So the English program guides ran out on the second day and the organizers actively discouraged press coverage. But it wouldn’t be a Thai event without those quintessential touches of disorganization.
Overall, though, the second annual Bangkok International Film Festival (BIFF) was bigger, better, shinier and more organized that the first one. In fact, it was well organized. BIFF can’t yet compete with the annual Hong Kong extravaganza, but with Thailand’s relaxed approach to censorship and relative lack of xenophobia, the Bangkok festival could give the Singapore festival a run for the films and the corporate advertisers’ money. Over 100 movies-films, videos, documentaries and shorts-screened multiple times over a ten-day period ending October 3. Juried and popular awards were inaugurated. There were appearances by 17 directors and retrospectives of the work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and Indian documentary maker Anand Patwardhan. A few big budget mainstream films were on tap, such as the intermittently entertaining “Mystery Men” and the schizoid “Crazy in Alabama,” Antonio Banderas’ disastrous directorial debut.
But the stress was squarely on smaller independent films. Wildly varying in quality (surprise!), they came from every continent but Africa. Thailand, Argentina, Brazil, Czech Republic, China, France, Iceland, India, Iran, Netherlands, Philippines, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan and the United States. Ostensibly, the reason for the festival’s smaller proportion of Asian films and the larger share of US ones was the increase in screenings of Asian films in the past year, thanks to mini film festivals sponsored by Asian embassies and organizations here. Here’s another possibility: for sheer variety of technique, production values, and political perspectives, bolstered by strong acting and plotting, maybe the Americans are just better at grabbing an audience that extends beyond US borders. Indian directors can do it consistently as well. So too, sometimes, can the Chinese. Except for fantasy, the Japanese are pathetic when not crudely racist (see, or don’t see, “Deep River”). Could it be because Americans and Indians are already accustomed to reaching a diverse audience within their homelands? What follows are a few highs and lows from the City of Angels, Eastern Division …
JESUS IS A PALESTINIAN ^ * * * * * ^ Any theories about small nations being unable to engage international audiences are sucked out the window by the work of Dutch director Lodewijk Crijns. “Jesus is a Palestinian” is the millennial movie. Back-to-the-land movements, charismatic cults, alternative medicine, body piercing-which country isn’t confronting such universal concerns? And laughing at the extremes they can take? For eight years, innocent Ramses, played with deadpan wit by Kim Vankooten, has been laboring in Rajneesh-ish attire on a religious agricultural commune. When his sluttish estranged sister turns up, she persuades him to pay a visit to their dying father. The father has his own spiritual concerns. He’s obsessed with a Palestinian prophet who has set up a rooftop neon-lit church, where the Messiah is scheduled to appear on the dawn of the year 2000. Meanwhile, Ramses’ sexual awakening with his sister’s roommate is complicated by the woman’s self-destructive sexual associations. Not to mention his own piercing impediment. This brief explanatory shot posed the festival’s only potential censorship problem; the issue was deftly short-circuited by screening the film without charge. No doubt it will perplex censorship boards elsewhere, but the shot can hardly be classified as gratuitous nudity: it’s the nub of the joke. There are plenty of jokes in “Jesus is a Palestinian” and plenty of reflections on why people pursue their own extremes.
PUPS ^ * * * * ^ In common with “Jesus is a Palestinian,” viewers of the future will observe that “Pups” is “very 1990s” in its references to pop culture, media-managed events, public obsessions and the excesses of the gun culture. The United States may set the agenda, but none of these themes are peculiarly American. People that think only the U.S. culture thrives on violence don’t get around much. Thais are avid hostage takers (blame amphetamines). And just a few days after the festival, a half-dozen Burmese exiles with AK-47s easily held the Burmese embassy in Bangkok hostage for two days before wangling a carnage-free escape by helicopter. Like the protagonists in “Pups,” they hadn’t give much thought to demands either. Maybe they were just bored. In “Pups,” an nerdy 13-year-old asthmatic boy, Stevie (Cameron Van Hoy), swipes his mother’s handgun. On a whim, he holds up a bank. His girlfriend, Rocky, “short for Raquel” (Mischa Barton), tags along for the ride. The rest of the film is a “hostage situation” as the bored hostages grumble and the media and police close in. Director Ash claims to have been inspired by recent schoolboy murderers in the United States and Britain, and the film was completed only a few weeks before the Columbine massacre. “Pups” bears an incongruous dedication to all the victims. Incongruous, because “Pups” offers no insights into forces or motives, and evidences no concern for actual or potential victims. We have no reason to believe that Steve shares the deep-seated hates and fears that drove the real-life killers. Whether Ash knows it or not, he’s made a social satire: place a bunch of likely people in a possible, if not plausible situation (a California bank with such a primitive security system?) and let the likely reactions and interactions unfold. Like Stevie, Ash was probably more inspired by Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” than news events. But that movie was made in the 1970s. What happens in the 1990s? For one, hostages are so jaded that they’re no longer so susceptible to the Stockholm Syndrome. For another, the bank’s video cameras instantly relay the scene to television, and MTV’s Kurt Loder can conduct a live interview up close and personal (though wouldn’t an Internet exchange be more cutting edge?). When Stevie decides to order in lunch, he runs through possible cuisines (“Thai? Italian?”) and near reaches the end of his rope when one picky hostage objects to cheese on the pizza: “I’m allergic to cheese.” Ash demonstrates a confident handling of an ensemble cast, marking a huge step up from the single-minded thrust of 1998’s “Bang,” which also ran at the festival. It gradually dawns on the viewer that all the hostages nurse grievances of the moment: the gay assistant bank manager unleashes a bitchy put-down; the disabled man makes sure everyone knows his libido is operational; the middle-aged white male bank manager is reflexively rebuffed in an attempt to exert the authority of yesteryear. Not that these people are stereotypes–first-rate actors make them full-blown characters–but they’re too self-absorbed to imagine any common effort. Then there’s Rocky’s public accusation, when her father pleads with her from a bullhorn, that he has sexually abused her. This might be her unique claim to victimhood beneath a sassy veneer, but it’s questionable; it’s more significant that this is the one statement that police negotiator Bender (Burt Reynolds) and probably everyone else readily believes, no matter the circumstances. As Stevie, Van Hoy is precocious screen presence. Reynolds is the essence of assurance. Not that the policeman’s mission can be called a success in the end. But in the 1990s, this is as good as authority gets.
ONE STEP ON A MINE, IT’S ALL OVER ^ * * ^ The source material should be surefire. A festival premiere, “One Step on a Mine, It’s All Over” is the dramatized story of a Japanese freelance photographer who disappeared behind Khmer Rouge lines in 1972. Moreover, Taizo Ichinose (Tadanobu Asano) wasn’t a New York Times correspondent with a salary and an entourage. He spoke Khmer and lived on a shoestring in the manner most Cambodians do-in peasant poverty. Filmed in rural Cambodia and Thailand, “One Step on a Mine” opens with an adrenaline rush in the midst of battle. But from there, it meanders off on sidetracks, including the obligatory romance with the obligatory gentle bystanding bargirl. Director Sho Iarashi can’t be forgiven the sidetracks when not a single character wonders why or whether the Khmer Rouge will prevail. There is enough opportunity. Ichinose has a passing friendship with Western photographer, who is killed in action, and longstanding ones with Cambodians, including a man with a Khmer Rouge brother. After the bombs explode and the snipers melt away, might not a Cambodian sigh that, what with Prince Sihanouk urging his little children to join him via Khmer Rouge radio, the rebels might at least be an improvement over the corrupt Lon Nol forces? No doubt it wasn’t intentional, but the lasting impression is of a demented young man who would have been just as foolhardy and incurious had he landed in a natural disaster. Why then was this film voted the audience’s favorite? It couldn’t be due to the cliched acting. Probably because the vote enabled viewers’ to express their sincere feelings that those Khmer Rouge were darn awful. Or perhaps it indicated a sense of relief that there wasn’t any reference to the Thai military’s long and intimate relationship with the Khmer Rouge, which continued right up until the rump communist army’s demise in 1998.
ADRENALINE DRIVE ^ * ^ Memo to studio execs who say–and they’ll show you the figures-that Asian audiences only want non-stop action, explosions, bombs and blood, preferably ignited by Steven Seagal or Bruce Willis: you’ve got to see “Adrenaline Drive.” It’s a road movie, directed by Shinobu Yaguchi, reputed to be the Japanese mastermind of comedy. In the line of duty, a mousy nurse gets her hands on a suitcase full of yakuza (mafia) yen. Immediately deciding to steal it, she runs away with a passive young rental car driver. A yakuza gang follows in tepid pursuit. There’s no sex , only slapstick violence and only one (quite satisfying) explosion. As nurse Shizuko, Hikari Ishida is a passable actress who morphs into beauty when she spends some yen on a makeover. As her colorless companion Suzuki, Masanaobu Ando offers no clue how he came to be teen heartthrob Like the comic gangs that infest so many Japanese variety TV programs, the yakuza here are a singular clumsy glob with no individual quirks or identity. The various vehicles don’t move very fast either. This viewer struggled not to doze at the wheel. But there’s no denying that the audience adored “Adrenaline Drive.” They laughed, they cheered, no one walked out. And these were hip, elite, educated viewers: not only did they foreswear pirated videos to attend a pricey film festival, they presumably all could read English subtitles. This film would bomb big-time in the United States or Europe. But something like it could be made cheap for the Asian market. Any television director could do better work, especially with the starring vehicles.
NANG NAK ^ * * 1/2 ^ It’s broken the “Titanic” box-office records in Thailand. It’s directed by the talented and unusually artsy Nonsri Nimbibutr, whose “Dang Bireley’s Gang” hit the international festival circuit two years ago. And finally, “Nang Nak” (“Mrs. Nak”) won the jury’s Golden Elephant Award. The award wasn’t a shoo-in. The six-member jury numbered only one Thai and included “Newsday” critic John Anderson and Australian director Deb Verhoeven. The jurors must have been gripped by the lush cinematography and Nonsri’s gift for evoking time and place. This time, the setting isn’t gang life in 1950s Bangkok, but the deceptively idyllic canal-side peasant life of a century previous. A devoted young wife, Nak (Indira Charoenpura), dies in childbirth while her husband Mak (Vinai Kraibutr) is away at war. Her love is so undying that, when Mak returns, her ghost convinces him that she still lives while wreaking death and havoc on neighbors who try to inform him of the awful truth. This legendary ghost story has been dramatized on Thai screens many times before, but Nonsri’s slant is fresh. He plays down the usual brew of horror and misogyny, emphasizing instead the depths of the Nak’s attachment. It’s a laudable choice, but bad box office. If he had notched up the scary elements and spurted more blood, he’d have a pan-Asian hit and few would have winced over the horrible acting.
KON JORN ^ * * * ^ Perhaps one needs to have just watched the insipid, treacly Vietnamese-American film “Three Seasons” -phony in every detail and rotten at the core-to appreciate the bracing authenticity of “Khon Jorn” (“Human Robbers”). It’s the shoestring 87-minute debut of a young Thai director, Attaporn Thaihirun. Owing much to the look and sound of the US television series “Cops”, it employs a handheld camera throughout. Frankly, it’s used too much and too long. Together with the choppy editing, by the end it had induced queasiness or boredom in many a viewer. What makes the film so radical in Third World Asia is Attaporn’s determination to show corruption in action. That Thailand’s police (like Vietnam’s) are pervasively corrupt isn’t news. But you can tell that Attaporn promised himself: I’m going to show how cops really talk, how these respectable business types really talk and how casually these two conspire.
The film begins in the cluttered Bangkok home of a nouveau riche businessman, an ethnic Chinese, who has employed two young Burmese men as household help. When the two quarrel with the man’s son, the man gets rid of them by calling the neighborhood cops. That he has been employing illegal migrants doesn’t matter in the least. He’s been paying protection money anyway and the cops remind him they’re due their Chinese New Year’s dosh. Treated like cattle, the Burmese are taken to a typical grimy Thai jail, where the cells must stink of the latrine. The two men escape and return to the family’s home. Finding the snotty teenage daughter home alone, they kill her and, at too great length, trash the trashy place. When the parents and the police show up almost simultaneously, and the cops kill the Burmese men, it isn’t so far-fetched that they would immediately start discussing a cover-up (and that the cops would bring up money again). That’s how Thailand works, if one is what Thais call “an influential person.” More problematical is the depiction of the Burmese. Many found it stereotypical, if not racist. In real life, it’s unlikely that the two escapees would return to the house: they’d head for the Burmese border. This viewer was simply grateful to finally see an Asian film that acknowledges the existence of illegal migrants and hint at their abusive conditions. There are hundreds of thousands of foreign migrant workers in Thailand alone. More festival-goers were riled that once again, the bad guy businessman was ethnic Chinese. It’s a valid criticism. Blueblood Thais aren’t any cleaner or nicer to the lower orders. But a large proportion, perhaps the majority, of well-off Bangkok business families are ethnic Chinese. It’s also true that throughout Southeast Asia, Chinese have a flair for vulgar consumption. Perhaps Attaporn couldn’t resist the accouterments: The businessman drives the mandatory Merc and his children chatter incessantly on mobile phones, but they live in cramped cluttered quarters behind a rattling garage-type door. It’s *so* Chinese, but so Thai too. “Khon Jorn” is riddled with flaws, but it presents a raw slice of Thai–that is, Asian–life that official Thailand and Western travel agencies don’t want to see. “Three Seasons”‘ Tony Bui managed the feat of pandering to both the gauzy sentimentaliy of Sundance judges-none of whom could have walked Saigon streets in this decade-and the preferred propaganda of a blatantly corrupt police state. Who deserves to make a second film with a bigger budget?
KARMA LOCAL ^ * * * 1/2 ^ Darshan Bhagat’s performance in “Karma Local” would impressive enough. Shedding all the American badges and gestures, he’s assumed the unhip clothes, the cigarettes and the slouch of a shrimpy F.O.B immigrant barely out of his teens. Then it turns out that Bhagat’s also the director and co-producer of this low-budget 35mm number. Bali is the new New Yorker, dutifully slaving on behalf of the American Dream in his uncle’s newsstand in the bowels of a subway station. Yearning for disruption in his dull life, he agrees to safeguard a paper bag of fish for Charlie (Josh Pais), a seedy but regular customer. When the bag, also containing $20,000, is stolen from his apartment, Bali gets sucked into a whirl of gangsters, gamblers, assault, Belmont racetrack and the nether parts of the subway system. The film has problems. Charlie is too shifty for even Bali to trust; the tale lags in its execution. What’s special about “Karma Local” is the perspective of the outsider (or the undersider) and the bemused feeling for the texture of immigrant life. For Bali, it would be unthinkable not to show up at family get-togethers. But in a bow to New World customs, his otherwise old-fashioned uncle and aunt have settled him in his own rattletrap little apartment, furnished with the indispensable little television. Despite this independence, Bali has a struck up only one friendship, with a stalwart Russian welder. Their conversations are an astute touch: immigration makes for previously impossible friendships. For Bali, the forces of karma are still very real, so it isn’t surprising-aside from being quite funny-that the Caucasian head hood in Fulton Fish Market quotes him wisdom from the Upanishad. The hood is right. In the end, it’s Bali’s knowledge of the old rules that rescues him from the complications of the New World.
MONK DAWSON ^ –* (negative) ^ Some people must have prayed to St. Jude that “Trainspotting” or even “The Full Monty” would inaugurate new themes and other classes into stultified British cinema-and that the rest of the world would care. Films festivals are full of such optimists with grandiose visions for international indies. In Bangkok, they raged about Hollywood hegemony, homogenous US culture and McDonald’s. They see the dawn of the day when the studios are overthrown by subversive multi-cultural films. They should be careful what they pray for. They could end up with a multiplex full of “Monks Dawsons.” “Monk Dawson” is well-financed, technically competent, directed by a 22-year-old Briton. And yet it can compete with the most re-heated crap dished out by any titled 85-year-old who last brushed shoulders with the masses during the Blitz. No, it’s not another costume drama or a homage to World War II heroics. “Monk Dawson” is sort of contemporary, set in the 1960s and 1970s. Nonetheless, that means: private boys’ boarding school, uniforms, spankings, Oxford, clipped accents and posh parties. Again. The innovative twist is that instead of the Anglican Church, Roman Catholics are the stone-hearted devils incarnate. They’re less compassionate than the fictive fundamentalists of “Breaking the Waves” and twice as dogmatic. After enduring a tyrannical Benedictine boarding school, idealistic Dawson (catatonic John Michie) inexplicably decides to pursue the priesthood. Assigned to a country parish, he courts trouble for his “radical” ways with his superiors. This is the 1960s. Was he conducting abortions? Counseling IRA leaders? Consorting with communist-leaning Liberation Theologists? Nope, he has baptized an illegitimate child and, apparently unaware of the generous welfare benefits of the Labour era, secretly provided food and shelter to the mother. Yeah, right. Losing his vocation and perhaps his faith (it’s not clear), he leaves the priesthood. Like so many disenchanted priests of that time, does he take up social work, participate in the anti-nuke movement or join a commune with the ideals of the early Christians? No, he gets a job as a columnist for a Tory newspaper and commences an affair with a dumb, idle and older upper-class woman that affords him entree to the best decadent parties. When she discards him for his schoolboy friend, it’s supposed to be tragic. Most Brits will hate this film because it perpetuates the notion that the frivolous preoccupations of a tiny anachronistic class represent the whole of British experience. Others will object to the circumscribed portrayal of the 1960s and early 1970s. They’ll say this was an era marked by class upheaval and a flowering of alternative lifestyles, cultures and political causes. But there’s a much larger audience that would loathe this film. That would comprise Catholics the world over, long-lapsed and otherwise. (Fortunately, they won’t get much chance. “Monk Dawson” must have been selected for this festival solely because director Tom Waller’s mother is Thai.) Sure, the Church has serious problems; hey, I could tell you. But the Church of this film does not belong to this century. Moreover, even long-lapsed Catholics are familiar with the cataclysmic reforms initiated by the Vatican in the 1960s. Clergy were encouraged to practice their faith in the “real world” and many became prominent social activists. Some lost their vocations (and less often, their faith). This film ask us to believe that while Latin American priests joined rebel armies and American counterparts marched in civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, British Catholics remained trapped in a 19th- or 18th century time warp. Whenever, it must have been a time when even young independent British directors served up unadulterated crap.