Heady visual spree

The 4th Bangkok Experimental Film Festival lived up to its aim of democratic excess

by Kong Rithdee, Bangkok Post, 30 December 2005

On the nippy evening last Friday, a section of Lumpini Park's lawns, luckily devoid of hungry mosquitoes, played host to the opening of "Bangkok Democrazy: The 4th Bangkok Experimental Film Festival (BEFF)". Absent from the modest ceremony attended by a small number of artsy cinephiles was Lord Mayor Apirak Kosayodhin, who had been scheduled to chair the event his Bangkok Metropolitan Authority sponsored, though a deputy was duly dispatched to the function to join the presence of guests and festival organisers Gridthiya Gaweewong and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

At a hand grenade throw's distance from this outdoor festival, Sondhi Limthongkul charged the air with his weekly anti-Thaksin harangue, and the climate of political dissent rubbed off, metaphorically perhaps, on the three-day cinefest where creativity at its most liberal, even radical, was warmly welcome.

Upon entering, one was struck by a surreal effect; the festival ground was transformed to resemble a space of installation art, with 10 large projector screens flickering among leafy trees, while a dozen more TV monitors ceaselessly fed images in a complementary supply to the attention-grabbing main screen, set up on the park's half-moon, roofless stage.

The simple act of focusing your attention on just one screen suddenly became challenging, as the simultaneous projection of a dozen titles at any given instance set off a heady visual spree. The festival showed 340 movies in total, and the inundation of stories and vignettes and fragments and provocations testified to its tongue-in-cheek notion of democratic excess - so-called Demo-crazy.

The highlight on the main screen during the three days was "Bangkok Utopia", a special programme which invited Bangkokians of different trades who had never made a movie before to shoot a short video based on their dream of our perfect capital. On December 23, the title that drew satisfactory giggles and discreet cheers was Senator Kraisak Choonhawan's six-minute Visual Pollution. Cleverly using basic Photoshop's eraser function, the senator showed us the hyper-urban images of Bangkok, all concrete and smog, but minus the teeming forests of advertising billboards that have colonised our capitalism-fed fields of sight.

The giggles came when the video displayed a giant billboard of the Thai Rak Thai party, presided over by the mugshot of the PM, and showed that this was the only billboard that refused to be erased from the city's skyline - and from the citizens' consciousness - like perpetual pollution that needs great effort to be rid of.

Other titles in "Bangkok Utopia" shown on December 23 included one made by a maid, called Sati Ma Panya Kerd (roughly meaning "wisdom comes with awareness"), a ground-level interview with community residents, and another one, called One Afternoon, by seven-year-old Peem Shaowanasai (though he didn't shoot the whole thing by himself), a candid home movie in which the boy went around asking his family members about their dreams of a utopian Bangkok.

On December 24, "Bangkok Utopia" featured works by two artists reputed for their wild expressionism: rock-singer Noi Sukosol Clapp and painter Wasant Sitthiket. Noi's short, called Time Traveller, is an oddball nostalgic trip that fuses confessional sentimentalism with old footage of bygone Bangkok in the age when the canals were clear and people sincere. It was an ethereal, deliberately pretentious work bled out of Noi's exquisitely reptilian persona.

Wasant, meanwhile, was not as outspoken in his seven-minute Bangkok Utopia as he usually is in his colourful paintings; nevertheless he cheerfully proceeded to demolish ugly skyscrapers of Bangkok with childlike, yet effective, computer effects. Cynicism and anger-fuelled humour remain a limitless source of energy for this wild man.

In the true spirit of experimental filmmaking, Buddhist monk W. Vajiramedhi mixes the kaleidoscope of Thai newspapers' sensational headlines with a voiceover sermon in a short called Wikroh Kao, Wikroh Tham (Analysis of News, Analysis of Dharma). Regardless of whether all the crazy ideas proposed here will edge the capital closer to a utopian state, the organisers promise to send the movies in this programme to our Bangkok governor for his own personal mulling over.

Among its diverse categories, the BEFF showcased the much-expected "X-treme programme", where off-limit vision was given a free reign. The screening took place separately at the auditorium of the October 14 Memorial on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, since the extreme content of some movies wouldn't befit a public showing at Lumpini.

I didn't see the entire programme, but a movie that seemed to make quite a number of dog-lovers in the audience squirm was the Vietnamese documentary Is It Easy to Kill/Pray?. The movie, by Sherman Ong, details the routine operations of a dog meat vendor, complete with scenes of slaughtering, skinning, and chopping up of various dogs, predictably accompanied by a lot of canine squealing. The movie tried to present this objectively as a cultural uniqueness, though I still sensed an undercurrent of sensationalism on the filmmaker's part.

That was unlike another doc on dog butchers (is that a cinematic trend in Vietnam?), called Better Than Friends, by American-born Vietnamese Tuan Andrew Nguyen, who adroitly turns this potentially nauseous subject into a gentle, humanist story. Tuan interviewed a couple who run a dog-meat business in Ho Chi Minh City, and was able to reveal everyday insights about these honest, hard-working people whose speciality is regarded with suspicion even by their own countrymen.

Penises and semen were also prominently featured in the X-treme programmes, and most of them from independent Thai directors working their voodoo at the fringe. Indie star Thunska Pansittivorakul showed three of his notorious shorts, the best of the lot being a surprisingly heartfelt Vous Vous Souviens de Moi? (Do You Remember Me?), a hushed, sci-fi-tinged dream-state that somehow manages to include both a shot of an erect penis as well as a feeling of profound melancholy. Yes, a melancholic penis - perhaps that's a bona fide definition of extreme, and experimental, cinema.