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Play It Again, Siam

Gods and monsters: Thai fest balances imports, local wares

BANGKOK, THAILAND—As hospitable and confounding as the city itself, the Bangkok Film Festival is, like so much else in Thailand, inseparable from tourism. Run by the country's tourism authority and programmed by a Los Angeles-based firm, this ever morphing event—which unspooled in a scaled-back, post-tsunami edition in January—seeks out a middle ground between domestic showcase and glamour importer. Hence the need to balance a retro of late local pioneer Vichit Kounavudhi with a career achievement award for Joel Schumacher ("known to some as 'the God of filmmaking,' " the catalog proclaimed, without attribution). Even to a casual observer, the festival seemed to operate at a suspicious remove from Bangkok's film community. Kong Rithdee, a critic at the English-language Bangkok Post, kicked off his coverage with a scathing editorial that called the festival "oblivious to its context," taking issue with the absence of Thai subtitles and the exclusion of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, the first Thai film to compete—and win—at Cannes.

Still, Thai cinema was more generously represented than in previous editions, and those hoping to sample the local wares had the option of shuttling between the multiplexes in the Siam Square mall nexus or heading to the DVD stores in those very malls, where most of the same titles could be snapped up for as little as $3 apiece. From the flashy eroticism of The Sin to the relentless tear-jerking of The Letter to the slick scare tactics of The Shutter, the big picture that emerged was one of an industry looking to measure global ascendancy not by festival prizes but by international deal making. As Thanit Jitnukul, director of Bang Rajan, put it at a panel of local filmmakers: "Our movies must talk to non-Thai audiences."

Ironically, the homegrown auteurs best known to non-Thai audiences were barely in evidence—one exception being Tears of the Black Tiger director Wisit Sasanatieng, whose Citizen Dog is a crazy-chroma love story about happenstance, karma, and the urban-rural dichotomy; Bangkok-based critic and Voice contributor Chuck Stephens has a pivotal role as a tie-dyed hippie. As for Apichatpong, who was off to the jungles to shoot a new short the week of the festival, he did turn up as the star of the most revealing movie here: the making-of doc Malady Diary, in which he oversees meetings in a Cahiers du Cinéma T-shirt, directs his actors to "act as if you're in a movie," participates in a pre-shoot prayer ceremony (presumably not to that God of filmmaking), and triumphs over mysterious financing woes. All in a year's work for a world-class artist who remains an outsider at home.

 
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