Monday, November 25, 2013

World Film Festival of Bangkok: Shepherds, karaoke girls and a rocket

It's been a while since the last blogpost but I was at the Bangkok International Filmfestival 2013 and decided to wait until the end with a blogpost.First of all big applause to the organizers. Well well done, great selection of movies, well selected venue, fair prizes. I will be back next year.The first movie I saw was I Have Loved from Singapore. The summary says:
 In Siem Reap, a young woman, haunted by loss, mourning, melancholia and the imperfections of memory, dances with two men–one of whom she is married to, while the other is engaged to be married.

Good to have at least these few words, otherwise the movie would be confusing. As a visitor afterwards said: It's this kind of movie you always have at a film festival. A bit to artistic, a bit too long, a bit to much focussed to please a imaginary jury. On the other hand, technically well done, beautiful shots, good location and well recorded sound.Second movie was a film I was really looking forward to: Boundary. The description is a bit misleading:
In the past decade, political conflict has shaken its social and cultural structure. Recently created history, which was understood more than half-a-century is now questioned. Some traces of history being re-interpreted.   The connection of belief, society, culture and history of a country amazingly has an effect on a neighboring country and the whole region.
It is actually a documentary about a soldier who was stationed in the south of Thailand as well as on the Cambodian border during the Prehar Vihear conflict. He was also on duty during the red shirt protests. Director  Nontawat Numbenchapol was really lucky to have found Sitthipong Junthasuk and got permission to tell his story. It gives a good insight in how these political events are received by ordinary people. The film also tells us about the life on the country side during this time, in particular at the Thai-Cambodian border. For those who are familiar with life in Thailand and political developments the movie might have scratched only the surface. But if you watch this movie as a outsider, it gives you quite a good picture from a very different angle. Still, there were some technical flaws, mainly due to the lack of proper equipment I guess, and editing mistakes. 15-20 minutes less would not have done any harm to the movie.

"Karaoke Girl" is a catching title and the synopsis sounds very promising:
Part fiction, part reality, Karaoke Girl follows Sa, a young country girl, working at a bar in Bangkok as an escort to support her family back home. 

So we follow Sa to the market, to the Karaoke Bar, a soup seller, and to the countryside of course. We get a glimpse into the Karaoke Bar business, but thats it. We are with her when she fights with the boyfriend without knowing his real status: Is he just a "gig" (lover), a "fan" (Boyfriend) or a customer?Although the movie starts quite emotional with the leading character crying while telling her story, for the rest of the film it is missing this bonding. Maybe because of the camera angle we follow her more than observing her, rushing from scene to scene. Maybe many people have different expectations (or no at all) when they read the title. Personally I would have expected a bit more profundity. Again, as a independent movie director Visra Vichit-Vadakan apparently had not enough budget (or discipline) to shoot in a consistent quality. At lot of mainly zoom shots were out of focus, the night shots mainly with too low ISO, and on the other hand some beautiful pictures during Sonkran, when the kids play or when she wakes up with her boyfriend in her apartment.

"The Last Shepherd" was a surprise and in a positive way. When you do a documentary about certain people and/or their jobs, you heavily rely on their ability to perform on camera, even then they just play themself. Director Marco Bonfanti had this luck finding not just a interesting story about one of the last moving shepherds in Italy, but also a fascinating character, an almost Italian stereotype person, yet someone you love from the first seconds of the movie. At the end, when he made it to Milan with his herd to show the animals to kids, you may start crying out of empathy with Renato Zucchelli, the shepherd. Well told, well photographed, edited and recorded. A movie that isn't to long and isn't to short. A role model for documentary filmmakers.

Finally I watched The Rocket, one of the stars at the festival. The films synopsis:
A boy who is believed to bring bad luck to everyone around him leads his family and two new friends through Laos to find a new home. After a calamity-filled journey through a land scarred by the legacy of war, to prove he's not bad luck he builds a giant rocket to enter the most exciting and dangerous competition of the year: the Rocket Festival.

The movie is in Lao language with English subtitles, but Thai people usually understand Lao since it is quite similar to the Isan dialect. What the synopsis doesn't tell are the different layers of the movie that makes it so extraordinary.

There is the old Lao (or in this case Aka tribe) culture, were twins are usually killed after birth because one has always a curse. The movie shows this ancient tradition in all of its disgust and brutality. A second layer is the issue of hydropower dams and their effect for the people. Instead of new houses the evicted family has to live in makeshift shelters, with no fertile land and no jobs. 
There is also Purple, a symbol of the transition from Laos past to the future. A former soldier with the US forces he is an outlaw and outsider, but also the one who mentors the young boy and shows him the right way.

The Rocket has some very necessary criticism, in particular about ancient tradition and evictions, but its still not a political movie. It is beautifully shot, the kids and the grandma are amazing actors, and you see clearly that this is production that meets international standards. By the way, this is a reason why the Lao production team was quite small: Laos has not yet the resources for a movie in this league. A surprise was that the Lao government even allowed to shoot the movie.
Sylvia Wilczynski, who is in charge of PR for the movie told me about the production circumstances:

We did go through the official permission process, which took many many months through the Media Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).  We paid large government filming fees and had 20 government officials on set at all times while filming in Laos. Every single one of our team who came from Thailand and Australia had to be have a full media visa, and our local Lao cast and crew also had to be cleared though the Lao government.  Every piece of our filming equipment that was brought in from Thailand had to be listed and photographed and cleared through the government.  We of course had to bring camera, grip, gaffer and special FX  equipment in from Thailand as most of this is not available in Laos.We had a large crew of over 50 people (Australian, Thai and Lao), around 30 cast, 200 extras in crowd scenes, large amounts of complex filming equipment and our shooting involved firing large explosive Special FX rockets into the sky.... It was also important to us, having had a very long relationship with Laos, to make a film which openly explored both thebeauty and challenges of life in Laos.  From our extensive time in Laos over the last 10 years we have seen that the construction of hydro-electric dams and relocation of people is a major issue affecting numerous communities, just as it is in many countries.
Lao production companies like New Wave Cinema or Lao art Media can only learn from a movie like this. although the movie is banned in Laos (I guess mainly because of the dam issue), I would be surprised if it is not available through the usual channels (Princess of Laos was also shipped to Vientiane, although not publicly screened). Lao filmmakers need to understand that a movie that plays in Laos does not have the mission to show the beauty of Laos. It basically rents the landscape. The Rocket did Laos a favor in showing the positive parts of a tradition and culture (the rocket festival)-  as well as the negative (the ancient, inhumane and disgusting traditions). 

One more thing: The downside of filmfestivals is that only few people go there and watch the movies. I do know that some festivals don't allow a film be online before it is screened, but it is bullshit. Dear filmmakers, please let the audience watch your movies, not just some enthusiast, journalists and jurors. Take it online, choose a paid version as it is available on iTunes and Vimea, but please, get a bigger audience. Thank you!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

World Film Festival of Bangkok

From November 15th to 24th film enthusiasts will gather at SF World Cinema at Central World. The schedule is long and expect numerous interesting and mostly independent movies to be screened.
The program is available online.

One particular movie could get a lot of attention: Boundary tells the story of a soldier who was deployed to the south of Thailand, the Prehar Vihear area and to Bangkok during the red shirt protests. Director is Nontawat Numbenchapol.

From the description:

In the past decade, political conflict has shaken its social and cultural structure. Recently created history, which was understood more than half a century is now questioned.Some traces of history is being re-interpreted.
The connection of belief, society, culture and history of a country amazingly has an effect on a neighboring country and the whole region.

You can see the trailer below.

I was told that the movie has English subtitles and will be screened 17.11. and 18.11 at 13.00 in SF WORLD Cinema 5.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Protests continue in the streets of Bangkok

It is getting a bit confusing in the City of angels. There is the Pheu Thai ruled government, that tried to get a strongly disputed amnesty bill through the institutions. Didn't come far: even before the senate started to discuss, PM Yingluck announced it will withdraw the bill.

Some problems with this: The opposition doesn't believe her, and so do the protesters in the streets of Bangkok. Also, the law says that the senate has to make a decision, either making changes or reject. Then the bill goes back to the parliament, where it can't be touched for 180 days. Only then it can be withdrawn.

Maybe Yinluck thought it will stop the protests, but it didn't. Some politicians sensed a chance to get public attention and start to radicalise the movement. It is now against the government.

Meanwhile, the red shirts, until now compatriots and helpful mob for the Pheu Thai party, start to get angry as well. They didn't want to see an amnesty for their political enemies. So they also demonstrate against the bill.

The reds are still the reds, while the Democrats, formally in yellow, now use the colors of the Thai flag. The game is still the same: Redshirts are mainly from the country side, older, less educated. The current opposition gets it's support from the urban middle class and young people.

So far so good, demonstrations are part of a democracy and an important right. My friends in Laos and Vietnam for example do not have this right.

But: When - as it happened today - politicians use hate speech at these gatherings, or resign as MP to join the demonstrators, it seems there is not much trust in the institutions. I am not taking sides here, both parties have the same problem: They just want to be in power, and it seems they are not afraid about some violence.

Todays ICJ ruling that the temple of Prehar Vihear is on Cambodian land, not Thai, doesn't makes it easier. Experts expect ultra-nationalists coming out and make the situation even worst. The question is what the government will do. Nobody really thinks that Yingluck is able to manage the situation, and it is in question what Thaksin, the man behind the scenes will do.

Best case would be that eventually the government steps down and calls for elections. Worst case is that clashes in the streets of Bangkok will turn all eyes to the army.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Chiang Mai Sausage Calzone - just cooking

From the hills of Chiang Mai comes to most delicious sausage in Thailand, at least when it comes to my taste. The Sai Gog is close to the Luang Prabang sausage, full of spices and meat.

 Yesterday, I had the idea to wrap it a bit - kind of a Pizza meets Sausage thing.

What you need is:
A Chiang Mai Sausage
Pizza dough

Cut the sausage a bit so you can flap it. Fill in shredded cheese (I used cheddar and it turned out a good choice). Wrap around some pizza dough just enough to have the whole sausage covered. It baked it for 20 minutes by 230 degrees, but different oven may take longer or shorter. Just wait until it's getting brown. Since the sausage is already cooked and the cheese melts easy, it depends on the thickness of the dough how long it takes.

Any recommendations for improvement are welcome!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Don't ride an elephant - but showering is ok

Last week I took a trip to Hua Hin with two friends from Germany. They asked for seeing some wildlife, but aren't the ones who have time enough to walk through the National Park for days. So I decided to pay a visit to the Wildlife Friends of Thailand Foundation. It's founder Edwin Wiek is a passionate animal lover who started the project 12 years ago. The goal is to provide shelter for rescued animals. Those animals are mainly from an human environment, like monkeys and bears hold in cages or elephants used in the begging, trekking or logging business.

Regarding the elephants (and all other animals) the WFFT has a basic rule: Wild animals belong into the wild, not in camps or zoos. Since many of the animals held in the WFFT are mentally disturbed or not able to be re-socialized, they found a new home there and will stay on the premise forever. Some monkeys are in de-humanizing programs and can hopefully released into the wild.

On 29 hectar of land the WFFT has over 400 animals, including a salt water crocodile and some other former pets who are not species usually found in Asia.

As many expats know Thailand is a country where the powerful outrule justice, so it wasn't a surprise that one day some people involved in the wildlife trade got pissed and sent the troups to the WFFT. The legal battle is still going on.

Although the WFFT is not a Zoo, it actually provides tours, so you can get a glimpse in the animals (no touching) and learn about the work they do there. Available are half day and full day experiences, including pick up at your hotel in Cha-Am or Hua Hin, a lunch, elephant walk and shower and a guided tour.

I can only recommend to pay a visit. It changed my opinion about elephant trekking. While I was convinced that some camps do treat the animals well, I forgot that they were still tortured as babys - and the brutal training is still going on. The weight of three people doesn't really hurt the elephant much, if it's just for a few hours. But the training when they are young does, and it seems there isn't any other way available in Thailand. So please, just don't do any elephant riding and besides rescue centers don't visit any Elephant camp in Thailand.