Finding Unheralded Films -- and Shangri-La -- at the 2004 Bangkok International Film Festival
by Peter Brunette
What a great and glorious place is Bangkok! It's as though Manhattan, with its dense, never-still traffic, gleaming skyscrapers, smart shops, and punishing cacophony, were superimposed over a third-world village teeming with exotic human, animal, and plant life. In the midst of all this congeries of flesh and filth, soaring steel and crisply efficient skytrains, motorcycle taxis spewing noxious fumes, and dogs sleeping in the streets in front of the world's biggest shopping malls, the Bangkok International Film Festival took artistic pride of place the last two weeks of January, during Thailand's "winter," with temperatures "only" in the 90s. A new management and programming team, gleaned largely from the former staff of the Palm Springs Film Festival, put on a more than creditable show consisting largely of this year's international fest favorites, supplemented with a few kinky and welcome surprises here and there.
This indieWIRE critic was lucky enough to be invited to participate on the international critics (FIPRESCI) jury, which was charged with awarding a prize to the best film among the 15 or so gathered in a special competition of Southeast Asian cinema. Set up in one of the most gorgeous five-star hotels in Asia, the Shangri-La, my colleagues (from Britain, Germany, Italy, and Thailand) and I were wined, dined, fruited -- at breakfast, I gorged daily on such unfamiliar, delicious specimens as starfruit, jackfruit and a bunch of stuff I never identified, in addition to the better-known mango and papaya, though I never had enough guts to attempt the notoriously awful-smelling durian -- and pampered in every way possible. Each of the VIP guests (I know, it's hard to believe that a critic, other than Roger Ebert, could ever be included in such a category) was met at the airport by his or her own personal "liaison," a young English-speaking college student who helped us negotiate the intricacies of Thai society and -- for this shrimp-allergic scribe, at least -- the playfully disguised, esoteric ingredients of Thai food. (Yes, there is dried shrimp paste in the ubiquitous and innocently-named "fish sauce" found in all Thai curries.)
Mostly we watched unheralded films from places like Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia in a luxuriously equipped theater, located in the amazing Siam Discovery Centre (a skyscraper devoted to shopping), which contained leather-covered Barcaloungers whose remote control allowed the spectator to go fully horizontal (owing to jetlag the first few days, this was an option that most of us steered clear of). Oh, yeah, each seat also came equipped with blankets for the sub-arctic air conditioning that reigns in southeast Asia, and of course little socks for the feet, once the shoes were removed. On days we weren't "working," we toured the wondrous sights of market-clogged, temple-besotted Bangkok (during one of these visits I actually had my first genuine spiritual experience in decades that didn't arise solely from anxiety), and the ancient, ruin-filled city of Ayutthaya, some 80 kilometers to the north, where we saw tribesmen guiding elephants for tourist riders while talking on cell phones. We enjoyed a Thai boxing match and, amid the noisy, constantly moving bettors, got to see one young man, probably dirt-poor, floor another with two quick kicks to the jaw. Even buying a bag of peanuts from a street vendor became a small, revelatory adventure, when, after being squirted by some water while shelling them, we discovered that they had been boiled rather than roasted.
Many of the films we saw in the ASEAN competition were a weird mélange of the sensationally exploitative and the deeply sincere. Sex and religion were combined in strange ways not seen -- probably happily not seen -- in the West, such as the Philippines film "The Last Virgin" which featured a libidinous priest who gets off on racy confessions (and who turns out to be a fake), as well a true vision of the Blessed Mother vouchsafed to the young girl he's been ogling. Some of my FIPRESCI colleagues seemed to dismiss these over-the-top popular entertainments out of hand, but countries without a large middle class, let alone a fully mature Western-style intelligentsia, haven't yet developed a tradition of art-film aesthetics, and it's maybe just as well. These films, like the best of Hollywood films, are giving average people what they want, god forbid, and, granting certain exceptions, that's exactly what they should be doing. (As my ultra-intellectual and sophisticated Thai colleague on the jury confessed to me, when he sees traditional Thai arts on television, he changes the channel.) More uncomfortably, however, several of the films also featured gang rapes, covertly reveling in the "fun" while tsk-tsking about the unfortunate brutality of men. In fact, we did end up, predictably but quite properly in this case, giving our prize to an accomplished art film from Thailand, "Last Life in the Universe," directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang, a haunting slacker movie about a Yakuza living in Bangkok, which had garnered some favorable notice in Venice last August, but went home prize-less. Now that injustice has been rectified, at least a bit. (Palm Pictures will release the film this spring in the States.)
The nightly parties consisted of a couple of standard-festival-issue cocktail soirees (always invigorated, though, by sublime dishes of Thai food), but for the most part were completely, and wonderfully, over the top. Our jury arrived at the opening ceremony engulfed by the full red-carpet treatment, accompanied by thousands of popping flashbulbs, with hundreds of eager journalists crowding around what -- the critics jury? (The locals can of course be forgiven for not knowing, that early in the festival, who was really important and who wasn't.)
One evening festival guests and local notables were treated to a lovely event on the lawn of one of the original traditional-style teakwood houses from the 1950s, since converted into a museum, that haven't yet been bulldozed in bustling Bangkok. We were treated to Thai foot massages (I had also had a sublime full body massage in Chiang-mai a week earlier -- the closest you can get to sex without actually having it -- but let's not go there), Thai hors-d'oeuvres, a fashion show of Thai silk headed by Miss Thailand 2003, and lots of traditional Thai theater arts, dance, and music. Oh yeah, and a buffet dinner comprised of 20 or 30 mind-bogglingly different dishes (most of them, alas, with shrimp). Are you getting the idea yet that, unlike virtually every other festival in the world, this one was sponsored by the government tourism board?
The awards ceremony nine days later was even better. It was held in the Royal Navy Auditorium, right on the Chao Praya river, and guests were taken there from the Shangri-La by hotel yacht. (Mine was delayed for the guest of honor, a bearded Val Kilmer, fresh from the countryside set of Oliver Stone's "Alexandria the Great," who was present to pick up an honorary award with the boss). That evening, the regal Princess Ubon Rattana (who was once scandalously married to an American) honored the festival with her presence, and it became clear just how much this never-occupied-by-a-colonial-power country was, unlike the British, emotionally invested in their monarchy. (I had begun to suspect this earlier on while standing during the hymn to the King, accompanied by a stirring cinematic montage of his life, before the beginning of each public film screening.) The beautiful and expensive metalwork pieces of fruit in the center of each table turned out, of course, to be party favors. Denys Arcand's overrated, overexposed "The Barbarian Invasions" was awarded the Golden Kinnaree prize (ho-hum) by a jury that included Toronto festival managing director Michelle Maheux and Hollywood director Bruce Beresford. But a local film got our FIPRESCI award, and that was nice. Alas, halfway through the banquet, FIPRESCI jury president Derek Malcolm and I had to head to the airport, commencing, for me at least, a 29-hour trip home. It will be a long while before the memory of this amazing place and its generous, lovely people, not to mention its more than worthy, if still-maturing festival, begins to fade.