaruang, Thailand/ Singapore, 2003)
Asian Short Films - Four Categories:
Best Documentary - Broken Blossom (Matsuaoka Naomi, Japan/ USA, 2003)
Best Live Action - The Anniversary (Ham Tran, Vietnam/ USA, 2003)
Best Short/Jameson Short Film Mekong Interior (Vanessa Ly, 2003)
Best Animation - 3 Feet Apart (Jason Lai, Singapore, 2002)
Honorary Kinnaree Award for Career Achievement - American filmmaker Oliver Stone
"In Tribute" Honorary Kinnaree Awards - to the Late British Director John Schlesinger and Thailands 1970s film icon, Ratana Pestanji
Crystal Lens Award for Excellence in Cinematography This new award went to the young cinematographer Christopher Doyle
This article first appeared in Spring 2004 issue of Kinema.
Too Beautiful To Live; Too Young To Die 
Bangkok International Film Festival 10-21 January 2003
by Brandon Wee
It would have been the event's sixth incarnation, but the blizzard of publicity over the Thai capital bore only "Bangkok International Film Festival" as the official title. Those none the wiser may have believed they were witnessing a birth, in tandem no doubt with Thai cinema's contemporary apotheosis. But for veteran observers, the disregard for continuity would only be too palpable for comfort, for why would an event with such a short and endearing history want to be seen as starting from scratch?
But as with history, things get hazier upon examination. Establishment figures called this Bangkok's "first" international film festival in their catalogue messages, even as Thai daily and longtime patron The Nation's report on the opening ceremony named this outing the city's "fourth". Elsewhere, in some of the poster artworks, a bunch of variants flashed an unmistakable "5th" on the mastheads while at the closing ceremony, "inaugural" was the official codeword uttered during speeches. But above all, this manifest incongruity of identities was matched by an unsettling indifference to inquiry.
To ease some disconcertment, the facts at a glance: The initial three Bangkok International Film Festivals were steered by founding director Brian Bennett from 1998 to 2000. In 2001, critic-filmmaker Pimpaka Towira succeeded Bennett as program director for the 4th annual. October 2002 saw Bennett return to mount what would have been the 5th edition, but here a lack of funding rendered the episode almost inadmissible. And yet, six months in the planning and scheduled just days into 2003, plans for Bangkok International Film Festival's hottest edition were already on the cards, with the managerial duties for the most lavish outing yet being divided between two men. Theater practitioner Kriengsak Silakong was installed as festival programmer and Los Angeles-based veteran consultant Patrick de Bokay was employed as the event's executive director. Hosting the 12-day festival of over 130 films were the five screening venues that lined the traffic-ridden Rama 1 thoroughfare in downtown Bangkok: Major WTC, Lido, Scala, SF Maboonkrong and Grand EGV, all of which beaconed the district's islets of shops and malls attracting the daily swarm of students to their kitschy insistence of branding and imagery - the engineered pollen for this generation of youth.
Like previous Bangkok International Film Festival editions, government intervention has been the vanguard of its continued existence. The Thailand Tourism Authority (TAT) ranked chief among the players this year, their renewed and dominating presence signifying a reversal of fortune for the festival across the board. Their agenda has been obvious. Thailand, along with other Southeast Asian countries, is vying for the "Tourism Capital of Asia" corollary and is predictably armed with a lustful 150 million Baht (approx. US$4 million) to prove its worth. Given the kingdom's eminent standing as a filmmaking location, TAT has accordingly adopted the infant festival to further stress the visibility and credence of her filmmaking facilities. Along with logistic essentials such as amenities, post-production services and technical resource - basically the pledge to greener filmmaking pastures, Thailand's physical environment is clearly the precursor of the bargain. Bangkok International Film Festival, it would appear, is less an endeavour to appreciate and negotiate the filmic arts than it is a vehicle for nationalist and capitalist agendas to merge into a stealthier mobilizing force for economic benefit. Already, obscene refrains like "Cannes of the East" (a platitude originally claimed by Singapore) have been littering the media loop ad nauseam, as if this persuasive label signified legitimacy.
"Masters to Present" was the theme this year and the triple pun (my preferred reading), intended or otherwise, threw up interesting tensions on the state of cinema's historiography and the contrasts between the canonized institutions of the past and the dynamic lexicon of today. One question seemed to be, how has time wrought the relevance of cinema's "masters" in an era when pluralism characterizes much of contemporary expression? Another: could the notion of "masters" and its implications be re-sited in a context removed from the logic of Western hegemony?
For "masters", cinema's ancestors were represented by a small but striking assembly of single entries that included Bergman (Cries and Whispers, 1972), Demy (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967), Ghatak (Subarnarekha, 1965), Fellini (81/2, 1963), Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, 1966) and Truffaut (Confidentially Yours, 1983). French New Wave artist Agnes Varda was in town to grace a retrospective of eight of her works and to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Festival. Nearing 75, Varda is the youthful picture of a stanch enthusiast. At a post screening discussion of Vagabond (1985) attended mostly by a group of students from an international school, Varda mused on her subject matter of choice, with insights drawn from her political concerns as well as humanitarian observations. When one student confessed her discomfort with the film's calculated pace of direction, Varda applauded the girl's observation, proceeding to elucidate a creative decision she knew would be uncomfortable to some, but that she could at least justify on the basis of the character she was intent on examining.
On the other hand, the "present" cut and spliced together names from contemporary cinema, with new works by Youssef Chahine (Silence
We're Rolling, 2001), Buddhadeb Dasgupta (A Tale of a Naughty Girl, 2002), Manoel de Oliveira (I'm Going Home, 2001 and Port of my Childhood, 2001), Amos Gitai (Kedma, 2002), Atom Egoyan (Ararat, 2002), Emir Kusturica (Super 8 Stories, 2001), Lukas Moodysson (Lilya 4-Ever, 2002), Krzysztof Zanussi (Life As a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, 2000 and Suplement, 2002) and the short film omnibus 11'09''01 - September 11 featuring 11 directors (Makhmalbaf, Lelouch, Chahine, Tanovic, Ouedraogo, Loach, Gonzalez Inarritu, Gitai, Nair, Penn and Imamura).
Dolls (2002) unravels a less ideologically masculine Kitano Takeshi as he congeals three stories of regret, recourse and redemption indexed by the syndrome of 'eternal love' and prefaced by the structure of the bunraku (Japanese puppet play) tradition, where characters from a love story come alive. The film's leitmotiv takes off from here, with the image of two star-crossed lovers ambulating eternally toward damnation. The lambent, autumnal cinematography makes this a breathtaking experience, and an appropriate choice too given the season's melancholic connotations. Some will flinch at the film's over-romanticized liberties, but it must be recognized that sentiment is the reactionary force that this genre prescribes, and this is a characteristic not uncommon to melodrama, not to mention Japanese cinema.
Fruit Chan's Public Toilet (2002) is premised on a boy born in a primitive public lavatory, but expands into a ruminative but contrived epic that voyages across geography and culture, with the mediation of life and death as a central theme. According to Chan, the economic mobility of DV inspired the film since the medium afforded the exploration of more curious subject matter. It provoked strong sentiment nevertheless (walkouts included), and although nowhere near a comic experience, the funniest moment had to be Chan's appearance for Q&A after the film's second screening. Wrapping up his formalities in faltering English, he said without a trace of self-irony: "Thank you for screening my first shit movie."
Garlands also go out to two films about tortured artists: Im Kwon-teak's stunning Chihwaseon (2002) and its inspiring direction about the talented 19th century Korean painter Jang Seung-ub, whose emotional vulnerabilities ("How can I paint without an erection?") are at odds with the immense beauty he was able to produce dextrously. Then, there is the evocative Japon (2002), Carlos Reygadas' elusive canvas set amid barren and parched landscapes about an anguished painter who hobbles to the mountains to find a way to heaven, but then meets an elderly woman, empathizes with her plight and eventually falls for her. On the subject of relationships, Yee Chih-yen's Blue Gate Crossing (2002) is nothing like lesser coming-of-age movies that regard angst unadventurously; the one thing going for this film is its treatment of the paradox that encapsulates the blissful certitude and bitter insecurities of human relationships with unhurried candor. Seeing this film, one is convinced that much more is sorely desired from films whose syrupy treatments and cardboard cutout characters claim to represent the trials of teenage love with any authority.
Enclosed in the line-up too was a section devoted to the cream of Thai cinema, comprising features, animations and short films. Thailand's orbit to the top echelons of Asia's most productive and exciting film industries owes its triumph in no small part to the confidence of the Thai audience; yet by the admission of Thais, ascendancy and popularity are no alibis for reverence. Pimpaka, director of One Night Husband (2003), argues: "The ever increasing number of Thai films is not the issue. What should be of greater concern for the industry is the lack of variety. Little investment is being made in developing new markets in exploring new approaches and breaking new ground. There is quantity, but little variety." Kriengsak, who is none too optimistic about Thai films despite the hype, verifies this, but singles out acting and writing as flaws in the pattern. "The quality's not there," he says dismissively, adding, "Thai films are always too preachy. They talk too much. I'm glad for Blissfully Yours (referring to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cannes' Un Certain Regard award for 2002). It doesn't talk."
Indeed, the program's palatable spread of Thai films may as well have served as a collective anthology of retrospectives for some of Thailand's most prominent commercial filmmakers. On board were Nonzee Nimibutr's testosterone-harnessed Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters (1997), the atmospheric Nang Nak (1999) and his crinkly skin flick Jan Dara (2001). Although Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's debut Fun Bar Karaoke (1997) and upcoming Last Life in the Universe (2003) were absent, his second feature, 6ixtyNin9 (1999) showed an assured hand at narrative engagement and a compelling gift for offbeat humour, while Mon-rak Transistor (2001) charmed with its chirpy representation of the tragic hero chronicle, about a naive village boy who deserts the army and his wife, lured away by the promise of fame and fortune. Pen-Ek is often compared to Quentin Tarantino, presumably because of his flair for characterization and a fetish for creative violence, but the Coen Brothers rank a leveler comparison, since his characters are either implicated in amusing instances of mistaken identities or ensnared in snowballing consequences caused by desperate actions.
The Festival's newly anointed Golden Kinnaree Awards (named after a Thai mythical figure) invited 11 films into competition, with crowd-pleaser Mekhong Full Moon Party (2002) by Jira Maligool as the sole Thai entry. What was dubious was the presence of Hollywood in this contest, with titles such as Frida (2002), the Festival's opening film, and The Quiet American (2002) running for presidency. Pedro Almodovar's Talk To Her (2002) deservingly came tops, earning picture and directing honors. Michael Caine won the best actor award for The Quiet American, while Aki Kaurismaki's The Man Without A Past (2002) was bestowed with the best actress award for Kati Outinen and screenplay for Kaurismaki. At the awards presentation ceremony graced by Princess Ubolratana, a curious tension presided as proxies by way of foreign ambassadors or film distribution representatives lined up to accept the awards on behalf of the winners, none of whom showed up.
Despite the glittery circus of money, hype and spectacle, it was the acute sentiments felt from filmmakers and critics alike that betrayed the parvenu status that the festival tried so hard to disguise. Some of the most resounding criticisms echoed from none other than those it had specially invited to grace this opulent occasion, with protests that ranged from the excess of glamour to the absence of meaningful platforms where film could be discussed and appreciated. Simply, there was no self-irony in the fact that the consciousness of cinema was so markedly absent in the midst of an extravagant film festival whose aim was precisely to celebrate this passion.
That competing interests - those of film buffs and of bureaucrats - were conflated, but not necessarily reconciled, by a mammoth coffer is a telling reminder of how objectives can easily lose their sway in the presence of power dynamics. The adage that money cannot buy happiness comes to mind; well, since when has bureaucracy ever been a pleasurable experience anyway? Many believed they would hear the event's death knell on account of the sheer complexity of its organizational structure, but if the legions of post-festival reviews are to be believed, things by and large worked out fine. The epilogue on everyone's mind is, what will next year bring about? No one has the answers as yet, but I could do well to share once again, the stirring words of a first-time festival programmer. In spite of the inflated budget he was swimming in, Kriengsak is resolute on the topic that has been closest to his heart: "The Thai government does not understand the arts," he laments. "They need to invest."
1. Taken from a title card during the closing credits of Fruit Chan's Public Toilet (2002).
© Brandon Wee, March 2003
Brandon Wee lives in Toronto.
This article first appeared in Senses of Cinema.
In the Mood for Films:
Bangkok International Film Festival 2001
by Toh Hai Leong
The prospect of watching a good selection of indie films from more than 20 countries and the best of Thai shorts in competition should be attractive enough for most film buffs but the 4th Bangkok Film Festival (15th--25th November 2001) also promised the presence of the legendary director Wong Kar-wai and his star Leung Chiu-wai at the Gala opening film, In the Mood for Love (HK, 2000) in what is now one of Thailand's most important cultural events.
Both honoured guests, however, failed to turn up to the disappointment of the eagerly-awaiting media and the many admirers at the grand opening. With hindsight, perhaps some other equally worthy film such as Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Pulse (Kairo, Japan, 2001) or Tsai Ming-liang's latest masterpiece, What Time Is It There? (Taiwan-France, 2001) should have taken pride of place instead, knowing the unpredictability of Wong's schedules.
The honour of the closing film on the other hand, went to Oxide Pang's One Take Only (Thailand, 2001), the doomed love story of a young prostitute and a wise-cracking gangster on Bangkok's mean streets. Relatively new to the international film festival circuit, Pang proves he is a major talent. Showing technical prowess, the 90-minute urban thriller includes one of the best music scores heard recently and realistic acting from his two leads building to a cathartic conclusion of violence and blood.
Though the films by Wong and Pang show a big difference in the directors' personalities, thematically, they are about two lonely people attracted to each other in an impossible relationship. In the Mood for Love reveals a couple who turns to each other for emotional intimacy after discovering their respective spouse's infidelity without so much as sexual consummation. In One Take Only, the two protagonists would not have been drawn to each other were it not for the poverty and loneliness and the promise of money-making through the drug courier job.
Loneliness and the impossibility of man and woman connecting with each other stalked the film festival's major works. Kurosawa's Pulse (4th Bangkok Film Festival's Audience Award winner), in the manner of a cyber-horror thriller, mesmerises with his existentialist probe into the nature of a computer virus that threatens to destroy the world.
The Giant Swing Award for Best Director went to the accomplished Tsai Ming-liang's contemplative, if not difficult film, What Time Is It There?, a story that inter-cuts between Taipei and Paris. The Taipei part shows a droll copy-watch seller and his superstitious mother going through the mourning rituals of his father. The watch seller becomes obsessed with setting Taipei time to Parisian time after his encounter with a local girl who buys his dual-time watch before she leaves for Paris. For the Parisian scenes, she appears to be increasingly isolated and haunted by strange shuffling noises in her billeted hotel room until she experiences a brief lesbian encounter.
Perhaps under the influence of his senior contemporary, Zhang Yuan, whose award-winning cinema verite-inspired Sons (China, 1996) told a harrowing tale about a Beijing family of alcoholics playing themselves, director Zhang Yang's Quitting (China, 2000) is similarly a docu-drama about Chinese actor Jia Hongsheng who plays himself. A drug addict-cum-alcoholic who becomes increasing psychotic, Jia comes into conflict with his father who quits his job to help his son recover. The film won the festival's prize for Best Feature.
The Special Jury award went to This Is My Moon (2000) by the relatively new Sri Lankan director, Asoka Handagama.. The film explores the endless ethnic war, rape, jealousy and betrayal, through the story of a Sinhalese soldier who deserts the army after raping a Tamil woman. When he sets out for his own village, the woman follows him. On the other hand, Turkish director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Clouds of May (2000) won the Best Screenplay award with his contemplative chronicle of a filmmaker who returns to his homeland to video shoot the changes that have taken place after his long absence.
Fans of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's latest film, Millennium Mambo (Taiwan-France, 2001), starring the exotic Shu Qi, were disappointed when it failed to arrive for the festival. It had shared the Technical Prize for Sound with Tsai Ming-Liang's What Time Is It There? at the 2001 Cannes festival and thus was awaited with fervor. However, those who wanted to watch Shu Qi were compensated for in Mabel Cheung's brilliantly-shot but pretentious film, Beijing Rocks (Hong Kong, 2000) where she plays a temperamental lead singer caught between two men.
Hong Kong was better represented by two independent films of integrity: Mak Yan Yan's Ge Ge (Brother, 2001) and Carol Lai's Glass Tears (2001). The former is a journey of self-discovery for a young Hong Kong man who journeys up to northern Qinghai in search of his elder brother. The latter is a homage to Hong Kong's martial arts icon, Loh Lieh, who plays a diabetic grandfather in search of his missing granddaughter with the help of a streetwise girl and her drug-pusher boyfriend.
As with all film festivals, it was the "major league" films taking up about 10 per cent of the festival selection that drew the biggest crowds. These were the conscience-driven films speaking up for the oppressed, particularly women in highly patriarchal societies. They included Marzieh Meshkini's surrealistic The Day I Became a Woman (Iran, 2000), Jafar Panahi's The Circle (Iran, 2000), and Jagmohan Anand's Sandstorm (India, 2000) which kicked up a literal storm of controversy in India last year over the true-life story of a gang-rape of a woman potter campaigning for women's rights by three high-caste elders of her village in Rajasthan.
Black comedies, well-made and acclaimed critically, are the staple diet of festival goers. Here, Joel Cohen's The Man Who Wasn't There (USA, 2001) packed in the crowds with his understated but intelligent tale set in a small northern Californian town in the1940s about a reticent barber who narrates his slow descent into tragedy when he decides to blackmail his wife's lover. Moving back to the present, American indie director Daniel Minahan's Series 7 (2000) is a scathing satire of "reality" television shows like Survivors. Six selected "contenders" must kill or be killed in a competition that leaves the survivor to clinch the prize. The film makes sly digs at the almost surreal but harsh reality of tv ratings -- the more bizarre, the more audiences watching it, sans morality. It speaks also of today's live telecasts of brutal killings -- on both sides of the law. Another film with dark humour is Japanese strongman Kon Ichikawa's Dora Heita (1999), a samurai tale which works as a sort of political allegory about an unconventional magistrate who is tasked with reforming a lawless enclave teeming with smugglers, bootleggers and pimps.
This year's documentary films were largely well-chosen and the subject matter wide ranging. Among them were two incisive studies of two different film personalities currently at work -- the first was British film critic Tony Rayns' The Jang Sun Woo Variations (Korea, 2001) about the maverick Korean director whose oeuvre of controversial films include the1999 Lies, the ultimate S & M sex film employing real-life amateurs who whip each other while having sex. The other was by Australian filmmaker Rick Farquharson on cinematographer Chris Doyle titled Orientations: Chris Doyle -- Stirred But Not Shaken (2000) with comments by Doyle and his regular collaborator, Wong Kar-Wai.
Hunt Hoe's Who Is Albert Woo? (Canada, 2000) is an earnest enquiry into what constitutes the Asian male psyche or identity. The film introduced clips that reinforced Asian male stereotypes as well as interviews with the affable Hong Kong star Jackie Chan who reveals a softer side to his macho character.
Israeli documentary filmmaker David Fisher's autobiographical Love Inventory (2000) makes an engaging inquest into the disappearance of his twin sister, Sammy, who had apparently died some five decades before, buried under an unmarked grave. Here, he shows his close relationship with his other surviving siblings, especially with his actor-musician brother Ammon who, though diagnosed a psychotic, is a creative composer. Earlier it was shown and enthusiastically received by the Mass Communications students of the Chulalongkorn University to inspire them in their documentary film careers.
Docu-dramas were also accessible to serious film buffs. An example was Ariel Rotter's Just For Today (Argentina, 2000) about five characters in pursuit of their dreams. Another was the emotionally detached Jacky (The Netherlands, 2000), jointly-directed by Brat Ljatifi and Hu Fow Pyng. Hu plays a 25-year old railway waiter in Eindhoven still under the dominance of his mother and who takes on a mainland Chinese bride from a mail-order video. The film impresses with an innate sincerity without the usual Hollywood histrionics.
Ever since Nonzee Nimibutr's breakthrough gangster film, Daeng Bireley and the Young Gangsters (1997), there has been a discernible trend of new Thai films receiving critical as well as box-office success from leading film festivals in Asia and internationally. Other than Daeng Bireley, among them at this year's festival were Wisit Satsanathiang's Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) and Nonzee's current controversial period erotica, Jan Dara (Thailand-Hongkong, 2001).
The 4th Bangkok International Film Festival also gave a retrospective of seven earlier works by veteran Thai filmmakers -- among them three major films -- Butterfly and Flowers (1985), Once Upon a Time (1994), Fluffy (1990). Although well-made, the recurring coming-of-age theme of the earlier Thai cinema was perhaps becoming a little stale. By the mid 1990s, however, a whole new generation of filmmakers who had cut their teeth making commercial video clips and music television shows were ready to try their hand at feature filmmaking. It was just as well, for by then the Hong Kong and even Taiwanese New Wavers were showing signs of decline and it was Thailand's turn to make a mark in Asian cinema. The arrival of new Thai films around 1997 also coincided with a wave of significant films from South Korean with its proponents of a new aesthetics in filmmaking. Others like Oxide and Danny Pang, twin brothers from Hong Kong who had transplanted their cinematic roots in Bangkok have also paved the way for a new Thai film renaissance.
The two major trend-setters, Nonzee Nimibutr and Pen-ek Ratanaruang went on to make the two box-office hits of 1999 -- the former with Nang Nak, a stylish version of a ghost story based on a Thai legend made many times over while the latter made 6ixtynin9, a black humour thriller about an out-of-work banking assistant who escapes her triad pursuers over illegal money she unwittingly possesses. The sleeper hit of 2000 was Yongyoot Tongkongtoon's The Iron Ladies (2000) based on a true story which traces the development of a volleyball team of gays from northern Thailand. It attracted the attention of Time Magazine which helped promote the film's success internationally.
With the emerging trend of Pan Asian film collaboration, Thailand's young filmmakers appear ready to widen their cinematic horizons and the Bangkok International Film Festival has an important role to play in promoting them. Moreover, with the active involvement of the Department of Export Promotion, the Tourism Authority and the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand in getting more international and regional film people involved, the 4th Bangakok International Film Festival is set on a path of expansion and its future looks promising.
Best Feature: Quitting (Zuotian, China), director Zhang Yang
Best Director: Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan (What Time Is it There?/ Ni neibian jidian)
Best Screenplay: Clouds of May (Mayis sikintisi, Turkey), director Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Special Jury Prize: This Is My Moon (Me mage sandai, Sri Lanka), director Asoka Handagama
People Choice Award: Pulse (Kairo, Japan), director Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Thai Short Film Competition
Grand Prix: Ror-for-tor-bor-khor-sor, (director Mod- X1)Special Jury Prize: Destiny (director Panu Aree)
Honourable Mention Awards: Tawee's Sea (Talae Kong Tawee, director Navarutt Roongaroon)
Fish don' t Fly (director Pramote Seangsorn)
The Pink House (Baan see chompoo, director Suwan Huangsirisakul)
Red Bull Extra Award: A Murder in the Garden (Kattagam nai suan, director Saranyoo Jiralak)
© Toh Hai Leong 2001
This article first appeared in Kinema 2002.