MEKONG 2030 (Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pham Ngoc Lân, 2020)

Literally on the shores of an ecological crisis, the communities along the Mekong River know better than most the dangers of climate change and increasing industrialisation. Commissioned by the Luang Prabang Film Festival, MEKONG 2030 takes its cues from the recent “ten years” phenomenon, bringing together five directors from different nations along the Mekong to imagine what the situation might be in a decade’s time. 

Environmental concerns and changing times are clearly at the forefront of Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho’s Soul River in which Klark, an indigenous huntsman, discovers an ancient statue in the forest and determines to sell it to buy a better future for himself and his wife having lost everything in a flood caused by deforestation and the affects of increasing industrialisation. Unfortunately he is challenged by Sok, a former fisherman forced onto the land due to the lack of fish in the river, who claims to be the land’s owner and insists the statue is his. An amusing stand off, Klark’s machete vs Sok’s walkie-talkie, signals their respective positions as avatars of new and old. Nevertheless, the statue is too heavy for one man to carry and so they agree to work together, occasionally quibbling over their respective cuts and irritating Klark’s conflicted wife Ladet whose premonition that the statue is cursed is well and truly borne out as the two men begin to lose themselves in greed and suspicion. Yet as her closing voice over reminds us their sin is emblematic of their times in their irresponsible and arrogant desire to “sell” their nation’s ancestral treasures, be they forests, rivers, or statues the protection of which should have been their only duty. 

Depleting fish stocks and industrial pollution are also a persistent theme in the entry from Laos as a worried sister explains to her student brother concerned to see nets covered in dust on his return home from university. Xe is worried because his sister has a bruise on her face and seems to have separated from her husband and children she says to look after their mother who, as it turns out, is immune to the ongoing plague and therefore a valuable commodity to those hoping to find a vaccine. The bruise was apparently caused when their older brother, who has since become a warlord, kidnapped mum in order to monopolise her exploitation. The sister wants Xe to kidnap her back, but the deeper he gets into this awkward situation the more conflicted Xe feels knowing that whatever is actually going on both of his siblings are in effect determined to bleed his mother dry for economic gain. 

The precarious position of the older generation and the side effects of industrialisation raise their heads again in chapter three, Myanmar’s The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong in which well-meaning young village chief Charlie determines to “modernise” his community by inviting a mining conglomerate to begin digging gold on their land. An old grandma patiently teaching her grandson to care for the local herb grown for its medicinal properties is the voice of opposition, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with their lives as they are and so she feels they don’t need the complications of the “modernity” Charlie is determined to bring them. He tells her that he’s the chief now and so they’ll do as he says and so she calmly walks out of the meeting, but her animosity is soon vindicated when farmers complain their livestock has been poisoned after drinking water contaminated by the mine. Not long after a child is taken ill. Devils devour everything, but there is something we can do the old woman assures her grandson: make the mountains green again. 

Shifting into a more abstract register, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai entry The Line takes the river as a protagonist through the film within the film playing on a gallery wall though apparently in some way unsatisfying to its creator. Speaking in a robotic Mandarin, the video places an ironic voiceover on top of images of the river and the city juxtaposing an incongruous family history with a vision of modernity. Meanwhile, a young intern makes smalltalk with her temporary bosses who seem to have no time for her about a weird animal captured on camera in the river near her hometown, and the artist explains her intention of dramatising a vision of space and time through the story of the river.  

The sense of the Mekong as liquid time recurs in the final instalment, Vietnam’s The Unseen River, in which two stories, one of youth and the other age, run in parallel. While a young couple make a visit to a temple hoping to find a cure for the boy’s restless sleep, a middle-aged woman catches sight of a somehow familiar dog that serendipitously reunites her with her long-absent first love who went abroad to study shortly before they dammed the river. In a piece of possibly unhelpful advice, the old monk tells the young man that all he needs to do is “believe” in the act of sleeping. Sinking into a deep sleep is like surrendering yourself to the current he explains, directly linking the rythms of life to the river while the young monk attributes their youthful llistlessness, the failure to see a future that has prevented the young couple marrying, to the inability to dream. The river is both past and future, dream and reality. It is disconnection with the natural world which has so affected the young man, something he perhaps repairs borrowing the monk’s decommissioned fishing rod to gaze upon the wide river under the light of the moon. 

Giving voice to the anxieties of climate change, overdevelopment, the unequal power dynamics of large corporations operating in rural communities, the erosion of traditional culture, and the loss of the natural world, MEKONG 2030 issues a strong warning against ecological complacency but also rediscovers a kind of serenity in the river’s eternal presence even as it is perhaps flowing away from us. 


MEKONG 2030 streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in Poland will also have the opportunity to stream MEKONG 2030 as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival 25th November to 6th December.

Original trailer (English 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)

Die Tomorrow (พรุ่งนี้ตาย, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, 2017)

Die Tomorrow posterDeath gives life meaning, so they say, but if death is such a normal part of being alive, why do we live continually in its shadow? We spend our lives talking about a tomorrow which might never come, but it’s those tiny moments of mundanity which make life worth living. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s Die Tomorrow (พรุ่งนี้ตาย) examines the “last day” of a number of oblivious citizens of Bangkok who are busy living life “as normal” little knowing that everything they do will be for the last time.

Shooting mainly within an oppressive square, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit rams his point home with his first vignette in opening with a newspaper report recounting the death of a student in a road traffic accident the night before her college graduation. He then introduces us to a gaggle of excited students eagerly talking about horoscopes and their dreams for the future. We never quite figure out which of them will be dispatched to get more beer. It could be anyone, anywhere – even you, even right now.

As the ticking clock and time card remind us, 2 people die every second all over the world making dying possibly the world’s most popular activity. Most people dread it, but for one very elderly gentlemen it would be a relief. Convinced that his advanced old age is either a result of genetics or a mistake by someone upstairs, he selfishly wishes that he’d died before his wife and son so he wouldn’t have to go on enduring the pain of their loss. Meanwhile, a little boy quizzed on his beliefs about the afterlife is convinced that death is peaceful because everything just stops. He feels pretty much OK with the idea because he googled it straight away as soon as he found out so it all seems very straightforward. Nevertheless, he’d rather not know when death is coming because that would just make him “sad” and then he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his remaining time.

Death is, however, something you have almost no control over. A melancholy man gets his toenails clipped by his loving wife who is suffering from a terminal disease and awaiting a transplant. Grimly, he tells her that with every death there is fresh hope as he prepares for a trip abroad unaware that, as the preceding title card told us, a plane is about to go missing in the skies between Thailand and America. Meanwhile, across town a man pushes a stool up to his balcony and prepares to jump. Before he does so, he leaves a message for a friend instructing him to pass on his thanks and apologies to the others, affirming that he had no desire to bother them but he has tried his best and life is cruel. An old lover, presumably having her reasons and well within her rights, refuses to open her door to him and remains unrepentant even when her friend suggests she may regret it if he really does do “something stupid”.

With each death the frame expands to its fullest, as if echoing the sense of emptiness in the very present absence of the recently deceased. A brother somewhat irritated by his sister’s abrupt and unexplained return from the US, declares that her death (in a freak accident while parking his motorbike to take a picture of a cute puppy) has reminded him of the preciousness of life. He might have been embarrassed before, but now he makes a point of hugging and kissing his parents, telling those close to him they are loved in case there is no later opportunity to do so. The sad death of a salaryman, in his sleep in the stock exchange lying undiscovered for five hours, seems all the more absurd and pointless while that of a veteran musician, soon after getting his head massaged by his loving daughter, seems like the best of all ends – lying peacefully at home in the summer breeze. Yet as the old man tells us, those who are “young” should have no fear and simply live. Less about the omnipresence of death than the ephemerality of life, Die Tomorrow is a quiet paen to the small pleasures of being alive, discovered in mundanity and the knowledge that every breath may be one’s last.


Die Tomorrow was screened as a special preview at the BFI Southbank and opens in UK cinemas on 26th July courtesy of Day for Night. It is also currently available to stream in the UK via MUBI.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Krasue: Inhuman Kiss (แสงกระสือ, Sitisiri Mongkolsiri, 2019)

Inhuman kiss poster 2Vengeful ghosts are one thing, but what if you get possessed by a malevolent entity and go about committing evil deeds during the night only to forget them by the morning? A Krasue, in Thai mythology, is a supernatural creature which infects an ordinary woman with a curse which causes her head to detach from her body at night to devour nearby cattle. The heroine of Krasue: Inhuman Kiss (แสงกระสือ) received the curse as an overly curious child only for it to activate on entering puberty during which time she is also caught between the love of her two childhood best friends.

The gentle Sai (Phantira Pipityakorn) first encountered the Krasue when dared to go into a creepy “haunted” cottage by her cowardly friends who largely stayed outside. 10 years later, she still misses her best friend Noi (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang) to whom she gave her protective amulet, while her other best friend, Jerd (Sapol Assawamunkong) silently pines for her but despite his confident persona is too shy to declare his feelings. Shortly after Noi returns from Bangkok in order to escape the approach of the war, a Krasue comes to town. Gradually, Sai begins to worry something is wrong when she keeps waking up with bloodstained sheets but is at a loss for what to do. Meanwhile, a band of bandit Krasue hunters has also descended on the village with the intention of “purifying” it of the troublesome curse.

Set around the time of the Second World War, Krasue: Inhhuman Kiss takes place in a rural idyll untouched by conflict but also home to ancient superstition and primitive prejudice. Though belief in the Krasue is fading, the evidence of its reappearance is undeniable and even if the townspeople can consider themselves “safe” because the monster only targets cattle, they still fear it and that their wives and daughters could become infected. Noi, who left the village long ago for Bangkok, has come back in search of safety but finds himself longing once again for the civilisation of the big city where monstrous curses are regarded as ridiculous superstition and modern medicine a potential cure for any ailment.

Thus when he realises that Sai has become a Krasue, his ultimate plan is to flee with her to the city where they might find help or at least different kind of safety in the midst of civil unrest. Originally horrified, Noi turns to a local monk for advice who counsels him that he should believe what he sees, but do as his heart tells him. Therefore he tries to protect Sai by preparing food for the Krasue so she won’t have to leave her house and risk discovery while he looks for a cure.

Meanwhile, Jerd becomes increasingly jealous of the obvious bond between Sai and her childhood friend but lacks the courage do much more about it than pout and resent Noi’s unexpected reappearance. Jerd joins the hunters, seemingly looking to emphasise his manliness against Noi’s intellectualism while allying himself with strong male role models like the worryingly intense Tat (Surasak Wongthai). In the end, however, both men act to protect the woman that they love albeit in different ways even as they fear she has become monstrous and a danger to herself.

The curse of the Krasue is, it turns out, the legacy of an ancient love triangle and an all powerful man who couldn’t accept that the woman he loved had fallen in love with someone else. Tat’s band of rage fuelled bandits are as much about misogynistic prejudice towards transgressive women as they are about protecting cattle from “supernatural” threat and their intimidating presence eventually puts a stronghold on the increasingly jumpy village in which the torches and pitchforks eventually come out in a show of intense paranoia.

The wartime corruption has finally reached the village, rendering it no safer than the city and infected with a deeper, older anxiety born of wounded male pride and female subjugation. Selfless love struggles to endure but may be no match for the humiliated rage of a spurned lover leaving acts of mutual sacrifice perhaps the only path towards salvation. A supernaturally tinged coming of age tale in which a teenage love triangle neatly overlaps with an ancient curse, Krasue: Inhuman Kiss is a surprisingly rich and delicate experience which imbues its essential horror with genuine warmth and deeply felt compassion.


Krasue: Inhuman Kiss was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mundane History (เจ้านกกระจอก, Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2009)

mundane history posterIs it possible to live without past or future, exist entirely within the pureness of the now? Anocha Suwichakornpong contemplates the bubble existence in her complex debut, Mundane History (เจ้านกกระจอก, Jao Nok Krajok). Class conflict jostles with the fading grandeur of a declining bourgeoisie while two young men lament their broken dreams, one believing himself a prisoner of his privilege and the other trapped by economic inequality. Yet despite their differences, the familial disconnections, and the austerity of their “soulless” environment, a connection is eventually formed making way for a rebirth, new life birthed in the ashes of the old.

Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), a nurse from a humble background, has travelled from the north to take a job as the full time carer for the son of a wealthy man, Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk), recently paralysed from the neck down after a mysterious accident. As Pun tells an intimate acquaintance, perhaps his sister, on the telephone, the house is beautiful but drenched in hopelessness and everyone within it seemingly dead inside.

Moody and resentful, Ake is now a virtual prisoner within his father’s household. Enraged by his new found impotence, he treats Pun with contempt, ironically enough embodying the role of the young master which is perhaps the key to his anger with his distant, austere father who has essentially outsourced his son’s care and then had him walled up at home like a guilty secret. Ake angrily refuses visitors, either embarrassed by his disability or not wanting to witness their pity, and spends his days doing nothing at all but staring blankly into the middle distance, unable to reconcile himself to the terrifying “mundanity” of his repetitive, unchanging existence.

As Ake becomes used to Pun’s gentle presence and allows himself to be cared for, a friendship begins to arise. Both men dreamed of becoming writers, one developing an interest in photography and the other film, but neither of them found their dreams fulfilled. Ake’s sense of defeat is palpable as he finds himself literally trapped by his father’s legacy, unable to escape the claustrophobic world of the family home and consumed by resentment as he convinces himself that his dream of becoming a film director is now unattainable thanks to his disability. Pun, meanwhile, is equally melancholy, perhaps secretly resentful but outwardly making the best of the hand he’s been dealt. From a humble background and orphaned young with siblings to support, his artistic dreams were taken from him by bad luck and socio-economic oppression though it hasn’t killed his kindly heart. 

The austere coldness of Ake’s father and the mansion’s emotional deadness perhaps represent an older generation’s longing for the safeties of an authoritarian world of rigid class boundaries and feudalistic loyalties. Ake’s housekeeper, the prim and proper Somjai (Anchana Ponpitakthepkij), is a relic of this all but forgotten world – a career servant who has silently watched Ake grow as her own youth faded and finally decides to puncture the class divide only to ensure its survival in urging Ake to maintain his stiff upper lip and avoid giving in to despair. Somjai resents Pun’s awkward, liminal status in the house as the only other member permitted to walk freely in the upstairs world and seeks to him keep down, eating with the other servants where he belongs. Pun, like the cook Kaew – also a northerner, doubts he can stay in this world indefinitely, already tired of its energy sapping rigidity and entrenched class-based social codes.

Ake’s resentment towards his father is also a rebellion against his old fashioned authoritarianism which stifles the natural desire of the young for freedom. Now literally unable to escape unaided, Ake feels as if his father has trapped him, deliberately, within the confines of his own value system with no possibility of salvation. The house is, in a sense, the eternal present that Pun and Ake talk about in one of their few moments of blissful togetherness as they lie alone on the grass lawn staring at the blue sky, but the inertia crushes them, driving young men to despair. A trip to the planetarium coupled with Ake’s youthful student films provides an opportunity for rebirth if only in destruction. Stars burn out, destroy themselves, but become nebulas in the process. Anocha Suwichakornpong’s fragmentary narrative is indeed nebulised, pulsing in brief fragments until the whole somehow connects and sparks into life. The spiritual rebirth echoes the political, the desire of youth to break free reasserts itself and the mundane history of an ordinary life regains its cosmic grandeur.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Manta Ray (กระเบนราหู, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, 2018)

manta ray posterManta Ray (กระเบนราหู, Kraben Rahu), the directorial debut from Thai cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, begins with a dedication to the Rohingya – a group some have described as the most persecuted on Earth, rendered technically stateless and brutally oppressed in their homeland of Myanmar. Many have attempted to escape, often to Thailand, but rarely find safe harbour instead becoming victims of governmental persecution or vicious human traffickers. Manta Ray is a poetic mediation on displacement and identity, but also on the various ways in which neglect of the other is also neglect of the self.

A young fisherman (Wanlop Rungkamjad) with a shock of blond hair gets up to some shady business in a forest but later turns humanitarian when he discovers a badly wounded man lying by the riverside. Discovering the man is still alive, the fisherman takes him to a backstreet doctor and then to his home where he nurses him back to health. As the man cannot speak and possibility does not understand what is being said to him, the fisherman rechristens him Thongchai (Aphisit Hama) after a classic Thai pop star. Despite the absence of verbal communication, the two men begin to bond and the fisherman teaches Thongchai how to live a life like his – how to fish, how to dive, how to find colourful stones in the forest and how to use them to call the manta rays which shelter in a nearby cove after a storm and are soon on their way once the storm has passed. Their peaceful co-existence is soon ruptured when the fisherman fails to return home, leaving Thongchai alone to inherit his life, slipping accidentally into the now vacant space the fisherman left behind.

The film’s earliest stretches serve as a beautiful tale of wordless connection in which the fisherman, perhaps in contrast to what we might expect given the darkness of his activities as glimpsed in the opening scenes, decides to be kind and rescues a man near death, literally giving him a new life and a place in his home for as long as he wants or needs it. Thongchai says nothing, perhaps he cannot speak in any language and probably does not understand the meaning of the fisherman’s words but seems to understand him all the same. Gradually the fisherman brings Thonghcai back to life through passing bits of his own back to him, relating his sad life story of the wife who left him for another man but himself remaining silent about whatever it is he does with the shady crew of a fishing boat out on the water. It is perhaps his sense of compassion which spells his doom – when he tells his “boss” that he doesn’t want to do “that” any more, the fisherman “mysteriously” goes missing at sea.

Thongchai does not steal the fisherman’s identity, but merely inherits a space which had been left vacant by another recently displaced person. He stays in the house and waits for his friend’s return, takes up his friend’s job, and then eventually begins living with the fisherman’s pregnant ex-wife (Rasmee Wayrana) who completes his transformation by dressing him in the fisherman’s clothes and dying his hair a bright gold that shines just like the stones in the forest. The fisherman and Thongchai merge and become one, sharing a single identity until the fisherman himself washes up, injured and bearing the scars of his long journey home.

Yet the forest is always there, waiting, and all roads lead back to it in Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s elliptical tale. Thongchai digs but finds only death and emptiness, the colourful lights he softly danced to with the fisherman eerily echoed by the forest’s grim ghostliness and the glittery horror that stalks its natural beauty. Like the manta ray, Thongchai – a man without a name or a language, may be destined to a life of lonely floating broken by brief periods shelter and connection, always waiting for the storm to pass. Poetic and filled with images of extreme beauty, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s melancholy debut is a poetic meditation on identity and dislocation, arguing strongly for empathy and human warmth over fear and self-interest in an often cruel existence.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Sad Beauty (เพื่อนฉัน…ฝันสลาย, Bongkod Bencharongkul, 2018)

Sad Beauty posterToxic friendship poisons the lives of two young women each somewhat adrift in the modern Thai society in Bongkod Bencharongkul’s noir-infused tale of betrayals and frustrated futures, Sad Beauty (เพื่อนฉัน…ฝันสลาย). A former actress, Bencharongkul’s post-credit’s dedication may imply a degree of autobiographical inspiration, but the film’s uneasy mix of the upscale world of the showbiz elite and the relatively humble lives of the ordinary people on its fringes can be no accident as the two women at its centre struggle to maintain their lifelong friendship in the face of intransigent social pressures.

Yo (Florence Faivre), a famous actress and model, and Pim (Pakkawadee Pengsuwan), an ordinary young woman, have been friends ever since they were little. The friendship is close and intense, but Yo often over relies on Pim’s unwavering kindness, all take and no give, while Pim remains in awe of her beautiful and talented friend, unwittingly fulfilling the role of an unofficial assistant. Yo’s career has hit a rough patch thanks to an unwise public rant and subsequent refusal to apologise while her personal life is also threatening to implode thanks to an increasing drug and party habit. Pim maybe the only one able to prevent Yo’s self-destructive habits from going nuclear, but Pim has problems of her own – she has recently been diagnosed with cancer and, for a change, is now the one in need of care and support. Already strained, things go from bad to worse when the girls return home to Pim’s one night and discover her mother badly beaten by Pim’s drunken and abusive step-father who then turns on them. During the struggle, the step-father is killed and the two friends find themselves on the run with a dead body they don’t know how to get rid of.

A friend will help you move, a real friend will help you move a body – so the old adage goes, but the sudden introduction of crime on top of cancer and persistent narcissism injects another layer of complication into the friendship of the two women. Whether they like it or not they are now bound by something more than natural affection or loyalty and the increasing claustrophobia of their guilt forged connection cannot but paradoxically push them apart. Though Pim, who is perhaps in a way glad to have ended her mother’s suffering, seems to put the trauma of the crime and its aftermath behind her while consumed with mortal fear and the pain of her illness, Yo is haunted and even if her chastened attitude helps to put her career back on track, her self-destructive pursuit of sex and drugs and continues unabated.

When Pim tearfully revealed her cancer diagnosis to Yo, Yo promised she would be there for her no matter what. She promised the same thing again when Pim was trying to decide between chemo and “natural” treatments, but Yo is selfish and afraid – she fails her friend by refusing to accept the seriousness of the situation and offering only superficial reassurances that everything will be alright. Somehow or other, Yo manages to make even Pim’s suffering all about her, finally ready to be “supportive” only in time for the tragic finale in which she realises what she had only in losing it.

Strangely, the murder and its grisly coverup recede into the background – the real “crime” here is in the failure of friendship and the betrayal of a sacred trust. Yo took Pim for granted, relying on her for unconditional emotional support but refusing to offer much of anything in return. She basked in Pim’s admiration but also in her essential ordinariness as way of making herself feel superior, irritated when handsome men show an interest in Pim and not in her. Meanwhile Pim pines for her friend, longing for the reciprocity which is so defiantly absent yet also grateful for the sentiment of friendship and understanding (if also resentful) of Yo’s various reasons for retreating into solipsistic oblivion. This is perhaps the “sad beauty” of the title as the two women attempt to cling on to their friendship even while knowing that it must someday end, allowing the spectre of that final disappointment to poison what it is they have in the present.


Sad Beauty + introduction and Q&A with Director Bongkod Bencharongkul screens as part of the seventh season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema at AMC River East 21 on 26th September, 6.30pm. Tickets on sale now!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Premika (เปรมิกาป่าราบ, Siwakorn Jarupongpa, 2017)

Premika posterHorror and comedy are often more compatible than it might seem, but despite the outward ridiculousness of Thai ghost story Premika (เปรมิกาป่าราบ, Premika-Parab) the issues at its heart are deadly serious. A selection of guests assembled as part of a PR launch for an isolated hotel resort soon find themselves plagued by the vengeful spirit of a murdered karaoke girl and forced to sing for their lives while across town a noble policeman tries to convince his less dedicated colleague that they still have a duty to find the person responsible for a gruesome murder even if the victim was likely “just another worker kid”. Xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, police corruption, people and organ trafficking, exploitation and a host of other social ills become fine fodder for a vengeful ghost but, perhaps, not so much for comedy.

A dismembered body is discovered in the forest. Honest policeman Lt. Poom (Todsapol Maisuk) is determined to investigate the crime-scene despite his sergeant’s attempt to order the rest of the men back to the station as soon as the commanding officer has left the area. Sgt. Ped (Kittipos Mangkang) writes the unfortunate girl’s name down as “Premika” – taken from the label on the cosplay sailor suit she is wearing and abandons the case.

Meanwhile, a number of guests including several celebrities, a film crew, and a couple of competition winners on a delayed honeymoon, assemble at a remote hotel as part of a soft launch PR exercise. The trouble starts when two vacuous Instagrammers power up an old karaoke box sitting in the reception area for decorative purposes. Unbeknownst to them, the box is a definite health hazard because it contains the rotting heart of a murdered girl jumped started into a vengeful fury as her ghost finds ample scope for revenge in these variously troubled souls.

To leave the ghost to one side, the guests begin to argue amongst themselves as they’re forced to spend time together in the otherwise isolated hotel, hardly noticing the strangeness of the goings on which include blood pouring from the taps and sudden blackouts. Once the karaoke loving ghost arrives she challenges each of them to sing for their lives – if they get the words wrong, go off key, or fail to get over 80 points on a song picked at random they will fall victim to her bloody axe of vengeance.

There is however a method to her madness – the ghost is looking for her own killer who happened to be completely tone deaf, leaving her with a deep seated hatred of those who hog the mic but can’t sing. Finally she gets the chance to sing her own sad song of vengeance in which she reveals the tragedy of her past – a poor farm girl sold into the big city red light district and then unable to escape because of the money she “owes” to her captors. Molested, beaten, raped, she finds herself exploited by men with no sign of escape and, as the news paper reports at the climactic moment record, she is far from alone. The police are themselves complicit in a vast ring of female exploitation and people trafficking. It’s no wonder Sgt. Ped wanted to forget the whole thing – after all “it’s just another worker kid, who cares”. Lt. Poom at least cares, reminding his sergeant that the victim had a mother too and deserves their respect in death even if they failed to protect her in life.

Prioritising the silly comedy over the serious issues, Premika fails to make the contrast hit home, allowing the humour to undermine the inherent critique of a misogynistic society while also indulging in some of the very ideas which support it to get a few cheap laughs. While there is a quiet lament for unrequited, unspoken same sex love, the androgynous photographer’s ambiguous gender is a constant source of comedy (even if the homophobic/anti-trans slurs directed in their direction eventually send a microphone right through the abusers chest) lending a slightly sour note to the proceedings as “Premika’s” axe continues to fall on the enablers of misogyny. 


Premika screens as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 13th July at 8.15pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Promise (เพื่อน..ที่ระลึก, Sophon Sakdaphisit, 2017)

The Promise Thai 2018 poster20 years on the Asian financial crisis continues to loom large over the region’s cinema, providing fertile ground for extreme acts of transgression born of desperation in the wake of such a speedy decline. Sophon Sakdaphisit’s ghost story The Promise (เพื่อน..ที่ระลึก, Puen Tee Raluek) places the financial crisis at its centre in its cyclical tales of betrayed youth who find themselves paying heavily for their parents’ mistakes through no fault of their own. Yet there is a fault involved in the betraying of a sacred promise between two vulnerable young people made half in jest in a fit of pique but provoking tragic consequences all the same. Sometimes lonely death chases the young too, trapping them in solitary limbo growing ever more resentful of their heinous betrayal.

In 1997, Ib (Panisara Rikulsurakan) and Boum (Thunyaphat Pattarateerachaicharoen) are best friends. Daughters of wealthy industrialists making an ill fated move into real estate with the building of a luxury tower block destined never to be completed, Boum and Ib may have been separated by being sent to different schools, but they spend all of their free time together, often hiding out on the construction site fantasising about sharing an apartment there and listening to sad songs on Ib’s ever present Discman.

When the crisis hits and their fathers are ruined, the girls pay the price. Not only are they left feeling betrayed and humiliated in being so abruptly ejected from their privileged world of mansions and horse riding, but also suffer at the hands of the fathers they now despite – Ib more literally as she is physically beaten by her strung out, frustrated dad. Already depressed, Ib talks ominously about a gun her mother has hidden in fear her father may use it to kill himself. When Boum falls out with her mum, she gives the go ahead for a double suicide but can’t go through with it after watching the twitching body of her friend, lying in a pool of blood after firing a bullet up through her chin.

20 years later, Boum (Numthip Jongrachatawiboon) is a successful industrialist herself, apparently having taken over her father’s company and turned it around. The economy is, however, once again in a precarious position and Boum’s business is floundering thanks to a set back on a high profile project. The idea is floated to finish the tower left incomplete by the ’97 crisis to which Boum reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, Boum’s daughter Bell (Apichaya Thongkham) is about to turn 15 – the same age as she was when she agreed to die with Ib, and has recently started sleepwalking in ominous fashion.

Sophon Sakdaphisit neatly compares and contrasts the teenagers of 20 years ago and those of today and finds them not altogether different. In 1997, Boum and Ib keep in touch with pagers and visit photo sticker booths in the mall, splitting earphones to listen to a Discman while they take solitary refuge at the top of a half completed tower. In 2017, Bell never sees her friend in person but keeps in touch via video messaging, posting photos on instagram, and sending each other songs over instant messenger. Yet Bell, in an ominous touch, still graffitis walls to make her presence felt just as her mother had done even if she fetishises the retro tech of her mother’s youth, picking up an abandoned pager just because it looks “cool”.

In 2017, the now widowed Boum appears to have no close friends though her relationship with her daughter is tight and loving. A “modern” woman, Boum dismisses the idea that a malevolent spirit could be behind her daughter’s increasingly strange behaviour but finds it hard to argue with the CCTV footage which seems almost filled with the invisible presence of something dark and angry. Realising that the circumstances have converged to bring her teenage trauma back to haunt her – Ib’s suicide, the tower, her daughter’s impending birthday, Boum is terrified that Ib has come back to claim what she was promised and plans to take her daughter in her place in revenge for her betrayal all those years ago.

Bell is made to pay the price for her mother’s mistakes, as she and Ib were made to pay for their fathers’. Motivated by intense maternal love, Boum nevertheless is quick to bring other people’s children into the chain of suffering when she forces a terrified little boy who has the ability to see ghosts to help her locate the frightening vision of her late friend as she darts all over the dank and spooky tower block, threatening the financial security of his family all of whom work for her company and are dependent on her for their livelihoods.

In order to move forward, Boum needs to address her longstanding feelings of guilt regarding her broken promise – the suicide was, after all, her idea even if she was never really serious and after witnessing her friend die in such a violent way, she simply ran away and left her there all alone and bleeding. Yet rather than attempting to keep her original promise Boum makes a new one with her imperilled daughter – that she will keep on living, no matter what. The slightly clumsy message being that commitment to forward motion is the only way to leave the past behind, accepting your feelings of guilt and regret but learning to let them go and the ghosts dissipate. Sophon Sakdaphisit makes use of the notorious, believed haunted Bangkok tower to create an eerie, supernaturally charged atmosphere of malevolence but the ghosts are in a sense very real, recalling the turbulence of two decades past in which fear and hysteria ruled and young lives were cut short by a nihilistic despair that even friendship could not ease.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)