Bangkok’s International Film Festival is funded by the Tourist Authority of Thailand — a fact which has a plus and a minus side attached to it. The plus side involves money and the commitment of the government — there’s enough finance to fly film-makers and delegates in from all over the world, put them up at a five-star hotel and generally treat them like VIPs. That’s a start with which many film festivals, strapped for cash, could not compete. The minus side is that the actual films, and the local audiences for them, are only part of the agenda. The government and the tourist authority want business. They want film-makers to use the country for locations and delegates to see that Thailand has a lot more to offer than holidays in the sun.
Consequently this is hardly Berlin, Cannes or Venice. The cinema screens are largely in the American-style shopping malls where young people gather to see almost exclusively Hollywood films with only a spattering of Thai films and a few, like the British Love Actually, from other parts. There is little sense of film culture around, so that the Festival’s international offerings have to be of a fairly commercial variety to attract good audiences. Added to that, the screens are widely dispersed and any attempt to get to them by car is likely to be frustrated by traffic that often makes a mile seem like ten. You have to take the overhead Skytrain to reach anywhere on time.
The programme this year was consequently dotted with as many failures as successes. Each full house had to be balanced against audiences of not much more than 20. It was organised largely by Americans with previous connections to the Palm Springs Festival. Led by Jenny Stark, a former programme director at Palm Springs and, incidentally, a Buddhist, it was full of films which had made their way at other festivals but had not been seen in Thailand. It also made a genuine attempt to highlight movies from the Asean countries which include Thailand. These were the films the International Critics Jury were asked to look at, while the main jury, headed by Australian director Bruce Beresford, prized the international section.
It was not a difficult job for the FIPRESCI jury to find a prize-winner. The one film in the Asean section which would have graced any festival was Last Life in the Universe (Ruangrak Noinid Mahasani), the Thai co-production which made its mark in last year’s Venice Festival. Superbly shot by the Australian Christopher Doyle and with the Japanese star Tadanobu Asano as its suicide-obsessed central character who finds himself chased by a yakuza gang just as he had decided that life may have some meaning for him after all, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s film is funny, stylish and utterly original. Ratanaruang, whose previous Mon-rak Transistor was also shown in the West, is clearly an exceptional talent even if Doyle’s work made it twice the film it might otherwise have been.
The international jury, with more than one prize to give, seemed to like more orthodox fare. It gave nothing to Kim Ki-duk’s remarkable Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring, a South Korean story told in five sections which was as beautifully shot as Last Life in the Universe, albeit in a totally different style from Doyle’s work, and gave prizes instead to Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions, Li Yang’s Blind Shaft and Jim Sheridan’s In America.
Those looking for the best of the Thai cinema had at least three films to applaud. Apart from Last Life in the Universe, there was the charming My Girl, a story of childhood traumas and joys in which a timid young boy has to prove himself to his peers by forsaking the girl who is his only real friend and joining the male gang. There was also Overture, the story of a Thai player of the bamboo zylophone who, over a century ago, was faced with authorities who decided that Thai classical music was retrograde in so-called modern times. Both these films were well-made technically, as was Okay Baytong, the story of a Thai monk who has to leave his monastery to live a secular life that is totally strange to him in order to look after his dead sister’s little girl.
While none of these films has the essential class of Last Life in the Universe, each at least shows that the Thai cinema, though assailed by the Hollywood product which dominates the mall cinemas, is progressing towards an identity of its own.
Next year, rumours have it, the Festival will be bigger and better — and if even more money is available it will be lucky indeed. What it now needs is a festival cinema worthy of the name rather than films dotted around Bangkok in cinemas which generally show the most commercial of fare, and a good deal more publicity from the local press, radio and television who this year seemed to do very little to support it coherently.
That, of course, is difficult if there are few local critics able to distinguish which are its main attractions. But there was a sense this time round that the Festival was something imposed from above rather than inspired by a genuine local love of cinema. Money is not the only thing that makes a good festival. Ground-level enthusiasm also has its part to play. When one of the main newspapers complains that there were not enough Hollywood stars on display, there is something wrong somewhere.
© FIPRESCI 2004