The Blue Hour (อนธการ, Anucha Boonyawatana, 2015)

Reality and fantasy begin to blur for a young man rejected by his family and persecuted by a society he feels has no place for him in the ethereal debut from Anucha Boonyawatana, The Blue Hour (อนธการ). Imbued with a strong sense of spiritual dread, the film casts its duplicitous hero adrift in an increasingly confusing reality in which his relationship with a mysterious boy encountered online may be his only anchor while drawn towards darkness and a lonely obsolescence. 

As we first meet high schooler Tam (Atthaphan Phunsawat) he is bloodied and bruised, a scene later repeated finding him beaten by bullies after money he’d supposedly borrowed from them but is unable to to return. He seems to be carrying an intense amount of resentment and self-loathing, not least towards his mother and brother who he says do not trust him accusing him of being responsible for anything untoward that occurs in their home. Then again, as Tam explains to new friend Phum (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang), sometimes he actually did do what he’s accused of yet still resents the assumption while undermining our faith in him as a reliable narrator of his own history. In any case, Tam’s mother has figured out he’s gay and is very unhappy about it directly asking him why he can’t “change” while taking his sexuality as a personal slight against her parenting, asking him if he hasn’t considered her feelings and reminding him that his father “hates it”. In Tam’s mind his family’s negative view of him is directly tied to his sexuality and concurrent sense of otherness, fearing that they see him as inherently wicked simply because he is different. “My family don’t hit me in the face” he reassures Phum when questioned about the collection of scars and bruises across his body hinting that they hurt him in other ways that the world can’t see. 

Yet his meeting with Phum is also in its way dark and ominous as if Phum himself is one of the spirits of which he later speaks hiding people away until they can claim them for the spiritworld. Their first meeting takes place at a dilapidated, disused swimming pool Phum claims is haunted which has eerie stains in the shape of people covering its walls one of which looks just like the figure of Tam sitting on the pool’s edge. If that weren’t odd enough, Phum later takes him on a date to garbage dump he says is on land that his family once owned but were unfairly cheated out of. This literal dumping ground nevertheless has its own sense of spiritual oddness, Tam finding the body of a man which seems to have regained some kind of life as does the body of a dog he later leaves there. Meanwhile, he’s shot at by a random man with a gun, presumably one of the gangsters Phum says are squatting on his land, and eventually clubs him over the head in act of violence later to recur whether in fantasy or reality outside of Tam’s direct memory. 

When Phum tells him that “if we can get rid of them then this land will be ours. Then we can live here together” he’s perhaps talking more widely or at least to Tam’s fracturing psyche suggesting that if he could rid himself of the oppressive forces in his society then he’d be able to live freely having reclaimed his emotional landscape and cleared it of the trash left behind. His visions become darker, haunted by a sense of dread as he tries to scrub the silhouette of himself from the pool’s wall and encounters bloody scenes of his own violence whether real or imagined. What he seems to seek is the promised oblivion of Phum’s stress beating ritual immersed beneath the murky waters of his escapist dreamscape. Oneiric and elliptical, Anucha Boonyawatana’s beautifully photographed non-linear tale of repression and release paints a darkening picture of the contemporary society for boys like Tam fracturing under the weight of rejection and resentment, their mounting rage and loneliness turned inward yet threatening to explode into self-destructive violence. Hidden away he might well be and bound for another world hand in hand with his mysterious saviour. 


The Blue Hour screens at the Barbican on 23rd May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

4 Kings (4 Kings อาชีวะ ยุค 90’s, Puttipong Nakthong, 2021)

Marginalised young men turn to internecine gang violence in ‘90s Bangkok in Puttipong Nakthong’s edgy youth drama 4 Kings (4 Kings อาชีวะ ยุค 90’s). In essence a high school delinquency movie, 4 Kings finds little glory in pointless macho posturing but suggests that the older generation is no different, a parade of absent or authoritarian fathers no better than the sons they criticise attempting to preserve their patriarchal authority through threats of violence while roundly rejecting the right of these young men to try to make a life for themselves simply because of their social class and a stigma surrounding vocational schools. 

In a framing sequence set around 2010, the hero Billy (Itchnakorn Pheungkiatrasmee) has become an embittered middle-aged man with a drinking problem bringing up his teenage daughter Amm alone though she holds only contempt for him. When Amm is caught up in gang violence and injured while he is unable to protect her, it forces Billy to remember his own past as a high school delinquent especially when he recognises her teacher as former gang rival. Flashing back to 1995, Billy is one of four guys representing their school as a street gang engaging in pointless fights with rival institutions while experiencing problems at home with his authoritarian stepfather who has already written him off causing him to temporarily move in with best friend Da (Arak Amornsupasiri) and his warmhearted mother. Da meanwhile has problems of his own as his girlfriend Au whose father is a local policeman has become pregnant and though he wants to do the right thing and raise his child his prospective father-in-law does not approve. 

Though they treat the boys like stray dogs and openly insist that they have no future nor any right to one, the fathers behave no better expressing their patriarchal authority though macho posturing. Au’s father more or less describes Da as a thug no good for his daughter insisting that only he has the right to decide who she dates or marries but then punches him in the face and threatens him with his service gun. Billy’s dad meanwhile barks that “there’s no point being nice to him” telling Billy to go sleep in a dog’s cage, insisting that he needs “discipline” because he has his father’s “vile blood” again punching him in the face and telling him to get lost and never come back. The only expression of masculinity the boys have ever learned is exerting their dominance through violence so it’s little wonder that they seek the same kind of validation in fighting each other in the streets with only the solace of the solidarity they find among their friends and allies. 

After all, everyone is telling them they have no future anyway because they attend a technical high school and are already at the bottom of the social ladder with no real prospect of moving up. The boys don’t know why they’re fighting each other merely owning the uniforms they’ve been given. When Billy is sent to prison after his stepfather refuses bail and decides to press charges on the theft of his camera, he ends up becoming friends with two guys from other gangs now each on the same side wearing the white T-shirts of prison inmates while finding themselves lost within an entirely different gang hierarchy of which the guards are at the top. Meanwhile even on the outside there are other elements too such as randomer drug dealer Yad who has a beef with technical students in general but is otherwise outside of their struggle. The former prisoners might individually have decided to put their differences behind them but are still members of their respective gangs and it’s a minor irony that the climactic act of violence which changes each of their lives occurs only after they’ve graduated and are no longer members of their respective schools. 

Even so as the framing sequence makes clear, the legacies of these intergenerational conflicts continue to echo into the present with Billy “wallowing in the past” as he struggles to raise his daughter she wondering if he really loves her or only feels an obligation while he struggles to get over his delinquent past even after having made a good life for himself as a successful contractor. 4 Kings certainly does not glorify gang violence even if it may celebrate the brotherhood between the young men who are basically good at heart just hotheaded and immature making bad decisions and paying a heavy price for them, but may in a sense also glamourise the same kind of macho posturing the film otherwise critiques especially in its post-credits sting teasing the possibility of a sequel if ultimately undercutting it with its otherwise positive conclusion healing the generational divide through emotional honesty. 


4 Kings screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cracked (ภาพหวาด, Surapong Plearnsang, 2022)

The traumatic past comes back to haunt a widowed single mother in Surapong Plearnsang’s eerie supernatural horror, Cracked (ภาพหวาด). A Singapore-South Korea-Taiwan-Thailand co-production, Cracked is adapted from an unproduced Korean screenplay and finds its heroine dealing with an inheritance both literal and spiritual following the death of her estranged father while she herself is filled with anxiety trying to find the money for an operation her daughter desperately needs to avoid losing her sight. 

In any case, the young Ruja (Chayanit Chansangavej) had been told “if we pretend not to see them, they cannot hurt us” which doesn’t sound like particularly good advice to begin with but perhaps fuels her reluctance to revisit the hidden past. Now living in New York with her young daughter Rachel (Nutthatcha Padovan), she is shocked when an old friend of her father’s, Wichai (Sahajak Boonthanakit), tracks her down and insists she return to Thailand her father having died. In addition to his giant gothic mansion seemingly inhabited only by a maid, her father has also left behind two famous paintings titled “A Painting of a Beauty 1 & 2” for which Wichai has found a buyer but needs Ruja’s consent. Ruja thinks the paintings are creepy anyway the recent history that the smaller was previously owned by a man who killed his entire family and then himself not withstanding and wants them gone as soon as possible especially if they raise enough to pay for Rachel’s medical treatment, but Wichai wants to have them restored first, his son conveniently enough being an art restorer. 

Ruja’s reluctance to look at the paintings is echoed in the instructions her mother had given her about unseeing the things that frighten her, yet being back in the house re-awakens a series of traumatic memories as she looks back on the way her father treated her mother from the perspective of an adult woman with a child of her own. Meanwhile, Rachel is keen to explore later explaining that she hasn’t been wandering off alone but in the company of a woman with a red scarf which is how she runs into Tim (Nichkhun Horvejkul), Wichai’s kind-hearted art restorer son. The problem is that the more Ruja is forced to look at the paintings the more they seem to decay, cracking so badly that the paint begins to fall away exposing a secondary painting below and a truth that Ruja did not want to witness. 

In a sense she’s been made to pay for her father’s transgressions, but also for her mother’s refusal to oppose them along with her discrimination towards another family she regarded as part of a “ghost-worshipping hill tribe”. Having been told to unsee Ruja is punished for the act of looking away, and perhaps also for having left and trying to make a new life for herself abroad having on some level forgotten what happened to her in the house and what she saw in her father’s studio. Surapong Plearnsang’s production design reflects her fractured viewpoint in the overlay between the broken window she peeks through and the hole in the painting while lending the paintings themselves an eerie disquiet painted as we later discover with violence and darkness by her already corrupted father later himself falling victim to a curse. 

The suggestion is that Ruja’s only escape lies in burning the past and creating a new history to pass down to her daughter free of the traumatic legacy inherited from her parents. “We only have each other now” she reminds Rachel, promising to protect her with her life while preparing to leave the eerie forest behind. Echoing the gothic in its creepy old mansion and obsession with corrupted legacy, Cracked is equal parts psycho chiller as Ruja tries to work through her buried trauma while assaulted by genuine supernatural forces of malevolence wanting her to pay for her parents’ transgressions aided by a more corporeal assistant seemingly hellbent on vengeance. Filled with a sense of dread not to mention extensive snake symbolism, Surapong Plearnsang’s haunted house creeper sends its conflicted heroine into the past hoping to fix the future only to discover that it’s not enough to paper over the cracks of an incomplete history, only by stripping the veneer and exposing the ugly truth below will you ever be free. 


Cracked screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Anatomy of Time (เวลา, Jakrawal Nilthamrong, 2021)

In a rural village in 1960s Thailand, a young woman sniffs a bottle of expensive French perfume gifted to her by her military suitor, and then opens a bottle of honey obtained from a rickshaw driver childhood friend and smears some of it onto her face. The honey and the perfume in one sense represent choices between two men but also between two ways of life, one timeless and innocent, and the other violently modern. You could say that each is in its way compromised, the life cycle of bees described by the harvester as he smokes them out of their home, while perfume is perhaps only an attempt to remake what nature had already perfected, but in the end the young woman may come to regret her choice decades later longing only for the tranquility of her childhood home. 

Told in fragmentary, non-linear flashes of memory belonging either (it seems) to the heroine, Maem (present day: Prapamonton Eiamchan, 1960s: Thaveeratana Leelanuja), or her husband the unnamed Soldier (present day: Sorabodee Changsiri, 1960s: Wanlop Rungkumjad), Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s Anatomy of Time (เวลา) opens with an elderly woman realising the man she has been nursing has died. Picking up a straight razor from a nearby table, she cuts into his thigh and removes what seems to be an ancient bullet, an ironic act of healing which sends us straight back into the past in which the Soldier is part of a militant insurgency that later fails. “How many more must die before you get the nation you want?” a fellow officer asks him, disgusted by his betrayal of a young woman who’d helped them and the implication that they will soon take care of her baby too. The Soldier justifies his actions by insisting that there can either be a fair system under a ruthless leader or else a system full of lies and deception in which the rich exploit the poor. Unconvinced, the officer tells him he’ll have no more part of it, but the Soldier is seemingly too far gone to turn back the bullet in his thigh a symbol of his ongoing corruption. 

In subsequent flashbacks, we see the elderly Soldier rejected by the world around him. A nurse hired to care for him, ironically wearing a t-shirt reading “my life is just an old man’s memory”, whispers that she hopes he dies a long and painful death while a local cafe owner throws him out as soon as he, painfully and with great difficulty, sits down unwilling to have a “fascist” in his shop. The older Maem cares for him with great tenderness, though her life cannot have been easy even if their well-appointed home in contemporary Bangkok hints that it was most likely comfortable. Her memories take her back to their courtship, the Soldier young and handsome with his fashionable sunglasses and confident swagger, while she found herself torn by her relationship with the simple local boy Don who took her to see the bees while her outing with the Soldier to what seems to be an almost empty oppressed village eventually turned inexplicably dark and violent. At his funeral only she and another old soldier are present, the man presenting himself as his son (but seemingly not hers) apparently absent. 

A conversation with her father had reminded her that as Buddhists they believe that their choices dictate the course of their lives, Maem feeling responsible after Don is beaten up by the military but later it would seem choosing the Soldier anyway. A stand in for her nation, Jakrawal Nilthamrong seems to imply that Maem may have been beguiled by the false promises of modernity falling for a man whose handsome face masked his ruthless violence. At the end of her life she chooses to go back to the rural past, returning to wind the clock at her father’s shop its heart beating once again. Perhaps she regrets her choice, perhaps the Soldier regretted his that left him an outcast, but now all they have are memories as imperfect as they may be with their echoes of other lives and the untapped possibilities of youth. Often beautifully photographed if somewhat obscure, Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s ethereal drama contemplates the legacies of trauma historical and personal while embracing finally the tranquility of life beside a wide river as his elliptical tale concludes with both dream and exit.


Anatomy of Time streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Medium (ร่างทรง, Banjong Pisanthanakun, 2021)

A young woman finds herself caught between the contradictions of the modern Thailand in Banjong Pisanthanakun’s eerie forest-bound supernatural folk horror, The Medium (ร่างทรง). Produced by The Wailing’s Na Hong-jin and based on his original story, Banjong Pisanthanakun’s shamanistic drama is in many ways an exploration of the vagaries of faith but also of the price to be paid for abandoning the traditions of your nation and the slowly mounting karmic debt that visits itself solely on the young. 

A documentary film crew exploring indigenous religious practice has settled on shamaness Nim (Sawanee Utoomma) as a subject, getting her to provide a brief explanation of the area’s animist beliefs. According to her, there are good spirits and bad, those who protect and those intent on causing harm. As a conduit of the goddess Ba Yan, the local protective deity, she is able to intervene when the villagers need her help though only, she is keen to point out, where the problem stems from something “unseen”. She takes no money for her services, though sometimes people bring gifts, and is clear that she cannot treat conventional illnesses such as cancer only those a direct result of supernatural manipulation. 

Nim had not originally wanted to become a shamaness and at one point attempted to take her own life in order to escape it, but claims that after deciding to accept Ba Yan everything changed for the better and she’s since grown to like it because it allows her to help people as well as affording her a special status in the village. A maternal deity, Ba Yan only seeks female hosts and the original target had been Nim’s older sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan) who went so far as to convert to Christianity in order to reject her. According to older brother Manit (Yasaka Chaisorn), the sisters have never got on, a degree of animosity between them obvious on attending the funeral of Noi’s husband Wiroj (Prapruttam Khumchat). Wiroj, however, a had traumatic family history of his own, his ancestors apparently having committed a terrible crime, while his grandfather was stoned to death by his employees, and his father burned his factory down for the insurance money later taking his own life. The couple’s son Mac (Poon Mitpakdee) was also tragically killed in a motorcycle accident some time previously.  

All of this might explain why Nim’s 20-something niece Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech) seems to be behaving strangely at the funeral, having too much to drink and kicking off at an uncle for supposedly insulting her. Witnessing other strange events, Nim starts to suspect that Mink is beginning to awaken as a shamaness and that Ba Yan is looking to move on, but whatever it is that’s troubling Mink may not be as benevolent as the protective deity. The clash between the sisters comes to represent a clash between tradition and modernity, ritualistic animist religion and Western Christianity, as mediated through the body of Mink a young urbanised woman working at a recruitment centre who thinks all this shaman stuff is backward and superstitious. Interviewed by the documentary crew she rolls her eyes and recalls a story of a so-called Doraemon Shaman who is compelled to sing the theme tune to the famous children’s cartoon about a blue robot cat from the future on entering a trance. 

As the film progresses, a series of questions arises in relation to the dubious ethics of the documentary film crew particularly in their decision to continue following Mink as her mental health deteriorates. Later events imply they did not edit this footage themselves, but the decision to film the aftermath of a suicide attempt seems unjustifiable as does the inclusion of CCTV footage featuring clearly recognisable people engaging in acts of intimacy even if admittedly in public places. 

In any case, the central question is how much faith you can have in things you can’t see, Noi ironically asking Nim how she knows Ba Yan is with her if they’ve never “met” while simultaneously refusing to ask herself the same question in regards to her Christian faith. Then again, we can’t be sure if Noi’s faith is “genuine” or solely a way of rejecting her traditional beliefs in order to shrug off the burden of shamanism. Even Nim finally admits that she no longer feels certain that she really is possessed by Ba Yan and not the victim of localised hysteria. Her final conclusion is that Mink’s illness is a result of Noi’s rejection of shamanism and only by convincing her to finally accept the goddess can they gain her assistance in freeing Mink from the ancestral curse and bad karma that have apparently made her a magnet for evil spirits. 

Having originally believed the spiritual pollution lay firmly in the present generation with the suggestion of an uncomfortable taboo, Nim later realises she’s been tricked and the problems lie far in the distant past if exacerbated by the karmic debts accrued by Wiroj’s immediate forbears. Noi’s reluctance to listen to her guidance, however, eventually leads to a series of escalating consequences, further bearing out the message that it was her own betrayal of her traditional beliefs that laid a spiritual trap for her daughter. Capturing a sense of eeriness in the Thai forests,  Banjong Pisanthanakun leans heavily into a sense of spiritual confusion and existential dread asking some key questions about the nature of faith, the costs of sophistication, and effects of failing to deal with the legacies of historical trauma while raising a sense of palpable evil in its demonic trickery. 


The Medium screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and will stream exclusively on Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand from Oct. 14.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

The Con-Heartist (อ้าย..คนหล่อลวง, Mez Tharatorn, 2020)

Is love the greatest swindle of all? In these strange times scams are on the rise as amoral fraudsters attempt to take advantage of our various anxieties, hoping we’ll be just distracted enough to fall for one of their tricks. The heroine of Mez Tharatorn’s heist caper rom-com The Con-Heartist (อ้าย..คนหล่อลวง), however, had her heart stolen out from under her well before the world began to wind down and other than stealing back what was stolen from you what better way of getting revenge is there than scamming a scammer out of their ill-gotten gains. 

25-year-old Ina (Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul) used to work in a bank but now has an unsatisfying job as a credit agent chasing bad debt, a minor irony because she’s in a significant amount herself as the post-it notes lining her wall detailing various repayment dates demonstrate. It seems that Ina has been unlucky in love, meeting the suave and handsome Petch (Thiti Mahayotaruk) through an app and falling head over heels for him. Thinking it was the real thing, she didn’t really question it when he kept asking her to lend him money, eventually taking out a sizeable loan to supposedly pay for his tuition using her mother’s farmland as security. Realising she’d been scammed, Ina tried to go to the police but as Petch claimed she gave him the money willingly there’s nothing they can do while he unceremoniously dumps her even as she humiliates herself clinging to him. That’s one reason why when she’s cold called by con-man Tower (Nadech Kugimiya) claiming to be from the tax office she nearly falls for his obvious scam despite being a former bank employee presumably familiar with official protocols. Finally catching on she decides to play Tower at his own game, recording their conversation as she uses her connections to unmask his “true” identity and then attempting to blackmail him before hatching on a new plan – getting him to scam Petch to get her money back (along with a little satisfaction not to mention revenge) and thereby save her mother’s farm. 

“No one dies from being conned out of money,” Ina later tearfully explains, “It just breaks your heart. It makes you want to run into an electric pole and die.” Perhaps people really do die of being conned out of money, but still there is a moral judgement being made between men like Tower doing small scale, one-off telephone scams and those like Petch, heartless gigolos leveraging the sincere feelings of perhaps vulnerable women for financial gain. After breaking up with Ina, Petch got onto a sure thing with an older woman who runs a travel agency and is apparently financially supporting him with gifts of expensive suits and fancy cars while he works at her company. 

Ina and Tower’s scam aims to take advantage of his weakness by convincing her old Chinese teacher Ms Nongnuch (Kathaleeya McIntosh), who is in a mountain of debt herself, to pose as the cougarish CEO of a Chinese beer company. Scamming a scammer is always a challenge, but the trio, later a quartet roping in Tower’s weird con-man brother Jone (Pongsatorn Jongwilak), hope they can unbalance Petch by poking at his weaknesses to undermine his natural cynicism. During the course of their scheming, Tower and Ina begin to draw closer but Tower is after all a conman, maybe he’s just playing an extra long con and Ina is about to get her heart broken all over again or on the other hand her earnestness may just reform him. Who is swindling who? It might be difficult to say. 

Shot with the customary slickness of a Thai heist move, Mez Tharatorn’s comedy caper throws in a series of twists and reversals while playing on the ironies of good scammers and bad as the gang determine to take down the “wolf” Petch to protect meek “sheep” like Ina while she perhaps begins to fall for Tower precisely because she already knows she can’t trust him. An epilogue a year on from the original action brings us up to the present day in which everyone is wearing visors and bumping buttons with their elbows, but in an odd way there has been a kind of healing as even scammers find themselves caught out by their greed in the midst of a deadly disease.


The Con-Heartist screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)

Come and See (เอหิปัสสิโก, Nottapon Boonprakob, 2019)

The ethics surrounding the organisation of religion can often be thorny, yet the issue is less one of practice or philosophy than of the potential exploitation of vulnerable people in search of spiritual support. Titled “Come and See” (เอหิปัสสิโก) after an exhibition organised by the religious organisation at its centre in order to debunk the “fake news” and frequent attempts at what it describes as defamation in the mainstream press, Nottapon Boonprakob’s documentary investigates not only the controversial Buddhist sect Dhammakaya and its former abbot Dhammachayo (missing since 2017) but the place of Buddhism in modern Thai society which was under the rule of a military junta until the summer of 2019 following a 2014 coup. 

Founded in 1970, the controversial sect is said to have over four million devotees with 131 temples located around the world and operates out of a vast religious complex centred in a building which resembles a giant spaceship with a large eye-shaped orb. It has caused controversy with practitioners of Buddhism firstly because its teachings run in contrast with traditional religious thought in suggesting that Nirvana is a physical rather than purely spiritual place and that it is possible to meet the Buddha as founder monk Dhammachayo claims to have done. Doctrinal issues aside, however, many view the sect with suspicion because of its aggressive fundraising programme while Dhammachayo has also been directly accused of money laundering and the receipt of stolen goods. The temple deflected the accusations on the grounds that Dhammachayo’s age and ill health prevented him from responding fully while his followers later insisted he would turn himself in but only once Thailand retransitioned to full democracy. Following a lengthy siege of the temple building it was however discovered that Dhammachayo was not in his “recovery room” as aides had stated but apparently missing, perhaps in hiding. His whereabouts are currently unknown. 

Using a mixture of talking heads interviews with current and former members as well as religious experts alongside documentary footage, Nottapon Boonprakob does not directly investigate the various allegations but sets them against the contemporary Thai society. The sect itself and some of the experts even those on the opposing side believe the charges are at least in part politically motivated, that given its vast wealth and huge number of followers it is in danger of becoming a state within a state and therefore presents a threat to the traditional authorities. This level of destabilisation is thought to have contributed to the military coup which took place in 2014 and is posited as an explanation for the junta’s determination to weaken the temple’s reach though in the continuous absence of Dhammachayo its efforts would seem to have proven fruitless. 

Nottapon Boonprakob follows one particular devotee as she takes part in the resistance movement to the police investigation eventually moving into the temple compound which is later placed into a lengthy siege during which two people sadly pass away, one from an asthma attack and the other apparently a suicide committed in protest (though the temple disavow this action and claim the man was not a follower). Devotees are heard to offer their lives for the abbot, perhaps disturbingly citing that dying for something when everyone dies anyway will buy them more “merit” and thereafter a secure place in the highest levels of heaven. Devotees can earn merit by donating monetarily to the temple or by completing other tasks as we see them do during the siege though it is perhaps strange that we only seem to see the women cleaning and cooking even if they also seem to make up a larger percentage of the devotees captured on film. It was this increasing concentration on “fundraising” with “sales” quotas set for monks that drove one former practitioner away, explaining that she felt under pressure to continue donating eventually becoming disillusioned with the materialist bent of the sect’s practice which she now feels is corrupting Buddhism in Thailand. 

Another former member who worked for the organisation says something similar, that he attempted to raise the matter with Dhammachayo after a practitioner came to him with a marital dilemma. Her husband had apparently walked out and she had devoted herself entirely to worship in order to get him back, selling inherited properties to buy more merit and wondering if she should sell the house she was living in too. While he worried the woman’s intense practice may have further strained her marriage and she should not perhaps be encouraged to bankrupt herself for religious reward, he claims that Dhammachayo coldly told him that he was no longer Dhammachayo the monk leaving him frightened and disillusioned. He subsequently resigned and joined another sect, becoming an outspoken critic of Dhammakaya claiming that Dhammachayo had attempted to convince him he was the “Creator of Everything”.

Other commentators meanwhile wonder if the ritual practice at the temple which takes place at grand scale featuring huge parades with much pomp and circumstance is merely an “extreme” expression of Thai Buddhism and perhaps reflects something of the contemporary society. Some describe it without judgement as “capitalist Buddhism”, providing a service that responds to customer’s desires and profiting by it as in any other business while others wonder if Buddhism has or should have any real relevance in 21st century Thailand. It is however the sect’s potential power to interfere in the mechanisms of government through complex networks of influence that has many alarmed, and is perhaps the reason they find themselves targeted by the regime while many other organisations similarly accused of corruption are largely ignored. In any case, the temple seems to have come out on top, the police forced to abandon their search in the continued absence of the abbot. Nottapon Boonprakob offers no real conclusion but as an interviewee points out independent enquiry is a central tenet of Buddhism, “come and see” for yourself. 


Come and See streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sheep Without a Shepherd (误杀, Sam Quah Boon Lip, 2019)

“Sheep are happy as long as they have grass to graze, they don’t care if you shear their wool” according to a vox popped farmer in the ironically titled Sheep Without a Shepherd (误杀, Wùshā). Inspired by the Indian film Drishyam, the Mandarin title of Malaysian director Sam Quah’s Chinese remake is simply “manslaughter”, but as the English title perhaps implies if ironically Quah circumvents the censors to issue an oblique broadside to oppressive authoritarianism largely by setting the film in Thailand. 

As the film opens, affable Chinese-Thai IT and internet business owner Weijie (Xiao Yang) is chatting about his favourite thing, movies, with the regulars at his usual haunt, a restaurant run by Uncle Song. Meanwhile, Song tells him about the latest local gossip, the murder of a man who’d recently won the lottery, which is why corrupt cop Sangkun (Shih Ming-Shuai) has been hanging around but not actually doing much investigating. It’s rumoured that hotshot female police chief Laoorn (Joan Chen), who has a fearsome reputation for being able to solve any case, is going to take over. She eventually does just that, fabricating evidence to push the suspect into confessing. Her tactics may be underhanded and unethical, but at the end of the day, as she points out, it doesn’t really matter. She wasn’t framing anyone and isn’t intending to submit the evidence in court, she correctly solved the crime and exerted psychological pressure to trick the suspect into thinking she had something she didn’t so he’d know the game was up. 

“As long as you are not scared, they can’t do anything” Weijie tells his daughter, reminding her that fear is the only leverage of those like Laoorn when they have no real evidence. Unfortunately for him, he’s become involved with the disappearance of Laoorn’s odious son Suchat (Bian Tian Yang) who, we discover, drugged and raped Weijie’s teenage daughter Pingping (Audrey Hui) during an excursion for bright high schoolers, going so far as to film the whole thing in order to blackmail her into providing further sexual favours. Pingping had been keen to go on the trip, somewhat snobbishly looking down on her lower-class family and seeing it as a networking opportunity to make elite friends. She is perhaps the film uncomfortably implies being punished for her unfilial elitism, but eventually finds the courage to tell her mother Ayu (Tan Zhuo) what happened. Ayu accompanies her to the rendezvous with Suchat and confronts him but he is unrepentant, reminding them that his mother is the police chief and his father a politician so he can do as he pleases before trying to force himself on Ayu at which point Pingping hits him with a hoe and knocks him out. Believing that he’s dead, Ayu buries the body with a recently interred family friend and waits for her husband to come home from a business trip repairing the internet in a hotel the next town over. He eventually returns early, worried that he couldn’t get though on the phone because youngest daughter Anan (Zhang Xiran) had left the receiver off the hook. 

A decent and kind man, well liked by everyone, all Weijie wants is to protect his family. What’s done is done, all he can do is try to mitigate it by utilising all his movie knowledge to change the narrative so that they are merely implicated in the crime rather than active suspects. In this, the mini-feud with useless cop Sangkun actually works in his favour. An earlier episode had him offer some advice gleaned from movies to an old man whose grandson had been assaulted by Suchat. Sangkun was in the process of pressuring him to accept a payoff to drop the charges (most of which he’d have pocked for himself). Another business owner privy to the incident apparently reported him anonymously and was attacked in the street only for Weijie to come to his rescue and be accused of assaulting a police officer. It’s very easy for him to claim that Sangkun is trying to frame him out of pettiness, and very easy for people to believe him because that’s exactly something Sangkun would do. 

Sangkun is the embodiment of casual abuse of power. He doesn’t care about serving the people or protecting the vulnerable, he is only interested in validating himself through authority. Laoorn is not quite the same, but she too is an aspect of the all-powerful state as she marshals all her resources against Weijie, an ordinary husband and father, against whom she has no hard evidence only her much vaunted intuition. She will stop at nothing to find out what’s happened to her son, while Weijie is determined to do everything in his power to protect his family. Laoorn underestimates him, as Pingping had, because he is a poor orphan with no education, only later realising that he is clever and resourceful even if he’s pinched his defence strategy from a lifetime of watching crime movies. The pair are engaged in a perfectly matched battled of wits, but only one of them has the power of the state behind her and a gradual erosion of civil rights to allow her to wield it against a personal enemy. 

Filming in Thailand, Quah has a much freer hand to broach the subject of official corruption even if it’s quite obvious that he’s making a point about the overreach of the Chinese state rather than that of Thailand. Weijie’s plight eventually sparks a large scale riot that spreads throughout the country as the populace declares itself thoroughly fed up with the Sangkuns of the world, not to mention the Laoorns or her mayoral candidate husband Dutpon (Philip Keung Ho-Man) who is almost entirely absent from the crisis because all he cares about is the election even if it’s a minor inconvenience not to have his family on show at hustings. Dutpon’s disinterested authoritarian parenting coupled with Laoorn’s indulgence and willingness to enable her son’s crimes through covering them up is perhaps blamed for the “monstrous” young man Suchat was becoming, himself standing in for a generation of wealthy, pampered sons of elites raised with improper boundaries who think they can do as they please because they are somehow above the normal morality. “Good parents” Weijie and Ayu meanwhile find themselves at the mercy of a corrupt faux-aristocracy, abused by Suchat and then rendered powerless in the face of an authoritarian regime. 

Weijie, however, rejects his powerlessness in an attempt to think himself out of the cage in which he finds himself imprisoned. A perfectly plotted psychological thriller, Sheep Without a Shepherd ironically satirises the much cited claim of authoritarians that humanity flounders without a leader as the populace begins to fight back against its toxic relationship with those in power. Nevertheless, its admittedly compassionate and humanitarian conclusion cannot help but feel like an overt concession to the Mainland censors’ requirement that crime can never pay and all transgressions must be owned (even if not directly by those who are literally guilty). Ultimately, however, Weijie redeems himself in the eyes of his daughter, and in doing so subtly reinforces the anti-authoritarian message in instructing Pingping never to be afraid of anything again, freeing her from the oppressive leverage of fear which itself constitutes authoritarianism.


Sheep Without a Shepherd opens in UK cinemas on 21st August courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Happy Old Year (ฮาวทูทิ้ง..ทิ้งอย่างไรไม่ให้เหลือเธอ, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, 2019)

“Some things won’t go away just because you pretend to forget all about it” the heroine of Happy Old Year (ฮาวทูทิ้ง..ทิ้งอย่างไรไม่ให้เหลือเธอ) is reminded by an exasperated friend preparing to forgive her once again for another thoughtless hurt. According to Jean (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), “Minimalism is like…a Buddhist philosophy. It’s about letting go”, only her minimalism has been of an emotional kind and in essence the very opposite of letting go. Her approach to life’s many difficulties has been to throw them into a mental black bag, consign them to a black hole of memory, and then simply walk away, but there’s only so much space for delayed trauma and one day you’ll have to start opening some of those bags so that you can finally let go for real. 

20-something Jean has been living in Sweden for the past few years and has recently returned to Thailand, more or less against her will. For some reason, she seems to have asserted ownership over her family’s home which once housed her father’s musical instrument repair shop. Without bothering to ask her mother (Apasiri Nitibhon) or brother, Jean has decided to radically redesign the property’s ground floor into an office space, sending her remaining family members upstairs. Talking things over with her old friend Pink (Padcha Kitchaicharoen) who seems to be involved in construction, she wants to get the work started shortly after New Year not least because the new job she’s just been offered wants to make an office visit the following month. They’ve got a scant few weeks to clear 30 years’ worth of clutter so the builders can do their thing. 

Jean’s plan is basically to sweep everything into bin bags and dispose of them without giving it too much thought. Coming round to the idea, her brother Jay (Thirawat Ngosawang) starts watching Marie Kondo videos to get into the mood, but “complains” that everything he touches sparks joy. He can’t bring himself to part with the myriad “tacky” souvenirs he’s amassed over a lifetime because it’s the thought that counts and throwing them out is like throwing away kindness. According to Jean, “being emotional only brings trouble”, though she is perhaps a little troubled bagging up an oversize teddy gifted by a friend at graduation with a card that reads “take care of me”. She gets her comeuppance when Pink notices a CD she once gave her with a message inside lying on top of a to go pile and is understandably hurt. To Jean it’s just a meaningless object. No one listens to CDs anymore, but to Pink it doesn’t matter that it was gift from years ago, throwing out the CD is like erasing a moment in time, negating the importance of their teenage friendship. 

Pink’s reaction is Jean’s first clue that her wholesale bag and toss philosophy might be problematic. When she finds a scarf she’d knitted for Jay in his to go pile, she gets a taste of her own medicine. Reassessing her possessions, she realises she has more than a few items technically intended for other people that she has selfishly never passed on. Inspired by Pink and in a bid to find some kind of closure, she decides the best thing is to start returning the “borrowed” items to their rightful owners, but quickly discovers that not everyone is thrilled to have the past suddenly presented to them in the form of a random object. An attempt to return a double bass she was supposed to get her dad to repair goes very badly indeed, to the extent that Jean must simply have forgotten or just not realised how badly she had injured her friend. 

Emotionally immature, Jean has an almost childlike view of interpersonal relations, firmly believing that just saying sorry will make everything alright again (even you don’t really mean it). Her most difficult task is returning a camera and unused rolls of film to the high school boyfriend (Sunny Suwanmethanont) she dumped by ghosting after going to Sweden. Too cowardly to go in person, she tries mailing it, but when the parcel comes back return to sender she knows she has to try face to face. Aim listens to her heartfelt confession and seemingly forgives her, inviting her inside for tea with his new girlfriend Mi (Arisara Buaprang), but what Jean really wanted was a blazing row so she could expiate her guilt. 

Later, a slightly less magnanimous Aim points out that Jean’s quest to prove that she wasn’t selfish person is actually incredibly selfish. What she’s been doing, in essence, is dumping all of her emotional baggage on her friends and then walking away leaving them to deal with it on their own. The apology she made was for herself, not him. If she really cared, she’d have found a way to carry her guilt without burdening others. 

Nevertheless, some objects do have presence. “It seemed like an ordinary photo and now it’s priceless” Aim remarks on helping to find one of Jean’s errant objects, the first photo of a couple of high school sweethearts now about to get married. Another photo calls up memories of a supposedly happier time in Jean’s childhood but it’s a memory she can’t bear to keep or delete. While her mother doggedly clings to her father’s piano despite the fact that no one can play it, Jean wants to bulldoze everything, erase their history as a family by replacing their cluttered home with crisp white walls and shiny steel. Only too late may she realise what she’s losing, that with every discarded object a piece of her goes too and soon there may be nothing left at all. Turns out that trying to deal with your abandonment issues by abandoning things isn’t as sound a strategy as it might sound. “This is the era of cloud storage”, Jean points out, but in many ways it’s our orphaned files who make us who we are. Minimalism might be about letting go, but you need to remember to keep hold of yourself in the knowledge that memories don’t belong to you alone but connect you to the world through a thousand shared kindnesses and tiny hurts trapped inside the most banal of objects.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

International trailer (English subtitles)

Where We Belong (ที่ตรงนั้น มีฉันหรือเปล่า, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, 2019)

Where We Belong poster 1“I don’t understand, is life supposed to be this sad?” asks a dejected teen at the centre of Kongdej Jaturanrasmee’s Where We Belong (ที่ตรงนั้น มีฉันหรือเปล่า). Life is indeed sad, and the lesson she’s still too young to learn is that sometimes people don’t come back, things don’t get finished, and you just have to live with all your regrets while trying (but mostly failing) to do better next time. Starring members of Thailand’s BNK48 (the Thai offshoot of Japan’s AKB48 and the recent subject of a documentary by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit), Where We Belong is part coming-of-age tale and part zeitgeisty take on contemporary Thai youth as it finds itself increasingly disconnected from the social conservatism of its parents’ generation but floundering when asked to find a new direction in which to strike out.

Highschooler Sue (Jennis Oprasert) is a case in point. Unbeknownst to her conservative father (Prawit Boonprakong), she’s applied for a scholarship to study abroad in Finland. Talented in English, she’s not much idea of what she wants to do with her life but knows that she has to get out of her small-town existence and away from the family noodle shop she feels is tying her to a future not of her choosing. Her best friend, Belle (Praewa Suthamphong), meanwhile is resolved to stay at home but doesn’t have much direction either save her attachment to her elderly grandmother (Saheoiyn Aophachat). Belle’s mother left the family a long time ago and lives a vacuous consumerist life in Bangkok, something which Belle is also keen to reject.

Meeting up with a friend at a local internet cafe, Belle is unsurprised to find it so full because nobody wants to go home to their parents right now owing to the intense pressure on them to succeed. That pressure is, however, slightly at odds with their traditional expectations for their children. No one expects much of young girls like Sue and Belle, even if they superficially want them to do well in their exams. Sue’s mother passed away some years ago, and her distant father is dead set against the idea of her travelling abroad, terrified that once she’s seen the world she won’t look back. Everyone expects her to take over the noodle shop, insisting that it’s an important part of the local culture and can’t simply be another sacrifice to progress like so many tiny eateries and family businesses abandoned by youngsters looking for a brighter future somewhere else.

Trying to defend her friend, Belle tells the customers in Sue’s restaurant that they can keep their “stupid heritage” to themselves, even while planning to stay home and be the good daughter. Unfortunately her words backfire, further placing her at odds with the conflicted Sue who is still trying to process the implications of her transnational move. While she remains in a kind of denial, it’s Belle who’s trying to sort everything out for her – returning old comic books to the library, getting their old band back together, and even trying to help her patch things up with a friend she’s fallen out with even though Belle herself is a little jealous of the close relationship they once had. She does these things because, as she hints to their friend at the library, she’s afraid Sue won’t come back and knows on some level that their present relationship, whatever happens after, is going to change even it doesn’t exactly end.

Belle’s grandmother has a strange habit of staring out the window, waiting for a boy who said he’d meet her the next day decades earlier but never came back. Belle doesn’t want to be her flighty mother living a superficial life in the city, but Sue doesn’t want to end up like grandma waiting around for something that’s never going to happen. At her interview, she’s honest in her replies, admitting that she currently has no dream other than getting out of Thailand, but cleverly adding that by going to Finland where they have the world’s best education she hopes to figure out what her life’s dream might be.

What the two girls discover is that life is a series of goodbyes. They’re on different paths, and that’s sad, but it’s just the way things are. Before she goes, Sue tries to put her affairs in order with varying degrees of success – trying to come to terms with her mother’s death, telling a boy she likes about how she really feels (but failing to take things further), and patching up old friendships while also accepting that sometimes they just end with no real resolution only a sense of regret. Eventually they figure out where they belong. Sue leaves, and Belle is alone surrounded by familiar absences, but life goes on, and it’s sad, but that’s how we live.


Where We Belong was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)