Saturday, 22 September 2007

Syndromes of a Censoring

Like all countries, Thailand lionizes certain things: TV stars, pretties, wealth, light skin, jatukrams, fame, men in green uniforms. However, it’s a shame that some things seem to miss out almost entirely on the veneration; especially when, in the world arena, they’re among the things most talked about when it comes to Thailand.

Take film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The Thai Board of Censors spuriously refused to approve his latest film Syndromes and a Century for release unless he agreed to remove four scenes. Few Thai filmgoers know him from Adam, even less have seen his films.

However, from film festivals to the popular press he's often lauded and applauded further afield. To coincide with the UK release, the Southbank BFI – which is London’s, and probably the UK’s, premier film institute – has seen fit to give him his own season, while a review in British newspaper the Guardian yesterday awarded it its highest 5/5 rating, calling it “profoundly mysterious, erotic, funny, gentle, playful, utterly distinctive”. The esteemed film critic who wrote it, Peter Bradshaw, believes Weerasethakul to be “approaching the league or Kiarostami or Haneke, two of modern cinema’s great practitioners”.

I don’t know about that. What I do know is that his gay themed romance and 2004 Cannes Jury award winner, Tropical Malady, was difficult, languorous, baffling and yet quite, quite brilliant. In its second half – a folktale about a shamanic shape-shifter, in which tigers and talking monkeys roam an enchanted forest - it drifted into the realm of pure, almost transcendental art. It wasn’t a perfect film, but its surrealism, its cosmic potency left me mesmerized.

Back to the review:

“If you want a film as challenging and exhilarating as the most weird and wonderful exhibition, if you are bored with all the usual boilerplate material coming out of Hollywood, or even if you're not, then this is a film for you. Try it.”

We’d love to. But, because of the authorities idiotic insistence that "sensitive" scenes involving doctors kissing and drinking liquor, and Buddhist monks playing a guitar be cut, and Weerasethakul’s subsequent and entirely justifiable decision not to allow his work to be "mutilated in fear of the system", it’s not being released here. In a country that prides itself on its artistic creativity that's both tragedy and travesty.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Phil Hartnoll at Club Culture

One of Bangkok's many glories is being able to lurch from enjoying indigenous pastimes like shots of yaa dong (magic herbal whisky) at a guerilla bamboo shack one minute, to watching a globetrotting DJ clicking away at his laptop the next. Which is exactly what we did last Friday when throughly amiable techno-innovater Phil Hartnoll, of seminal dance act Orbital fame, came to Club Culture.

Dressed in regulation techno apparel - fresh skin head and a sports vest - he arrived, he grinned, he bashed away at his laptop (he may have been paying his gas bill for all we know, but he looked busy). He had the DJ pageantry spot on. He dripped sweat, he chewed gum like a Hacienda pillhead circa '89, he waved his hands like a madman attached to a nosebag filled with ketamine. And, with his blistering set of fresh breakbeat techno interspersed with classic Orbital tracks like Chime and Halycon and the Doctor Who theme, we loved it.

They're late (busy week) but here are a few pictures:

Perhaps it was seeing it buzzing, but Club Culture - with its subtly exotic style, comfy raised sofa and floor cushion lounging areas, decent dance floor and superlative sound and lighting -has grown on me. However, I still only give it 1 year at most: its too remote to attract passing hipsters, a bitch for newcomers to find, and, during the week, rarely worth venturing to on the off chance that it'll be buzzing. A message to Bangkok's busy clubbing graveyard: spades to the ready!

Monday, 10 September 2007

Adventures in Yaa Dong 1

Down an anonymous Soi at the end of my road is a shack that sells a potent brew. Called Yaa Dong, it’s a dark brown liquid made with secret blends of Thai herbs and whisky. Long considered a low prestige tipple for the upcountry classes, it’s served in little shot glasses and said to have medicinal-verging-on-magical powers.

On Friday night I took two friends to said shack en-route to Club Culture. Of course, being adventurous sorts, we had to try it. The urge to try a drink with names like ‘Never Flacid’ and 'Moaning Mistress’, and rumoured to enhance sexual performance to such a degree it could ‘make a monk leap over the temple wall in search of romance’ was far too strong to resist.

When we arrived a flurry of exuberance broke out. A group of upcountry types sat huddled inside a scruffy wooden cabana were thrilled that the Friday night entertainment – us – had arrived. Perhaps in retrospect an ominous sign, they were all sipping on more sane blends of watered down whisky. Lined up in front of us were three glass bottles with red fabric stoppers and different labels in Thai script. Each was less than half-full with a sinister dark liquid containing what, at first glance, looked like dead beetles and the corpses of other strange forest roaming insects. Grim. On closer inspection however, it appeared to be just pickled twigs, stalks, shoots, pieces of root and bark. Fuck it.

"We want the one that gives you power please”. The shack lady grinned knowingly, as if she’d more than once known that ‘power’. She poured a measure into a small shot glass and then topped it up off with some more whisky. One laconic stir and she slid it across the bar with the aloof finesse of the finest Wild West saloon bartender.

No hanging about. 1, 2, 3… slam.

"Arrrrrgh,… water! water!…. (water arrives)... Mmmm”.

"What’s it like?”

"Mmmmm not bad. Earthy,.. it has a good flavour..”

"OK, another please”.

1, 2, 3… slam.

"And another"

1, 2, 3… slam.

All was good. No palpitations or urge to spew. No ghoulish hallucinations running at us from within the darkness. Just the same upsurge in energy and warm bodily glow felt after necking any searing shot. We shook hands with our new friends, paid up and went to Club Culture all abuzz.

Fast forward 1 hour - and a couple of drinks - and our quaint alcoholic virility booster is spoiling the party. My friends girlfriend has gone abit lunatic and retreated to the ladies toilet. She's huddled over a sink filled almost to overflowing with... well, you can guess. A few minutes later and, with the elegance of a pair of disorientated tramps who've just been banished from the local off license, they're staggering down the steps of Club Culture and into the balmy night. I haven’t heard from them since. I on the otherhand was ok. Until dawn that is when I too purged my interiors, right down to the last delicious drop of bitter green bile.


Monday, 3 September 2007

Broadcasting Burma: The Rise of Rangoon's Citizen Journalists

In this age of savvy citizen journalists, instantaneous images and 24-hour rolling news it’s rare for Burma’s plight to make the news. Why? The fact that the blighted country is run by one of the world's most repressive regimes might have something to do with it. Those who report news deemed critical of the ruling Junta not only themselves potentially face years of grisly torture in notorious prisons, but too run the risk of their families being persecuted.

However, there’s also another factor behind the conspicuous silence: Burma has a communications network so antiquated that few citizens could report a story to the outside world even if they dared. While the ruling Junta have failed by virtually every measure when it comes to raising the health and prosperity of their people, they’ve been astoundingly successful in past years in ensuring that their people stay locked off from the outside world. People with phone lines, internet, digital cameras and mobile phones are rare - even among the few who can afford them. And an extensive state intelligence network carefully monitors their contact.

As a result, the main means for getting news out of the country has long been bold (often reckless) journalists posing as tourists, or the human equivalent of carrier pigeon, only slower: pro-democracy activists seeking exile in neighbouring countries, or destitute and often malarial refugees pouring across the porous Thai border with horrific tales of rape, murder and destruction at the hands of the military junta. News agencies like the excellent Chiang Mai based The Irrawaddy and NGO’s like the laudable Free Burma Rangers, have long been zealously documenting and reporting these kinds of atrocities along the border. Occasionally footage has backed up the claims, and - when the suffering captured is deemed horrific enough - has resulted in a fleeting 30-60 second spot on international news networks, followed by a public whimper of dismay.

However, last weeks demonstrations in Rangoon against oil price hikes, and their capture on film, may be part of a new organic trend developing within Burma. Shaky images of peaceful protestors being manhandled into waiting trucks by gangs of junta sponsored thugs suggest that internal dissenters against the regime are getting bolder in their attempts to bring their country’s plight to the world’s attention. Within hours they were beamed across the world on CNN and BBC.

And this is better than seeing none at all.
Why? Because harrowing pictures like these may prove to be the much needed catalyst necessary to bring about action by the international community. Already the footage has caused an upsurge of interest in Burma on networks across the world, and Jim Carrey of all people has just released a call for Aung San Suu Kyi to be released.

Citizen journalism has arrived in Burma. And, while the risks to those who courageously capture the deplorable realities of life today in Burma are great, the potential rewards to the country as a whole are greater. Images today speak louder than words. Let’s hope in Burma’s case, the UN and its members are listening.

Watch Youtube videos of the anti-inflation demonstration in Rangoon HERE and HERE.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Cinematic Bangkok: The City of Angles

New York has Woody Allen’s Manhatten. London has 28 Days Later or Passport to Pimlico. Rio de Janeiro has City of God. Vienna The Third Man. What film does Bangkok have?

Tearing back into town in a taxi from Suvarnabhumi airport at 5am last Monday morning, a maniacal driver sits at the helm. A pulsating Luk Thung song pours from the car stereo. The sky is a brilliant radiant blue, the bristling concrete cityscape nothing less than majestic. And, as we soar above the city on the expressway, for a few seconds my eye is a cinemascope tracking the scene, and I wonder: what film does Bangkok have?

In my opinion it deserves many. I’ve long thought Bangkok to be a cinematic city. By that I mean, that it seems, despite its insatiable grey concrete fetish, to have a visual vivacity that lends itself to moving image. It’s the distressed, choked, mottled, dilapidated look of almost everything. It’s the unremitting heat, the merciless equatorial light, the blistering pace.

Travelling through the city, pretty much every red light throws up something that stirs: ramshackle food stalls set up against dilapidated street walls, the hue and hustle of Chinatown's dimly lit streets, the surreal neon carnage of Khao San Road and Soi Cowboy, the crumbling posters within shop front facades, the howling symphony of combustion engines that is the city’s soundtrack, the sweaty drawn faces that each tell a pent up story of drudgery. If only some film director would agree with me, a ride on the city’s raised Skytrain could yield an awesome tracking shot: the swathe of dense fertile green that is Lumpini Park being guarded by the King Rama IV statue, as the train twists round towards Siam Square glimpses of the faithful praying below at Erawan Shrine.

Sleazy, loud, brutal, raw, gritty, majestic: this messy metropolis has so much potential!

Why then, is Bangkok so poorly visualised in film? The Thai film industry produces around roughly 50 films each year. And, while many use Bangkok as backdrop, very few attempt to capture it in all its messy, motley glory. Most typically tackle history, horror, romance, comedy and action (or a mixture of the above) while glossing gleefully over pertinent social, political and environmental tensions. Those that do depict Bangkok present it as a sanitized middle-class milieu inhabited by middle class people dwelling in middle-class apartments. Rarely do you meet the diversity of Bangkok’s social strata, or, on a more visceral level, get a sense of its sheer size, noise, claustrophobia and grime. Or of its opportunity.

An excellent essay by Robert Williamson called ‘In Search of Bangkok’ suggests this is for a variety of reasons: partly Thailand’s long-standing ambivalence to the idea of the city, partly because the Thai film industry typically uses the visual techniques of advertising to depict the city as people would like it to be rather that as its experienced, and partly because most Thai audiences don’t want films that mirror their lives or raise social commentary. “Film here need not appeal to the viewers sense of self”, he says, “and consequently many filmmakers overlook the way in which Bangkok’s physical landscape may reflect something more internal”.

Of course this is too broad a generalization. There are exceptions.

Wisit Sasanatieng's wonderfully whimsical 2004 film Citizen Dog is one of them. With strong aesthetic nods to Amelie and The Wizard of Oz, it tells of Pod – a country boy – being lured into the city. A fairytale metropolis drenched in splashes of saturated dayglo, here Bangkok is a city of opportunity, whose vivid colourings seem to represent the distant allure and pull of vibrant city life to rural folk. Unusally we get see a wide-angle Bangkok skyline, and meet the people who roam the streets: traffic police zealously directing traffic, people squeezing onto packed buses, young garland sellers weaving inbetween traffic. However while the city looks a dream, life in Bangkok certainly isn't, and Sasanatieng tells us so throughout through surreal motifs: fingers getting severed on factory lines, cycle helmets tumble from the sky, piles of plastic refuse touch the sky, and city dwellers grow dog tails! While highly stylized using CGI, Citizen Dog is one of the few films to truly tussle with Bangkok.

Less optimistic, both Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s offbeat crime thriller 6ixtynin9 and the moody meditation on urban loneliness and love, 2003 film Last Life in the Universe, are also notable. The latter especially - with its quirky storyline about a Japanese librarian residing in Bangkok and considering suicide - reflects a migratory trend rooted in reality, and his alienation relevant questions about the assimilation of foreigners into Bangkok society. It also benefits from maverick cinematographer Christopher Doyles shifting, oblique camera work, which captures an eerily empty Bangkok in all its chaotic, ramshackle splendor wonderfully. Set mostly in a trendy Bangkok boutique hotel room that resembles those found in all major cities, his latest film, Ploy, also goes some to way to expressing the architectural monotony and banality that's resulted in Bangkok as a result of its hotel building boom.

There's also the foreign contingent: The Beach (humdrum Khao San guesthouses with wafer thin walls and psychotic neighbours), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Bridget teaching incarcerated prostitutes to sing ‘Like a Virgin’), and The Man with the Golden Gun (a boxing match at Ratchadamnoen Stadium). But what do they offer really beyond shorthand Bangkok scenery and cultural stereotyping?

One ‘foreign’ film in which Bangkok I think really shines, is Wong Kar Wai’s sumptuously shot and highly stylized In the Mood for Love. A chaste love story set in 1960s Hong Kong, the crew struggled to find suitable locations there where the appropriate period-style architecture remains intact. The backstreets of Bangkok’s Chinatown did, and Wong Kar Wai along with cinematographer Christopher Doyle artfully exploited them for most of the films exterior shots. To ravishing effect I might add. Among many mesmerizing scenes, there’s one in which the lovers played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung softly pad along a darkly lit alley and a camera tracks them from within a building – that’s Bangkok. And it looks brilliant!

Which parts of Bangkok do you think are the most cinematic? And which films have done it justice? And why does this veritable feast of urban imagery remain still largely untapped by filmmakers?