Elephant’s Leg


SIX OF THE BEST: THAI MOVIES

With late April marking the anniversary of my move to Thailand, and with this year marking my sixth anniversary, I have decided to compile a series of “Six of the Best” features encompassing my hobbies and interests, which I have enjoyed during my time here. I will start with films made in, or set in, Thailand. The list is in chronological order of the year of production.

1. MUAY THAI CHAIYA (2007)

.

.

The first Thai film I saw after moving here remains one of my favourites. I watched Muay Thai Chaiya (simply Chaiya/ไชยา in Thai) almost as a token – “I’m in Thailand so I should watch a Thai film” – but I had a similar experience to when I watched Fight Club for the first time. Expecting a simple beat-’em-up, I was given so much more. Chaiya is, on the surface, a martial arts movie, but its narrative charts the coming of age and moral corruption of three pugilistic brothers as they move from the idyllic southern district of the film’s title to ’70s Bangkok to chase big bucks in the ring.

The three brothers’ fates take differing turns; one’s boxing career is cut short through injury, another pursues legitimate championship aspirations, and the third is drawn into Bangkok’s lucrative but increasingly dangerous underground fighting circuit. Organised crime influences all three, and their competing egos and influences make for a blood-soaked morality play of love triangles, sibling rivalries and childhood bonds. Chaiya culminates in an absurdly violent climax that some of Japan’s more notorious splatterhouse directors would be proud of, yet it is testament to director Kongkiat Khomsiri’s work that it somehow doesn’t come across as unrealistic. (Kongkiat would later direct another of my favourites, Slice – see next entry).

-

2. SLICE (2009)

f

.

A brave bit of local filmmaking in a country which prefers its movies to be as formulaic and safe as possible, Slice (Cheun/เฉือน in Thai) was unfortunately, but predictably, buried at the box office as its opening week competed with typical but profitable trash such as Haunted Universities and Bangkok Traffic Love Story. True enough, the gore-spattered Slice is no date movie, but its intelligence, sophisticated plot, stylish cinematography and unflinching depiction of Bangkok’s and Pattaya’s underbellies deserve attention from the more discerning movie buff.

Aforementioned director Kongkiat Khomsiri’s horror/thriller begins as a blood-soaked urban serial killer flick, with a mysterious caped avenger slicing up sexual offenders around Bangkok. With the police baffled, they release a jailed hitman who they believe might be able to crack the case. As the identity of the killer becomes clear, the film morphs from whodunnit to an explanation of why’d-he-do-it, with flashbacks to a tortured rural upbringing leading to innocence truly lost in Pattaya.

For a country so concerned with its image and “face”, Slice‘s uncompromising depictions of vice, paedophilia, immoral cops, sex tourists, the impunity of the upper classes and the effects of this disturbing cocktail must make for uncomfortable viewing for a lot of head-in-the-sand Thais. It’s clear why this was commercially trounced by movies about pretty girls chased by ghosts and office girls finding love on the skytrain, but for viewers who like to be challenged – disturbed, even – Slice is highly recommended.

-

3. ETERNITY (2010)

dd

.

This modern production of a classic Thai tale stars young, beautiful co-stars Ananda Everingham and Ploy Cherman as ill-fated clandestine lovers. For western perspective, pitching Ananda and Ploy together is the Thai movie equivalent of a Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie pairing (although, no, they did not become a real-life couple afterwards).

Eternity (Chua Fah Din Salai/ชั่วฟ้าดินสลาย in Thai) tells the tale of Yupadee and Sangmong, the twentysomething wife and nephew, respectively, of wealthy, older rural landowner Ni Han, who embark on a doomed affair in 1930s Siam. When Ni Han learns of the tryst, he “sentences” the lovers to be chained together – in other words, to be bonded for the eternity of the movie’s title. At first Yupadee and Sangmong laugh off the punishment, as in fact being together at all times is what most young couples want. But soon enough, the peculiar curse of literally never being able to part starts to take its toll. As the prospect of this being a permanent arrangement dawns on them, and when Yupadee falls ill, the true horror of the situation becomes increasingly apparent. The vengeful Ni Han, the only person with the key to unlock the chains, remains vengeful to the last, refusing to release his traitors even in the direst of circumstances.

Eternity was originally a book by Malai Choopinij, published in 1943, and was first adapted to film in 1955, and then again in 1980. A TV series then followed three years later. Having not read the book nor watched its previous screen incarnations, I can’t comment on how this 2010 movie compares, but it is a powerfully performed period piece, and while the “doomed lovers” theme is nothing new, this is a way Western viewers may not have seen it told.

-

4. LADDALAND (2011)

jj

.

It seems there is a new Thai ghost movie every other week, and very few of them rise above the level of formulaic dross. Laddaland (alternatively Ladda Land, or ลัดดาแลนด์ in Thai), though, dares to be something a bit different. The majority of Thai horror movies rely on – and succeed despite, or perhaps even because of – unimaginative tropes of pretty young things being scared by pale-faced vengeful spectres and/or rural animistic myths. Plot development is often of scant interest, and the special effects usually look like early ’90s experiments with CGI. But Laddaland, released in 2011, served as a reminder that Thai moviemakers are capable of helming intelligent, character-driven horror, and that the audiences can respond at the box office. The film was a critical and commercial success, and has since been turned into a hit stage show, so it is a shame similar efforts are not more routinely made.

Director Sophon Sukdapisit, best known for Thailand’s most famous horror movie, Shutter – one of many Asian fright flicks to get the Hollywood remake treatment (evidence of the original’s worth) – delivers what is, on the surface, a simple haunted house story. Something lurks in the housing estate of the film’s name, a development which attracts a middle-class family when they relocate from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The father, Thee, gets a new job and buys a property he can’t really afford, thinking  a move and a showpiece home will be the answer to family’s problems – namely a dissatisfied wife and a spoilt, distant teenage daughter.

Suffice to say, a Laddaland home is not the panacea Thee envisaged, especially as it comes with unadvertised supernatural extras. Or does it? Sophon focuses on his characters’ doubts over their own sanity as the scares intensify and the mystery deepens. And with something very wrong going on in Laddaland, but nobody quite sure what, Thee stubbornly keeps his family in the new home he is so proud of, which of course only harms their relationships further.

Laddaland is primarily a horror movie, but as it concentrates more on how people are affected by a haunting, rather than the haunting itself, it rises above most of the pack.

-

5. THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012)

.

.

This dramatisation of the Indian Ocean tsunami as it hit Khao Lak in Phang Nga province, and specifically the real-life story of one Western family caught up in it, boasts towering acting performances, terrifying disaster scenes and fantastic cinematography that captures, in turn, the tropical beauty of southern Thailand and the sheer scale of the destruction wrought on the region on December 26, 2004.

Some critics decried the fact that the narrative focused on privileged Western tourists when so many locals were affected just as badly, or worse, but to me this is a rather blustering attempt at political correctness. Privileged Westerners feel physical pain and emotional anguish for loved ones just the same as anyone else, and if it takes English language and the casting of well-known faces such as Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts to boost the reach of a film with such a poignant theme, then so be it.

Yes, some 250,000 people perished in the tsunami, but that The Impossible focuses on just one family actually increases its emotional punch, as it’s a tale that anyone with a spouse, children, parents or siblings can relate to. It also “gives back” in that many of the Thai characters and extras are portrayed by real-life survivors of the catastrophe.

-

6. ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)

jk

.

All cities of a certain size have seamy underbellies, and Bangkok’s is seamier than most. However, it is not as seamy as Western filmmakers have traditionally depicted it. Still, seedy, dirty and dangerous Bangkok continues to be a big screen trope, with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Only God Forgives diving head-first into a melange of gore, crime, revenge and vice.

The base ingredients may be familiar, but Refn’s style may not be. As the film’s American protagonists mix with with local antagonists, the culture clash is illustrated with flair. The in-your-face opening credits are redolent of 70s’ Hong Kong actioners, but the squealing synthesiser-led soundtrack evokes ’80s Western thrillers and horrors. The unrestrained depictions of violence are inkeeping with latter-day Hollywood “torture porn”, while the characters’ stoic reactions to said violence and frequent pregnant pauses take their cues from Japan’s crime noir master Takeshi Kitano.

The plot revolves around Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American drug dealer operating out of Bangkok, using a muay Thai promotion as his legal business front. When his brother Billy is brutally murdered in a revenge attack, Julian’s mother flies in and demands revenge of her own. As Billy’s murder was permitted – and overseen – by Chang, a local police chief, he too becomes a target. But the American family and their associates may have picked on the wrong policeman in Chang, who despite taking the right side of the law in terms of his targets, is more than liberal in his use of violence against them.

Only God Forgives begins with a brutal Thai boxing match, shifts quickly to a brothel and progresses soon after to murder and the morally dubious police force. While the stall seems to be set out in predictable fashion, it is the movie’s delivery that is highly unorthodox. At times drenched in garish reds or blues, with that jarring score and bouts of psychedelia, it can be a difficult watch. But as familiar as the themes may be, Only God Forgives ends up quite unlike any previous mainstream depiction of Bangkok. You may love it, you may hate it (critics were divided in such a way), but you will definitely remember it.



KO LANTA – NATURAL BEAUTY RUINED BY UGLY PEOPLE

Island-hopping fun in Ko Lanta

If it’s the people that make a place, then Ko Lanta’s beauty is merely superficial.

An Andaman Sea island district in Krabi province, inevitably it boasts clean, warm sea water, miles of beaches, countless palm trees and a laidback atmosphere that attracts many visitors.

However, such assets lose their allure once a visitor experiences human failings on Lanta that range from merely unprofessional through to dangerous and even criminal.

I love Krabi. In fact, I’d probably rank it my favourite Thai province outside of Bangkok. So I will doubtless return, although I’ll lose no sleep if I never set foot on Lanta again after a shambolic final day which involved worry, danger, frustration, anger and eventually the police.

Continue reading



PIMPS, PROXIES AND PREPPIES – THE MOTLEY CREW VYING TO LEAD A NATION

Thailand’s general election takes place this Sunday. As a non-citizen, I can’t vote. When the election was announced, I thought that was a shame, since for the first time in my life I have an interest in politics. Back home in Britain, I did vote, but was fairly apathetic about it.But as the election and its major players started to take shape, I started to think that even if I could vote, I would no longer be able to do so with conviction. That’s not because the campaigning has been so strong that it would be hard to pick which candidate would be best. Far from it. Now, it would be more a case of choosing the lesser evil.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the major contenders – with “con” being the operative syllable. Continue reading




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.