Goodbye, Dragon Inn

I’m thinking of quitting doing film festival reports because I remain sceptical that this format can produce anything novel. I get bored with, tired from and sick of the chains of conventions that will surely do more harm with each re-presentation. Hence, my mulling over the possibility of desisting. If my editors get wind of this, they might be happier people seeing as they never tire of rapping me over the knuckles for violating the orthodoxies of publishing – an attitude you might be inclined to concur with.

Bangkok International Film Festival 2004 poster

But since I promised to tell you how my first film festival of 2004 went, I shall keep my word. Bangkok this year was a disappointment. Firstly – and I think this was the most obvious – publicity and advertising were virtually non-existent. The energy and overkill of hype so potent a year ago were reduced to murmurs. Then – and surely this is no coincidence – attendance was squarely down. Believe me when I say I must have seen more Festival volunteers and staff than audience members proper. Also, late in the day, it was announced that a handful of films originally programmed would be cancelled. Some frustration naturally, though many of these were mainstream American titles, so no loss; festivals worth their salt would be better off without requesting the pleasure of such company. But to top it off, the hospitality and public relations stank. No details necessary. They plain stank. Now then, if you knew the event’s rumoured budget hovered around US$5–6 million, wouldn’t you also feel a sense of discomfort about the power of capital being lost in translation?

Most film festivals are lavish shindigs where different species of animals from the world of illusions gather to cry their hearts out, rub shoulders and let their hair down. But the Bangkok International Film Festival – at least the one backed by the Royal Thai government via the influential Tourism Authority of Thailand – is in itself a strange animal. That it has endured a lot despite its “youth” may account for this. The most interesting thing I heard during the week was that King Bumibhol Adulyadej had been displeased with the management of Bangkok’s supposedly inaugural event last year. Now I did not immediately doubt this despite it being hearsay. Recall that late last year, the revered monarch had publicly chastised PM Thaksin Shinawatra for his heavy-handedness in running the country. That this was perceived as uncharacteristic was one thing. That it was fair warning was another. If the King wasn’t happy with the Festival, I wondered what his reasons might be. And consequently, what remedial actions might have been taken that would be evident in Bangkok’s sophomore year.

Might the change in management be one such action? For it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Bangkok’s is experiencing a serious identity crisis. This year, the tourism honchos employed a team of veterans from the Palm Springs International Film Festival in California to run the show. Disquietingly, out of a sub-team of six programmers, only one was Thai and without connection to Palm Springs. Absolutely disquieting, given the predisposition. This proximity to Hollywood could also explain why names like John Schlesinger and Oliver Stone were on the menu. Both received tributes, one for being dead and the other for being alive. The latter happened to be somewhere in Thailand filming his new big-budget blockbuster about an ancient Macedonian king and had attended his lifetime achievement coronation with his leading man, some Irish punk. Also on the honour roll was Christopher Doyle, star of this new programme called “Cinematographer’s Day”, something of a master class, which also convened other cinematographers to discuss the craft. As it happened, news had filtered through that this partisan arrangement in management was causing tension between the guests and the home team to the point of internal sabotage. Almost forbidden news, juicy as roast beef! I can imagine His Majesty reacting this time with a verdict out of Alice in Wonderland.

If you must know, I attended Bangkok solely for Thai films, even though other pseudo-prestige festival attractions vied for attention, such as prosaic stargazing and elitist crap like celebrity golf tournaments. Schlesinger wasn’t the only father figure on the altar. Thailand’s R.D. Pestonji (otherwise called Ratana Pestonji) also enjoyed a retrospective. Two years back, Singapore’s festival mounted a similar programme, but the line-ups differed. Singapore screened a couple of films in which Pestonji served only as DP. Bangkok showed two others plus his final directorial effort, Sugar Is Not Sweet (1965), a gorgeous, presumably new print. The film isn’t bad, but gets incomprehensible as it nears the end. It’s about a hair-loss tonic tycoon and his womanising, sponger scion. Pestonji’s trademarks are there: character-driven motifs, comical sidekicks, familial conflict, filial underpinnings, betrayal, full-length songs and fight sequences more amusing than dramatic. Pestonji himself makes a cameo as a physician. I’m sure that was him I saw. His best directorial film is still Black Silk (1961), in which he cast his daughter in the lead. It’s a luscious piece of celluloid, drenched in colour and melodrama. I guess it’s true that Pestonji has been influential, especially to Thailand’s current generation of filmmakers, even though I think he was a better cinematographer than director. Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000) is an acknowledged homage to films from his era and most recently, Last Life in the Universe (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003) quoted a clip from a little-known Thai film that Pestonji photographed.

I saw other beautiful pictures too, all of which I hope you get to see. First off, I’ll have to tell you about The Overture (2003), which had me hollering a silent cheer by its denouement. Itthisoonthon Vichailak directs and Anuchit Sapanpong (the charismatic lead from the equally charismatic Mehkong Full Moon Party [Jira Maligool, 2002]) stars. It’s a fictionalised biography of Sorn, a traditional Thai musician of the Ranad-Ek (a wooden xylophone). The timeframe alternates between past and present. In the former, it is Siam of 1886, where we see Sorn’s prodigiousness as a boy and young man. In the latter, World War II is raging and maestro and teacher Sorn is now living out his years amid the clamour of social and cultural change. His will and personification of traditional wisdom is pitted against the government’s covetous desire to civilise the kingdom with the ways of the West, which entails curtailing indigenous cultural expression. I agree, this is nothing new. To be sure, this is a mainstream product and its heavy sentiment and manipulative formula are no accident. But there is wisdom to be gained from it, so that you won’t soon forget this moving experience.

OK Baytong

Another delight, OK Baytong (2003) by Nonzee Nimibutr – surely the darling of commercial Thai cinema. Baytong is the name of a district in southern Thailand, bordering Malaysia, and is famous for its signature dish called Chicken Baytong. In Nonzee’s film however, Baytong becomes famous when religious fanatics bomb a train station. One of the casualties is a young mother and as a result, her brother Tham, a monk who has been raised in a Buddhist monastery all his life has to return to the material world to take care of his young niece. This will not be easy for him, and part of the film’s achievement is recognising the circumstances that mandate his displacement from the spiritual state. Despite the grand conflict, Nonzee’s latest is a spectacularly quiet film, even meditative. Might this film be a plea for religious tolerance? It’s a persuasive angle, as long as it doesn’t harbour the pretensions of any “post-September 11” bullshit. Pity Nonzee wasn’t present after the screening as promised; he was caught in traffic. Darn, I now realise how this film has grown on me.

Do you remember Nong Toom, the “two” faces of Thai kickboxing, or Muay Thai? Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Beautiful Boxer (2003) is the official biopic of Parinya Charoenphol, Thailand’s famous kick boxer turned actress and model. There’s something fascinating to be said about a boy who grew up yearning to be a woman, yet who excelled at and left an indelible mark on a sport readily co-opted by the ideology of masculinity. Naturally, such an anomaly didn’t manifest without noise since purists had condemned what they saw as a scandal. But that’s not the movie’s point since it eschews external politics for internal strife. Incidentally, the actor who portrays Nong Toom is a professional kick boxer, and so are most of the cast. Sympathetic and entertaining, with a velvety cinematographic texture, but a fairly conventional outing that traces Nong Toom’s life from the lad he once “was” to the swan she now is and all the struggles in between. Triumph of the will, know what I mean?

Blind Shaft

You should also see Blind Shaft (2003), a riveting yarn of a debut which has accumulated prizes and praise, only to be rejected in its own country. Li Yang’s concern is the incidence of illegal coal mining activity coupled with the social, economic and political consequences brought to bear on the country. But there’s also a slick story beneath the sociology. It’s not quite in the league of Hitchcock as some have suggested even though the comparison is merited. Yet, the Chinese censors, always sensitive to unfavourable representations, were swift to ban the film on home soil and have reportedly informed Li that he will never make another film in China. At one post-screening discussion, Li revealed the hazards he had encountered during shooting. For the most part, this was an underground project (in all senses of the word). Then on one occasion, a shaft used as a filming site had collapsed days after they had vacated the premises. Furthermore, that the film got made at all owed much to the lies he had told government officials, claiming that he was making an entirely different film. But despite this, dissent has never been his agenda, Li will insist. It’s just a shame the Chinese have scant tolerance for autonomy.

I’ll namedrop a couple more good ones while they remain fresh. Incidentally, there would be good reason to see Lee Kang-sheng’s ingenuous The Missing (2003) and Tsai Ming-liang’s chiaroscuro-rendered Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) at one go, seeing as Lee is a regular in Tsai’s films and that there is much talk that Lee’s debut owes something to Tsai’s influence. As well, there are the parallel themes of “loss” and what it means to “miss” which both explore, thus resulting in some extremely poignant minutes to endure. Yet, they hide wildly funny moments too. The two are otherwise unrelated in content, but if you need another reason why they should be seen together, consider this subtlety. Their respective Chinese titles mean “to go missing” and “to not disperse”, each containing two ideograms, but when the four are combined in that order, they form an idiom meaning “see you soon” – a phrase uttered between people who may or will meet up with one another in the future for any reason.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring

I’ll leave you with a final image, that of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (2003) by Kim Ki-duk, a film of indubitable charm. Each season – if you care to read them as such – represents a passage of time in the lives of an elderly monk and the boy he raises. Between them, worlds collide but the otherworldly setting never changes: we are never out of sight of a temple island floating on a scenic lake in the mountains. I’m reminded of Kim’s The Isle, also set on a lake but with many more “islands”, even though that piece explored perversity. This one however is plain old storytelling with an enchanting edge. Again, there is some wisdom to be learned. Don’t miss this.

At any rate, I’ve said Bangkok’s overall experience wasn’t up to par. That’s my problem because I can’t fathom the obsession with the overpriced glitz, which only entities like tourism can command. But I have to say that I had fun, largely because it felt great to be back. After one screening, I bumped into a critic friend I had met at Singapore’s festival several years ago. He had put on weight but was otherwise unmistakable. He now programmes for a festival in Europe. So we got together, exchanged stories and I felt young again. Then, we attended this Thai film called The Whisper, an 11th hour addition to the line-up I’m sure. It has elements of romance targeted at teenagers but is a heck of an interesting film. The thing is, it had no subtitles. Rather than leave, my friend asked a Festival volunteer to interpret live for us. So there the poor girl sat, in between us in the middle of the second row, translating and fielding questions from both of us while my friend churned out a synopsis on his laptop. She did a remarkable job. In case you’re wondering, the hall was next to empty, so we did not feel like bastards.

By the way, I’ve also learnt that Los Angeles does not have exclusive claim to its affectionate appellation “The City of Angels”. After Siam’s ancient capital of Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese in the late 18th century, a temporary capital was established at Bangkok, a name that translates as “the village of wild plums”. King Rama I then moved the capital across the river to a more defensible site and renamed it Krungthep, which translates as “the city of angels” and whose full ceremonial name is the longest ever given to a place. I believe Guinness has a listing. Thais only know their capital as “Krungthep” and never “Bangkok”, but for reasons they themselves are unsure of, the world has never caught on with the centuries-old name change. Thought you might be interested to know this.

See you soon,

About The Author

Brandon Wee lives in Toronto.

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