Thursday, June 30, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011 Review: Jun Tsugita's "Horny House of Horror"

Horny House of Horror (Fasshon heru). 2010. Written and directed by Jun Tsugita. Produced by Hideomi Nagahama and Shin Hayasaka. Cinematography by Shin Hayasaka. Edited by Katsutoshi Usa and Jun Tsugita. Music by Piranha Orchestra. Art direction by Ryuji Hayakawa.

Cast: Saori Hara, Asami, Mint Suzuki, Yuya Ishikawa, Toushi Yanagi, Wani Kansai, Akira Murota, Demo Tanaka, Takashi Nishina.

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on VCinema.)

Jun Tsugita’s pink film/horror hybrid Horny House of Horror goes all Grand Guignol on us with its absurdly copious amounts of blood, which sprays with frequency and gleeful abandon.  As such, the film makes full use of the talents of gore effects master Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) to relate its tale of three hapless friends who fall into the clutches of the titular trap for randy male customers.  There is a soupcon of social commentary here, mostly dealing with the euphemistic nature of the sort of sex parlor that the film satirizes; as the animated opening tells us, these happy-ending massage emporiums are called “fashion health” centers to get around Japan’s anti-prostitution laws.  The film’s Japanese title, Fashion Hell, is a play on words: “hell”/”health.”  The purpose of this down-and-dirty, quickie exploitation flick (albeit given a 21st century digital sheen), is fairly straightforward: to titillate with its abundant female flesh, and to keep us in awe at how creatively flesh can rend and tear on screen.  As a horror film, it’s not really all that horrifying: there’s too much of a jocular air for that.  Much of the carnage is directed toward the vulnerable male member, the special target of the homicidal sex workers of the massage parlor.

The three victims are friends and amateur baseball players Nakazu (Yuya Ishikawa), Toshida (Wani Kansai), and Uno (Toushi Yanagi).  Nakazu has recently gotten married, and his friends incessantly rib him because of the cell-phone based short leash his wife keeps him on.  He professes to be a loyal and devoted husband, yet he doesn’t argue too strenuously when his friends drag him to Shogun, the massage parlor that will in short order become an insane charnel house of atrocity.  The three are matched up with Nagisa (Saori Hara), Nonoko (Asami), and Kaori (Mint Suzuki), the three girls of the house.  The pre-credits sequence shows Nagisa in action with another unfortunate client, who is subjected to a variation of sushi roll dining involving the man’s penis.  Think a variation of the denouement of In the Realm of the Senses (1976), but placed at the very beginning.  The three women are tasked with collecting the penises of their clients by their boss who monitors them through closed-circuit TV surveillance, for a reason that is never specified.  Much like Nakazu, who is slightly less of a pervert than his friends, Nagisa, the newbie sex worker, manages to retain the conscience and revulsion toward her work that her co-workers completely lack.  As the men very quickly cotton to the horrible predicament they have gotten themselves into, Nagisa switches sides and battles to escape from her workplace/prison.

The playing is as broad here as one would expect; Shakespearean-caliber performances are definitely not called for.  Hara, however, whose background is in hardcore pornography, gives some unexpected gravity to her character.  Asami, a veritable veteran of these kinds of films by now, is the force-of-nature spitfire she usually is, her tough-girl pose and her guttural screaming always fun to watch.  Tsugita, the screenwriter of Mutant Girls Squad (2010) making his directorial debut, delivers the sex-and-gore goods with maximum efficiency and minimum fuss.

A midnight movie if there ever was one, Horny House of Horror screens at exactly that time on July 1 (with a second screening on July 12 at 10:15pm), preceded by Makooto Ohtake’s short film Dark on Dark.  For tickets, visit the New York Asian Film Festival or the Film Society of Lincoln Center websites.

Monday, June 27, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011 Review: Panna Rittikrai and Morakot Kaewthanee's "BKO: Bangkok Knockout"

BKO: Bangkok Knockout. 2010. Directed by Panna Rittikrai and Morakot Kaewthanee. Written by Dojit Hongthong and Jonathon Siminoe. Produced by Prachya Pinkaew, Akarapol Techaratanaprasert, and Panna Rittikrai. Cinematography by Pipat Payakka and Nontakorn Taweesook. Edited by Saravut Nakajud and Nontakorn Taweesook. Music by Terdsak Janpan. Art direction by Pongnarin Jonghawklang. Production design by Kasi Faengrod. Action choreography and stunt co-ordination by Thana Srisook. Martial choreography by Sumret Muengput. Sound FX and sound design by Snowman Studio. Costume design by Jaruwan Pongpipattanakarn.

Cast: Sorapong Chatree, Supaksorn Chaimongkol, Kiattisak Udomnak, Pimchanok Leuwisedpaiboon, Patrick Kazu Tang, "Fighting Club", Speedy Arnold.

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on VCinema.)

BKO: Bangkok Knockout, the title of Panna Rittikrai and Morakot Kaewthanee’s kinetic B-movie action spectacular, is an unabashedly crude and blunt statement of purpose, much like the film itself.  And what is that purpose? To pummel you into submission and keep you continually in awe at the stable of martial artists Rittikrai has put together, blowing past the paper-thin plotting and characterization, the broad, cartoonish humor, and the generally unsubtle nature of the proceedings.  And at that it succeeds swimmingly.  Rittikrai, fight choreographer and sometime director, has mentored such Thai action stars as Tony Jaa (the Ong Bak films) and Jeeja Yanin (Chocolate, Raging Phoenix).  Bangkok Knockout functions as a virtual audition for film audiences, or, more pertinently, a battle between these fighters as to who can be a worthy successor to, or competitor with, those two established stars.

The film rather impatiently breezes through its setup.  A bunch of fighters are lured into a competition with a tantalizing prize dangled in front of them: the promise to be stunt performers in Hollywood.  Instead, after a huge banquet with drugged food, they find themselves in a cavernous warehouse, the unwitting action figures in a human video game hosted by an arrogant, cigar-chomping American (played by an actor with the amusing name Speedy Arnold), and their arranged battles bet upon by farang high-rollers.  There’s a bit of a romantic love triangle between three of the fighters, and a similarly underdeveloped revenge story between two other fighters, but who gives a damn about any of that?  The film certainly doesn’t; the bulk of its running time is devoted to the ever more elaborately choreographed, outrageous, and dangerous fights – this is certainly a production that knows what its audience wants and delivers exactly that, with direct, uncomplicated brio.  Bangkok Knockout affords us such sensational sequences as: a metal-masked, ax-wielding man on fire; two men smashing each other through an indoor waterfall; two others swinging on a dizzyingly high beam over a highway; and most audaciously, the climactic fight that occurs underneath the chassis of a moving truck. Muay Thai, capoeira, kung fu, tai chi, and any number of other fighting styles – this film has it all, and more.  Critical evaluation is almost beside the point for a film like this; the coolness of the fight scenes is both means and end.  If pure martial-arts demonstration is your thing, unencumbered by such niceties as plot, complex characterization, and actual acting, then Bangkok Knockout is just what the cinema doctor ordered.

BKO: Bangkok Knockout screens at the Walter Reade Theater on July 2 at 12:15pm and July 9 at midnight. For tickets, visit the New York Asian Film Festival's website.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Blissfully Thai" Review: Wisit Sasanatieng's "Tears of the Black Tiger"

Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah talai jone). 2000. Written and directed by Wisit Sasanatieng. Produced by Nonzee Nimibutr. Cinematography by Nattawut Kittikhun. Edited by Dusanee Puinongpho. Music by Amornbhong Methakunavudh. Production design by Ek Iemchuen. Art direction by Akradech Keaw Kotr and Rutchanon Kayangnan. Costume design by Chaiwichit Somoboon.

Cast: Chartchai Ngamsan (Seua Dum, "Black Tiger"), Stella Malucchi (Rumpoey), Supakorn Kitsuwon   (Mahasuan), Arawat Ruangvuth (Police Captain Kumjorn), Sombati Medhanee (Fai), Pairoj Jaisingha (Phya Prasit), Naiyana Shiwanun (Rumpoey's maid), Kanchit Kwanpracha (Kamnan Dua, Dum's father), Chamloen Sridang (Sgt. Yam).

Asia Society's essential "Blissfully Thai" film series continues with Wisit Sasanatieng's deliriously psychedelic classic Thai cinema homage Tears of the Black Tiger, screening tomorrow at 6:45pm.  For tickets, click here. Below is what I wrote on this film at the time of its extremely belated 2007 US release.

“Nostalgia as future shock,” is how the press notes describe Tears of the Black Tiger, the debut film from Thai writer-director Wisit Sasanatieng.  The first Thai film chosen for the Cannes Film Festival, it was purchased by Miramax shortly after its Cannes screening in 2001, but – as was so often the case, especially with their Asian film acquisitions – Miramax proceeded to agitate and frustrate the film’s potential audience by holding back its theatrical release, forcing fans to troll the Internet to search for English-subtitled imports.

Sasanatieng is a major player in the renaissance of Thai cinema that began in the late ‘90s, which also includes Tears of the Black Tiger’s producer Nonzee Nimibutr (Nang Nak, Jan Dara), Pen-ek Ratanaruang (6ixty9, Monrak Transistor, Last Life in the Universe), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady), and Hong Kong-born brothers Oxide and Danny Pang (Bangkok Dangerous, The Eye). Many of these filmmakers (with the exception of Weerasethakul, whose background was in avant-garde film and gallery installations) began in advertising, and Sasanatieng is no exception. He experimented in his commercial work with much of the wild visual tropes and super-saturated coloring featured in his film.

Consisting of equal parts Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and the palimpsests of numerous 50’s and 60’s Thai action films, Sasanatieng’s film brilliantly combines cutting-edge technology (much of the film’s bright pastel colors were digitally added in post-production) with nostalgia for the popular cinema of Thailand’s recent past. Tears of the Black Tiger boldly jettisons realism in order to create a uniquely cinematic universe. Making use of such retro-cinema techniques as painted sets, back projection, iris shots and wipes, Sasanatieng has created a visually stunning and self-aware pop artifact. There is a quite bracing spirit of formal playfulness that is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino. One great example occurs during the opening shootout, in which the two central gunslingers, attired in the archetypal costumes of Hollywood Westerns, battle seemingly dozens of other gunmen. These antagonists are dispatched en masse, punctuated with enormous, and absurdly fake, bright red squibs of blood. After the film’s hero kills one of them with a bullet that ricochets off several surfaces before landing right between his eyes, a title card appears: “Did you catch that? If not, we’ll play it again.” The sequence then replays at a slightly slower speed and from a different angle, allowing us to follow the bullet’s trajectory. This sort of genre parody/homage is in abundance throughout the film.

The film’s plot is unabashedly melodramatic: Dum (Chutchai Ngamsan), the son of a poor peasant farmer, falls in love with Rumpoey (Stella Mallucci), the daughter of the local governor. Class differences conspire to keep them apart, culminating in Rumpoey’s unwilling betrothal to police captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth). During his time apart from Rumpoey, Dum has become a bandit, the titular “Black Tiger,” infiltrating the gang who murdered his father in order to avenge that death. When he learns of the gang’s plan to ambush the governor’s house on Rumpoey’s wedding day, Dum must battle both his romantic rival and his former compadres in order to save her.

This “pad thai Western,” to use critic Chuck Stephens’ description, was conceived as an homage to Thai genre film master Rattana Pestonji, an independent filmmaker active in the ‘50’s and ‘60s who has now been mostly forgotten, both in and out of Thailand. Perhaps this film will encourage repertory houses and film societies to seek out this director’s work, which at least on paper seem to be long overdue for rediscovery. However, Tears of the Black Tiger is not simply an empty post-modern exercise. The obvious affection with which Sasanatieng regards his Thai cinema forbears, not to mention the Western films that influenced them, permeates every aspect of this production. Simultaneously retro and futuristic, Tears of the Black Tiger is a feast for the eyes and ears, an orgy of riotous color and movie-mad delight.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Breaking the Waves: The Films of Zero Chou" at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Taiwanese director Zero Chou is one of the more interesting talents to emerge in recent world cinema.  A former journalist who moved into documentary filmmaking in the late 90’s, she is also, by all indications, the only openly lesbian filmmaker in Taiwan.  She works very closely with her life partner Hoho Liu, who also serves on her films as cinematographer and co-editor.  Chou has a distinctively allusive style that freely shifts between realism, dream imagery, and fantasy, an intensively sensual eye that is attuned to human desire in all its forms, with a special sympathy for those who exists on society’s margins.  She has been deservedly acclaimed for her films: Splendid Float won the best Taiwan Film award at the 2004 Golden Horse Film Festival, and Spider Lilies won the Teddy Award for best LGBT themed film at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival.  Five of Chou’s features will screen from June 7 through the 30th at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, in a series called “Breaking the Waves: The Films of Zero Chou,” organized by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York. All screenings are free, and Zero Chou will appear in person for introductions and Q&A's at the screenings of Wave Breaker (June 7) and Spider Lilies (June 9).

Corner’s (2001)

This impressionistic documentary about a gay bar in Taipei has many levels, beginning with the voiceover by Hoho Liu (Chou’s partner, co-editor and cinematographer), which is in French.  Running throughout the film, this voiceover reflects the feelings of displacement felt by many of the subjects of the film.  Mandarin is inadequate to express the feelings Liu wants to express; French gives her the proper words in which to do this.  Corner’s is a place where, as one subject says, the patrons can “relax” and freely be who they are.  It is a respite from the strictures of conventional society, and the coming of the dawn is a dreaded event, meaning a return, for some, to hidden desires and concealed sexual lives.  In one striking sequence, people exit the club into the street, but the framing makes it seem like they are all entering dark closets.  The bar was closed after a police raid, so the film also represents a memorial to this place, and what it meant to those who patronized it.  There is a very sensual passage in which two women, whose faces we don’t see, are in the process of making love, and as is the case with the film itself, it is a powerful affirmation of desire in the face of societal opposition.  The name of the bar itself represents marginalization, being in the corners of society, rather than out in the open.

(June 30 at 6:30pm)

Splendid Float (2004)

The theme of dual lives in Corner’s carries over to Splendid Float, Chou’s second fiction feature and the first in her “Rainbow Colors” series of films, each of which is defined visually by a key primary color, in this case, yellow.  This is the color of a T-shirt worn by Sunny, the lover of the protagonist Roy (James Chen), a novice Taoist priest by day and a drag performer, named Rose, at night.  Rose performs with a troupe of fellow performers on a traveling float that performs in a different location each night.  One night when the truck the float is mounted on breaks down, Rose first meets Sunny (I-chin Zhuon), a very handsome surfer type, at a roadside café.  Almost instantly, they act on their attraction to one another, but almost as quickly, they must part from one another.  Their separation is sealed shortly afterward when Sunny mysteriously dies by drowning.  Torn apart by grief, Rose finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the two separate lives he leads, and he embarks on a quest to learn why Sunny left so suddenly, and throughout the film, he communes with Sunny’s ghost.  The narrative is deliberately slim and spare, all the more to concentrate on how Rose grapples with grief, and there are frequent sequences of the drag group performing to appreciative audiences.  The film floats freely between the past and present, frequently superimposing time periods visually on top of one another; this is a stylistic hallmark of the entire trilogy.  Splendid Float beautifully captures not only the sadness Rose feels, which he expresses through his performance, but the camaraderie that exists among the family of performers that surrounds him, and which provides an anchor and source of comfort that the world outside this nurturing environment lacks.  One of Rose’s fellow performers jokingly expresses dread at the coming of the dawn, in which they will no longer be beautiful women, but horrifying hags, transformed by the harsh light of day.  The film is awash in glittering rainbows of color that express a hopeful quality in the midst of grief, loneliness, and despair.

(June 16 at 6:30pm)

Spider Lilies (2007)

Takeko (Isabella Leong) and Jade (Rainie Yang), the two women at the center of Spider Lilies, Chou’s intricately layered second feature (the “green” section of her “Rainbow Colors”), have retreated into worlds of their own making as an escape from loneliness and trauma.  Their destinies have become intertwined as the result of a massive earthquake that figures in both their pasts.  Jade works as a web-cam girl on a sex site, broadcasting from her bedroom, a room adorned with beaded curtains, dolls, and plush fabric to give the illusion of a girlish boudoir.  Just beyond Jade’s camera frame, and unseen by her customers, her room is a drab dwelling, the walls stained and peeling.  She also lives with her senile grandmother, who in a funny early scene, wanders into the room during one of her web-cam sessions.  At the suggestion of a customer who says she should get a sexy tattoo, Jade finds her way to the tattoo studio run by Takeko, and she requests a pattern of spider lilies that adorns the wall of the studio, and matches a tattoo on Takeko’s own arm.  Takeko refuses, saying the pattern is cursed.  Jade and Takeko first met years ago; Jade remembers their first encounter, but Takeko doesn’t (or claims not to remember).  Jade invites Takeko to visit her website, and later excitedly relates on her next web-cam session the story of how they met, hoping that Takeko is one of her online viewers.  The film frequently flashes back to both of their pasts, and the earthquake in which they both lost family; Takeko lost her father, and Jade (supposedly) lost her mother.  Takeko has retreated into her own world just as Jade has, though her meticulous attention to her tattooing art, spending hours creating designs for her customers and keeping diaries on her creations and who is wearing them.  Her tattoo matches her father’s, and she wears it as a unique form of therapy for her younger brother Ching (Shen Jian-hung), who witnessed the earthquake and lost his memory of his identity as a result.  Meanwhile, David (Kris Shie), a vice cop assigned to investigate and plan a raid of Jade’s website, has fallen in love with her and delays the investigation as much as possible. 

Chou freely melds fantasy and reality, the present and the past, and interior and exterior worlds, to create a very complicated story that is far more elaborately plotted than Splendid Float.  The discursive, roundabout style of storytelling here allows Chou to fully explore how members of societal subcultures – online sex workers, tattoo artists, gangsters – plot out their lives on the margins, making worlds much richer than that of the larger society that marginalizes them.  While the themes of lesbian desire Chou presents here may be familiar ones, Chou and cinematographer Hoho Liu’s sensually-charged images and bold juxtapositions elevate the experience into an aesthetically intense one.

(June 9 at 6:30pm, director intro/Q&A)

Drifting Flowers (2008)

The “red” section of “Rainbow Colors,” Drifting Flowers is a decades-spanning triptych exploring the romantic and emotional lives of three women at varying stages of their lives, grappling with love, desire, and longing.  This film pulls back from the dreamy and allusive style of Chou’s previous features, adopting a more realistic and less stylistically adorned filmmaking style.  While Hoho Liu’s cinematography is as lovely as ever, the choice to ground the film more in objective reality exposes its themes as overly familiar, and its issues are too much on the surface and lack the intricate depth of Splendid Float and Spider LiliesDrifting Flowers remains compelling, however, due to its strong performances and evocative visuals.  The three sections of the film are connected by a train passing through a dark tunnel, on which some of the major characters happen to be traveling.  It’s a familiar metaphor, but appropriate one for the life passages all the characters go through in the course of their narratives. 

Each section is named for the character it focuses on. Two of these characters are May (Pai Chih-ying) and Diego (Chao Yi-lan), who we meet at two stages in their lives.  Eight year-old May lives with her blind sister Jing (Serena Fang), who works as a bar singer, with Diego as her accordion and piano accompaniment.  Diego’s butch appearance causes May to ask her, “Are you a boy or a girl?”  This question gets variously asked by, and of, different characters throughout the film.  Diego eventually begins a romantic relationship with Jing, which makes May jealously angry, though she is unsure why she feels that way at this young age.  May’s schooling is affected by being kept up all night and sleeping at the bar, since Jing is raising May on her own.  After May angrily sends Jing on a dangerous trip outdoors by herself, after having witnessed Jing and Diego kissing the night before, Jing is compelled to leave May permanently with foster parents.  The foster mother asks Jing and Diego to stay away from May, since she feels that the environment “isn’t good for a young girl.”  The tragedy of the story is that the confluence of May’s jealous feelings and society’s prejudice and strictures drive these sisters apart.  Diego’s section, the final part of the film, details her life before she met Jing, exploring her gender confusion and grappling with her attraction to women and her wish to look less like a typical girl.  This causes conflict with her mother, who tries to get her to conform to a girlish appearance, and her brother, who objects to Diego inheriting any part of the family puppet-show troupe.

The middle section focuses on Lily (Lu Yi-ching), an old woman with Alzheimer’s at a nursing home, who is visited by Yen (Sam Wang), a gay man who is Lily’s legal husband.  Years earlier, they got married to appease their families, while pursuing secret same-sex relationships.  Lily in her senility mistakes Yen for her lover, who died years before.  Yen is HIV-positive, but refuses to take his medicine because of their vicious side effects.  Yen has lost the will to live because of his illness and a cheating younger lover.  The film’s last section flashes back on a younger Lily (Herb Hsu), who works as a showgirl on an outdoor stage.  The younger Lily encounters the younger Diego, whose family’s puppet troupe is losing customers to Lily’s titillating stage show.

Drifting Flowers shares its languorous pace and melancholy mood with other Taiwanese cinema stalwarts such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, although Zero Chou’s style is more accessible than either of them.  The presence of Lu Yi-ching, a regular actor for Tsai, reinforces this connection.

(June 23 at 6:30pm)

Wave Breaker (2009)

A project made for Taiwanese television, Wave Breaker, Chou’s latest feature, departs from the gay and lesbian themes of her previous features, though it is consistent with those other films in its intense identification with those who are different from the larger society.  Hao-yang (Yao Yuan-hao), a teacher and surfer, is stricken with spinocerebellar ataxia, a physically debilitating disease that seems similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, inherited from his late father.  Hao-yang’s mother, Shen Li-ping (Xu Gui-ying), a councilwoman, is determined not to let his son die the way her husband did, and insists on putting him in extensive physical therapy, even as Hao-yang’s condition gets progressively worse.  As opposed to model son Hao-yang, younger brother Hao-ting is a continual disappointment to his mother, pursuing a music career and refusing to get a regular job, preferring to drive a cab.  Wave Breaker, much like Chou’s other films, approaches its narrative in a temporally non-linear way, beginning with Li-ping taking Hao-yang to drown in the sea as an act of assisted suicide, and backtracking to show what led up to this event.  Although the film never transcends its status as a “disease-of-the-week” TV movie, it admirably avoids false uplift and refuses to offer inspirational platitudes, showing us the weight of unavoidable tragedy.

(June 7 at 6:30pm, director intro/Q&A)

Friday, June 3, 2011

"Blissfully Thai" Review: Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Monrak Transistor"

Monrak Transistor. 2001. Written and directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang, based on the novel by Wat Wanlayangkoon. Produced by Nonzee Nimibutr and Duangkamol Limcharoen. Cinematography by Chankit Chamniwikaipong. Edited by Patamanadda Yukol. Music by Amornbhong Methakunavudh and Chartchai Pongprapapan. Production design by Saksiri Chuntarangsri. Costume design by Sombatsara Teerasaroch. Sound design by Amornbhong Methakunavudh.

Cast: Supakorn Kitsuwon (Pan), Siriyakorn Pukkavesh (Sadaw), Black Phomtong (Yot), Somlek Sakdikul (Suwat), Porntip Papanai (Dao), Ampon Rattanawong (Siew), Prasit Wongrakthai (Sadaw's father), Chartchai Hamnuansak (Prison guard).

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s melodramatic musical Monrak Transistor tells the sad, pathetic tale of Pan (Supakorn Kitsuwon), an aspiring singer who, through a series of episodes detailing poor choices and colossal bad luck, is separated from his wife Sadaw (Siriyakorn Pukkavesh).  The film begins with Pan imprisoned and forced to excrete a stolen necklace he had swallowed earlier.  A prison guard, who happens to be from Pan’s home village, addresses the camera and tells the story of how he ended up in prison.  Pan’s story is one of the hoariest of tropes: that of the innocent country naïf who becomes corrupted by the bad old sinful city, in this case Bangkok.  But the charm of Monrak Transistor is that the film itself is very much aware of how hackneyed and maudlin that story is, so Ratanaruang impishly plays with it by utilizing narrative devices such as direct address to the camera, as in the prison guard narration, and several instances in which characters briefly give asides to the camera.  Another instance of this occurs in an early scene in which Pan sings to Sadaw in her room to demonstrate his love for her; a cutaway shows Sadaw’s angry father (who dislikes and distrusts Pan) listening in on the fully orchestrated song on the other side of the door.  Later in the film, in a sequence detailing Pan getting drafted into the military and sent to boot camp training, Pan and his fellow soldiers join in on singing “Mai Leum” (“Never Forget”), a famous Thai love song that becomes a repeated refrain in the film.  This song is reprised in a later scene, where some characters return from the dead to sing the song.

The film also has a lot of fun with the contrasts between the rural village and Bangkok, playing up these contrasts to a consciously absurd extent.  The outdoor concert, in which we are introduced to Pan as a featured performer on the stage, is populated with a large number of ducks and goats, who seem almost as numerous in the crowd as the humans.  Pan cures the back pain suffered by Sadaw’s father with an elaborate folk remedy with fanciful names.  This is the environment that surrounds and protects Pan and Sadaw, and is the source of their moral virtue.  The government breaks this bond by drafting Pan into the army, and this enforced separation is the catalyst for Pan’s precipitous downfall and Sadaw’s destitution and abandonment.  Pan’s pursuit of a singing career is also a corrupting influence, causing him to go AWOL from both the army and his family, and eventually leads to his incarceration.  What makes Pan such a pathetic figure is the fact that so much of what happens to him is a function of accident and happenstance.  He is almost never an active agent.  Whether he has to mop floors for two years in pursuit of his professional singing debut, is propositioned by a skeevy impresario, or is falling into a vat of human excrement, he allows himself to be passively carried along on the tide of machinations done to him by others.  Pan always has our sympathy, but he never comes across as very smart.

Monrak Transistor is dedicated to, and is an homage to the spirit of, the famous luk thung (country music) singer Suraphol Sombatcharoen, whose song “Mai Leum” recurs in the film.  It has affinities to other Thai films by Ratanaruang’s contemporaries who also mined Thai cinema to fashion their own post-modern nostalgia reworkings.  One of them is Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (screening June 10 at Asia Society), a candy-colored “pad Thai Western” that is cannily referenced in Monrak Transistor; it is the film that plays in a scene at an outdoor theater.  (Tears also stars Monrak’s lead actor Supakorn Kitsuwon.)  Despite Ratanaruang’s cheeky stylistic games, Monrak Transistor retains a genuinely emotional core, helped in large part by its very attractive cast, including Kitsuwon and Pukkavesh as the central couple, and also the very striking Porntip Papanai as Dao, who becomes an alternate love interest for Pan. (Papanai also portrays the hotel maid in Ratanaruang’s Ploy.)  Inventive and beguilingly charming, Monrak Transistor – which premiered in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, and was Thailand’s 2002 foreign film Oscar submission – helped greatly to cement Thailand’s prominent place on the world cinema map at the turn of the millennium.

Monrak Transistor screens tonight at 6:45 at Asia Society as part of the film series “Blissfully Thai.” Click here to purchase tickets.