The festival must go on

A scaled-down Bangkok Film Festival provides welcome relief from the real-life dramas nearby, writes Sheila Johnston
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The Independent Culture

Last month, in a blaze of publicity, a swanky Japanese restaurant opened at Bangkok's Marriott Hotel. Its name: Tsunami. Days later, the real thing devastated Thailand's southern coast. Yet, on Sunday, the place was neither closed nor deserted. Instead, Thais and tourists alike were there, tucking into sushi and generally getting on with life.

Last month, in a blaze of publicity, a swanky Japanese restaurant opened at Bangkok's Marriott Hotel. Its name: Tsunami. Days later, the real thing devastated Thailand's southern coast. Yet, on Sunday, the place was neither closed nor deserted. Instead, Thais and tourists alike were there, tucking into sushi and generally getting on with life.

Bangkok's newspapers are still full of tales of the "catastrophe aftermath", yet the emphasis is on looking forward: "Disaster A Blessing In Disguise" ran one headline in yesterday's Bangkok Post. However, in such circumstances, the Bangkok International Film Festival was bound to take a back seat, and there was even talk of cancelling it altogether. "No one was comfortable with giving the impression of celebrating," says Craig Prater, the festival's executive director. But, with tourist numbers decimated, everybody is keen to demonstrate that the country is back up and running. "It's business as usual," Prater says. "Let's turn the page and get on with our lives.

"But," he concedes, "the scale-down this year was dramatic." And so, the festival kicked off quietly last week, on Siam Square in Bangkok's smart shopping district. A bevy of Thai TV starlets did their best to make up for the dearth of international names, while, in the tropical heat, staff rattled collection boxes for tsunami victims.

While Thai film directors complained of being sidelined at the festival's two previous editions, this year's screenings - always preceded by the national anthem and trailers paying homage to the royal family - provided plentiful opportunities to check out the local cinematic scene.

Of the films on show, The Shutter looks likely to travel westwards: American producers are already competing for the remake rights. Thailand's biggest hit last year, it is an immaculately shot, structured and acted ghost story about a callow young photographer haunted by a grisly secret from his past. The spirit world is a national obsession: "People e-mail each other ghost pictures, and there's a popular TV show about them," says Banjong Pisanthanakun, one of the film's two first-time directors.

Citizen Dog, a gaudy faux-naïf musical comedy about a village bumpkin who comes to Bangkok, is a more rarefied item. But its pedigree (director Wisit Sasanatieng, who made the camp musical Western Tears of the Black Tiger, and narrator Pen-ek Ratanaruang, whose Monrak Transistor and Last Life in the Universe were both released in Britain) means that the Dog will be patrolling the festival circuit. And, while the best thing about Sars War is the title, this cheesy comedy about Sars victims who turn into man-eating zombies, might well pop up, too, as a late-night cult movie.

Although between 40 and 50 movies are shot in Thailand each year, they have yet to make their mark globally. "Our cinema is in the process of finding its identity," says Pakpoom Wongpoom, the co-director of The Shutter. "We're not ready to be defined yet."

Two films about to be released in Britain underline his point. At one extreme is the action thriller Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior. No chance of a US remake for that one, unless Leonardo DiCaprio signs up for a crash course in Thai boxing, laments its director Prachya Pinkaew. At the other extreme is the opaque fable Tropical Malady, which got the jury prize in Cannes last year, but left audiences flummoxed. Thai film-makers are equally baffled. "Even well-educated people didn't understand it," Pisanthanakun says. "Most of us aren't serious. We just want to enjoy life."

The easy-going Thais love to have a good time at the movies, and upbeat stories predominate: even one of last year's hits, The Letter, a weepy in which a city girl falls for a country botanist who proceeds to die of a brain tumour, ends on an hopeful note.

One thing that we won't be seeing any time soon is a Thai tsunami movie. Ric Lawes, an Australian producer based in Bangkok and touting for finance for one, explains: "As Buddhists, Thais don't highlight tragedy." Pisanthanakun agrees. "It's much too soon to tell that story. But I guess Hollywood will do it one day."

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