Bangkok Loco
Reviewed by Simon Booth

Director: Pornchai Hongrattanaporn
Cast:  Khridsada Terence, Nountaka Warawanitchanoun, Niphon Chaisirikul
Year: 2004
Runtime: 94 minutes

Bay is a young, good-natured but rather geeky young lad. One day he's lost in a bit of a drumming session, when suddenly he notices that he's not holding drumsticks but meat cleavers, and not hitting drums with them but chopping the body of his landlady into mince meat! But, he can't have murdered her, because if he'd violated any of the Buddhist commandments (e.g. "Don't kill people"), he would no longer be able to practise the Drums Of The Gods techniques. And he can, which is fortunate, because it's only a few days away from the once-every-decade drumming duel between the Drums Of The Gods and the Demon Drums - and Bay is due to play for the Gods!

If that plot synopsis sounds a little strange, it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the strangeness that lies within BANGKOK LOCO. I've watched a lot of films over the years (my mother would certainly say "too many"), and I do actively seek out the strange, unusual, unique, silly and extreme that the cinematic world has to offer. As a result, it's pretty hard these days to find something that's truly surprising or different to things I've seen before. This year the two films that have been most unlike anything else I've seen have both been from Thailand - CITIZEN DOG was the first, and BANGKOK LOCO is the second - and the most bizarre! LOCO indeed!
It's difficult but not impossible to draw some comparisons with other films. CITIZEN DOG is one of the first that springs to mind, because of the colorful visual style and the subtly creative use of CGI. MONRAK TRANSISTOR also springs to mind, because both films send their protagonists on surreal musical odysseys. Japanese film SURVIVE STYLE+ springs to mind because of the sharp, music-video influenced and luridly colourful cinematography and the quirky characters. The slapstick comedy and parodies of other movies and pop culture might put one in mind of a Stephen Chiau film, the secret scroll that gives the bearer supernatural drumming skills recalls any number of Wu Xia films, and... actually the film is *full* of references to other films, but it blends them all into its own strange, unique universe in a way that ultimately defies a real comparison with any other film, or even a genre. Right from the opening credits (which are placed in the scene as props during a chase that seems to be paying homage to Ong Bak) the film announces its intention to be different, and fulfills that promise over and over again right up to the end.
It's as if the film-makers have taken the entire history of cinema, lifted bits that they particularly liked and then woven them into a wholly new vision of what cinema could be. OK, that sounds a little too portentous - but for me it's films like this that remind me why I do spend so much time, effort & cash tracking down obscurities from wherever in the world they come, rather than heading down to the multiplexes with a gang of friends to watch the latest Hollywood brain-number and eat popcorn. It's not, after all, because I don't have any friends or I don't like popcorn! (That's just coincidence).
It must be admitted that BANGKOK LOCO does sometimes try so hard to be silly, strange, creative or just different that it does itself harm - breaking immersion with the film's world and reminding the viewer that they're watching a bunch of film-makers experimenting with every technique and style they can cram into the 90 minutes running time. For people that do not typically enjoy stylistic excess, and would rather just have a nice solid story that lets them forget about their external environment for a few hours, BANGKOK LOCO is likely to be torture. It's a film that is constantly going nudge-nudge wink-wink to the viewer, drawing attention to the fact it's a film, and a very silly one at that, but one that's fully self-aware in its silliness. It certainly can't be said to be taking itself seriously, but sometimes it works a little bit too hard to make sure we know it.
The film is packed full of references to and parodies of other films, but a lot of those are Thai films so the references might be lost on an audience that hasn't seen many of those - I've seen more than most, and some of them were nearly lost on me. There are also other references to Thai culture that went right over my head - I was aware that something was being spoofed or lampooned, but didn't know quite what. One doesn't have to have too much knowledge of world affairs to understand why a chicken with a runny nose warrants a horror-movie musical cue, or what's going on in the "tea parlour" scene, but other references are more subtle - but it's definitely not necessary to catch each & every reference to enjoy the film - enough is universal that it can still be appreciated without knowing, for example, that two characters who are hitching a ride on the side of a truck are from Bang Rajan, or that the phone number 999-9999 the two main characters come across is a reference to a Thai horror film of that name.
Special mention must go to the film's soundtrack, which is particularly integral to the film since it revolves around the Drums Of The Gods and features quite a few musical numbers. The style of the soundtrack is eclectic, from hard techno down to melancholy Luk-Tung ballads (Thai Country Music, basically). There's some great songs that
are as much a part of the film as the soundtrack to Monrak Transistor, for example. And some truly amazing drumming!
For me, there's not a lot bad I can say about BANGKOK LOCO, because it's just the sort of thing I love and that keeps me interested in cinema. It reminds me of the experience of watching TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER, which was the first Thai film I saw and the one that made me think "Wow, here's a country that I need to see more films from". In fact, TOTBT is probably the closest film to BANGKOK LOCO in quite a few ways, now that I think about it, but the two are paced & pitched so differently that it's still only a vague analogy.
As much as I enjoyed it, I can't give it a blanket recommendation, because I'm sure the self-conscious style will be utterly intolerable to some people. If you're looking for something fresh, and different to whatever else you've seen recently, then BANGKOK LOCO may well be worth a try though. Luckily the Thai DVD is cheap and has excellent picture, sound and English subtitles, so there's really no reason not to give it a chance :)

The Overture

Director: Itthi-sunthorn Wichailak
Cast: Anuchit Saphanphong, Adul Dulyarat, Narongit Tosa-nga
Year: 2004
Running Time: 104 minutes

"The Overture" is Thailand's submission to the 2004 Academy Awards and to some degree that "honor" puts the film into a very neat nutshell. At a time when the Thai government is doing its best to clean up its image as a haven for sex tourists and discouraging horror/bar life films like "P" from being distributed, "The Overture" is the perfect antidote. It's a classy production that is seeped in tradition, honor and culture. It is very mainstream and would have felt right at home as a Merchant-Ivory film. This isn't necessarily a knock on the film - just a warning to those who don't like films without an ounce of irony and that take themselves very seriously. This is almost certainly one of the many films that "Bangkok Loco" makes much fun of. I enjoyed the film, but at the same time I sort of felt I was in a class being sponsored by the Thai Tourist Board.

The film is apparently based loosely on the life of Luang Pradith Phairao - a famous ranard-ek player who lived from the late 1800's to the 1940's. The ranard-ek is similar to a xylophone except it is made of wood. At least back before traditional Thai music lost out to rock and roll, the ranard-ek player was like the lead guitar player and received all the fame and the babes. In parallel story-telling, the film traces the life of Som as both a young man and as an older man coming to his last days. It is an interesting way to depict his life and it adds a definite layer of emotion to the story - as a young man he comes to understand the importance of tradition and his role in that while as an old man he is attempting to make sure that this tradition outlives him.
Som (Anuchit Saphanphong) grows up with an intense need to play the ranard-ek and though his father initially refuses to allow him - his older brother had been killed by a rival ranard-ek player! - he eventually has to give in to his son's natural born talent. Som becomes a bit of a hotshot though and skips practices or does the star turn while playing the instrument in public. By the time Som is a young man his talent has begun to spread around the country and he is challenged to a duel - a common practice at the time. After he wipes the smirk off his arrogant challenger, Som is on top of the world until he hears the great master Khun (Narongit Tosa-nga - a true life current master of the ranard-ek) play and goes through a crisis of confidence. Later after Som is hired by the Royal family he has to face both his fears and Khun in virtuoso duel that nearly reaches a level of over the top absurdity.
The segment that follows Som as an older man (Adul Dulyart) takes place in the last years of W.W.II and the military Thai government is trying to stamp out all the old traditions and put a modern face on Thailand. One of these old traditions is the playing of the ranard-ek, but Som refuses to bow down to the authorities in a very moving scene. The film has no surprises and is chock full of the underdog clichés that are rampant in all films of this kind. Think of it as martial arts instead of a ranard-ek and you have seen it a few hundred times - even including a drunken master! Even so, it is still well done and manages to hold your attention with the terrific music, solid performances and some small lovely scenes. One scene in particular was a favorite - Som as an old man is now a teacher and his son brings home a piano to play jazz on. One expects this will lead to a conflict between father and son over tradition, but instead Som asks his son to play, listens and then joins in on a wonderful jazz duet of piano and ranard-ek.

The film has heavyweight producers - Nonzee Nimibutr and Prince Yukol - and certainly the production values are topnotch. Unfortunately, the Thai DVD has no subtitles but it has been picked up in the U.S. by Kino and they will be releasing the film later this year with the DVD coming out at some later time. I saw it with subs at a film festival.

My rating for this film: 6.5