One Night Husband

Director: Pimpaka Towira
Starring: Nicole Theriault, Siriyakorn Pukkavesh, Pongpat Wachirabunjong, Worawit Kaewpetch
Running Time: 97 minutes
Year: 2003

Late one evening newly wed Sipang (Nicole Theriault) goes to take a shower after having made love with her husband, Napat (Worawit Kaewpetch). In the shower she hears him yell out to her that he is going out for a few minutes and will shortly be back. By the next day he has still not returned and she files a missing person report with the police, but they have nothing to go on. Sipang next turns to her brother-in-law, Chat (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) for help but both he and his wife Busaba (Siriyakorn Pukkavesh) seem reluctant to assist in the search. Chat tells her that Napat is a gambling addict and that he is likely on one of his multi-day binges and when his money runs out he will come back to her.

This is the beginning of many discoveries about her husband that she stumbles upon during her search for him – all of them leading her to realize how little she knew about him – and perhaps about herself. As Sipang continues to go back to her brother-in-law’s home for answers, she slowly strikes up a friendship with a reticent Busaba that overcomes the class barriers between them. This female bonding becomes the heart of the film, as it comes to light that Busaba is an abused wife and Sipang feels the need to comfort her and bring her out of this situation.
This small low budget indie film received a fair amount of deserved critical praise as it made the rounds of a number of film festivals (Berlin, Hong Kong, Deauville) in 2003. To some degree it has that film festival flavor to it with its artistic ambiance, slow pacing, long silences and emotionally stifled characters. In one scene when Busaba breaks down and cries helplessly, the entire scene is filmed from behind her as if to keep us at a detached distance. But underneath all of this, female director Pimpaka Towira builds a cleverly layered minimalistic noir that crawls along in the shadows slowly revealing truths in which very little is what it initially appears to be. By the tingling finish I was completely hooked.
Actress Siriyakorn Pukkavesh gives a wonderfully restrained performance here as the abused wife. Initially when she appears, one almost assumes that she will have a minor role as she seems so withdrawn, servile and secondary but as the film progresses and she reveals the pained misery behind the placid surface it is a revelation that is heart-breaking. This along with her powerful performance in Monrak Transistor as Sadeo puts her in a class of her own among Thai actresses as far as I am concerned. In neither film is there a moment of falseness as she plays each character completely true to their emotional core. The lead actress in this film, Nicole Theriault, is actually a very popular pop singer of Thai-American descent and considering that this is her first film she does quite nicely playing the cool yuppie whose comfortable world is turned upside down by the disappearance of her husband.

My rating for this film: 8.0 (a film that actually gets better the more you think about it)

Saving Private Tootsie

Director: Kittikorn Liasirikun
Starring: Sorrapong Chatree, Putthichai AmartTayakul, Seri Wongmontha, Ornnapa Krissadee, "Som-O" Yonratee Komglong, Dr. Seri Wongmonta
Running Time: 96 minutes
Year: 2003

One of the more unique aspects about Thai film that may strike many Westerners as odd or possibly even perverse is the presence of transgender characters in many of their films. One of Thailand’s biggest international hits was a film called “Iron Ladies” that is about a team of transsexual/transvestite volleyball players. Its sequel was released in 2003 along with two other films that featured stories around these types of characters – “Beautiful Boxer” which is based on a true story of a transsexual kickboxer who is very popular in Thailand and this film, Saving Private Tootsie. Even in many of their other films, there are often transgender characters thrown into the mix – often as comedic relief. In Thailand this group of people are generally referred to as Katoeys or Lady Boys.

The film initially strikes you as a basic “gay” comedy with loads of catty remarks and the characters being referred to – often by themselves – as fags, ferries, queens, queers and daisies – but as the film progresses it surprisingly turns into a fairly tense action driven plot with a nice emotional impact. Perhaps it may seem a bit clichéd and contrived as it knocks you over the head with the message that these people are human too, but it does it very well within the confines of a good solid story that keeps your interest till the very end.
A Thai commercial plane goes down just inside the border of Burma and while most of the passengers are saved and rounded up for return to Thailand, a small group of five of them had run into the forest when they heard gunfire and become lost. This group is a spectrum of transgendered males – from a basic gay man (played by Dr. Seri, a famous gay spokesman in Thailand) to a snippy transvestite (Tongtong Mokjok) to a young transsexual (Yonratee Komglong) only halfway through the transformation (i.e. enhanced breasts but still with penis) to an older bitter transsexual who considers herself a complete woman now.
The other side of the border of Burma is not a good place to be – it is in a constant state of warfare between the Thais, the Burmese, the local tribes and drug smugglers – it is part of the infamous Golden Triangle. They are captured by the Tai Yai, a militant tribal group, who accuses them of being a “gay tribal group that plays with their assholes”. To which one of them replies, “We ferries must eat men, mustn’t we”. The film begins turning serious though when the Tai Yai attempt to turn them over to a small covert contingent of Thai soldiers who have come to bring them back. The handover turns into a shoot out when the Burmese show up and the Tai Yai think the Thais have betrayed them. When the Thai government decides not to send in a helicopter to pick them up, it turns into a dangerous and often deadly trek back to the border with land mines and combat fire to contend with. There is also a fair amount of animosity between the Thai soldiers and the gays that brings them to the edge of disaster. One of the soldiers is played by one of my favorite Thai character actors (Monrak Transistor, Last Life in the Universe, Crazy Cops) – and I finally was able to figure out his name – Ampon Ratanawong.
The literal translation of the Thai title of this film is “Pink Camouflaged Battling” and one has to guess that the choice of the English title was a play on the American films, “Saving Private Ryan” and "Tootsie". The remake rights have been picked up by the U.S. company, Distant Horizon. As a note – a few of the songs in the soundtrack are from a Thai group called Carabao. They are one of my favorite groups – known for their political songs and great guitar driven tunes – and their CDs are available through the Internet. I am not sure but the actor who plays the chief of the Tai Yai may be the lead singer and writer of the group. The actress/actor Yonratee Komglong who plays the young very feminant transsexual has apparently become quite the celebrity and poster "girl" because of this film and will be appearing in other films - there is one shot of her that I have to admit reminded me of Joey Wong in Swordsman II!

My rating for this film: 7.0

Last Life in the Universe

Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Starring: Asano Tadanobu, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Year: 2003

In this languorous melancholic film the only thing that seems to happen suddenly is death. It happens in the blink of an eye. One second you are alive, the next moment dead and you barely see it coming. It’s not neat. It’s not clean. Instead it is bloody and messy. And it smells. Kenji (Asano Tadanobu) thinks often of death. His own. He contemplates suicide constantly and often seems on the verge of doing so only to be interrupted by fate. In his anti-septic lonely world it seems to be his answer – his note simply reads “This is bliss”. Much of these thoughts though are almost masturbatory in nature – mental releases – and when the chance comes to die by simply doing nothing, he fights for his life.

From Osaka, he has somehow ended up buried in Bangkok working in a Japanese library and avoiding as much social interaction as possible as he surrounds himself in his apartment with piles of books – many of them the same ones. His life is neat and orderly – his socks and shirts organized by color – and very empty. His favorite book is  “The Last Lizard”, a children’s book that tells the tale of the last lizard in the world. Hints about his past life slowly seep out. Two events fall into his isolated orbit that force him to come to the surface of life. His Yakuza brother comes to visit – exiled to Thailand because he screwed the boss’s daughter. He thinks they have forgiven him – they haven’t. Another tragedy brings about his acquaintance with a Thai bar girl (Sinitta Boonyasak) and he spends a few desultory days with her staying at her ramshackle disheveled home on the beach. She is going to Osaka in a few days to work, he has some angry Osaka gangsters waiting for him at home. They start falling in love.
The style of this film is nothing like the director’s previous work that I have seen – Monrak Transistor and 6ixtynin9. Both of those films had strong story lines and large elements of black humor. His last film Monrak was at times very bleak and yet underneath it was a very humanistic and warm sentiment. This film is cool to the touch. Sleek, distant and dreamlike. The plot is secondary to the mood, atmosphere and visuals that are created. With the lush cinematography of Christopher Doyle, the back and forth time jumps, the cleaning of the apartment, the hypnotically slow pace and the characters emotional void, it almost has to remind one of the work of Wong Kar-wai – and most critics have pointed this out. The comparison – at least regarding this film – seems valid though Pen-ek Ratanaruang shows a sly sense of humor that Wong’s films generally lack and he finishes his films much quicker!
The compositions in the film are stunning – opaque colors infuse the scenes - it opens with a shot of a lime green lizard on a green wall – then to two chairs against the wall – then to a man hanging from a noose – all beautifully framed. Later a blood-splattered wall begins to almost take on the look of a Japanese water painting as it drips down and takes form. It is a beautiful film that at times might test your patience with its suffocating stillness, but it is at the same time fascinating and clearly one of the best films from Thailand yet.
The performance from Asano Tadanobu is very good, very subtle – as different as his role in Ichi the Killer as one could imagine. In a tongue in cheek joke, the camera pans by a poster of Ichi on the library wall. He completely dominates this film with his quiet yet shyly charming portrayal of this man. Look also for the cameo from Miike Takashi as a yakuza. If you were wondering as I was, there is a section in the film in which the main actress is interchanged with another actress – the one who plays her sister in the film and is in fact her real life sister (Laila Boonyasak). Whether this was a winking homage to David Lynch I am not sure – but it adds to the unease and dreamy atmosphere of the film. At times you wonder if much of it is a surreal dream or real.
The film’s dialogue is in Thai, Japanese and English and so on the DVD be sure to choose the “Original” soundtrack option as opposed to the Thai soundtrack that is all dubbed into Thai.

My rating for this film: 8.5