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An Uneasy East-West Fusion: The Bangkok International Film Festival

An Uneasy East-West Fusion: The Bangkok International Film Festival

Among the most generous and hospitable of fests, The Bangkok International Film Festival, or BKIFF, is like a celebrity chef’s idea of fusion, a hybrid of Asian and American ingredients. It is Thai-based, obviously, shows a large number of new Thai and other Asian films, includes two Asians among its multiple tributees–veteran Thai actor Sombat Metanee and Japanese cinematographer Shoji Ueda–and orients its quiet but growing market to selling Thai (and other Asian) movies internationally. One of the main sections, for which I was a juror, was comprised of Southeast Asian, or ASEAN, films; The Golden Kinnaree went to the Vietnamese “Bride of Silence,” directed by the brother-sister team of Doan Minh Phunon and Doan Thanh Nghia.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand, or TAT, funds the festival on a budget of $4,500,000 (which was reduced to $2,900,000 after some sponsors popped up). Yet it hires an L.A. firm, Film Festival Management, Inc., to run the event and make the selections, so that all of the high level administrators and all of the seven programmers save one Thai and one Mexican are American or Canadian, and — a sore point with Thai critics and other Bangkok cinephiles — none of the films had Thai subtitles.

Overall, the selection of 180 features is international (and not particularly impressive as festivals go). Canadian-Indian director Deepa Mehta‘s “Water” took the Golden Kinnaree for Best Film in the international dramatic competition, with Park Chan-wook winning Best Director for “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” Presley Cawqeneyagae Best Actor for “Tsotsi,” and Felicity Huffman Best Actress for “Transamerica.” The remaining tributes were international as well: Catherine Deneuve — whose presence commands a hefty fee — presented “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” while D.P. Anthony Dod Mantle, was represented by “Manderlay,” “Dear Wendy,” and “Millions.”

Yet another tribute, to Fortissimo Films, sales agents and producers extraordinaire, is a perfect example of fusion, given that co-presidents and Hong Kong residents Wouter Barendrecht and Michael J. Werner are Dutch and American, respectively, and have been in the vanguard of promoting Asian movies, including producing Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang‘s brilliant “Last Life in the Universe” and “Invisible Waves,” his latest, a disappointing but respectable co-production shot in English and photographed by Hong Kong-based Aussie cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Fresh from Berlin, “Invisible Waves” was the festival’s opening night film, for which most of the Thai glitterati who walked the never-ending red carpet for the preceding reception did not remain. Terry Gilliam, Bruce Beresford, and Oliver Stone hosted master classes, a plus from the West for Thais and the ubiquitous Western expats and tourists, who were often the majority in the spanking new (and therefore glitch-ridden) deluxe cinemas of the mulitplex in the brand new, huge, and designer-oriented Siam Paragon mall, where the festival took over the cavernous, Wal-Martish top floor.

Other prizes: American David LaChapelle‘s “Rize” for Best Documentary, Argentine Martin DeSalvo and Vera Rogwill’s “Kept and Dreamless” for Best Film in the New Voices section, South Korean Lee hyung-Suk‘s “Under Construction” for Best Short, and the omnibus Thai movie “Art of the Devil 2” for the Peoples’ Choice award. At the lavish awards dinner, Princess Ubolratana, the beautiful, cosmopolitan daughter of the revered 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, doled out statuettes to bowing recipients, while across the room a full Thai orchestra accompanied a local singer belting out “That’s Entertainment,” with only two Thai compositions–western bluesy numbers written by the artistically inclined King, no less–on the program.

Given the odd marriage of the TAT and Film Festival Management, the BKIFF, now in its fourth edition, has been heavily criticized by local journalists and industryites. The Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand (FNFAT) voted to boycott it, although three member distributors resigned in protest in order to present their movies. The issue of subtitles won’t go away, and critic Kong Rithdee of the Bangkok Post writes often about the issue. I am not sure, but it appears that the TAT would have to budget for subtitling, though I would think that Film Festival Management, which is often thwarted by the TAT bureaucracy, could make a major push for electronic subtitles–not a difficult task, even if a print arrives at the last moment, if one requests a tape or DVD and a dialogue list ahead of time, as many festivals do. The fact that the TAT foots the bill explains in part why subtitling for the majority of the 10,000,000 Bangkok residents who do not understand English is not a priority: The BKIFF functions to promote tourism.

“Having Catherine Deneuve and Christopher Lee (a Conversation With… participant) here attracts the high-end traveler,” says the genial Kittipong (Keng) Prapattong of the TAT, noting that having so much media also helps. “We can send confidence to Americans that we can host a big event and have celebrities, and that this is a land of peace that has much to offer.” (Ironically, during the festival Prime Minsiter Thaksin Shinawatra, whose shady stock sales precipitated large peaceful street demonstrations, dissolved the House of Representatives — parliament — and called for new elections, sidestepping the charges against him by declaring, “I cannot allow mob rule to supersede the law.”) Prapattong adds that getting foreign films to use Thailand as a location is another aim of the TAT’s support. Asked why the TAT pays American organizers, he responds, “You can ride a horse or drive a Porsche. This is a shortcut. They know best. In a few years maybe we will have groomed enough people to organize the event ourselves.” How does the event benefit Thai movies? “‘On-bak,’ the biggest crossover Thai film, started at this festival. Thai films will move more into an international style, so we can compete with some of the other Asian countries.” Food for thought…

That said, besides “Invisible Waves” — which is at least well-made and an intriguing study of a man whose murder of his married lover haunts him — the Thai movies I saw, both fiction and documentaries, were unimpressive. Of the ASEAN films, the best were the aforementioned “Bride of Silence,” a sublimely shot and edited period piece about an ostracized single mother that was one of the only regional movies whose solid but leisurely rhythms felt distinctly Asian; Riri Riza‘s revisionist Indonesian biopic “Gie,” an excellent study of the Chinese-Indonesian writer Soe Hok Gie, whose astute writings about his country’s political turbulence in the late ’50s and ’60s stressed neutrality, leaving him somewhat impotent as the situation deteriorated, and whose repressed homosexuality was a parallel straitjacket. Vietnamese-American director Ham Tran‘s Sundance entry “Journey From the Fall,” is a deftly directed movie about a Vietnamese family post-1975, when the husband is sent to a Communist reeducation camp and his wife, son, and mother become boat people who end up in Orange County.

The less said about the Thai reality film “Three Friends,” the Malaysian “Goalposts and Lipsticks,” the softcore porn “The Masseur” from the Philippines, and the homophobic Thai movie “Ahimsa: Stop to Run,” the better. The two international pictures I was most looking forward to catching up with, veteran Mexican filmmaker Felipe Cazals‘s “The Citrillo Turns” and Brazilian Andrucha Waddington‘s “House of Sand,” were more aesthetic exercises than successful films. Comfy chairs that recline, in the three plushest of the Siam Paragon’s theaters, are no substitute for mostly so-so movies from both East and West.

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