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!