Bad Genius (ฉลาดเกมส์โกง, Nattawut Poonpiriya, 2017)

Bad GeniusesThe world over, education is held up as the best path out of poverty but it is also true that the cards are stacked against those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds when it comes to academic success. Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Bad Genius (ฉลาดเกมส์โกง, Chalard Games Goeng) is part exam-set heist movie, morality play, coming of age tale, and attack on social inequality. Bright kids study hard for scholarships that will send them to foreign universities and then onto a secure middle-class life, but while they work themselves to the bone the less able rich kids get there first thanks to the resources and connections their wealth brings them. When locked out of a system, attacking it from underneath seems like a good idea, but then again there are always hidden dangers even the finest mind fails to see.

Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is an extremely bright girl. Her father (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), a schoolteacher, wants to send her to an exclusive high school which has a reputation for sending graduates to foreign universities. Lynn’s achievements are impeccable and there’s very little chance the school won’t want her but her interview starts to go south when she wavers on the question of whether she actually wants to go there. Showing off her maths skills, Lynn proves that her dad will be paying a lot more in additional costs on top of the fees and she’s not sure it’s worth it.

This piece of honesty coupled with her swift mental arithmetic gets her offered a scholarship but Lynn finds it hard to settle in to her new “elite environment” until she ends up bonding with the less bright but cheerful and bubbly Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan). Things begin to come unstuck when Lynn ends up helping Grace cheat on a test so that she can achieve her dream of acting in the school play. Grace has a big mouth and so her boyfriend, Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo), also wants in on the action. Pat is not Lynn’s friend and she’s not keen but when he offers her a substantial amount of money Lynn can’t help but be swayed. Soon enough it’s not just Pat and Grace but half the school and Lynn finds herself plotting a complex conspiracy of examination fraud which involves international travel and extreme feats of memorisation.

The saddest part is, all of this starts as a mistaken attempt at friendship. Lynn’s first mistake was helping Grace cheat when became clear she’d never get the grades. She did this to help her friend who was worrying about being kicked out of the school play just because her maths is bad. Likewise she doesn’t want to help Pat, but doesn’t want to let Grace down and can’t deny the money is helpful. Little by little, Lynn is seduced by all the adoration she’s getting from these rich kids who wouldn’t give her a second look ordinarily but are now entirely dependent on her in their academic lives. Her finely tuned, systematising mind loves solving the puzzle of the perfect scam while her loneliness leaves her basking in her newfound popularity.

Lynn’s seduction into the world of cheating is partly born of a kind of class rage but it comes from a surprising direction. Grace, a blabbermouth, lets slip that the school charges its fees at a very uneven rate. The less able students like Grace and Pat are paying a kind of idiot tax. Not having met the academic requirements, they’ve bought their way in through paying higher fees and making donations to the school. Even Lynn’s father has payed a significant amount in “tea money” despite her scholarship. This knowledge provokes a kind of outrage in Lynn, disappointed with the school’s lack of integrity. Cheating gains an additional attraction in getting back at the “corrupt” school system, but Lynn hasn’t thought it through. She thinks this is a victimless crime – the dim rich kids get their grades and please their parents, she gets rich, everyone is happy. Lynn hasn’t considered how taking the rich kids’ money makes her an enabler of the very system she rails against in allowing them to continue using their privilege to get ahead at the expense of genuinely talented students like herself and her friend/rival Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul).

Smart as she is, Lynn is not so much of a people person and consequently it takes her quite a long time to realise she is being exploited. She’s drawn to Bank because, like her, he also comes from an impoverished background and reminds her of her father in his absentminded goodness. Lynn breaks her own heart when she realises that all her scheming has destroyed the thing she loved as Bank’s pure soul becomes corrupted by cynicism in realising it will never matter how many exams you pass, the rich kids will always have everything zipped up tight. Rather than join the rat race, there might be a better way for smart people to earn money fast by exploiting the obvious weaknesses of the elite’s spoiled children rather than expending time and energy playing by the rules.

Shot with rigorous attention to detail, Bad Genius is both tense exam room thriller and humorous teen drama which lays bare the negative effects of pressurised education and social inequality on the hopes and dreams of young people. Lynn’s passage from isolated smart kid to criminal mastermind is heartbreaking in its quietly devastating conclusion in which she realises honesty and integrity have their own value but also that the choice has always been hers and she has the power to own her own story rather than allow someone else to claim it for her.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Pop Aye (Kirsten Tan, 2017)

pop aye posterLife’s crises can take many forms but when they involve elephants it’s usually with a little more distance than in Kristen Tan’s whimsical debut, Pop Aye. A metaphorical return to source, a man entering late middle age tries to reclaim his childhood innocence by walking backwards (with an elephant) but discovers that you really can’t go home again. Man and elephant set off on a classic buddy movie road trip, enjoying a selection of encounters with fellow travellers each with a few lessons to impart.

A man in late middle age, Thana’s (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) carefully crafted life seems to be imploding all at once. The first building he designed, Gardenia Square, was an elegantly appointed modern shopping centre which seemed to perfectly reflect the growing consumerism of the ‘80s. 30 years later his futuristic design is now dated, and Gardenia Square is set for demolition to make way for the next modernist masterpiece ironically titled “Eternity”. If that weren’t depressing enough, the son of Thana’s former partner has taken over the business but has none of his father’s loyalty and is determined to sideline the office’s silly old man through pointedly underhanded ways such as deliberately telling him the wrong time for meetings and depositing the physical 3D model he spent a night at the office finishing with all the other rubbish in a now disused room.

If his work life is failing, Thana’s home life isn’t doing much better. His shopaholic wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul), has little time for him and when Thana discovers her hidden vibrator, he finally realises he is entirely obsolete in every area of his life. So when he catches sight of a beautiful elephant dressed in elegant attire ready for posing for photos with foreign tourists, Thana has an immediate reaction which takes him right back to his boyhood days spent in the company of family pet, Popeye (Bong). Tracking the elephant down again and singing the cartoon’s famous theme tune to verify his identity, Thana decides to buy him (much to his wife’s horror). Seeing as you can’t really keep a giant elephant in your back garden, Thana decides his destiny is to take Popeye back to his rural village where he believes his uncle will look after him.

Undoubtedly part metaphor, Popeye represents the innocence and natural beauty of pre-modern Thailand – the very qualities Thana feels himself to have betrayed when he chose to leave home in less than ideal circumstances to pursue a “better” life in the big city. Thana got what he wanted. He became successful, wealthy, in some sense fulfilled, but now just when he should be entering a more contented phase of his life it’s all crumbling away from him and his ambivalence about the sacrifice he made as a young man is beginning to resurface. He thinks he can put something right by “rescuing” Popeye and reclaiming these qualities in the process but, as usual, nothing’s quite that simple.

Thana’s flight is as much from the modern world as it is from himself. Feeling unloved, Thana also feels eclipsed by his times, held in contempt by the younger generation whose sleek suits and obvious insincerity are a poor match for his disheveled befuddlement. This is a world in which monks accept Visa and take photos of elephants (which must surely be ten a penny) on their tablets. The city takes you in as quickly as it’ll spit you out, Thana warns a young truck driver, but his rare moment of direct emotional honesty is shrugged off as the rantings of an old man.

Despite the coldness of city life, Thana mostly meets warmhearted people on his journey through the countryside, beginning with a roadside saint who describes himself as being “like a tree” in the way he stays rooted to the spot observing the people and cars going by. Dee, noticing Thana’s blistered feet offers him his flip-flops which he won’t need anymore because he’s going to see his brother in Heaven. After all, even trees have to die someday. Grateful to the man, Thana takes Dee under his wing and vows to help him achieve his final wishes, but his intervention may have unforeseen consequences.

Thana even generates a strange bond with the policemen who arrest him for cluttering up the scenery in his nice middle-class neighbourhood which eventually leads him to a rural bar where he seems to meet a kindred spirit in Jenny – a melancholy transgender woman with a longstanding resentment of the bar’s resident “hostess”. Despite hitting it off with Jenny who seems to understand his particular pain, Thana disappoints himself by ending up in a humiliating, unsolicited situation with the bar girl but finds the equally disappointed Jenny forgiving and still willing to help a fellow traveller in need even if, as seems to be the case in much of his life, Thana has allowed himself to be bamboozled into doing something he didn’t really want to do.

At the end of his long, strange journey, Thana finds his illusions shattered, his romantic dream of his childhood home exposed as a mix of memory, nostalgia and idealism. Thana ends up where he started, only with a little more clarity and a new trend towards acceptance rather than defiance. He may think of Popeye merely as the manifestation of the innocence he sacrificed in childhood, but Popeye is his own elephant with his own ideas about his future which might or might not include Thana. Ending on a slightly upbeat note in which Thana is perhaps not as unloved as he believed himself to be, Pop Aye is charming odyssey through middle-age malaise set against the beautiful Thai landscape and told with a whimsical, melancholy humour.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

By the Time it Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง, Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)

by the time it gets darkAnocha Suwichakornpong’s second feature, By the Time it Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง.Dao Khanong), bills itself as an exploration of a traumatic moment from the recent past but quickly subverts this conceit for a wider meditation on the veracity of cinema. Beginning in a manner typical of indie-leaning Thai films, Anocha gently undercuts herself as her images prism into their separate “realities”, informing and commenting on each other but perhaps not fully interacting. The Thammasat University student massacre of 1976 is the dark genesis of this fracturing future, but it’s also in the process of becoming a collective legend, cementing a “historical truth” as cultural currency even whilst expunged from the history books, leaving its young lost in a black hole of memory from which they are powerless to emerge.

A young woman welcomes an older one to a remote country villa. The younger woman treats the older with respect, talks up the merits of the house and insists she take the larger upstairs room. The younger woman, Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), is a 30-something filmmaker who has invited the older woman, Teaw (Rassami Paoluengtong) – a former student protest leader turned respected writer,  for a prolonged interview period she hopes to use as research for a film about the events of 1976. Ill equipped to cope with the weight of her grim investigation, Ann begins to slip into something like a nervous breakdown filled with strange visions culminating in a forest chase in which she follows the figure of a young girl in a bear suit, eventually falling into a grove next to a strange sparkly mushroom.

Anocha takes us on an odyssey through contemporary Thailand all the while holding 1976 in the back of the frame. From Ann we jump to Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), whom we meet as a tabacco farmer only to realise he’s also a much lusted after singer/actor/model with a complicated love life and media set friends. Peter’s story seems unrelated but then it turns out he might be up for a part in Ann’s movie (written for him, in director speak at least as one of his less tactful friends points out), but more than that they’re connected by the shadowy figure of an invisible working class woman, Nong (Atchara Suwan), whom we first met serving coffee to Ann and Teaw at a rural bar but now switches between waitressing at a country club, bussing at riverboat diner, and cleaning toilets at a gym. Unseen as it is, it is her private revolution which ultimately forces a cinematic reset as the screen dissolves into dizzying disruption only to morph into the true beauty of Thailand’s untouched natural vistas.

Ann intends to film “a drama of sorts” about the events of 1976. An early scene exposes Anocha’s more subtle motive as Ann stages a reconstruction of an act of state brutality. Students lie on their bellies, stripped of their shirts and with hands tied behind backs while soldiers with guns bark at them to keep their faces on the floor. We think this is a flashback – an objective capture of objective truth, but we’re wrong, this is a scene from Ann’s movie and it takes a few liberties with the tale later told by Teaw in which she talks about seeing her fellow students in a similar situation on but a football pitch rather than an indoor hanger. Similarly, we get the first scene again half way through with slightly different lines as two entirely different actresses inhabit the roles of Ann and Teaw. The house is now more opulent, the women more conventionally beautiful and elegantly dressed. We film “the truth”, but we can’t help “colour correcting” it towards that which seems prettier than the way we really view things.

“The truth” is a similarly difficult concept to pin down. Ann is fascinated by the massacre but from her rather privileged, largely apolitical viewpoint she can’t quite understand it. She asks Teaw banal questions about her student life – boyfriends, her parents, the gradually unfolding horror of it all. In one particularly tone deaf moment, she marvels at Teaw as a piece of “living history” – a first hand witness to the (failed) revolution. No, Teaw tersely points out, she is merely “a survivor”. Tellingly, Teaw’s early monologues do not quite tally with her later ones, but asked on her current views towards her past self and her more engaged generation she simply replies that where they saw injustice, the young rose to oppose it. They wanted to make things right – unlike the young of today. Ann obsesses over a failed revolution yet regards herself as an empty vessel who “appropriates the lives of others” for her films. She pithily asks a local waitress where the beans come from for her coffee but doesn’t seem to know what to do with the impressive answer that they’re a locally sourced variety brokered by an American living nearby who speaks excellent Thai right down to mastery of the local dialect. Her concerns are surface ones whereas Teaw felt her concerns to be deeper and more important – her friends died for them, but then nothing in particular came of it.

The camera lies repeatedly, from the restaged footage to ever the apparent reframing of “reality” and our own inability to discern one from the other. Peter’s life is perfect, but then perhaps it’s not or at any rate, he’s subject to the same vagaries of fate as the rest of us. Nong, the working class woman may be one girl trapped in a casual employment nightmare or a symbol of the faceless masses who are largely ignored by the likes of Peter and his friends and even by the well meaning Ann, gazing out into a world which they can barely touch. Cinema is not a place for objective truths but for emotional ones – a ghost can be interrogated, its existence explained, but it cannot be exorcised, the film traps it in concentric mirrors, forever distorting its reflection.


Released in the UK by Day for Night

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mysterious Object at Noon (ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000)

mysterious-object-at-noonApichatpong Weerasethakul started as he meant to go on with his debut feature, straddling the borders between art film and surrealist exercise. A cinematic riff on the classic “exquisite corpse” game, Mysterious Object at Noon (ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร, Dokfa Nai Meuman) is equal parts neorealist odyssey and commentary on the human need for constructed narrative (something which the film itself consistently rejects). Shot in a grainy black and white, Apitchatpong’s first effort was filmed over three years travelling the length of the country from North to South inviting everyone from all walks of life to contribute something to the ongoing and increasingly strange brand new oral history.

Beginning with a travelling shot from inside a van peddling fish sauce, Apitchatpong fills the air with naturalistic background noise including our very first story – a sappy sounding radio drama called “I’ll Love You Tomorrow” about a guy who loses touch with the love of his life only to find her engaged to another man. The genesis for the ongoing narrative comes from the woman working on the truck who first recounts her own true story of having been sold by her father for nothing more than the money for his train fare home. She then tells us about a disabled boy and his home teacher who will become the central players in the background tale.

The boy and his teacher get on well and are very close, but one day he finds her collapsed with a strange sphere rolling out from underneath her skirt. This “mysterious object” then transforms into a boy who hides the teacher’s body in a cupboard before taking on her form when he realises the first boy misses her. The odd story grows and develops as each person brings something new to it, reflecting their own lives and histories as a kind of brand new myth making occurs in which ordinary people try to make sense of extraordinary events. Consequently, we have everything from kidnapping to hostess bars and aliens suddenly creeping into this magical realist exercise.

Beginning in the city and ending in the country, Apichatpong talks to anyone and everyone, getting old grannies drunk and letting children run riot. Nearing the end of the journey, he recreates the constructed narrative as a travelling show complete with singing and dancing though his country players are quick to criticise the lack of proper script and random nature of the story. Realising they’ll need some kind of explanation as to why the disabled boy is in a wheelchair, the in movie director decides to film an insert sequence along the lines of an archive news segment. More archive footage follows before Apichatpong takes things in the opposite direction by letting the camera roll on with his cast for the invented story as the second boy becomes keen to remind everyone he was promised some KFC on the way home and Apitchatpong himself steps in front of the camera to fix a lighting setup.

Stories are the way we define our worlds, though given enough leeway the ones we imagine for ourselves are much stranger than conventional logic would allow. The real world is, however, ever present in the sappy radio adverts, political posters, elephants and boxing rings which give way to the darker elements of child abductions and human trafficking. Real life is here, but its deeper layer is here too in the stories which we tell to make sense of it. Using narrative devices from intertitles to sign language, Mysterious Object at Noon embraces all kinds of storytelling from the dramatic to the literary, but its heart is always with the people and the random craziness that emerges when attempting to explain the inexplicable. A necessarily disparate and strange experience, Mysterious Object at Noon neatly heralds the direction of Apichatpong’s ongoing career in its effortless playfulness and sympathetic exploration of this most basic of human needs.


French release trailer (subtitles/captions in French only)

Bangkok Nites (バンコクナイツ, Katsuya Tomita, 2016)

bangkok-nites“Asia is a paradise for men” though not for anyone else, if Bangkok Nites (バンコクナイツ) is anything to go by. In Tomita’s previous film, Saudade, he explored the intercultural exchange between Thailand and Japan with one character having tried to escape there and failed, and another idly dreaming of running away with his Thai mistress. Five years later he revisits the same idea but from the other side as he weaves a meandering trail through the Japan-centric element of Bangkok’s red light district which eventually leads him on to other neighbouring nations whose landscapes still bear the scars of war and colonialism decades into a supposedly enlightened age.

We begin with Luck (Subenja Pongkorn), caught in reflection against a swanky hotel window overlooking her city. Her client is a Japanese man, clingy in the extreme though it’s unclear if his desire to avoid paying is out of consideration to his wallet or a genuine case of affection. Nevertheless, his whining is too much for Luck who eventually manages to escape the room and get back to work. Employed by a bar on Thaniya Road, an area of Bangkok’s red light district popular with Japanese tourists, Luck’s job involves sitting on a shelf in a large stable area where she and her colleagues wear colour coded badges so the customer can see their rates and services offered at a single glance.

Good friends with a Japanese man who works as a kind of procurer for the club, Luck ends up at a party where she runs into Ozawa (Katsuya Tomita) – a quasi-customer with whom she’d developed a deeper relationship around five years previously but subsequently lost contact. A former Self Defence Force soldier, Ozawa first came to Asia on a peacekeeping mission to Cambodia and has been back and fore ever since. During this most recent stay he’s begun to strike up a friendship with fellow Japanese guys working around the edges of the sex industry and related businesses including the drugs trade. After getting to know each other again, Luck takes Ozawa to her peaceful, rural, hometown beginning a journey which is to have a profound impact on his view of the continent.

There’s something a little sad about the small, sleazy world of the red light district and its collection of melancholy ex-pats eking out a living by exploiting desperate local women. Ozawa hovers on the fringes of this group, obviously a visitor to the brothels of Thaniya Road, but not quite a devotee. The other guys repeatedly refer to Thailand and other surrounding countries as “paradise” or a “utopia” where the women are “easy” and can be had at will and with few strings. One visitor remarks that he can have twenty nights of debauchery in Bangkok for the cost of one fancy night out in Roppongi. Yet for every one like him just trying to blow in and blow out with no fuss, there are a handful who can’t separate a transaction from a romance, becoming overly attached to women merely providing a service who, naturally, are not particularly seeking a long-term relationship with the sort of man who thinks a woman can be bought wholesale.

Luck is the number one on Thaniya Road, though she’s aware her time is limited. The work pays well and she’s been able to acquire an elegant Bangkok apartment as well as a house for her mother and siblings back in the country, but her heart is set on saving enough money to open an upscale European restaurant when she finally leaves the sex trade behind. Taking Ozawa back to her hometown, she explains to him that her life in Bangkok is just what happens to girls from the country. Children are raised by aunts while mothers live in the city, sending money back home, until they swap places and the children head to the city while the women return to raise the children of relatives. Most of her friends are also involved in the local sex trade, catering to foreign travellers with less than romantic ideas about the country and its “exotic” women.

Tomita paints this as another ongoing echo of the colonial past as foreign men come to Thailand for purposes of discreet pleasure, giving little thought to the interior lives of the real breathing women in front of them. Taking Ozawa around her home town, Luck shows him the beautiful European style mansion she grew up in with her mother’s second husband (her step-father and the only positive male input she ever mentions) who was an American working at a local air base. The bases are a relic of the Vietnam war, the legacy of which also rears its head once Ozawa makes his way into Laos where giant bomb craters still scar the landscape like pock marks on the face of the Earth more than forty years later. Ultimately these colonial wars trace themselves back to the first waves of colonisation but when Luck tries to look forwards she only sees the past – her desires are for the European, fancy restaurants and urban sophistication.

Ozawa looks at Luck’s hometown and (thinks he) sees a “paradise”, a calm and peaceful place where people drink and smoke their lives away with no worries. He thinks this ought to be enough, and perhaps he’s right, but women like Luck and her friends are still left with no other choice than to enter the sex industry in order to feed their families while the men bum around smoking, drinking, and whoring with other women. It could be a paradise for Ozawa, but it would only be supported by the private hell of the women all around him.

Tomita shoots in a straightforward style but also adds epic sweeping pastoral shots thanks to drone  camerawork and occasional touches of the surreal such as groups of shadowy figures in the forests who may be real or imagined, perhaps the ghostly spirits of past rebellions. Another figure encountered by Ozawa may also be a manifestation of these long-standing ghosts as he recites patriotic speeches and asks for money to help look after the refugees flooding into the forests thanks to the Vietnam war. Ozawa later meets the descendant groups of the guerrillas in Laos which includes disaffected Filipinos, Japanese, and Thais all looking for alternative ways of living.

Harnessing the power of popular song from classic ‘60s Thai pop to indie folk tunes about sold daughters and karaoke covers of The Carpenters, Tomita demonstrates how even music receives external influence but repurposes and exports it as a form of popular protest. Everyone is looking for an elusive form of paradise which does not exist, but their own actions and desires are often the very thing which prevents them from finding it. Tomita’s four years of research have been put to good use in creating a nuanced, thoughtful dissection of the ongoing effects of colonialism in a land still scarred by war and the painful wounds of the unexamined past.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (dialogue free)

Concrete Clouds (Lee Chatametikool, 2014) Via UK Anime Network

Concrete CloudsI reviewed this flawed yet interesting film, Concrete Clouds, for UK Anime Network. Probably I think I liked it a bit more than the score suggests but it does have its problems. Also ’90s (or maybe ’80s?) Thai pop is kind of amazing.


Up to now Lee Chatametikool has been best known as the regular editor on the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee, Tropical Malady) but with Concrete Clouds he’s finally stepped out of the edit suite and behind the camera to direct his very first feature film. However, Concrete Clouds owes less to Apichatpong Weerasethakul or any of the other well known Thai directors he’s been working with over the last decade than it does to early period Tsai Ming-Liang and the Taiwanese new wave. A mood piece heavy on directorial flair but light on detail, Concrete Clouds never quite comes together but still manages to offer a few rewards for the patient viewer.

Set in 1997 just as the Asian Economic crisis begins to take hold, long time emigré Mutt (Ananda Everingham) gets a late night phone call from his high school age brother to say their father has just jumped off the roof. Mutt goes home for the first time in a long time aiming to lay a few ghosts – less that of his father than that of his teenage self and half forgotten love. Meanwhile, younger brother Nic has formed a tentative romance with a girl from the next building who appears to be living more or less alone and has just begun working in a hostess club. Just like his brother he’ll have to decide whether to abandon his love in Thailand to seek new dreams overseas or chase an ever elusive future in the land of his birth.

To be frank, the somewhat shocking and early death of the father retains little impact after the fact as neither of the now orphaned sons seems to dwell very long on the loss of their only parental figure and there’s no real soul searching over why he did what he did. The blueprints for new buildings he was looking at right before and the constant financial concern on the news screens seem to be evidence enough of his ultimate motives. Neither is much mention made of the absent mother who, one assumes, has been absent for a relatively long time. The age gap between the brothers also means that their relationship is not as close as you might assume brothers to be as Mutt must have left for America when Nic was little more than a toddler. Nevertheless, both boys are cast adrift by the older man’s decision, taken alone and with seemingly little concern for those around him.

The historical context is fairly key to the film though may be impenetrable for those less versed in recent history. In setting the story in 1997, the director intends both to imply that many of Thailand’s present social and economic problems stem back to the Asian Financial Crisis and the new Thai constitution which was created around that time but also to deal with the fragile nature of memory and our own tendencies to over romanticise our pasts by falling in love with a fantasy of our own creation. Mutt has dreamed of his high school girlfriend, Sai, ever since leaving her to go to college in America. He lives with a woman in New York but their relationship doesn’t seem particularly serious and she has not accompanied him to Thailand for his father’s funeral. Even though years have passed he’s remained faithful to the image of Sai he has in his mind and however much he tells himself nothing has changed it’s his own self created image that he’s wedded to, rather than the flesh and blood Sai who’s been busy getting on with her own life in the intervening ten years.

In a another cloud based film, Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds, the title refers to the the central characters who are unable to re-root themselves after the disruption caused to their lives firstly in failed Manchurian expedition and then by the after effects of the war. They float aimlessly trying to find something they can cling on to that will allow them to move forward with their lives and ultimately never find it. In Concrete Clouds it’s almost the opposite problem, the characters are weighed down by their dreams, almost crushed by them and unable to move. Their dreams will never lift off the ground because they can’t bear to let go of the past, of the people they once were and things they once thought they wanted.

The most notable element of Concrete Clouds is its unusual shooting style which incorporates everything from snatches of archival footage to long stretches of fantasy sequences played out as karaoke videos to late ‘90s Thai pop songs. The film has an interesting aesthetic which appropriately matches its melancholy and slightly wistful tone though it fails to capture the exact emotional ache that it seems to be going for. Ultimately its disparate elements never quite seem to coalesce into something more and though Concrete Clouds has plenty to admire it stops short of capturing the heart. Nevertheless it’s an impressive debut from Lee Chatametikool who has marked himself out as new talent to look out for in Thai cinema.


This is getting a release from Day For Night in the UK and here’s the trailer

And here’s a clip of one of the karaoke sequences

And another from the OST

(I don’t know any Thai at all, what is this music?)

Hi-So + Q&A, Curzon Renoir 1st March 2013

Hi-So 1

As the film begins, a bewildered young woman is being shown to her room by a strangely attentive hotel staff in what seems to be luxury Thai resort. She is there to visit her Thai boyfriend, recently returned from study abroad in America and now it seems the star of an upcoming motion picture. Ananda, born and bred in Thailand but brought up in an affluent, bilingual family converses with his girlfriend in English but with everyone else in Thai. He is obviously busy with film work and his girlfriend is largely left to her own devices in the otherwise entirely empty hotel. As time moves on the geographical shift seems to have exposed the cracks in the couple’s relationship – the crew complain about Americanisms creeping into Ananda’s on screen performance and his girlfriend soon gets bored of all the attention that goes with dating a film star. It soon becomes obvious that she’s in the way, a distraction and unwelcome intrusion of the outside into Ananda’s life in Thailand.

Soon after she returns home the film seems to jump on a few months and Ananda is now living in an apartment in Bangkok with a woman from the PR company. Although the couple seem happy, or at least happier, Ananda still seems restless – perhaps more so now that his film work is finished leaving him with little else to do. Evidently Ananda’s family were fairly wealthy – the apartment the two share is one of many in a previously luxury but ‘under renovation’ apartment block owned by Ananda’s often absent mother.

In telling episodes of symmetry, Ananda never really seems to fit in anywhere. Constantly at odds with himself he seems to be a Thai in Thailand and an American in America. Whilst filming he rejects his American girlfriend leaving her forced to alleviate her isolation by inviting herself to a hotel employee’s birthday party where she can’t communicate because she doesn’t speak Thai and the hotel employees only have basic English skills. Moving forward, where it seems Ananda might have become reconciled to his life in Thailand with May, a visit from his American university friends leaves May equally isolated and sidelined as Ananda parties American style with his college buddies. Whilst in ‘Thai’ mode, Ananda seems like a quiet, respectable and respectful young man but with his American friends he’s loud and energetic, youthful and extroverted.

It’s very clear there are two Anandas each in constant struggle with the other. A privileged upbringing rich in overseas influence and an extended period abroad have led to an intense feeling of disconnection with his native culture, yet once abroad Ananda is Thai and forever a foreigner. His inability to be more than one thing at once, to be a complete person at any one moment seems to be tearing his life apart. In unwatched moments he appears intensely melancholic, frustrated and more than a little lost. He drifts from one thing to another, not really doing anything or taking anything seriously enough to fully commit to it.

Hi-So, short for High Society – the slightly aimless world in which Ananda and many others like him are living, is a very interesting film about the crushing ennui of the modern, monied man. Though it touches briefly on the collective trauma of the tsunami and the country’s rapid economic growth, this is very much a film about one man’s cultural confusion and ultimately how it’s left him feeling even as an outsider to himself. Undoubtedly this is one of those films where some will say that nothing really happens and others will reply that’s because everything is happening but for those willing to look deep enough Hi-So is certainly worthy of attention.