Bangkok - January 2005
Would it be obscene to hold the Bangkok International Film Festival weeks after the Thai coast below the country’s capitol had been done in by the tsunami? A decision was made: the show would roll on, January 13-24, bankrolled mostly by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. However, the Opening Night celebration was cancelled, and profits from the festival were announced as going to tsunami aid. As for the much-anticipated appearance of the Thai royal family at the Closing Night: Princess Uboltrana wouldn’t be attending this year, as even she was mourning her late son, who had been vacationing by the ocean.
The lavish festival moved ahead, with a thoughtful tribute to cinematographer Roderigo Prieto (Frida, 21 Grams, Amores Perres, etc.) and mini-retrospectives of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas and our Oliver Stone, the latter a local celebrity for having shot Alexander extravaganza in the Thai countryside. A "career" award was bestowed on schlock maestro, Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Batman Forever, Phone Booth, etc.), who could unveil his dubious-achievement The Phantom of the Opera as a Gala Premiere film without fear of chortling: the Thai citizenry are famously kind and polite.
David Hockney, pegged to discuss his art-theory videos, was a no-show because, he informed the festival, he couldn’t get a visa to Thailand for his boyfriend. "I told him, David, don’t worry, you can find plenty of boyfriends in Bangkok," a fest organizer confided. Maybe he was put off by the travel time to Thailand? It couldn’t have been worse than mine: with woeful connections, 36 hours from Boston’s Logan, including a surrealist 3 AM switching of planes in Fairbanks, Alaska, where reindeer sausage was on the early-bird breakfast menu.
But what’s to gripe? I was president of the five-person International Critics Jury for the fest; and probably nowhere on earth is such a jury, organized by FIPRESCI, the international critics organization, treated with such supreme respect. We stayed at a five-star hotel, swam in the pool between screenings, ate wherever we wished in tasty, spicy Bangkok restaurants, and were each given an eager, no-attitude college student to attend to our needs. (Oh, the guilty-pleasure allure of neo-colonialism!) Besides touring sacred Buddhist sites, my jury had ample time to discuss world politics. "Don’t worry: I hate George Bush," I assured them. "I can understand primitive religious people in the world being tricked and manipulated, but why educated Americans?" my Serbian juror inquired about George W. support. Damned if I could answer him. "Do you own a gun?" my Indian juror blurted out one day. "All Americans I see in movies pull out their guns." Nope, no pistol in my pocket residing in Cambridge.
Our jury duties were to select the best Southeast Asian film among fifteen candidates. We watched these, three a day, not in a plebian movie house but in a plush little theater at the side of a multiplex supplied with lean-back armchairs, blankets and pillows. On other days, rich Thais and foreigners can pay four times the normal movie price (about $10 instead of $2.50) to see movies so decadently. What’s playing in the regular multiplex? Hollywood reigns, naturally. What you get in Bangkok is exactly what you get in Boston: Closer, The Aviator, etc., and a huge blowup of Hillary Duff at the multiplex escalator.
In a lobby area where our jury went, between films, for tea and finger sandwiches, the walls sported silver-tinted ersatz paintings of American studio golden-age stars: Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, etc. Only one indigenous actor was represented, a someone adjoining Cary Grant unfamiliar to westerners. "He’s Mitr Chaibanya, our James Dean," explained my Thai juror, a historian of Southeast Asian cinema. "He was making a movie, Red Eagle, in 1970, and fell from a helicopter. He was doing his own stunts, as the rumor then was that he was getting less popular." I inquired about Chaibanya of our Thai student guides. They’d seen TV documentaries, but none of his now-ancient movies. And what did we watch? The first film we’d ever encountered from Burma, a naïve, inept work about some Burmese in Japan who learn that their homeland (no mention of the military occupancy) is where to be. Three horrid Phillipine melodramas. An intriguing Vietnamese neo-realist film about water-buffalo herders. The Letter, a fine Thai tearjerker with a husband dying of a brain tumor. Our winner? The Beautiful Washing Machine from Malaysia’s James Lee, a deadpan sex comedy somewhere between Bunuel and Tsai Ming-Liang.