Ask about Thai filmmaker or movie critic of a certain age how they managed to see classic world cinema works in the age before Pirate Bay, they will likely admit they got their fix from Mr. Van, Bangkok’s legendary bootleg movie vendor.
He’s the subject of The Master, a new documentary by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, which was supported this year by the Asian Project Market of the Busan International Film Festival.
Named after the Thai word for his trademark eyeglasses, it was Mr. Van who opened the eyes of countless Thais to subtitled cinema in the 1990s and early 2000s, before bittorrent trackers and streaming video became the main way to see pirated movies.
Much as he did with his acclaimed experimental romance 36, which evoked memories of 36-exposure rolls of camera film, Nawapol is again looking back on a form of outmoded media. In the case of The Master, Nawapol hits the rewind button to a time before Blu-ray, DVDs or even VCDs, to when we watched movies on videotape.
In a promotional image for the film, the Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy director holds up his prized VHS copy of Run Lola Run.
Other directors also pose with their Mr. Van artifacts. Pen-ek Ratanaruang prizes his copy of Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 adaptation of The Idiot while Bangjong Pisanthanakun holds tight to Happiness, a 1998 drama by Todd Solondz.
Banjong credits Van’s videos as a big influence, and without them, his hit 2004 thriller Shutter might not have turned out the same. “He is my coming of age,” Banjong says.
Others include directors Songyos Sugmakanan and Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, and film critics Kittisak Suwannapokin, Prawit Taengaksorn, Manotham Theamtheabrat, Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn and Wiwat “Filmsick” Lertwiwatwongsa. Concert promoter Yuthana “Pa Ted” Boonorm and radio hosts Pongnarin Ulice and Pornchai Wiriyapraphanon also share of their time in the cult of Mr. Van.
“He helped establish independent cinema,” film critic Kong Rithdee says of Mr. Van, who brought in movies that generally weren’t distributed in Thailand. Since then, the indie cinema movement has gained a foothold, and the types of edgy movies he stocked are now more commonplace in Bangkok cinemas.
“He didn’t get rich from his shop. He created his shop because of his love of cinema,” Nawapol points out in promotional materials for The Master. “A coin has two sides. Movie piracy is illegal. It devastates filmmakers and movie industry. Still, it is difficult to judge whether Mr Van was morally right or wrong. The movie aims to show piracy cycle and its effects, both bad and good.”
It's at House on RCA. Please note, that due to technical issues, there are no English subtitles.
Saint Laurent – Bertrand Bonello directs this style-oozing biopic that chronicles the excesses and desires of the French fashion designer during the peak of his creativity from 1967 to 1976. Gaspard Ulliel stars as YSL with Jérémie Renier as his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé. Louis Garrel, Léa Seydoux and Amira Casar also star. This is the second film this year to explore the life of Saint Laurent, but unlike the earlier one, called Yves Saint Laurent, this was made without the cooperation of the fashion house. Nonetheless, it's France's official submission to next year's Academy Awards. Critical reception is mixed. It's in French with English and Thai subtitles. Rated 18+
Horns – Hung over from a night of hard drinking, a young man (Daniel Radcliffe) wakes up to find devilish horns growing from his head. They give him the power to make people confess their sins, which comes in handy as he tries to solve the mystery of his girlfriend's rape and murder, a crime for which he's the chief suspect. Juno Temple and Max Minghela also star. Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, Haute Tension) directs. Critical reception is mixed. Rated 18+
Jessabelle – Returning to her childhood home to Louisiana to recuperate from a horrific car wreck, a young woman (Sarah Snook) faces a long-tormented spirit that has been waiting for her return and has no intention of letting her leave. Critical reception is mostly negative. Rated 13+
Phee Thuang Khuen (ผีทวงคืน a.k.a. The Return) – Director Sakchai Deenan, who's built his career on cross-border productions like the Thai-Lao romance Sabaidee Luang Prabang moves further afield with this multi-strand horror tale that takes place in four countries. Touted as the first Asean Economic Community film, it has stories from Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. In Bangkok, a Lao housemaid is murdered. But when her sister returns with her body to Vientiane, she discovers their mother is possessed. In Siem Reap, a Thai police officer accidentally kills a Myanmar worker while in Myanmar a woman is unable to reach her husband who is working in Thailand. In true AEC spirit, the cast comes from all four countries – Thai actor Sirachuch "Michael" Chienthaworn, Sakchai's regular actress, former Lao beauty queen Khamly Philavong, Cambodian TV host Thon Lakana and Nutchnat Srithong, from Shan State, Myanmar. With perhaps a few exceptions, the soundtrack appears to be in Thai only with no English subtitles. Rated 18+
1448 Rak Rao Khong Khrai (1448 รักเราของใคร , a.k.a. Love Among Us) – Popular indie film actress Apinya Sakuljaroensuk (Concrete Clouds, Fin Sugoi) is a young woman who is mistreated by her boyfriend and catches the eye of a lady photographer (Issabella Lete). She slowly starts to accept romantic moves from the woman, but the two face obstacles from their families, who refuse to accept the relationship. Rated 15+
Sanya Hang Khimhun (สัญญาแห่งคิมหันต์, a.k.a. Summer to Winter) – Two lonely young men meet on a beach and quickly become friends, but their relationship is put to the test as friendship turns to romance. It's at Major Cineplex. No English subtitles. Rated 15+
Sur-Real (เกมส์พลิก / โชคชะตาเล่นตลก / รักตาลปัตร, Game Plik/Chokchata Len Talok/ Rak Talapad) – Three bawdy tales are intertwined in this indie sex comedy. They involve a conflict between a police officer, a garage owner and a taxi driver that ends in murder, a heartbroken man who happens to witness the murder, and another man who has mixed feelings when his transgender college friend marries a Westerner. It's at Apex Siam Square, Esplanade Ratchada and Major Cineplex Ratchayothin and Chiang Mai Central Airport Plaza. Rated 20-
Happy Ending – Saif Ali Khan and Ileana D'Cruz star in this Bollywood comedy about writer who's lived the high life in Los Angeles for years after his hit novel. Out of money and fighting writer's block, he's tasked with writing a hit movie for a fading star (Govinda), so he looks to a popular new writer on the scene for inspiration and romance. It's in Hindi with English and Thai subtitles at Major Cineplex Sukhumvit, Rama III and Pattaya.
The Friese-Greene Club – November winds down with just two regular screenings left. Tonight, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan launches the career of Kathleen Turner with the hot, hot, hot Body Heat. Tomorrow and Saturday, there's a special event, the sneak preview of a new documentary, We Shot the Rock and Lived by the Roll, about classic rock photographers of the 1960s and '70s. On Sunday, it's the classic horror The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. And it's Christmas all month in December, with a schedule filled with the type of Christmas movies you might not necessarily think of as Christmas movies, such as, for starters, Brazil, Gremlins, American Psycho, Lady in the Lake, In Bruges and The Hudsucker Proxy. Shows are at 8pm. The FGC is down an alley next to the Queen's Park Imperial Hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 22. There's just nine seats, so book them. Also, check the Facebook page for updates and program changes.
Alliance Française – Animation is featured this month, beginning with 2012's Le jour des corneilles (The Day of the Crows), a fantasy about a boy raised by an ogre of a father who prohibits the wild child from leaving their forest home. But after his father is injured in a fall, the boy ventures into the outside world. He encounters a village where he seeks help from a doctor and is drawn to the doc's young daughter. Jean Reno, Claude Chabrol and Isabelle Carré are among the voice cast. It's in French with English subtitles at 7pm on Wednesday, December 3. Take note, there will be no free film program on December 10; after that, the next show will be A Cat in Paris on December 17.
Films for His Majesty the King – With His Majesty the King's 87th birthday on December 5, there are many special film programs planned. Chief among them are free screenings of The Story of Mahajanaka, a Buddhist-inspired adventure tale written by His Majesty and released as an illustrated storybook and comic series. Virtually all of the Thai industry's animation studios have been at work to make the epic story into a cartoon feature. It'll screen for free at various Major Cineplex branches from this Saturday until December 6 and will also be shown on TV. For further details, please see the article in The Nation. Another project is by the Thai Phueng Thai Foundation of former politician Sudarat Keyuraphan, which supported the making of 10 short films about the King's virtues and duties. They include Baan Khong Boonmen directed by Attapporn Theemakron and starring Hong Kong movie actor Simon Yam. There is also the Thai Niyom project, initiated by junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha. With support by the Thai Film Director Association, it has 12 shorts by young helmers who aim to promote the military government's campaign to teach 12 core moral values to Thai youngsters. Both short-film packages will screen for free at various Major Cineplex branches on December 6 and will also be on TV. However, I have no information about how to obtain tickets.
Big Hero 6 – Riding high on the success of Frozen, Walt Disney Animation Studios offers this likely strong contender for the best animated feature Oscar. Adapted from a Marvel comic – a first for Disney since taking over Marvel – the story focuses on teen robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada, who forms a bond with Baymax, an inflatable personal care robot. Hiro transforms the awkward and bulky robot into a superhero who forms the core of a new team of crimefighters in futuristic San Fransokyo. Critical reception is overwhelmingly positive. It's in sneak previews with a couple rounds of shows from around 2pm daily at most places. It opens wide on December 4.
Finding Vivian Maier – For decades, a Chicago woman who worked as a nanny led a secret life as a street photographer, capturing more than 100,000 images in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Her treasure trove of work was uncovered by chance when three collectors bought some boxes of photos at an auction. Their effort to find out more about the incredible person who took them led them to folks who were cared for by Maier in their youth. Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, the documentary covers how Maloof discovered her work and, after her death, uncovered her life. Part of a new series at SF Cinemas called Doc Holiday, it's in sneak previews on Saturday ahead of more shows from December 5 to 7 and December 12 to 14.
I'm taking a break, so no new updates here until December 18.