มะลิลา Malila (Malila: The Farewell Flower, 2017)

Having mentioned there are few women directors in Thai cinema in my recent review of The Island Funeral, it’s good to see a new contingent of Thai women’s voices, not least Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose newest film (co-directed with the British director Ben Rivers) Krabi, 2562 is out on home streaming (via Mubi) today in the UK. Another recent Thai woman making films is transgender director Anucha Boonyawatana, who has made a number of films, and her most recent film is on BFI Player, though I saw it at the BFI Flare film festival a couple of years ago.


It’s very hard to watch this film and not think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mysterious films set in similar lush jungle landscapes, but what’s great about contemporary SE Asian cinema is there are other directors I can call to mind too who are doing similar things, women like Anocha Suwichakornpong or Lao director Mattie Do. What’s striking in all these films, aside from the setting, is the atmosphere and pacing. There are long, quiet stretches which would be ponderous if they weren’t so heavy with feeling between the two lead characters (Sukollawat Kanarot and Anuchit Sapanphong). There are scenes set in a crepuscular half-darkness such that the light glancing off one man’s facial features can easily be imagined as a craggy landscape when you are struggling to stay awake in a warm cinema when you’ve had a few drinks first (that’s on me, not the film), but I prefer to think of that as an oneiric cinematic effect. It’s a film that’s about a relationship between two men on the one hand, but also about the relationship between life and death, specifically refracted through a Buddhist consciousness. The temporality of life is symbolised by the threading together of elaborate jasmine flower arrangements (the malila of the title) which start to wither even as they are created, but it is also literalised in later stretches of the film. It inhabits an enigmatic register, in which the mysteries it suggests are never easily resolved, but there’s a narrative there which is left for the viewer to interpret.

Malila: The Farewell Flower film posterCREDITS
Director Anucha Boonyawatana อนุชา บุญยวรรธนะ; Writers Boonyawatana and Waasuthep Ketpetch วาสุเทพ เกตุเพ็ชร์; Cinematographer Chaiyapruek Chalermpornpanich ชัยพฤกษ์ เฉลิมพรพานิช; Starring Sukollawat Kanarot ศุกลวัฒน์ คณารศ, Anuchit Sapanphong อนุชิต สพันธุ์พงษ์, Sumret Muengput สำเร็จ เมืองพุทธ; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 30 March 2018.

มหาสมุทรและสุสาน Maha samut lae susaan (The Island Funeral, 2015)

Thai cinema isn’t exactly filled with women directors, so one of the few who is working (sporadically), since her first feature film in 2003, is Pimpaka Towira. This Thai film, like the recent Pop Aye I reviewed earlier, is also a road movie of sorts, tracking its way slowly across the Thai countryside.


A strange, slow film with a very conscious way about it, moving slowly across the Thai landscape. It’s a road movie featuring a trio — a brother and sister (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk and Sasithorn Panichnok) and the brother’s friend Toy (Yosawat Sitiwong) — who are journeying to their aunt, who it turns out lives on an island quite far from the urban trappings of civilisation. Other reviews I’ve seen have talked about the political references, but those are for people deeply embroiled in Thai politics and culture — as a lay viewer, I didn’t really pick up on much of that at all. Rather this feels like a spiritual quest in which several characters are challenged by their situation to find new ways of relating to one another and the world — or something of that nature. It’s also beautifully shot, with a graceful wandering camera which encompasses these characters, often in long sinuous takes. However, it requires a tolerance and patience for its slow cinema approach to unfolding the drama.

The Island Funeral film posterCREDITS
Director Pimpaka Towira พิมพกา โตวิระ; Writers Towira and Kong Rithdee ก้อง ฤทธิ์ดี; Cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng พุทธิพงษ์ อรุณเพ็ง; Starring Sasithorn Panichnok ศศิธร พานิชนก, Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk อุกฤษ พรสัมพันธ์สุข, Yosawat Sitiwong ยศวัศ สิทธิวงค์; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Thursday 27 September 2018.

Pop Aye (2017)

This film is made by a Singaporean director, and I can’t really include that state in my ‘mainland SE Asian cinema’ theme week because it’s an island, albeit one very close to the mainland, with a long history of connection (historically with Malaysia), as well as a number of physical bridges. However, this film was made and filmed in Thailand, so it deserves to be part of this week on that basis. It’s also rather delightful, and though I’m not sure how one might watch it now, it’s worth looking out for.


After only a few films into the 2017 London Film Festival, already this felt like a highlight. At a certain level it maybe isn’t anything new per se. After all, it’s essentially a road trip buddy movie, in which a disenchanted elderly man (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) takes a slow trip back to his family’s roots, as the filmmaker contrasts urban and rural living with a critique of capitalist building developments, and offers a poignant view of those lives lost somewhere in between. But then again, the buddy on the road trip is the titular elephant (actor name Bong), and the man (who is an architect) uses it to reconnect with his younger life, as he reassesses his life’s work and his marriage. The film feels profound in the way it considers the fullness of this man’s (and indeed the elephant’s) life, even as it wears its peripatetic narrative lightly. It also manages to fit in a few beautiful and haunting shots, and some strong supporting character work.

Pop Aye film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kirsten Tan; Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj ชนานันต์ โชติรุ่งโรจน์; Starring Thaneth Warakulnukroh ธเนศ วรากุลนุเคราะห์, Penpak Sirikul เพ็ญพักตร์ ศิริกุล; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Thursday 5 October 2017.

Die Tomorrow (2017)

There are the first hints around the world that cinemas are starting to reopen in some places, but it will surely be a long time before people are comfortable going back in any great numbers, so I suspect online releases will be the norm for a while yet, and will have renewed importance in the release calendar. At the moment, though, it’s mostly the disposable comedies (on Netflix, say) and the weird arthouse fare (mostly Mubi and BFI Player) that are getting releases, one of which is the Thai-UK co-production Krabi, 2562 this coming Friday, which I saw premiered at London Film Festival last year. Therefore my theme this week will be mainland Southeast Asian films, mostly from Thailand but with a few others from Vietnam and Cambodia too. Looking at this part of the world (also known as the Indochinese Peninsula), I’m missing Laos — the only Lao film I’ve seen was Dearest Sister, which again I’ve reviewed at the LFF already — and regrettably I’ve not yet seen a Burmese film (but I’ll have to rectify that soon).


Nobody actually dies in this film, but the framing device means its presence is constant: the suggestion being that the people we’re seeing will die the next day. It seems to have been inspired by stories in local Thai newspapers, which are recounted in intertitles, leaving us to imagine which of the headlines applies to which of the people we see, each in their own short film. Some are fairly clear (an old man sleeping uneasily, a woman hooked up to a machine) but others are more oblique. The tone throughout the six pieces varies somewhat, but underpinning it is a meditative register, and the film embraces stillness and contemplation, as in one young woman apparently thinking on the death of a colleague while heavily made up for the filming of a commercial. It’s a nice conceit, which could be a lot more morbid than it is, but instead feels like a reckoning with life.

Die Tomorrow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit นวพล ธำรงรัตนฤทธิ์; Cinematographer Niramon Ross นิรมล รอสส์; Starring Jarinporn Joonkiat จรินทร์พร จุนเกียรติ, Patcha Poonpiriya พัชชา พูนพิริยะ, Sunny Suwanmethanon ซันนี่ สุวรรณเมธานนท์; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 12 July 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Two: Desrances and Krabi, 2562 (both 2019)

After yesterday’s solitary first film, I saw two films at the London Film Festival this evening, both of which highlight people’s lives in different places (the Côte d’Ivoire and Thailand respectively) but bring a sort of outsider’s perspective, albeit using quite different genre cues.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Two: Desrances and Krabi, 2562 (both 2019)”

เจ้านกกระจอก Jao nok krajok (Mundane History, 2009)

There’s something to Anocha Suwichakornpong’s filmmaking, a sort of dreamy, elliptical oddness that has long stretches of quiet watchfulness (long takes with a fairly static camera, though often handheld so a bit shaky)… but then there are these little flares of strangeness (and I still can’t help but thinking about fellow Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul in this regard). This is a story of two men: Ake, from a rich family, who has mobility issues (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk); and the other, Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), his carer, from somewhat lower down the rungs of society. There’s almost an upstairs-downstairs dynamic (we also see the family’s cook), but that’s not really dwelt upon. What unfolds is largely this slow evolution of feeling between the two, with sort of mystical asides to astronomy and an unexpected scene of childbirth at the end (even the appearance of the opening credits 15 minutes in took me by surprise). I can’t explain what it’s doing, but it’s interesting enough for me to want to watch more by the same filmmaker (her more recent film By the Time It Gets Dark had much the same effect on me).

Mundane History film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Anocha Suwichakornpong อโนชา สุวิชากรพงศ์; Cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung 梁铭佳; Starring Arkaney Cherkam อาคเนย์ เชื้อขำ, Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk ภาคภูมิ สุรพงศานุรักษ์; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 1 March 2017.

LFF 2016 Day Ten: On Call, The Son of Joseph, By the Time It Gets Dark and The Wedding Ring (all 2016)

Ramping up to the final weekend, I had my first day of four films on Friday 14 October. All were at least interesting, and some were excellent. All four featured their directors doing a Q&A, though time constraints meant I sadly couldn’t stay for the first one (and the one I’d most have wanted to listen to).


La Permanence (On Call, 2016)

La Permanence (On Call) (2016, France, dir. Alice Diop)
There’s a very simple setup to this documentary: a consulting room at a Parisian hospital visited by a stream of refugees seeking medical attention, one of the few places they can receive such care. The doctor on call patiently deals with the people he sees (supported by a psychiatrist), but the team clearly have access to only limited resources (they even run out of prescription pads at one point). The camera films one side of the table or the other, but it’s the faces that dominate, and we see some return in happier circumstances than their original visit, but this is by no means always the case. It’s clear sighted and quietly powerful about the troubles people have experienced, and the further bureaucratic hoops we require them to jump through.


Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph, 2016)

Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph) (2016, France/Belgium, dir./wr. Eugène Green, DOP Raphaël O’Byrne)
This latest film is stylistically of a piece with Green’s other work that I’ve seen — which is to say, denaturalised acting, deadpan delivery, frontal framings, aiming for an exaltation of the text over any kind of actorly psychology. If you’re on-board with his project there’s plenty to like here, and a lot that’s quite funny too (my favourite was the utterly self-regarding young author at the start, and Maria de Madeiros’s literary critic tottering into a police standoff clutching a champagne flute). It’s about a young man without a father who is searching for one, manages to loop in a fugitive-on-the-run storyline, and then overlays a Christian allegory as the structuring device. The literary world doesn’t come out looking great, but plenty of the individual shots in the film do.


Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark, 2016)Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark) (2016, Thailand/France/Netherlands/Qatar, dir./wr. Anocha Suwichakornpong, DOP Ming-Kai Leung)
When you structure your film to have the logic of a waking dream or a memory flashback — and in this the film shares a lot of the same power as last year’s Cemetery of Splendour by fellow Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul — it can have the unfortunate effect of lulling a viewer who is watching it at one of those awkward times of the evening into a bit of a doze (I’m talking about me). I therefore had the uneasy feeling of not really knowing what was happening and wondering if there was something crucial I had missed in the few minutes I had my eyes shut, but at length I realised that no, this is just the film, and the effect is entirely intentional. It also points up the absurdity of assigning films star ratings, because it looks like I’ve given it a low score, but actually this is probably the film I’d most like to revisit. It has a tricksy looping structure which replays some scenes with different actors, which seems to present its characters’ stories alongside fragments of their memory, dramatic recreations and even music videos, to further confound any easy narrative understanding. There is, though, an intellect at work, questioning historical representation, the play of memory, the ethics of filmmaking, and any number of other subjects. In short, for all its gently undulating rhythms (the sound design emphasises the low hum of machinery, fans, or blowing wind throughout), it represents some pretty exciting filmmaking.


Zin'naariya! (The Wedding Ring, 2016)

Zin’naariya! (The Wedding Ring) (2016, Niger, dir./wr. Rahmatou Keïta)
Like Laos the other day, Niger is another country you don’t see many films from, given its lack of a film industry, or indeed much in the way of a film culture. So it’s all the more reason to celebrate that not only has a film been made there, it’s directed by a woman, it looks gorgeous, and it was entirely funded by African money. A young woman (played by the director’s daughter) has returned from studying in France, lovelorn over the boyfriend she met there who himself has returned to his homeplace. She retains hopes of marrying him, as her family use whatever means they can to help bring them together — although this largely involves a local mystic who reads the patterns in shells. In truth the story moves along at a fairly unhurried pace, but the actors (not least the lead) do a great job in making the film watchable, and the camera can’t help but find light and colour wherever it looks in this small tightly-knit community. The focus is on the women in the community above all, and their laughter and wisdom keeps the film moving through some slower patches.

รักที่ขอนแก่น Rak ti Khon Kaen (Cemetery of Splendour, 2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by the film’s director alongside the director of the Festival. There was a Q&A session afterwards as well. In his introduction, Weerasethakul joked that we might fall asleep during the film (a play on its thematic content, see below), but as it was a late screening and I’d had a few glasses of wine, I did drift off for some short periods, so the review (more than usual) should be taken as provisional.


Like many of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, this newest one (ostensibly his last to be made in his home country) is imbued with a deep sense of mystery even as it seems on the surface fairly straightforward. Jenjira Pongpas plays a woman with the same name who is a carer at a rural hospital looking after sick soldiers, including Itt (one of the director’s regular stars, Banlop Lomnoi). The nature of the soldiers’ illness is rather oblique but they have a sort of sleeping sickness that renders them comatose. Others who work there embrace spiritualism and faith-based healing, and Jenjira is certainly receptive to this, praying at a local shrine for the health of her wounded leg. One of the princesses to whom the shrine is dedicated comes to her and shows her hidden features of the local area, including a royal palace and a cemetery under the hospital. As these plot details accrue, the line between reality and the dream world is blurred, in very subtle ways — the different states are almost entirely intertwined with one another with only slight visual clues indicating the non-naturalistic nature of this resulting world. Both Jen and the audience are drawn into an imaginary landscape, which is apparently intended as a critique of the ruling regime in Thailand and their call to patriotic royalist feelings and relying heavily on appeals to a syncretic pantheistic religious practice — or at least, this is my provisional response to one viewing of the film, myself partially under the influence of sleep. It’s a fascinating work, perhaps one of Weerasethakul’s strongest, and I shall certainly be seeking out another viewing when it is released properly.

Cemetery of Splendour film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Diego Garcia; Starring Jenjira Pongpas เจนจิรา จันทร์สุดา, Banlop Lomnoi บรรลพ ล้อมน้อย; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Tuesday 13 October 2015.

รับคำท้าจากพระเจ้า Only God Forgives (2013)

A note on the title: The title card of the film is in Thai, subtitled into English. None of the online sources give me a transliteration of this title, but if I were following the rather pedantic rules I’ve been using on this blog, I would give the title in Thai.


There are undeniably words and ideas that, if you read (or indeed write) a lot of film/literary criticism, you find yourself coming across more often than one might expect in the real world. It often comes down to finding an apt adjective to try and grasp a sense of a film’s style or mood, and if any ever film was reliant on style and mood then it’s this one. And the chief adjective that comes into my addled brain is “oneiric”.

I think it’s worth leading with that because when I start getting into a plot summary it will sound all so very banal, that I must stress that when it’s playing out it owes far more of a debt to European art cinema (and you can see from all the co-production credits that it quite literally has plenty of that) not to mention the more dream-like passages of David Lynch. But I like the word ‘oneiric’ because of its Ancient Greek derivation, and if there’s any story that has inspired Only God Forgives, it must surely be that of Oedipus; plenty of what happens in the film only really makes sense if you’re attuned to the mythic archetypes that Refn is fixated upon.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of the piece is the laconic Julian (Ryan Gosling), the owner of a Muay Thai (kickboxing) gym, whose twisted brother gets himself killed. Their mother (a steely and platinum blonde Kristin Scott Thomas) demands vengeance, and things start getting messy, particularly when police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and his samurai-like blade gets involved. But if Gosling and Scott Thomas ethnocentrically head the credits list, it is in fact Pansringarm who carries the film, his implacable middle-aged detective, moving slowly and with great deliberation, functioning as the sort of avenging angel for these errant Westerners.

Other reviewers have done much better at unpicking some of the implications of cultural tourism in having a Danish director and US stars in the Thai setting (and I would point you to this piece on The Hooded Utilitarian I found while trying to Google the film’s correct Thai title). In short, though, these are interlopers in a culture they don’t fully understand and Refn isn’t interested in the usual narrative structures — famous (white) lead actor gets one over on the violently foolish locals. There’s quite a different story happening here, and it’s one with no clear winners.

If the film steers clear of the standard revenge film clichés, it comes a lot closer to being a risible arthouse exercise in style over substance — at times it’s like a pure channelling of the violent physicality and alienation of, say, Gaspar Noé (who is thanked in the credits). Certainly, Cliff Martinez’s droning score only seems to heighten the disconnect between the ravishing imagery and any emotional affect. Still, as you’ll see by the rating I’ve given the film, I don’t think it quite succumbs to the weight of all that portentous imagery, if only by the very vigour with which it is embraced. Almost every shot is saturated in neon reds and blues, as Julian drifts impassively through a seedy underworld of brothels, fight clubs and karaoke bars, presided over by the ever-watchful eyes of various monsters (the huge iconic demon on the wall at the boxing club, or the martial statue that haunts Julian’s dreams/waking life). Several of the conversations between the protagonist and his mother (not to mention a particularly grisly scene near the end) exist mostly in order to deepen the play of signifiers that Refn is so invested in: phallocentrism, castration complexes, the interplays between sex, birth and death — stuff that easily drifts into the pretentious.

What I’ve been trying to get across here, however inadequately, is that I would quite understand if other viewers were to find an arid, pretentious vision of revenge and parental attachment issues. I think the film can easily be taken that way, from its violent imagery, its hyperstylised colours and its almost narcoleptic forward momentum. And yet, if it perches on the edge of this very fine line, I prefer to think that it succeeds, compellingly pushing at the boundaries of morality in showing an impassive man who appears to have resigned responsibility for his life being confronted by an embodiment of divine judgement, retribution and maybe even forgiveness, though of all the divine qualities, that one is the most tenuous here.

Only God Forgives film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nicolas Winding Refn; Cinematographer Larry Smith; Starring Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm, Kristin Scott Thomas; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 2 August 2013.

สัตว์ประหลาด Sud pralad (Tropical Malady, 2004)

There is no doubting that Tropical Malady is a strange film. It is perplexing and operates in registers that few films do, and thinking back on it I really want to like it for what it does, and for being so resolutely unlike other films. It is a film that pushes at the boundaries of what being human means, and what separates us from animals, but it does so in a demandingly oblique way, so much so that I’d actually seen the film nine years earlier but could not remember it at all (though that may just be my own memory being terrible).

The film uses a two act structure and through the re-use of the same lead actors the possibility is held out that the second part is a re-telling of the first. However, that doesn’t account for the experience of watching the film, which is to have one’s narrative expectations constantly rebuffed, though partly that’s just from my overfamiliarity with (and reliance upon) Hollywood screenwriting structures. Here, the characters are built up through short scenes suffused with silence, glimpsed haphazardly, accruing details of life in layers (Tong’s time spent in the army, riding on buses through the city, working in an ice factory). By the time the first act is coming to a close, we only have a sense of these two people, Keng and Tong, and their growing feelings for one another, and this is where the film abruptly and surprisingly changes tack.

For the second part of the film, the screen fades from black and a new credits sequence begins, with a new title, and now we’re in mythic territory, where the line between human and animal is limned by mystical figures. Keng is now a soldier stranded alone in the jungle and Tong, naked and tattooed, is hunting him, ostensibly a shaman who can take the form of an animal. This second world is one where a bird can communicate, subtitled on screen, but it’s shot in the same naturalistic style as the first part, just with a new, deeper and darker, jungle setting.

What we’re left with then is an atavistic psychological terrain, which takes elements of folk tradition and blends it with contemporary naturalistic filmmaking practices. It’s been a consistent thematic interest of Weerasethakul, up to his most recent film Lung Buymi raluk chati (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010), which shares some of the same atmosphere, and which is in fact foreshadowed by some dialogue in Tropical Malady.

The film leaves open a lot more questions than it can possibly answer, and is shrouded in enigma. For me, I just had trouble enjoying the way the film unfolded, and found the pacing and characters uninvolving. I concede that other viewers may have a quite different reaction, gauging from some of the more gushing reviews, and I just want to be up-front about my reactions. I am conscious that I have trouble with films dealing with the supernatural (many of which tend to fall into the horror genre, though here it’s more of an arthouse tradition), as I tend to be rather prosaic in my interests. Lovers of ghost stories with a tolerance for elliptical and quiet filmmaking may find Weerasethakul’s work rewarding, but speaking for myself, I found the experience tested my patience.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographers Jarin Pengpanitch จริน เพ็งพานิช, Vichit Tanapanitch วิชิต ธนาพานิชย์ and Jean-Louis Vialard; Starring Sakda Kaewbuadee ศักดา แก้วบัวดี, Banlop Lomnoi บัลลพ ล้อมน้อย; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 24 October 2004 and Sunday 28 April 2013.