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Khon liang chang (1987)
Elephant in the middle
This environmentally themed movie is pretty sad, but powerful.
It's about an activist forestry chief who is waging a fierce war against the corrupt local police and an influential local timber baron who is conducting illegal logging on the forest. Caught between these two forces is a man with an elephant. With Thailand's forests being rapidly depleted and more tightly controlled, it is difficult for the elephant keeper to find work. The more work he finds, the less there will be for him to do. It's a sad paradox.
There are plenty of pitched gun battles. In one, the forestry chief is rescued by the elephant keeper and his elephant, who push some debris off a cliff to kill one of the bad guys. In another, a severely outgunned elephant keeper tries to hold off the machine-gun equipped henchmen with just his single-shot blackpowder rifle.
The best thing in this movie is the elephant, a magnificent animal who is said to possess a sixth sense about which people are good and which ones are evil. This is a trait I believe elephants really do possess, but unfortunately cannot always act on their senses as the elephant in this movie does with violent conviction.
Planet of the Frogs
The Siam Renaissance is difficult to classify. It's about a woman who travels back in time from Bangkok of 2003 to the capital in the 1850s, during the time of King Mongkut - Rama IV. So it could be science fiction. But there are no flashing lights or swirling trips through the vortex for this woman, played by Thai-French actress Florence Vanida. Her time shifts just happen. One minute she's there, in her bedroom in a house in Thonburi, the next she's back in the old days, wearing a silk sarong of the period.
It could also be a love story, as the character, Maneejan, gradually falls in love with a young, shirtless official in the Rama IV administration. And basically, I guess, this it what it is - based on a famous Thai historical romance novel, Tawipob.
The story actually opens in Paris, where Maneejan works for the Thai Consulate. She has something or other to do with studying a trunk of letters and other artifacts from the Rama IV area that surround a strange incident. A French diplomat recorded the appearance of a strange Thai woman who could speak English and French and fortold of incredible events, such as the US being the strongest country in the world, man going to the moon and that all Thais would be educated in reading and writing. She then heads home to Bangkok, ostensibly to further study these materials. To do so, she must consult with a Thai university history professor - a man who happens to be her father.
She stays at her mother's house (her mother and father are separated, adding an unneeded bit of soap-opera melodrama to this situation), and then the time-shifting begins. Each time there's the shift, she disappears from one era and reappears in the other, causing much running around and screaming by the supporting characters in each time zone.
At first, she lands in the house of an English doctor, Dr Bradley (a real character, he brought the first printing press to Thailand), and is cared for by the doctor and his English wife. They are among a handful foreign actors in this Thai film who do their best to not appear too stiff or confused as they make their way through this period film.
Manee is brought to the attention of the palace officials, who are suspicious of her. She is thought to be insane, or she could be a spy. This is a politically turbulent time for Thailand, as Britain and France are fighting for territory in the region. Both have sought to colonize Thailand, but have reached a compromise that Thailand would simply be a "buffer" between French Indo-China and Britain's India and Burma. Thailand comes up with the short end of the deal, losing land to both empires. In the film, the palace is under stress because a British warship is in the harbor and it's carrying Lord Bowring, who wants to wear his sword in the presence of the King.
So the palace guys think Maneejan is a spy. Or maybe she's just in insane. They don't believe her when she says the USA is the powerful country on earth and that it has sent men to the moon. They really don't believe her when she says that all Thais will be able to read and write, although they "only read six lines a year". I'm not sure what that means, but it got a good laugh from the audience. She also says Thais will be westernized, wearing Western clothes, eating Western foods, thinking Western thoughts.
"We are more accepting of the Westerners than we are of ourselves," she tells the handsome young palace dude. This is one of the more profound statements of the film, as it reflects on where Thailand is today. Not only did it lose land and influence in the region to the British and French, it lost its cultural identity, as Thais today embrace anything Western but relatively little that is truly Thai. Even the country's name has changed, from Siam to Thailand.
"Do we still have our King?" the palace guy asks, to which Maneejan replies, "It's the only thing that we keep as ours."
That earlier quote had me thinking during the rest of the film. And it was a good thing, too, what with the mess of melodrama, syrupy soundtrack music and wooden acting by the Thai and Western performers. I had trouble even going to see this film, as I knew it was directed by Surapong Pinitka, who last directed The Silk Knot, a dully abysmal television miniseries about the strange disappearance of the silk exporter, Jim Thompson.
A passing reference was made to Anna Leownens, the famous Anna of The King and I and Anna and the King - films that are banned in Thailand because they make light of the Throne. I half expected Maneejan to run into Anna in her time travels, and they very well could have met, since Anna was present in the court of King Mongkut.
Besides the humor in the film (like when Maneejam is ridiculed for her "unclear Thai" - the actress had only learned Thai for the purpose of making the film) - there was a nice plot twist reminiscent of The Planet of the Apes. All that is needed would be Charlton Heston, jumping down off his horse and pounding the sand.
Kuen pra chan tem doueng (2002)
Go along for the ride
The gimmick is at first confusing. The soundtrack to a radio soap opera set in a luxury hotel is acted out by characters who are riding a ramshackle bus from Bangkok to a small town in Northeast Thailand. The out-of-focus photography and lack of lighting don't seem to help. But, like a ride on an uncomfortable bus, you have to just sit down and make the best of it, because eventually you'll get to your destination. The radio drama occurs while the bus is moving and once your suspension of disbelief sets in, it's actually enjoyable. A T-shirted backpacker is the handsome hotel owner, a fatigues-clad soldier is the ladyboy "hostess" of the restaurant, a matronly businesswoman is the hi-so owner of a fashion gallery and a troubled young woman is glamorous fashion model. When the bus stops, at a gas station and later to change a flat tire, the drama of the character's real lives ensues and is infinitely more interesting - especially in the parallels that can be seen between both lives.
Ruang rak noi nid mahasan (2003)
Just hang with this one
Kenji, a young Japanese living in Bangkok, is no ordinary man. He's a neat freak, whose obsessive compulsive traits are revealed in his book-filled apartment, from the colour-coordinated stacks of socks in his closet to the neat row of clean plates drying by the spotless kitchen sink.
His big kick though, is suicide, which is how you first meet him, hanging by his neck from a noose. It's only a possible reality, as is most of what happens in this darkly surreal romantic comedy.
Kenji comes close to offing himself in several various ways, but is always interrupted by a noisy buzzer, bell or other alarm. He has an even darker side that is slowly revealed in a humourously warm, low-key manner.
And as more is revealed, a small cast of progressively sleazier characters are paraded by for the audience's enjoyment. There's a Thai gangster ex-boyfriend who's overwhelming, but a trio of yakuza (think Three Stooges) steals the show.
Kenji's obsessive compulsive traits are put to productive use as a librarian at the Japan Cultural Centre. It's there where a uniformed schoolgirl captures his attention. But she vanishes, almost before his very eyes.
She is seen later, at the culmination of a chain of events that brings Kenji together with the girl's older sister Noi. Other synopsis will reveal how, but I feel it's best you don't know much about this film before you watch it.
Anyway, the action is brief and tragic - as is all the action in this film. There's a little bit of gunplay - sudden and violent, yet so subtle, you wonder if youÕre dreaming.
Driving a beat-up old white Volkswagen Beetle convertible (a car that is just as much a character as the actors), the pair drive out to Noi's rundown seaside home. There, Kenji sees that Noi is everything that he isn't. There are mounds of dirty dishes everywhere. Books and magazines are strewn all over. The goldfish is floating dead, upside down in the aquarium. She's a slob, too, in contrast to Kenji's button-down appearance. She's also a pothead.
The mess is captured with moody realism by Hero cinematographer Christopher Doyle, in much the same manner he brought a smouldering feel to Wong Kar-waiÕs In the Mood for Love. Even the flotsam and jetsam washing up at the beach evokes some emotions.
Just as Kenji is out of the ordinary, so is the film. For a Thai film, there's hardly any Thai spoken. Most of the dialogue is in Japanese, and Kenji and Koi converse in English (as well as some Japanese as, by a mind-boggling twist of coincidence, she is moving to Japan).
And though it has a high-profile marketing campaign in Thailand, featuring the image of a man hanging in a noose, as well as the tail end of a VW Bug in some theatre lobbies, this film is anything but slick - a welcome break from this summer's no-brainer franchise flicks.
The timeline jumps around at various points causing some confusion, but this is a good thing, for viewers who stick with it.
The Thai Blues Brothers
This movie does for tuktuks what The Blues Brothers did for Dodge Monaco police cruisers.
In one of many thrilling chase scenes, the venerable little three-wheeled motorcycle taxis are put to the test, tipping over, sliding around, popping wheelies and ending up in a big pile at the bottom of an unfinished highway exit ramp. Anyone who's ever been ripped off by the driver of these insane vehicles will take much delight in their destruction.
The action hardly lets up in this, from a thrilling opening sequence involving a capture the flag match in a tree to an unsanctioned muay Thai boxing match set on Bangkok's infamous Khao San Road.
Other comments about how the star is destined to be the next Jackie Chan, to how the director is the greatest ever, etc, etc, tend to over-rate this film. Yeah, it's pretty darn good, and one of the best action films to come out of the Thai film industry yet. Up until this one, the best Thai films have been historical epics, like Bangrajan and Suriyothai. Even the ghost story, Nang Nak, had some good battlefield scenes. Ong Bak is more in the vein of Hollywood or Hong Kong actioners, but it's hardly on par with the likes of say Jackie Chan or John Woo.
The big problem for this film in the international market is that the DVDs are being marketed without any subtitles - not that they are really needed with all the action going on - but they would help improve the accessibility of this movie to foreign audiences.
It all seems pretty confusing at first, but once you have your head around all the palace intrigue, Suriyothai gells.
Francis Ford Coppola, a film school classmate of the director, was recently in Thailand to cut a new edit of the film. He's added some things, taken out some things and recommended that some new scenes be shot.
The new version should be released in the US sometime in 2002 or 2003, with the opening credit of "Presented by Francis Ford Coppola."
I think the original can stand as it is, but I'm eager to see the version that Coppola has edited.