Bad Genius (Chalat Kem Kong)


Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t following you.

(2017) Thriller (GDH 559) Chutimon Cheungcharoensukying, Elsaya Hosuwan, Teeradon Supapunpinyo, Chanon Santinatornkul, Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Sarinrat Thomas, Ego Mikitas, Pasin Kuansataporn, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Kanjana Vinaipanid, Yuthapong Varanukrohchoke, Nopawat Likitwong, David Gray, Laluna Nitze. Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya

It is easy to admire smart people; it is also easy to distrust them. After all, knowledge is power and we all know what power does – it corrupts.

Lynn (Cheungcharoensukying) is a brilliant girl whose teacher father (Warakulnukroh) is trying to get her into one of Bangkok’s most exclusive private schools. It appears that her divorced dad won’t be able to afford the prestigious school’s fees and tuition but after Lynn accurately reads the headmistress’s (Thomas) greed, she uses math-based analysis to talk her way into a full ride scholarship.

Brilliant but socially awkward (the two often go hand in hand), she is befriended by Grace (Hosuwan), an aspiring actress who helps Lynn “look her best.” The two become fast friends and when Grace confesses to her much smarter companion that she’s worried about an upcoming math test, Lynn offers to tutor her for the test. However, Grace proves to be even dimmer than Lynn could account for and when she forgets everything she was supposed to have memorized for the test, Lynn writes the answers down on an eraser and ingeniously delivers them to Grace by a process that can only be called “shoe-mail.”

Grace’s wealthy boyfriend Pat (Supapunpinyo) sees a gold mine in test cheats and organizes a bit of a racket that the wealthy students of the school are only too happy to pay for if only to get their achievement-fixated parents off their backs. The fact that the school is charging her father exorbitant “maintenance fees” on what was supposed to be a free ride sways the formerly naïve Lynn and turns her cynical. She comes up with a brilliant idea utilizing codes tapped out on the desk like a piano etude. The plan works too – until another impoverished genius, Bank (Santinatornkul) blows the whistle on them. Lynn ends up getting her scholarship pulled.

Determined to right what Lynn sees as an inequity in that wealthier students who can afford it can bribe teacher for test answers in advance, she decides to go after the holy grail of test cheats – the Standardized Test for International Colleges or STIC, a fictional version of the SAT – with a bold and brilliant plan. Grace and Pat will help but she will need Bank and his photographic memory to pull it off. However, getting the test answers to students willing to pay for it isn’t going to be easy

The movie starts out as something of a social justice allegory with the hoity toity private school standing in for Thai society in general (and not far off from our own these days). It ends up as a slick heist thriller that wouldn’t be out of place on the resumes of Steven Soderburgh and Harmony Korine. Poonpiriya proves to be a director with formidable talent, melding the two disparate types of film into a singular whole that is entertaining as well as having something to say.

Cheungcharoensukying needs to carry the film and she does; considering that her background is in modeling and that this is her first feature film is absolutely astounding. The lady has plenty of screen presence and is able to handle Lynn in both her shy and socially awkward phase and in her cynical and criminal phase without making either look cliché. They are both Lynn but there are differences between the Lynn at the beginning of the film and the Lynn at the end.

The movie does take awhile to develop but once it gets going it’s like a runaway freight train. There’s also a sense of humor that is a bit sly and subversive; American audiences may not necessarily take to it but I’ve been wrong on that score before. While this is based on an actual issue that is scandalizing Asia at the moment (but not on a specific incident) it doesn’t let up on the fun either. This has a good shot at being remade by Hollywood according to the trades but I think discerning audiences would seek the original out if some distribution could be found. Certainly this is one to keep an eye out for; hopefully at the very least it will be a presence on the Festival circuit for the time being.

REASONS TO GO: Hollywood-slick, the film is as good a thriller that has come out this year. Chutimon is an actress with a future. The sense of humor here is subversive and fun.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit slow to develop.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of violence and peril, not to mention some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Lynn’s father (Warakulnukroh) also starred in Pop Aye which played at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and is set to be released by Kino-Lorber later this month.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bling Ring
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: KFC

Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore

Ong Bak 3


Ong Bak 3

Tony Jaa doesn’t much like his new spear collar.

(2010) Action (Magnet) Tony Jaa, Dan Chupong, Sorapong Chatree, Nirut Sirichanya, Primrata Det-Udom Phetthai Wongkhamlao, Sarunyoo Wongkrachang, Chumphorn Thepphithak. Directed by Tony Jaa and Panna Rittkrai

 

I’ll say it now and get it out of the way – Tony Jaa is one of the most charismatic and breathtaking martial arts stars in the world today. Maybe Jet Li and Bruce Lee in their heydays could keep up with Jaa, but nobody today can. The action sequences he does are done au natural – that is, without wires, CGI or any film trickery; when Jaa runs up the tusk of an elephant, he really does. When he bounces off a wall to kick an enemy fighter in the face, that’s all him. To watch him is to watch human endeavor at its best.

What Jaa really needs though is a writer and director who can give him something to work with. While the first film in the series had a good story and character development, the second film was a royal mess. In many ways this is a bit of an improvement – but still, at the end of the day, it doesn’t quite add up to a coherent whole.

Picking up where the previous film left off, Tien (Jaa) is now in the hands of the ruthless warlord Rajasena (Wongkrachang). Rajasena, you may remember, murdered Tien’s parents in front of him when Tien was but a child. Now we find out why – Rajasena has a curse leveled on him which prophesized that he would be killed by someone…ummm…no, that’s not it…by someone who…no, not that either. Okay, the explanation didn’t make any sense either. Moving on.

Rajasena has Tien beaten within an inch of his life. Rajasena watches this with the repulsive glee of a sadist, then as sadists will he grows bored an orders his men to kill Tien. Before they can behead him, an envoy from the king arrives with a pardon which irritates Rajasena no end but there isn’t anything he can do. Unfortunately, Tien has died from the severity of his beating so his body is taken to a small village where his old friend Master Bua (Sirichanya), who has joined a Buddhist monastery as a monk over the guilt he experienced for his actions in the previous film uses an ancient treatment regimen to help revive the late Tien who as it turns out wasn’t quite dead yet.

After being caked in mud for a bit, Tien emerges a little less inclined towards beating people up and learns from Bua and his fellow monks the tenets of peace, harmony and elephants; Buddhism seems to suit the new Tien but things are getting worse outside of the walls of the monastery. A new figure has emerged in the villain scene, one even nastier than Rajasena. He’ s Bhuti Sangkha (Chupong) who briefly showed up in the last film to kick Tien’s ass decisively (the only person to do that) and as it turns out, the movie is big enough for only one baddie with ambitions to rule all of Asia. Rajasena has to go and go he does, but not before levying a curse on Bhuti the baddie – from his severed head no less. Nobody can say these Thai filmmakers aren’t over the top.

This sets up a showdown between Bhuti and Tien because…well, because. Only one will walk away but can Tien who has renounced violence and nobody is really sure if he retained his martial arts skills (big hint – he did) can defeat the magically enhanced Bhuti.

The action sequences once again are worth it. Chupong is nearly as accomplished a martial artist as Jaa and the fight between the two may well become a classic confrontation for the genre. However the action bits are few and far between here; during filming of the first film Jaa had something of a breakdown which – and things are vague here – either was a result of financial issues during filming or caused them. Either way, he became a devout Buddhist and joined a monastery his own self following the conclusion of filming. It seems likely that Jaa wanted to impose his new-found pacifist beliefs on the films, which doesn’t really work well when your audience is expecting – nay, demanding – wall-to-wall ass kicking.

If anyone can pull it off, it’s Jaa and he comes close. His natural charisma and likableness make him one of the most compelling stars in Asia today (and yes, for those wondering, he has recently left the monastery and will be returning to acting on screens next year). Compared to the mish mash that was the last film, this is far easier to follow. If it weren’t for the gigantic lull in the middle, this might even compare favorable to the first film. However those who come to Jaa’s films for the action will find it light on that element although what’s here is memorable.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine action footage – when they get around to it. A bit more competent in the storytelling than the previous entry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags quite a bit in the middle for an action film.

FAMILY VALUES: Once again, the violence is pretty intense with this installment in the trilogy being a bit more bloody than the first two films.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Quite a bit of the footage in Ong Bak 3 was filmed during the production of Ong Bak 2: The Beginning; the delays in filming that project led to the decision to add a third film to the series with some of the completed footage moved to that film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on an unreported production budget; while this probably made money, it was a disappointment compared to previous films in the series.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Matrix Revolutions

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning


Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

The reason elephants never forget – elephant school!

(2008) Action (Magnet) Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Sarunyu Wongkrachang, Nirut Sirichanya, Santisuk Phromsiri, Primorata Dejudom, Phetthai Wongkamlao, Pattama Panthong, Suppakorn Kitsuwan, Natdhanal Kongthong, Prarinya Karmkeaw. Directed by Tony Jaa

 

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. Apparently the word didn’t make it to Tony Jaa’s neck of the woods. Vengeance is most definitely his.

This is mostly sort of kind of a prequel to his international hit Ong Bak which introduced Jaa, a muay thai champion to the world. Here he also assumes the director’s chair and sets the action 600 years in the past. Tien (Jaa) is the young son of Lord Sihadencho (Phromsiri), ruler of an outlying province. Tien is impetuous and unruly; he wants very badly to be trained in martial arts but his father insists on giving him dance lessons, much to Tien’s chagrin.

Mysterious assassins, sent by Lord Rajasena (Wongkrachang), massacre the family of Sihadencho, with Tien the lone survivor. His troubles are far from over; he is captured by slave traders who tire of his non-cooperation and throw him unarmed into a pit with a gigantic crocodile. Right about then a bandit gang, the Pha Beek Khrut, attacks the village where the slave traders are headquartered and the leader of the Pha Beek Khrut, Chernang (Chatree) tosses a knife to young Tien and tells him his fate is in his own hands. When Tien proves victorious, Chernang takes young Tien under his wing and gives him the martial arts training he’s so long desired.

Soon Tien is fully trained with weapons and hand-to-hand combat both and has become a formidable warrior, likely the best in all Thailand. The time is right to claim vengeance, going after the slave traders first and then Lord Rajasena himself by posing as a dancer during a celebration. However, Lord Rajasena is no fool and has protections in place that even Tien will be hard-pressed to breach, but Tien expects that. What he doesn’t expect is betrayal from very close at hand.

This is kind of a mess. While the first Ong Bak is action packed beginning to end, this one is less so; the story is disjointed and confusing and there really is nothing linking it to the first movie whatsoever (although the third movie in the trilogy serves that purpose). At times you almost want to tear out your hair and just throw the disc through the nearest window.

The good news is that the best thing about the first film is still here and that’s Jaa’s amazing muay thai moves. The climactic battle scene is as good a martial arts sequence as I’ve seen in any film and would be worth the rental all by itself.

Jaa has plenty of charisma which transcends language; he’s an appealing character who could follow Jet Li into the mainstream Hollywood spotlight. My problem is that I didn’t really feel his rage; considering all that he went through that’s key to the movie, giving the audience a surrogate for their own outrage. Jaa doesn’t get mad so much as he gets even; part of it is that getting even isn’t really enough.

I read another review in which the reviewer suggested turning off the sound and subtitles and just watching it as a martial arts exhibition and that’s not a bad idea. I’m not sure if the screenwriting was not up to par, or if Jaa’s inexperience as a director was the culprit, or if the many production problems got the best of the filmmakers or maybe if it’s just a cultural thing. At the end of the day this just isn’t a very good movie unless you happen to like martial arts so much you don’t care if the story makes sense. In that case, this is for you.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing muay thai sequences and beautiful cinematography of sweeping Thai vistas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing and incomprehensible; ending is abrupt and jarring.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of martial arts violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jaa left the production for two months while financing for the film was in flux.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.9M on an unreported production budget; undoubtedly this made good money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Protector

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Ong Bak 3

Dynamite Warrior (Khon fai bin)


Dynamite Warrior (Khon fai bin)

Just a little missile surfing.

(Magnolia) Dan Chupong, Leo Putt, Panna Rittikrai, Samart Payakarun, Kanyapak Suworakood, Somdet Kaew-ler, Ampon Rattanawong. Directed by Chalerm Wongpin

Thailand, with the success of Tony Jaa and his Ong-Bak movies is developing into another center of kinetic action movies. For those of us who love the genre, that’s very good news indeed.

Like several Hong Kong action movies of the mid-90s, there is a kind of willingness to bend and mix genres with absolute abandon. It can be said that the action is the central focus of the film, it’s raison d’être and while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it can be a bit jarring for Western audiences more used to less chaotic filmmaking.

There is a plot here, however Hunter Thompson-esque it might be. Jone Bang Fai (Chupong) is a mysterious masked bandit that uses home-made rockets (that he often rides into the fray on) and acts as a kind of protector of the poor farmers of rural Thailand in the 1920s. He has a bit of an ulterior motive however; he is seeking a man with a unique tattoo on his chest who murdered his parents years ago. Revenge, apparently, is not only a dish best served cold, it can come with peanut sauce as well.

Lord Wang (Putt) is seeking to profit from Thailand’s slow move to industrialization by selling tractors to rural farmers, who are resisting the change and preferring to use water buffalo as they have for generations. Wang’s solution is to set a vicious escaped thief (Kaew-ler) with a penchant for cannibalism to steal all the water buffalo. Of course this sets off Fai like a mutha.

However, all bets are off when Fai squares off against a buffalo trader with formidable magical powers and realizes this may be the man he’s been seeking. He cannot defeat the trader on his own, so he seeks the Black Wizard (Rittikrai) who informs him that he can only rob the sorcerer of his powers with the menstrual blood of a virgin that he just so happens to have handy in the form of his niece (Suworakood). However, the Black Wizard being…well, EVIL…has his own plans and his agenda may not be exactly conducive to peace and serenity.

Where to begin? My brain is still spinning after witnessing this unholy concoction. It looks like a western and carries many of the plot elements that can be found in that genre. It’s also a martial arts movie, with muay thai warriors inflicting all sorts of mayhem on each other. It’s also a fantasy with elements of Thai mysticism, and yet it’s accurate to its period.

There is a lot of wire work (which we haven’t seen much of in the Thai action movies that have been released in the States) and a great deal of mayhem. Some of the scenes are fairly graphic in their violence but the overall tone is comedic and light. There is a good deal of concentration on menstruation here (Fai asks the niece if she’s menstruating yet which in this country would get you smacked in the face) which may be a bit unsettling unused to the cultural differences between Thailand and the West.

The plot takes a great number of twists and turns until you feel like you’ve been twisted into a pretzel trying to follow it. Much of the story is told in flashback, and at times it can be jarring while at others you don’t realize you’re watching a flashback until it’s done. As with many Asian films, the acting can be over-the-top with an emphasis on exaggeration, something that while is perfectly legitimate in Eastern cinema is frowned upon here.

It can be hard to overcome cultural biases, and I’ll admit that mine made it difficult for me to completely embrace this movie. I’m all for action but not for its own sake; the audiences in Asia are a bit more lax in that regard and there’s nothing wrong for that. Therefore my rating is probably a bit lower than the movie deserves. I will say that I admire the form and the filmmaking, and some of the action is delightful to watch. If they had kept the plot a bit simpler, I might have enjoyed this a bit more. However, in all fairness, this wasn’t a movie made for me or my sort and those with more open minds in terms of plot will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

WHY RENT THIS: A fine example of Asian everything-but-the-kitchen-sink cinema. Some of the action sequences are just sick.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting can be a trifle over-the-top and the story is overly complicated and hard to follow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence is kinetic and cartoonish and there are a lot of sexual references in the movie (although no sex) as well as some icky scenes of cannibalism and demons; I would probably limit this to mature younger teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rittikrai, a veteran of the Thai film industry, was also the stunt choreographer for the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a nice but short featurette on the make-up effects required to give the Black Wizard his extra-gooeyness.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Timecrimes