Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wonderful Town (2008)

Let's do, err, laundry.

Wonderful Town
Written and directed by Aditya Assarat

Supphasit Kansen, Anchalee Saisoontorn, Dul Yaambunying

The world was still heady with holiday hangovers when the news of a great disaster of mythological proportion filled our screens and stunned us immobile by its enveloping devastation.

"Wonderful Town" takes us back to the beaches of Phuket, Thailand where a tsunami claimed hundreds of thousands of lives four years ago. The rushing and crashing of waves fill the screen, a hypnotic lullaby that sings of loss, strangely graceful and sinister at the same time. We get flooded in by foreboding before we get a first glimpse of a town framed by ragged mountains with patches of jungle, idyllic and murmuring with impressionist pastoral warmth. Wonderful, from a distance.

And it is this calm glamour that
Ton (Supphasit Kansen), an architect from Bangkok, falls under. He checks in an old hotel and later, while on a site visit to oversee the rebuilding of a hotel along the coast of Phuket, reveals to his foreman that he volunteered for this assignment, preferring the solitude and quiet over the busy city, preferring to stay in an almost empty hotel in a town muted by predictability.

At the hotel,
Na (Anchalee Saisoontorn) peacefully goes about performing her chores, changing sheets, folding towels, carefully but vacantly. But when she enters Ton's room, for the first time we see a hint of a sparkle in her eyes, a little tension in the arches of her shoulders. Later that evening, after searingly casual introductions, Na presses her ear against Ton's door, listening to him sing under the shower. The darkness rolls away from the shore as the second half of the movie delicately follows the relaxed conversations and uninhibited sweetness of falling in love that is reminiscent of Il Gon-Song's 2004 movie, Git or Feathers in the Wind. Na spends her afternoons sleeping in Ton's unmade bed, carefully following the creases with her fingers. Ton steals glances and kisses as the wind stirs up a line of drying towels.

Aditya Assarat's eye allows us to soak in the details until every curve of a landscape, every thoughtful brushing of skin against shadow against skin, every hissing summer blade, becomes imprinted in memory and are dialogues in themselves. This hypnotic spell, this immersion of gestures, motives and scenery in a single breath is much like Apichatpong Weerasethakul's atmosphere of strange calm where the mundane is amplified by steady camera pans until it reaches delirious surrealism. But where most of Weerasethakul's movies take a detour to the fantastic, Assarat's abruptly changes in tone as we hear the sea once again while the lovers make love in the darkness, the thief that steals, the waves that are hungry.

Na's brother, Wit (Dul Yaambunying), disapproves of his sister's illicit affair, which has stirred the town to life with gossip, and decides, along with his gang of thugs, to do something about it.

The abandoned haunted house, the crazy local boy, and the gurgling sea---like a forgotten memory from the beginning of the film---rear their ugly prophecies and suddenly fall into place. In an ending that is evocative of Weerasethakul's "Blissfully Yours," drowned ghosts not different from a town left hollow by tragedy, remain ghosts that pull others down to its murky, secretive depths.

"Wonderful Town" is adjective and irony, a heavy current with invisible waves. Assarat's first full-length feature is deceptively haunting, but its message does not lie in an aimlessly drifting bottle in the ocean. It's the in-between, the love (even) among the ruined, that can sweep us away like nothing else can.



Wonderful Town Wins 5 Subanahongsa Awards (Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal)
Aditya Assarat's Wikipedia Page

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Shi gan (Time)

Days of open hands.

It's a strange feeling, getting old. I feel the same, sleep the same, I even sound the same. But the mirror in the bathroom disagrees. I have gotten heavier around the middle. My eyes a little darker; my hair a little lighter with gray. My teeth stained from the hundreds of cigarettes and a thousand cups of coffee that I have and will consume.

Time has made me wiser. But also older. And let's face it: More and more less of what I was.

I see this sometimes reflected on my partner's eyes. And it's a painful thing to see.

Kim Ki-Duk takes this pain and creates an admonishing parable in his 13th movie, "Time."

Shi gan (Time)
Written and Directed by Kim Ki-Duk
Starring: Sung Hyun-Ah (Woman is the Future of Man), Ha Jung-Woo(The Unforgiven)

Familiarity breeds monotony, and in the two-year relationship of Seh-hee and Ji-Woo (Ha Jung-Woo) it has resulted in obligatory sex and predictable dates in a cafe. In trademark Kim Ki-Duk fashion, Seh-Hee asks Ji-Woo to think of someone else while they fuck. The sex is hotter. Seh-hee is destroyed. The following day, Seh-Hee disappears and without telling Ji-Woo, undergoes cosmetic surgery to change her face beyond recognition. Six months later, Ji-Woo meets See-hee (Sung Hyun-Ah) in the cafe he frequents and dangerous sparks fly out of the blue and into the black. See-hee is Seh-hee and demands the clueless Ji-Woo to choose between them.

This is definitely Kim Ki-Duk's most obvious work as he (angrily) slaps on the movie his disdain for Korea's, and everyone else's, obsession with physical beauty. After Ji-Woo realizes that See-hee and Seh-hee are the same woman, he also gets his face altered leaving Seh-hee desperately looking for him; the feel of his hands in hers her only anchor. If the hands fit, so to speak. And this is a Kim Ki-Duk movie where the laws of reality are ignored and the fantastic and the surreal exist as truths. In the end, "Time" admonishes too much to be really provoking. The vicious cycle ending comes across as preachy, and not the ambigous catharsis that we've come to expect from the director.

It is withot doubt though that "Time" is visually magnificent. The statue park of Baegumi on the island of Mo which breathtakingly displays the sculptures of Lee Il-ho becomes the only constant in the passage of time and tide. The iron hands that sometimes rise from the depths and oftentimes cradle the lovers is the heart that remains a child. Tarnished, yes, but unchanging.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Sud sanaeha (Blissfully Yours)

Welcome to the jungle.

Sud Sanaeha (Blissfully Yours)
Written and Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring Kanokporn Tongaram, Min Oo, Jenjira Jansuda

Ever had that indecipherable feeling of dreamy watchfulness? You become a vigilant critic, every crease, every scent is memorized as if it were your last day on earth. You become a watchful romantic, haunted by disbelief at the clarity of someone's skin. You become heady with desire; the alliance of hormones and heart rush to the head, an assault of contentment.


In Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Blissfully Yours," bliss begins with escape. The movie starts all too suddenly, in the middle of a scene. A man (Min Oo) afflicted by a mysterious skin decease is being treated by a doctor. He is accompanied by Roong (Tongaram) and an elderly woman, Orn, played by Jansuda with a consistent undercurrent of slyness. We discover the relationships much later in the film. The man, Min, turns out to be an illegal immigrant that Roong, a young factory worker, pines for. Orn helps the lovers navigate through life in Thailand in exchange of cash, and in the afternoon of their visit to the clinic, she helps Roong out of work so Roong can spend time with Min. Orn lends them her car and the two drive out into the dusty open road.

45 minutes into the movie, as the road trip begins and the scenery changes from dry to lush, the movie credits roll out. Roong turns on the radio and a Thai version of Summer Samba (So Nice) plays. Roong puts lotion on her and Min's hands. Fingers become flirty and playful. Colors deepen, yellow to golden, green to deeper green. They step out of the car and walk into a forest.

Bliss begins. Bliss takes over.

The next hour of the film is a celebration of naked intimacy, of moments of abandon at once introspective and instant. Weerasethakul's steady shots frame Min and Roong's childlike euphoria with journalistic clarity yet even the simplest gestures---picking wild berries, Roong resting on Min's lap---are soaked in a languid dream-like state. A waking dream impossibly captured and almost impossible to fully grasp.

In the meantime, Orn is also in the forest frolicking with her lover when her husband's motorcycle gets stolen. Tom, a factory worker, chases after the thief, and Orn wanders into the forest. Where Weerasethakul's "Tropical Malady" took a surreal turn in its second act (a parable that admonishes desire?), "Blissfully Yours" flourishes with calm bewilderment.

Orn stumbles into Min and Roong by a stream; Orn says that somehow the trail disappeared and her wandering led her to them. The stream, clear and reflective, becomes release and salvation for the three characters. Again, Weerasethakul elevates the ordinary to wonder lust. I was specifically transfixed when Orn began to intensely watch her hands under the running stream, palms up then down, weaving, worm-like shadows running across them. And then a kind of miracle. A delicate distortion, the healing cold.

"Blissfully Yours" is a state of being on film that's nearing abstract. But once you pull away, once you let the scenery sing and watch the lovers fall asleep, the bafflement becomes an expanding sun in your stomach. Lightheaded, you desire, too, to lie on the bank and listen to the stream whisper:

Follow your bliss.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Thank You Girls

The Thank Your Girls (Kung giunsa pagbuhat og binisayang law-oy: Original script title)
Directed by Charliebebs Gohetia
Cast: Gie Salonga, Pidot Villocino, July Jimenez, E.J. Pantujan, Kit Poliquit

No queen of the desert, no Julie Newmar fetishists can carry a sparkly candle against "The Thank You Girls," a colorful troupe of hard-traveling drag queens in search of a title and a little tenderness. This low budget independent movie is rich in characterization and brims with lust for life; a rollicking fuck-you to poverty, stubbornly poised to laugh at misfortunes and loneliness. Which is quite a feat, really, as both social commentary vehicle---purely coincidental as these girls are set against a backdrop of debt and prejudice---and a gay movie that truly rejoices in what truly defines the homosexuals in this country: quick wit and glittery make-up. And love, of course. Love of and for companionship. Minus the burden of gratuitous nudity and sex, "The Thank You Girls" is able to focus on a staccato of stories, which bounces back and forth from the actual pageant to the next one, until all the girls' mishaps and raison d'etre are told, before finally embarking on the last pageant. But somehow, it's different this time around. After all the hilarious question and answer exercises (If you are stranded in an island, how did you get there?) and casual confessions, it feels like I actually know these girls and I did wish them well as I sat quietly in my seat. As the movie reaches the final stage, spotlights on, stomach in and chest out, a dream sequence all of a sudden rolls out. Glamour shots, flowing white gowns, expensive make-up. A quiet peek inside their fantasies, our fantasies at one point in our lives: To be blindingly beautiful. And if this is what it feels like to be onstage, even if it's just a fleeting moment of grace, then it's all worth it. 4/5

Monday, February 02, 2009

Minyeo-neun goerowo (200 Pounds Beauty)

She ain't

Minyeo-neun goerowo (200 Pounds Beauty)

Directed by Kim Yong-hwa

Cast: Ju Jin-mo (Happy End), Kim Ah-jung (When Romance Meets Destiny)

Andy Lau still gets the award for best acting in a fat latex suit in the hilarious and heartbreaking "Love on a Diet" but Kim Ah-Jung does come a close second for playing Hannah, the overweight "backstage singer" of a catty pop star who literally brings the house down with her dancing. A little too much, like most of the fat jokes that roll out mercilessly during the first hour of the movie, but Kim Ah-jung's self-deprecating tics and troubling earnestness keep the material grounded, until she loses the latex and the movie finally moves from sitcom drudgery to genuinely funny. Even as the gorgeous Jenny, a persona Hannah invents, she still acts ugly-awkward. "200 Pounds Beauty" lightly deconstructs beauty: What one can get away with and how one can never run away from an ugly past. It delivers its share of commentary on plastic surgery, not too deeply, but enough to ask weighty questions. Underneath the layers of comedy and Korean culture exposition, underneath the skin and fat, is a desperate search for acceptance and love no matter what the cost. Hannah is too overweight to be wanted; Jenny is too perfect to be touched. After yet another rejection, Hannah/Jenny laments: I endured the pain when they were cutting through my skin and bones. But this hurts more. I'm quoting badly of course. But it did get me to thinking, is love worth the pain of a transformation? If you had the means, would you get rid of the fat around your stomach, the weight that drags your feet, that look on people's faces? Yeah, me too. Funny, huh? 3/5