The 2nd Bangkok International Film Festival

Jan 22 – Feb 01 2004

Officially only in its second year, Bangkok’s film showcase has a fight on its hands to establish itself as the premier festival in East Asia. Not only does it face strong competition from some excellent, well-established festivals such as Singapore and Pusan, its January slot has it up against Rotterdam, Sundance, Berlin and the Golden Globes in the scrap for high profile titles and guests. Evidently the festival has plenty of money at its disposal, but whether that will be enough to elevate the festival into the big time remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, this year’s event struggled to get into gear with the film schedule published at the very last moment, several prints failing to arrive in time for their first screening, and ticket selling facilities proving woefully inadequate. Furthermore, titles continued to fall off the schedules as the festival proceeded, often with very little notice, much to the frustration of dedicated festival-goers (very few of whom, it must be said, seemed to be local Thais).

Of the films that did arrive, there was a substantial emphasis on South-east Asia: a Thai Panorama of recent releases, an ASEAN competition, a retrospective of Thai documentary, and a tribute to the most influential Thai director of the 1950s and 60s, R.D. Pestonji. The rest of the schedule was filled out with a cluster of big name titles (Lost in Translation, Sylvia, Dogville), numerous established festival hits (Osama, Zatoichi, The Saddest Music in the World, Hukkle, Blind Shaft), and a selection of new titles just starting out on the festival circuit. While big name guests were in relatively short supply, a two-day cinematography event led by Christopher Doyle and Anthony Dod Mantle was a notable success.

The festival opened with Siam Renaissance (Thailand, 2004), a new, much-anticipated historical drama from former documentary maker Surapong Pinijkhar. The film follows a Thai researcher in Paris who uncovers a document written by a French traveller to Siam in the 19th century. In examining the document, the researcher finds herself slipping back and forth in time between the present day and the time of Siam’s exploitation by colonialists from France, Britain and America. Thai critics seemed enthusiastic about the film, seeing it as a powerfully self-critical account of Thailand’s attitudes to the West over the last century, but the majority of the audience, especially foreign guests such as myself, found that the loose editing and drawn-out running time smother the interesting aspects of the script. The film scores highly for cinematography and performances, but it was far from the best Thai film in the festival.

More impressive, and more likely to make their way to cinemas in the West, are theatre director Ekachai Uekrongtham’s film debut Beautiful Boxer (Thailand, 2003) and Okay Baytong (Thailand, 2003), the fourth film by the father figure of new Thai cinema, Nonzee Nimibutr. Beautiful Boxer tells the story of Parinya Charoenphol (popularly known as Nong Toom), the notorious transvestite kickboxer, and boasts a brilliant and brave performance from lead actor Asanee Suwan (actually a pro boxer with no previous acting experience). Ekachai has spent much of his career in Singapore and so has something of an outsider’s point of view on Thai society, plus his film is somewhat more ‘Western’ in its construction than most Thai films, so overseas success may be a possibility for this impressive film.

Okay Baytong marks a development for Nonzee, in that it is the first film of his to deal with contemporary issues. After much comment on his idolisation of the past, Nonzee has taken a huge stride by choosing to make a film reflecting on the most sensitive of current issues, Islamic terrorism. The film follows a Buddhist monk who leaves the brotherhood to raise his young niece after his sister is killed by a bomb left on a train. The fish-out-of-water element of the monk’s story seems to reflect the director’s feeling of being forced into unfamiliar territory, though it is played for gentle laughs rather than with any real bitterness. The theme of militant Islam is well worked through revelations about the connections between the minor characters, though the resolution seems rather naïve. It’s not really clear why Nonzee should have greater insight into the subject than the rest of us, but he is a talented enough storyteller to keep us intrigued.

The ASEAN section was dominated by a wave of Malaysian DV features, the most enjoyable of which was Room To Let (Malaysia, 2003). A slacker comedy in which an unemployed drifter moves into a house inhabited by assorted listless oddballs (including a ghost in the toilet) and from which one tenant has mysteriously gone missing, Room To Let proved very East Asian in its approach to narrative (that is, borderline incomprehensible), but its oddness and inertia was remarkably compelling.

In stark contrast to Room To Let’s static style was Royston Tan’s magnificent 15 (Singapore, 2003), a hilarious, lacerating piece of shit-stirring obviously designed to cause as much offence as possible to conservative Singaporean society. Tan’s account of nihilistic, narcissistic teenagers crams in street violence, drug dealing, internet porn, self-mutilation, suicide, homosexuality, male nudity, and an admirable quantity of swearing. 15 has bombed in Singapore after censors made twenty-seven cuts to the film, but it is a major achievement and could surely do good business in the UK if a distributor could get it past the BBFC.

There were also many highlights from the rest of the world, notably Jagoda At The Supermarket (Serbia, 2003), a chaotic comedy in which the eponymous cashier of an American-style grocery store inadvertently provokes a deranged war veteran into holding up the store when she is rude to his elderly grandmother. As the incompetent hold-up proceeds, the staff are taken hostage; but while everyone else is in fear of their lives, Jagoda becomes strangely attracted to her over-sensitive captor. There’s obviously something of Dog Day Afternoon (US, 1975) about Dusan Milic’s film, especially in the scenes of the crowd of onlookers siding with the criminal against the police. Milic uses his scenario to pointedly comment on Serbia’s troubled psyche, though the film remains very much the confused, disjointed onslaught that one might expect to emerge from a country struggling to find its way in the post-Milosevic era. Branca Katic makes a wonderful heroine, though it’s hard to know to what extent we should be rooting for her. But in the end this complexity of motivation and response is – perhaps inadvertently – the film’s greatest asset.

Deadpan comedy The Magic Gloves (Argentina, 2003), the third feature by director Martín Rejtman, provokes obvious comparisons with Aki Kaurismaki, though for me Rejtman has substantially more to say than his Finnish counterpart. The Magic Gloves follows Alejandro, a decidedly unhip taxi driver who is dumped by his girlfriend but consequently finds himself drawn into a social circle of heavy metal producers, pill-poppers, porn stars and wannabe business tycoons. Somehow this is all fashioned into an intriguing portrait of the slow, sorry decline of the middle class in Argentina, as Alejandro spends his time ferrying people to the airport as they look for mental relief overseas. The symbol of Alejandro’s once-trendy Renault 12 looms large as he trades, sells and eventually loses it, resigned in the end to taking a job as a lowly bus driver. Rarely has a film proved so funny and so gloomy at the same time.

Also rather wonderful was writer-director Andrea Dorfman’s second feature Love That Boy (Canada, 2003), a charming comedy somewhat in the tradition of Rushmore (US, 1998) and Welcome To The Dollshouse (US, 1997). Nadia Litz carries the film as Phoebe, an over-achieving student with a list of weird and wonderful feats (learn Braille, watch all films considered French New Wave) to achieve by the time of her imminent graduation. Advised by her exasperated best friend that perhaps she should add to the list getting a boyfriend, Phoebe sets to work with characteristic vigour, but the only decent candidate turns out be neighbour Fraser – the problem being that he is only fourteen. With limited resources and a very tight production schedule, Dorfman has created a film which is not only emotionally satisfying, but also looks much better than it might. Shooting on DV and then blowing up onto 35mm has given the film an unusually intimate look which suits the subject matter and location (Halifax, Nova Scotia) very well, while the colourful production design neatly complements the appealing characters and nicely upbeat ending.

Finally, Zhou Yu’s Train (China/Hong Kong, 2002), is a complex and elegant emotional drama starring the superlative Gong Li, reuniting with Breaking The Silence director Sun Zhou. She plays an impulsive artist involved in two tumultuous affairs: first with intensely private poet, Chen Qing (Tony Leung Ka-Fai); then, when he is seconded to Tibet, with Zhang (Sun Hong-lei), a plain-speaking veterinarian who appeals to an entirely different side of her personality. The component parts of this simple narrative are shuffled in a disorienting way, and things are complicated still further by another character, Xiu (also played by Gong Li), who calls into question whether Zhou Yu is a real or fictional person within the film’s world. I wouldn’t have been so interested had it not been for the presence of Gong Li, but despite being a bit too arty for its own good, Zhou Yu’s Train is beautiful, intriguing and finally a success.

At the presentation of the Golden Kinnaree awards, best film was awarded to Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions (Canada/France, 2003). Jim Sheridan was declared best director for In America (UK/Ireland, 2002), the three male leads of Blind Shaft (China, 2003) shared the best actor trophy, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno won best actress for her performance in Facing Windows (Italy/Turkey, 2003). The ASEAN competition was won by Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s wonderful Last Life in the Universe (Thailand, 2003), and a lifetime achievement award was bestowed upon Oliver Stone, conveniently at work on Alexander the Great in Thailand at the time.

Had there been an audience award it might well have gone to the immensely popular thriller El Nominado (Chile, 2003). Set on a reality TV show in which the latest evictee flips out and starts murdering his fellow contestants while the unscrupulous producers sit back and enjoy the soaring ratings, the first film by co-directors Nacho Argiro and Gabriel Lopez was something of a shock success given that Thailand is one of the few places that has not yet succumbed to a deluge of reality TV shows. In a festival characterised by disappointing audiences, this was a film that the Bangkok audience really connected with, perhaps because it eschewed arty pretensions for a more visceral style. It also demonstrated the broad range of work on show at the festival (kudos to the programmers for their excellent work). If this is maintained, and if the organisers can more effectively reach out to the local audience, next year’s BKKIFF could be something really special.