Dang Bireley & The Young Gangsters

Reviewed by Simon Booth

Director: Nonzee Nimibutr (debut film)
Year: 1997
Starring: Jessadaporn Pholdee (Dang), Noppachai Muttaweewong (Lam Sing), Attaporn Teemakorn (Piak), Chartchai Ngamsan (Dum), Suppakorn Kitsuwan (Pu), Champagne X (Wallapa)
Running Time: 1 hr 45 minutes

Dang Bireley's mother is a prostitute, and he kills his first man at the age of 13 (a customer that got violent with his mum). One might say that fate had him down for the gangster lifestyle from the start. In 1950's Thailand, under a corrupt military government, it seems that the only options for the youth are to become a gangster or one of their bitter rivals, the engineering students, so maybe it didn't take that much of fate at all. At the age of 16 he starts his first business, a protection racket, and from there goes on to become one of Thailand's most famous gangsters of the era.

DANG BIRELEY has a lot in common with the Korean movie FRIEND - in fact, if Thai cinema has penetrated Korean shores at all then I have no doubt it strongly influenced the latter movie. Despite FRIEND'S record box office, I found it to be a rather dull affair - perhaps due to over-high expectations. Perhaps my expectations for DANG BIRELEY were not quite so high, or perhaps it's just that it's a better movie because I definitely enjoyed it more.
Friendship is the theme, as the movie follows the lives of Dang Bireley and his close friends, not all of whom will remain close friends as inevitable conflicts come between them. DANG BIRELEY pays quite a bit attention to recreating the 1950s mood, and it is pretty evocative, if not quite down to the finest detail that FRIEND manages. This is balanced with a very modern filming style though - a very kinetic camera and edgy framing/editing, not over done but there are some very cool and interesting visuals.
The movie comes from writer Wisit Sartsanatieng and director Nonzee Nimimbutr - the director and producer of the transcendent TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER, with which it also shares some key cast members. A testament to the great talents of these film makers is how completely different the two movies are though (with Nonzee's NANG NAK being utterly different again). The movie is pretty serious in tone, though not as dry as FRIEND and definitely not suffering from the vaguely sickly nostalgia that permeates the Korean movie. It is presented as the occasionally narrated memories of one of Dang's gang - and though he obviously remembers Dang very fondly, his memories of the times are not particularly cheerful. There's a lot of violence, corruption and hardship around.
The story of Dang Bireley's life is a touching one. The bonds between the friends are very strong, and the characters mostly well painted and believable. I think the performances are top notch, though my unfamiliarity with the Thai language makes it difficult to judge this completely accurately. Script is great, direction great, cinematography great... generally a quality movie, though it is let down a little by an ending that feels a little awkward (though presumably this is due to the inconvenience of the real world having ended that way). Whilst not flawless, the movie still comes with my recommendation.

Note: When it was released in 1997 it broke the box office record for Thailand at the time. It also won the Thai award for Best film that year as well as being the Grand Prix Winner at the 1998 Brussels International Film Festival. The film is based on true events and was sourced from a book (The Mafia Route) written by one of the gang members many years later.

Kunpan: Legend of the WarLord

Reviewed by Simon Booth

Director: Thanit Jitnukul
Year: 2002
Starring: Watchara Tangkaprasert (Kunpan), Bongkot Kongmalai (Pim)
Time: 115 minutes

Kunpan - Legend of the War Lord is a legend about a warlord named Kunpan, happily enough. As a child, Kunpan's father is killed by the somewhat vicious king, and Kunpan would be killed too if his mother didn't whisk him away and hide him in a monastery. At the monastery, Kunpan is educated in the arts of war by an elderly monk and grows to be a good looking young monk himself. But then he falls in love with a gorgeous local girl and quits the monastery to marry her. To everyone's surprise and disappointment, he turns out to be something of a bastard who is led through life by his dick.

At least, that's how the first half of the movie presents him, since it lavishes far too much time on his bedroom antics, though since several extremely attractive young actresses are also involved I cannot complain too much about this attention. Well, actually yes I can - it was frankly rather dull, beautiful as the ladies may be. So the first hour of the movie is pretty much a bust, but then things come out of the bedroom and the movie starts to take a different and altogether darker route. Kunpan is pretty unlikeable in the first hour, but in the second he turns downright evil. Still totally unlikeable, but altogether more interesting.
The second half of the movie is pretty cool, full of violence, evil and black magic. Less shagging, more war. It's still not classic cinema, but it's much more engaging. The movie seems very similar to some other Thai movie I can't put my finger on, at least thematically. It may have starred the same lead actress even, as I've certainly seen her before (did I mention she was cute?). It's another movie where the men are all immature bastards but it's the women who suffer as a result. Kunpan is a dark hero, which sometimes makes it difficult to really be concerned by his problems. It's only because his enemies are that much worse that you want him to prevail.
Kunpan isn't a great movie, and for some of its runtime it outright sucks. It has some great moments to compensate though, and is overall quite watchable. The Thai DVD is pretty lousy - washed out non-anamorphic image that is much too dark, but ok sound and subtitles at least. It doesn't get very high recommendations, but I don't recommend *not* watching it either

Bangkok Haunted

Director: Pisuth Praesaeng-Iam ("Legend of the Drum" and "Black Magic Woman")
                Oxide Pang (" Revenge")
Year: 2002
Starring: Pimsiree Pimsee (Jieb),  Dawan Singha-wee (Pan), Kalyanut Sriboonrueng (Gunya), Pete Thong-juer (Nop)
Time: 2 hrs 10 minutes

A film clearly has to be more than a few memorable images that capture your imagination. I had seen the trailer for this film a few months ago and was knocked out by it – a series of fast moving images of an eyeless woman, a corpse in a morgue blinking, an eerie traditional Thai dance, long razor sharp fingernails searching for a victim, a woman hanging from a rope – that made the film look both exotic and inviting. Unfortunately, after finally having the opportunity to see it the film’s quality does not match those retina-retaining images. The film contains three supernatural tales – all told by three modern women sitting around a table at a Bangkok bar. One problem that the segments all have is they all run a bit long – all over 40 minutes – and feel slightly padded. Another issue is that though I thought all the stories had a definite potential, they somehow fell short of it – either by ending on a lackluster note or simply not making a lot of sense.

The word of mouth on the film has been pretty negative – in fact one web site I came upon had a poll and 87% of the nearly 100 respondents voted that they “hated it”. I can’t quite understand this reaction to the film – perhaps I have suffered through too many Troublesome Night films, but I thought there was a lot to enjoy here. The production standards are high, the cinematography is excellent, the locales are interesting and the stories are intriguing and original even if lacking in scares and finally being disappointing. The first two episodes are directed by Pisuth Praesaeng-Iam while the final one was directed by Oxide Pang.
Legend of the Drum (44 minutes) – Jieb accidentally receives an old drum in a shipment that appears to have an angry history behind it. She begins seeing apparitions and wonders if there is a connection to the drum. The story flashes back to 1917 Bangkok in which a love between a Thai dancer and a musician comes to tragedy – somehow the drum seems to have carried a spirit inside that is looking for something – but exactly what is never made clear.
Corpse Oil (40 minutes) – Pan isn’t having much luck of late with the opposite sex and so when her not so attractive next door neighbor - who seems to have lots of male lovers - tells her that it is due to a love potion, Pan skeptically gives it a go. The results are amazing good – much too good it turns out  - the contents for the potion come from the local morgue and seem to carry all the bitterness of their former owners. Be prepared for a lot of vomiting.
Revenge (45 minutes) – a policeman is sure that an apparent suicide of a young woman by hanging has to be murder – where is the chair – why are there marks of a struggle - and he sets out to find the killer. As he proceeds it becomes clear that the ghost of the woman is helping – or is she? This one had a pretty good plot and a clever ending that I didn’t see coming till the very end and neither did the cop.

My rating for this film: 6.0