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Entertainment » Entertainment Scoop


As the city surveys the wreckage, a new set of movies represent a chance to be realistic and optimistic about Bangkok

Published: 17/04/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Realtime

Bangkok: charming, baffling, tricky, sleazy, delightful, rich, broke. And recently: smouldering, maddening, dividing, ill-omened. The idea of making a collection of movies called Charming Bangkok comes across as a brutal irony given the recent lunacy we've found ourselves in. But this is no irony; if done right, it will be a worthy attempt to be realistic and optimistic, an attempt to praise and to pan, to show the hidden layers and forgotten peoples of this angelic city we love and hate.

The production has been under way for some of the nine movies in the ensemble (except those that require the locations in and around the protest sites in the Old City). Saneh Bangkok, or Charming Bangkok - the producers are seriously considering changing the English title - is a project co-conceived a month ago by producer Saksiri Chantarangsi and TV Thai, the public broadcasting station that's gearing up to add fresh content after one year in service (see box).

By format television movies, the nine shorts, however, are designed to have the meat and matter of real films. In doing so, Saksiri has invited nine film directors to each create a 20-minute short about Bangkok as they see, dream, reflect, or imagine it. TV Thai plans to air the episodes in late June, and the possibility of releasing them in the cinemas is very likely.

What makes the ensemble a fine catch is the unprecedented gathering of nine filmmakers whose credits are largely formidable. Their mere names would actually spark interest even among international film distributors: Prachya Pinkaew (Ong-bak, Tom Yum Goong); Wisit Sasanatieng (Tears of the Black Tiger, Citizen Dog); Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Invisible Waves, Ploy); Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town); Chukiat Sakweerakul (The Love of Siam); Kongdej Jaturnrasamee (Handle Me With Care and screenwriter of Me, Myself and Happy Birthday); Bandit Rittakol (the Boonchu movies); Ruethaiwan Wongsirasawas (Wai Olawon 4); and Santi Taepanich (Crying Tigers, Bangkok Time).

"We think of Bangkok not just as a place, but as a concept, or as the representation of the people who live here," says Saksiri. "The nine directors we picked have a unique style and sensibility, and I hope their works here would become a visual archive of contemporary Bangkok - not just the beautiful Bangkok, but Bangkok as it really is."

Usually a 25-minute TV episode costs around 200,000 to 300,000 baht to make. Each short in Charming Bangkok has been allocated a million baht, a generous sum that will ensure the quality of the production. Thai TV has received partial support from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), who views the collection as a timely cultural expression and perhaps, now that the image of the city has gone up like the black smoke around Victory Monument, as a new promotional tool for global audiences.

An anthology of short films based on the character of a city is at once a gimmick and a means to filter the soul (or souls) of the place through disparate prisms. Paris has Paris Je t'aime, a collection of 20 shorts representing the 20 districts of the city. New York has New York Stories, three shorts made by three famed New Yorkers. Recently Tokyo had Tokyo!, in which three non-Japanese directors were asked to each make a short about the Japanese capital.

A scene from Sightseeing, starring Tantai Prasertkul and Bongkot Khongmalai, one of the nine films in the series.

The results can be a fluffy mishmash, like Paris Je t'aime, or eccentric, as in Tokyo!. But most significantly, these anthologies aren't tourism brochures; for such a project to capture the full dimensions of any city, the shorts must not shy away from the unsavoury aspects that make up the identity of the place.

The fact that Charming Bangkok was greenlighted not long before the Songkran fracas means the artists were committed to the stories before they'd had a chance to reassess their ideas after our embarrassing mess. The involvement of the BMA also raises the question of whether the collection would turn out to be pure advertising. Yet Takerng Somsap, head of programming at Thai TV, assures that the shorts will be an honest representation of Bangkok as the each filmmaker sees it.

"We asked these well-known directors to make the films because we know they have a clear idea about what the city is to them," says Takerng. "Every party involved understands that this is the best way to make the collection work."

Director Wisit Sasanatieng, who has finished shooting his episode called Sightseeing, says: "It's not my interest to shoot the landmarks of Bangkok. Instead we shot Bangkok as we see it, the nice and the not-so-nice. To me, this place is like any big city, we live here and we complain a lot, though the complaints aren't always valid."

Sightseeing, starring Bongkot "Tak" Khongmalai and Tantai Prasertkul, is the story of a blind woman who lives under a bridge. One day she runs into a man who claims to be an angel, who then takes her sightseeing around the city in which she lives but never actually appreciates.

Veteran Bandit Rittkol continues his bumpkin-in-the-big-city trope in the short Bangkok Turad Turae, roughly translated as "Bangkok Wanderers", about a farmer who wins a sum from the lottery and decides to take a trip to the capital with his wife. Pen-ek Ratanaruang will soon shoot his part, still untitled, about a female clubber (Vanida "Kifsy" Temthanaporn from Girly Berry) and her chance encounter with a stranger after her car breaks down on a deserted road on the outskirts of the city. Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, meanwhile, has Pee Makham, or "tamarind ghosts", a popular slang referring to the prostitutes around Sanam Luang.

Ruethaiwan Wongsirasawas on the set of Forgotten But Not Gone.

Aditya Assarat, whose Wonderful Town earned much praise last year, originally came up with a story set entirely in Pantip Plaza. But the building denied the request for location shooting, so the director is now preparing to film another short, about two men reflecting and remembering Bangkok and New York, starring Ananda Everingham and Louis Scotts.

Meanwhile Ruethaiwan Wongsirasawas, the only female director in the ensemble, casts Arak "Pe" Amornsupasiri in a nostalgic tale told through the window of a moving (not torched) bus. Her segment has already been shot.

Prachya Pinkaew is known as a filmmaker of action movies, but for the collection he's now editing a documentary containing his personal appreciation of Bangkok. Independent director Santi Taepanich, too, is shooting Dear Bangkok, a documentary featuring interviews with motorcycle taxi drivers, Chao Phraya ferrymen, dancers at Erawan shrine, transvestite prostitutes, security guards, monks, garland girls, migrant hilltribes, Thai-speaking expats, and the man who controls the lights at Democracy Monument.

"Bangkok is happiness and sadness in a mixed bag," says Santi. "People arrive here from everywhere, and they have different purposes and ideas about why they're here. Their dreams, happiness and memories of this place are also different, and that's what makes Bangkok what it is."

"Bangkok is not a very nice place at the moment," says producer Saksiri. "But this collection is about the people, and not just the city of Bangkok. We hope that there are still many other things in this city that are worth remembering and celebrating besides what we've seen in recent days."

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