The ASEAN competition section of the 2005 Bangkok International Film festival offered us a glimpse of the cinema of this region through 15 films covering around seven countries, which incidentally includes countries limited to South East Asia only. This time we had films from Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Singapore.
One significant point which has to be borne in mind, while making a critical analysis or review of these films, is not to apply the same exacting standard that critics normally do at many of the other film festivals where we get films from established filmmaking countries. The Bangkok Film Festival, with its huge magnitude and vast reach across the world, through this competition, offers an exposure to many filmmakers who are longing for an identity at the international level.
Out of the films that we saw Buffalo Boy (2004), a Vietnamese film by debut film maker Minh Nguyen-Vo, is definitely a work of dedication. The film takes us totally to a new world, a world of anxiety, with pouring rain creating endless stretches of water surrounding the area. The inhabitants continue to live there, performing their chores. Buffalos are extensively used in the tilling of wet lands and the transportation of goods and people, and hence they play a key role in the life of the people. The rainy season almost extends to five months in this part of the world and it is a huge struggle for the buffalo owners to protect them, under these trying circumstances. Professional buffalo herders take large herds of buffalos to distant places in search of grass to escape starvation. Amidst all these anxieties, people with their families live in tiny hamlets, some of them totally surrounded by water. It is quite interesting that both the water and the buffalos form an integral part of the film just like other characters. The story has the teenage Kim, who takes over the responsibility of saving his two buffalos, stepping into a new world, experiencing different emotions. There is cheating, rape and violence by fellow herders, a strange confession of his father which raises doubts about the legitimacy of his birth, ultimately his love, all interwoven to make the film a memorable experience. This young director definitely deserves a pat on the back for his painstaking effort on his maiden venture.
Culturally speaking, this part of Asia, has some special significance for subjects related to ghosts and spirits. Pisaj, a Thai film directed by 23-year-old Chukiat Sakweerakul, deals with a subject of supernatural incidents which haunt a printing factory. A young boy and girl, who live there, are the victims who suffer the ongoing ghastly actions of horror taking place daily on the premises.
Made on a very modest budget, almost as low as 5 million Bachts (Thai), Pisaj is a promising beginning for the young director. Another Thai film The Shutter (2004), by Parkpoom Wangpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun, which was in main competition, has a similar subject. This again is a debut film for its makers and is a huge commercial hit in Thailand. A girl who becomes a fatal victim of rape and violence haunts the perpetrators who die one after the other mysteriously. The spirit of the dead appears through photographs. Spirits (2004), a Vietnamese film, by Victor Vu, also has a theme which tries to establish a relationship between the dead and the living through spirits.
The Letter (2004), by Pha-oon Chandrasiri is another maiden venture. Brilliantly handled in patches, this film is another huge commercial success. Dew a young website programmer working in urbanised Bangkok, during her visit to a village, happens to meet Ton, who is a devoted scientific analyst running a modern botanical garden. They fall deeply in love and get married. Dew moves to Chaingmai village to live with Ton. She continues to work for the IT company making frequent visits to Bangkok. But then tragedy strikes the couple, Ton dies of a disease. Very interestingly, Ton, who knew that his death was imminent, had written some letters to his wife in advance and asked them to be posted one after the other after his death through an acquaintance. For Dew, it was a pleasant surprise to receive these letters expressing his deep and pure love for her asking her to follow the traditional path of the family. Dew takes up her courage and continues to live there with her child. Highly melodramatic and sentimental, the film has a well-told touching love story to reach the masses.
The Bangkok International Film Festival, conducted by Tourism Authority of Thailand, with its huge budget and organizational set up, promises to become another popular annual film event like the Pusan Festival. With the up-to-date screening facilities, the necessary infrastructure to handle delegates from different parts of the world, existing in abundance in Bangkok, this festival will be watched by one and all who are deeply involved in cinema.