Tag Archives: Thai

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CITIZEN DOG (2004)

Mah Nakorn

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DIRECTED BY: Wisit Sasanatieng

FEATURING: Mahasamut Boonyaruk, Saengthong Gate-Uthong

PLOT: Pod moves to Bangkok, despite his grandmother’s warning he will grow a tail if he does so, and falls in love with Jin, a woman of serial obsessions—none of which involve Pod.

Still from Citizen Dog (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It begins with Pod losing his finger at his sardine-canning job (he gets it back later). It ends on a mountain of plastic bottles that dominates the Bangkok skyline. In between, it indulges in a subplot about an affair between a girl who’s either 8 or 22 years old and her talking teddy bear. Oh, and it’s also intermittently a musical. Citizen Dog takes a lot of lunatic swings, and still manages to remain a crowd-pleasing romance.

COMMENTS: Pod and Jin are each, in their own way, searching for a dream, while not realizing that they are living in one. Jin dreams of one day reading the book that fell out of the sky and landed on her deck, written in a language unknown to her; later, she is able to put that dream to one side to pursue an obsession with saving the planet via recycling. Pod, meanwhile, is introduced to us as “a man without a dream”—at least, until he encounters Jin and quickly falls in love. Jin drifts from dream to dream, risking devastation when her plans don’t turn out as she expects, while Pod drifts from job to job, too scared to commit to anything and declare his feelings. Meanwhile, both of them miss the magic of the world around them.

The viewer doesn’t make that mistake, however. Wisit Sasanatieng drenches his movie in some of the boldest color schemes ever ladled on the big screen. Pod leaves a country home where swaths of golden grass grow from russet dirt, waving against a painted backdrop sky with an eternally glowing sun, and lands in a busy Bangkok where he gets a job at a ruby and emerald colored sardine-processing factory where even the fish have pink eyes. The people who populate the city are even stranger than their visual environments: a zombie taxi driver, killed during one of the city’s periodic rains of helmets; an amnesiac obsessed with licking; a talking teddy bear, who’s also a chain smoker who falls on hard times and turns homeless. Don’t worry, there are plenty more crazy characters where those came from, along with breaks for musical numbers, sequences that are sped-up or which play out in lethargic slow motion, and a gecko sex scene. Citizen Dog never runs out of ideas to throw at the viewer; but for Pod and Jin, it’s all just part of everyday life in the big city.

In conventional terms, Citizen Dog fails as a romantic comedy, because it never convincingly shows how Pod wins Jin’s heart. Dreamy Jin is completely blind to Pod’s devotion up into the final scene, when she suddenly succumbs to a short sappy speech and a kiss. But who cares? In unconventional terms, the movie succeeds brilliantly; each part of the series of almost-unconnected vignettes is a miniature joke brilliant enough to keep you eagerly awaiting the next one, so that you don’t really notice (or care much) about Jin’s lack of romantic development.

Citizen Dog‘s blend of old-fashioned romance and digitally-enhanced surrealism often draws comparisons to Amelie (2001). Tonally, however, it more resembles ‘s Mood Indigo (2013), in that it creates a whimsically unreal but fully lived-in universe where absolutely anything can happen. The difference is that Citizen Dog remains lighthearted to the end, never succumbing to the darkness that envelops the moody Indigo.

The genesis of Citizen Dog is as odd as its story line. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Koynuch. But, in a twist, Koynuch’s novel was itself an adaptation of Sasanatieng’s original unpublished screenplay! Once Koynuch gave Sasanatieng’s collection of vignettes without a story a unifying theme of dreams, the director felt he could come back to the script he’d abandoned and turn it into a feature film.

Sasanatieng’s first movie, Tears of the Black Tiger, was a Spaghetti Western parody with vividly artificial visuals similar to Citizen Dog. Both movies were minor hits with film-festival followers, although Dog is the more accessible of the two. But none of Sasanatieng’s subsequent movies have made much headway in the West, although he is still active. Unfortunately, Citizen Dog is not currently available on home video or (although you might be able to find a used all-region DVD on Ebay or other sources—be cure to confirm English subtitles are included). Tears of the Black Tiger, on the other hand, is still easy to acquire.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“People are able to swap fingers, they can grow tails, teddy bears are able to talk and sometimes it rains helmets. And that’s just a small selection of the weirdness this films throws at you. None of these things are ever properly explained, they’re just a part of the surreal world the characters inhabit and have to deal with on a daily basis.”–Niels Matthijs, Screen Anarchy

(This movie was nominated for review by Welrax. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram

PLOT: Soldiers struck with an inexplicable sleeping sickness are housed at an old school, and a housewife volunteer develops an empathic bond with one young victim, which may involve entering his dreams.

Still from Cemetery of Splendor (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fans of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who mercifully nicknamed himself “Joe” for the benefit of Western audiences) know exactly what to expect from his latest experiment in dream cinema: long takes, quiet moods, the blurring of the line between the real and unreal, and mundane dramatics that subtly slip into the surreal. Cemetery will please those he’s already won over, but his Palme d’Or winning breakthrough Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives makes for a better representative of his sleepy, spiritually weird style. We wouldn’t rule out adding another of Joe’s movies to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies down the road, but it will need to venture farther into the bizarre than Cemetery does.

COMMENTS: With four minutes of nearly silent establishing shots—showing sleeping soldiers being shipped by the truckload to the makeshift hospital, and our limping protagonist making her way up the wooden planks of the porch on her way to volunteer duty—Weerasethakul throws down the gauntlet to viewers’s attention spans. This introduction is followed by an initial half-hour that seems composed mostly of long and medium shots of young men sleeping, with middle-aged women quietly sitting by their bedsides watching over them, and a lunch break to introduce the fact that one of them has psychic abilities. (We also, for reasons only Joe could explain, watch a man poop in the woods).

The movie, set in a leafy Thai jungle and scored to the hum of insects and distant rumbling backhoes, lulls us into a peaceful mood. We might be forgiven for wondering if we have fallen asleep ourselves and are dreaming when things start to change. Does the soldier Jen watches over, Itt, briefly wake up and take a meal with her? Maybe, maybe not, but surely two dead princess don’t visit her at a picnic table at the dinosaur park to share fruit and explain a possible origin of the sleeping sickness. And we might doubt that the psychic licks Jen’s deformed leg as a form of therapy. And when amoebas appear drifting among the clouds in the sky, you can be absolutely sure it’s a dream.

Cemetery of Splendor never goes anywhere, so there’s nothing to wrap up. The soldiers, and their caretakers, simply sleep and dream on, and at some point Weerasethakul decides to turn the camera off. A paradoxical offering from a Valium-toned auteur, Cemetery of Splendor is simultaneously minor and profound, inconclusive and whole. It’s a film you’re proud to have seen, but in no rush to watch again.

For those not yet ready to wake up, the 2016 Strand DVD includes a “making of” featurette and deleted scenes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[Weerasethakul’a] movies work best when they’re washing over you, even when — in fact, especially when — things get weird.”–Matt Prigge, Metro

CAPSULE: LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (2003)

Ruang rak noi nid mahasan

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DIRECTED BY: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

FEATURING: , Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak

PLOT: Suicidal expatriate librarian Kenji witnesses a fatal automobile accident while contemplating jumping off a Bangkok bridge, and falls for Noi, the victim’s sister.

Still from Last Life in the Universe (2003)\

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Last Life in the Universe is a quality romantic drama with a strong “indie” flavor to it, but the few liberties it takes with reality aren’t quite enough to tip it into the “weirdest of all time” category.

COMMENTS: Suicide attempts, pot-smoking hallucinations, abusive boyfriends, yakuiza revenge killings: Pen-Ek Ratanaurang slips a surprising amount of plot into a languid movie that’s essentially about two mismatched people lying around talking and occasionally cleaning the house. It also has enough fantasy sequences (which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from reality) that you may become confused once or twice as to whether events really occurred (I confess that I thought one of the major plot twists was a dream up until the end of the movie). Asano and Boonyasak make for an appealingly melancholy couple, each of them mired in their own particular tragedy. The Japanese librarian is an obsessive neatnik, while the Thai local is a pothead slob, but the movie makes the barrier to these two consummating their attraction feel like it runs deeper than superficial traits; their private sadnesses seem unbridgeable.

As a whole, Last Life‘s story is denser than the minimalist individual scenes might suggest; it’s a movie with good replay value. Try to catch things that you missed on a first pass. Look for lizards everywhere, and a nod to That Obscure Object of Desire. You’ll also learn about Bangkok bars where the hostesses dress like schoolgirls wearing bunny ears, and how to get bloodstains out of your Escher print. And you can make up your own mind about the ambiguous ending. If nothing else, Ratanaruang goes down easier than fellow sleepyThai ‘s work: it’s not as weird, but a lot more happens.

Last Life was lensed by cinematographer nonpareil ; according to an interview with Ratanaruang included on the DVD, the chance to work with Doyle was one of the main inspirations for the movie, and the DP seems to have had an unusually large role in the finished project. Last Life is also notable for a rare acting cameo by director , who does well as a yakuza boss. Miike, of course, directed Last Life star Asano in Ichi the Killer. If you’re looking for a truly international film production, you can’t get much more cosmopolitan than this: a Thai setting and director, a Japanese star, an Australian cinematographer known for his work in Hong Kong, and the whole thing was partially funded with French and American money. They even speak three languages in the movie: Thai, Japanese, and English (although Asano and Boonyasak’s English accents sometimes made me anxious to return to the subtitles).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The closest thing to entering a dream state at the movies right now is watching ‘Last Life in the Universe’…”–Charles Taylor, Salon (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “CoinLocker.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

AKA Uncle Boonmee

“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before  me.”—Title card at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

FEATURING: Thanapat Saisaymar, , Sakda Kaewbuadee, Kanokporn Tongaram

PLOT: On his plantation in rural Thailand, the dying Boonmee is visited by living relatives and the ghosts of his past. As they ease him into death, the story is interrupted through vignettes that may represent his memories of past lives.

BACKGROUND:

  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul considerately refers to himself as “Joe” when speaking to Western audiences.
  • Uncle Boonmee is loosely based on a 1983 book by Phra Sripariyattiweti, a monk from Apichatpong’s hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand.
  • The film is a feature-length component of Primitive, Apichatpong’s ongoing multimedia project, which also encompasses a number of video installations and the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua.
  • Received the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Jury president Tim Burton described it as “a beautiful, strange dream.”
  • Sakda, who plays Boonmee’s nephew Tong, and Kanokporn, who plays his nurse Roong, played characters of the same names in Apichatpong’s earlier films Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours, respectively. In both cases, it’s unclear if they’re meant to be the same characters.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s chock-full of beguiling, whimsical imagery, the single most memorable sight in Uncle Boonmee is that of a princess in a lagoon, undulating with pleasure as she receives oral sex from a catfish. (Unsurprisingly, the words “catfish sex” became synonymous with Uncle Boonmee‘s brand of weirdness immediately following its Cannes premiere.)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Critics sometimes identify Apichatpong’s style as a mix of


Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

surrealism and neorealism, and this is a handy skeleton key for getting at Uncle Boonmee‘s weird nature. The film contains plenty of enigmatic images and seeming non sequiturs, but they’re framed as natural, even welcome steps in the cycle of life and death. The characters accept them nonchalantly, going along with the film’s dream logic and implicitly entreating viewers to do the same. No clear border separates the mystical from the mundane. And two hours in, when it feels like you should be totally inured to Uncle Boonmee‘s disorienting twists, along comes a denouement that renders everything else normal by comparison.

COMMENTS: An ox, having escaped its tether, strolls through the forest at twilight.  Eventually, Continue reading 100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)