Bangkok International Film Festival: Bringing Together East and West with Spectrum of Asian and International Films
by Wendy Mitchell
The city of Bangkok is full of contradictions -- modern highrises next to crowded alley slums; sacred temples and a booming sex trade, a high-tech skytrain and motorized rickshaws. The Bangkok International Film Festival, which ran January 13-24, was similarly complex -- the festival touts itself as a supporter of Thai and Southeast Asian film yet is run by a management team based in Los Angeles, the event is open to the local public yet festival organizers didn't bother to offer Thai subtitles. It boasted arthouse films but also gave a big award to Joel Schumacher. Nevertheless, the festival succeeded in offering an interesting spectrum of Asian and international titles and attracting a rather impressive array of Asian and Western film industryites. The attending talent was especially impressive considering Bangkok isn't a convenient place to pop to for a weekend. Guests included Wong Kar-Wai, Michael Douglas, Jeremy Irons, Patrice Leconte, Oliver Stone, and Olivier Assayas. And for red-carpet entertainment, Bai Ling seemed to be frolicking for the cameramen at nearly every festival party -- especially one memorable party when her top fell down several times.
It's important for any festival to find its niche. "Any festival can bring in international films and quality people from around the world. Our focus right now is on South East Asian films, and also Thai films. So we're trying to promote and emphasize Thai filmmaking to the rest of the world," says festival executive director Craig Prater. "And at the same time, we're not losing sight of new international films that we can expose to the Thailand market." In addition to the Asian and Thai focus, the festival sets itself apart with an emphasis on cinematography. Its Cinematographer's Day (actually two days) was a unique showcase for the unsung geniuses that add so much to a film. The level of expertise gathered was unparalleled -- the always entertaining Christopher Doyle ("2046"), Eric Gautier ("Clean," "Intimacy"), Robert Friasse ("The Lover," "The Notebook"), Rodrigo Prieto ("Amores Perros"), and Dante Spinotti ("L.A. Confidential," "The Last of the Mohicans") all held court and offered some wisdom about their craft.
It was, of course, a strange year for the festival, which decided to go on as planned just about three weeks after the deadly tsunami destroyed parts of Southern Thailand. The festival wisely cancelled opening-night hoopla and instead held benefit screenings and had moments of silence for the victims; several fundraiser screenings were also held throughout the week -- including a packed one of Wong Kar-Wai's "2046" (which was shot in Bangkok). Although there were probably a few cancellations because of the tsunami, most people decided to attend anyway. It was a smart decision to carry on. "Some people were concerned that there was the appearance that we're celebrating after this huge disaster, but once they knew there would be fundraising for the tsunami recovery, people wanted to come to be a small part in helping. Keeping the festival running has been a good thing for the victims who will get benefit funds." Jeremy Irons summed up his decision to attend this way: "It's extraordinary to be here a matter of weeks after such a huge tragedy. When I was deciding to come or not, I got in touch to see if it would be in bad taste to publicize a relatively light, fictional movie ("Being Julia"), but what inspired me to come and what continues to impress me is the wonderful Thai attitude of going on with life. In the West, we tend to dwell on tragedies too long. Perhaps its because of their Buddhist religion that they realize that life will go on and that the mourning process is handled with such tranquility. I'm glad that I came."
Bangkok's festival has a palpable energy to it, the excitement of a growing event. That's because it's only in its third year under the direction of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, and the third year being run by L.A.-based Film Festival Management. The aim of the revamped leadership is to turn Bangkok into a major international fest and market -- and they are headed in the right direction. This year's festival did show a growth spurt -- attendance was up (even though I saw quite a few embarrassingly sparse audiences), the program offered more films, and the market more than doubled in attendees. Of course, with growth comes growing pains, and there were a few kinks -- the ticketing situation was the worst that I've witnessed at any festival -- involving hand-written reservations and hard-copy tickets even for badgeholders. It could take more than 10 minutes to get a single ticket (even without lines), which was all the more frustrating when screenings were so empty that any badgeholder should have been able to walk right in. Another problem was that theaters were a bit too spread out -- it was rather exhausting trekking from one to another in the humidity of Bangkok's hot days. It would have been better to take over a single multiplex rather than having one screen at six venues. All the theaters were well equipped, although I did witness a few projection problems.
The festival did do many things very well, starting with locating the festival and market headquarters conveniently at the posh Shangri-La hotel. And all the theaters were well-equipped (some with leather seats if you wanted to feel particularly posh).
Movies were just the start -- the fest boasted seminars on film financing, business workshops and "power breakfasts," animation seminars, lectures on local filmmaking resources, and Troma honcho Lloyd Kaufman hosting a talk entitled "Make Your Own Damn Film." And of course, there were parties every night -- some quiet wine sipping affairs and some clubby nights with go-go dancers. The closing-night gala offered some particularly spectacular moments (as well as some spectacularly spicy Thai soup). And of course, between screenings Bangkok is an endlessly fascinating city to explore.
At the five-day market, exhibitors and attendees both more than doubled from last year's debut event. Market attendees were mostly Asian companies represented, but there were a handful of Western firms (there probably won't be more U.S. attendees unless the fest changes its dates to avoid conflict with Sundance.)
Gloria Fan, VP of production and development for L.A.-based Mosaic Media Group ("Batman Begins," "Three Kings"), said that overall she was pleased with the festival and the market. "My primary purpose [for attending the market] was for remake opportunities," she told indieWIRE. "But, also to get to know more Thai film and production companies, as I believe the Thai film market is only going to get bigger and more successful." After the fest ended, Fan is still pursuing a few titles that she spotted in Bangkok.
Among the films in Bangkok's large program, there were plenty of great ones that have been on the festival circuit ("2046," "Duck Season," "Old Boy," "Clean") as well as some Hollywood dreck ("Elektra," "The Phantom of the Opera," "After the Sunset") and some more arthouse fare in the New Voices section. I tried to see a mix of films, and was especially keen to check out a few new Thai films. The best local production I saw was "The Shutter," a scary thriller that spooked me senseless and had quite a few audience members shrieking out loud. It followed typical genre conventions but had enough smart twists to make it seem fresh. The story follows a young photographer who starts seeing strange images in his photos after he and his girlfriend are in an accident. The film's real-life inspirations from mysterious spirits showing up in amateur photos made it even scarier. No wonder it was the top-grossing film in Thailand last year. I was shocked to learn that such an accomplished debut was the work of two guys in their early 20s, Pakpoom Wongpoom and Bunjong Pisunthanagoon. Expect more great things from these two as they now pursue solo projects. And I'd also think a Western remake of this one is inevitable (rights still seem to be up for grabs).
Another Thai film I enjoyed immensely was "Citizen Dog," from "Tears of the Black Tiger" director Wisit Sasanatieng. It was a quirky and fantastical light comedy about a country boy, Pod, who moves to Bangkok and falls in love with the maid in his office. It didn't have much depth, but its playful spirit made for a very entertaining ride.
In the ASEAN competition of films from Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. James Lee's "The Beautiful Washing Machine" from Malaysia, took top honors. I also heard good things about Minh Nguyen-Vo's "Buffalo Boy" and Thai drama "The Letter" by Phaoon Chandrasiri. I was less impressed with moralistic Thai film "The Judgment" and "Homecoming," Gil Portes' melodramatic Philippine drama about a young woman whose village is threatened when she develops SARS. (There were a number of SARS films here -- the most fun was zombie flick "SARS War.") In the Thai Panorama section, I can't believe I sat through all of "Art of the Devil," a cheesy thriller that wouldn't be out of place on Showtime at 3 a.m. One doc I saw, "Yesterday Today Tomorrow," a Thai/Japanese coproduction, was a refreshingly lighthanded doc about people living with AIDS in rural Thailand. It captured their everyday lives -- not the big moments we usually see on camera -- as they dealt with the disease.
The Western films I saw included Alan Wade's risky and mostly successful chamber piece "The Pornographer," which offered some unexpected observations on the relationship between directors and actors. It featured two great performances from Martin Donovan and Irene Jacob in a story of a neurotic filmmaker trying to get closer to an actress by luring her with a work-in-progress.
Oliver Hirschbeigel's "Downfall," now deservedly nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film. An intense and yet unshowy look at Hitler's final days in the bunker at the end of the war. Another film worth seeing was Mike Barker's likeable "A Good Woman," which transplants Oliver Wilde's "Lady Windemere's Fan" to the Amalfi Coast and stars Scarlett Johansson as a young woman trying to keep her husband away from a predatory older visitor (Helen Hunt delivering her most meaty performance in her career). Others I saw were Don McKellar's clever "Childstar" from Canada and "Up and Down," a complex, biting social comedy from Czech director Jan Hrebejk.
Bangkok's 2005 festival had a slew of tributes of honorees, including cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Oliver Stone, Joel Schumacher (career achievement award), Olivier Assayas, and animator Gabor Csupo. The Golden Kinnaree winners were: "The Sea Inside" (best film), Christophe Barratier for "Les Choristes" and Park Chan-Wook for "Old Boy" (tie, best director), Javier Bardem for "The Sea Inside" (best actor), Annette Bening for "Being Julia" and Ana Geislerova for "Zelary" (best actress), "The Beautiful Washing Machine" (best ASEAN film), "Born into Brothels" (best documentary), "Touch the Sound" and "Final Solution" (doc special mentions), Bharatbala for "Hari Om" (New Voices award), and the late Thai director Vichit Kounavudhi (lifetime achievement).