By WISE KWAI
ZOMBIES SHUFFLED, independent films delighted and a favourite studio released two more winning entries before closing up shop, helping to make 2015 another memorable year for Thai cinema. Here are some of the best Thai movies I saw in Bangkok theatres last year.
Phi Ha Ayodhaya (The Black Death)
Just as my interest in Thai film had hit an all-time low, MR Chalermchatri “Adam” Yukol reinvigorated my passion with “Phi Ha Ayodhaya”, the first honest-to-goodness Thai zombie film. Made with the same sets and costumes as the “Suriyothai” and “Naresuan” historical epics of his father MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, Adam set “Phi Ha Ayodhaya” in 1565 and covered what’s possibly the first historical instance of zombies. As the dead come shambling from the battlefields with a hunger for brains, a disparate band of survivors hole up in a brothel and fight back. With plenty of cartoonish action and a decent helping of cinematic gore, the familiar tropes of George Romero’s “Dead” franchise mixed with the stately pageantry of “Naresuan” and “Pantai Norasingh” to create something refreshing.
Indie filmmakers David Reeve and Waraluck Hiransrettawat Every begged and borrowed cameras as they shot their documentary over the course of several years, during which they explored the divide between urban and rural folk and examined contrasting Thai music scenes – mostly-unheard-of indie musicians in Bangkok and almost forgotton country stars in the Northeast. I got to see “Y/our Music” twice, and both times the film demonstrated its power to move usually reserved Thai audiences into spontaneous applause, as if it were a live concert.
P’Chai My Hero (How to Win at Checkers (Every Time))
Korean-American director Josh Kim brought much-needed fresh perspective to the scene with his debut feature, a sweet, multi-layered comedy-drama about an 11-year-old boy and his relationship with his openly gay teenage older brother. At the heart of the story is the Thai military’s unusual lottery-drawing draft, which Kim had previously dealt with in his short documentary “Draft Day”, covering transgender draftees. “Checkers” is adapted from the short stories of noted Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and adds more observations about the class divide. It was one of two major Thai premieres at the Berlin fest and Thailand’s official submission to the Academy Awards.
Freelance .. Ham Puay Ham Phak Ham Rak More (Heart Attack)
Exploited workers and the rickety state of public-health services become unlikely sources of comedy in indie filmmaker Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s directorial debut with the big studio GTH. He had previously made the abstract romance “36” and wrote screenplays for the hit GTH films “Bangkok Traffic Love Story” and “Top Secret”. Nawapol’s quirky deadpan indie style was burnished with the backing of GTH, which provided its bankable stars, leading man Sunny Suwanamethanon as a freelance graphic artist who pushes himself too hard and gets sick, and Davika Hoorne as the lonely young overworked doctor who treats him. Subverting the “feel good” style of most GTH films, “Freelance” turned out to be one of the two last films from that company, which broke up at the end of the year. “Freelance” now provides one possible template for the reformed company, GDH 559, to follow.
Onthakan (The Blue Hour)
Representing the best that Thailand’s burgeoning indie gay cinema movement has to offer, Anucha Boonyawatana directed this remarkable thriller about a bullied gay teenage boy who arranges to meet another young guy. From their initial rough coupling in a forbidden place, their relationship leads to even darker territory. The other major Thai premiere at Berlin last year, “The Blue Hour” had a foreboding atmosphere and electrifying performances from the young lead actors, Atthaphan Poonsawas and Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang.
May Nhai .. Fai Raeng Fer (May Who?)
The final film made by GTH before it broke up and then reformed as GDH 559 is more in keeping with the youth-focused slate of films from that company, with its story about a high-school girl with an usual condition that causes her to generate a powerful electrical charge. The sophomore feature from Chayanop Boonpakob, who followed up his 2011 rock ’n’ roll romance “SuckSeed”, “May Who?” was highlighted by a domineering performance by Sutatta Udomsilp as the electrically afflicted teen. Full of positive energy, the picture was further polished with manga-inspired animated sequences, giving “May Who?” the colourful feel of a comic book.
The lives of two men in the midst of existential crises converge in Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s arthouse drama, which won the Hivos Tiger Award at the Rotterdam fest. Bringing “Vanishing Point” to Bangkok, Jakrawal chose a rundown porn cinema in Klong Toey for the Thai premiere, creating a visceral connection between our sin-filled realm and the world of the movie, which had things to say about materialism, merit-seeking and willful self-deception. Quietly released in a handful of mall multiplexes, “Vanishing Point” had much more to say about Buddhism than did another Buddhist-themed drama “Arpatti”, which created controversy with its trailer showing a novice monk nearly kissing a girl and was briefly banned before the filmmakers trimmed the scenes that offended censors and clergymen.
The year just kept getting better with the unexpected return of New Thai Cinema Movement leader Wisit Sasanatieng, who came back after a five-year hiatus with “Runpee”, a teen horror comedy released by M-Thirtynine. Similar to “May Nhai”, “Runpee” also had a strong young superpowered heroine. She’s a Catholic schoolgirl (Ploychompoo Jannine Weigel) who has the ability to smell ghosts, and teams up with a boy ghost to solve a 50-year-old murder. It has all the hallmarks of Wisit’s earlier works, including “Fah Talai Jone” and “Pen Choo Kub Pee”, with spooky Gothic settings and inventively stylish (and funny) horror sequences.
More fresh perspective came from Rooth Tang, a US-educated Thai-American filmmaker, making his feature debut with a story about dysfunctional romances in three cities. “Sway” was filmed over the course of several years, starting in 2010 in Bangkok with Ananda Everingham and Sajee Apiwong as a couple trying to figure things out. Subsequent segments filmed in Los Angeles and Paris provide a look at the developing style of a new filmmaker, whose cultural views about East vs West are coincidentally similar to other Western-educated Thai filmmakers, particularly Aditya Assarat and Lee Chatametikool.
Another New Thai Cinema figure, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, combines snarky commentary on social-media oversharing with anxiety about the junta in this contemporary romance, which is still playing in cinemas. The multi-layered story is about a young woman who spends her days plugged into social media, sharing her heavily filtered and hashtagged photos of everything. But the realities of life come crashing down as she attends the wedding of old friends, reconnects with her high-school boyfriend and has second thoughts about marrying her current beau, a junior Army officer. And it’s all taking place under the cover of martial law.
Wise Kwai is a sub-editor andpart-time film writer for The Nation. He has a blog at ThaiFilmJournal.blogspot.com.