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November 23, 2006

EU Film Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand

My original plan was to provide maximum coverage of the EU Film Festival. Life, as it often does, interfered. In this case, I got sick for a couple of days, my wife got sick, we moved from our one week home to what will be our home for the next four months, and we've had to spend some time purchasing various necessities. Additionally, I have no internet at the time of this writing except for today's visit to a world famous chain of coffee houses.

So here I am in Thailand writing about European films. My goal was to hopefully find some interesting films that needed to be covered. At the same time, I have to wonder what's really behind this film festival which seems to have a goal of selling the concept of the European Union to a Thai audience. The first problem is that the films I've seen featured characters so idiosyncratic, in environments not always the most inviting, that one would prefer to run from Europe and Europeans. The other problem is that most of the audience for these films, at least here in Chiang Mai, is made up of a sparse number of ex-pats and tourists. So again I have to wonder who is really benefiting from this show.

I should also note that even though these films are presented under the auspices of the European Union, like all movies shown in Thailand, one has to stand for a couple of minutes to pay respect to the King of Thailand, with a well-worn reel that precedes every film showing. The theater doors remain closed with audience members standing outside until the anthem is over before seating can resume.

Also, because this is Thailand, as is the custom in many places, while there are bathrooms, there is no toilet paper at the theater's facilities. You learn quickly when visiting Thailand to bring your own paper or a supply of one baht coins (assuming the vending machine can dispense the three sheets) or you are literally shit out of luck. This is also a multiplex that defies description, the best I can say is that it is a combination maze and mobius strip, Dr. Caligari meets M.C. Escher.

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Friday: The first film I saw Rain Falls on Our Souls, is about as sappy as the title would suggest. This film from Slovakia tries to make a statement about the horrors of institutions and conformity, cross-cutting between a prisoner, Joko, and a young school girl, Kika. Joko escapes from a hospital where he is receiving emergency treatment, and steals a car where Kika is hiding. The two go on a road trip, with Kika finding her faith while Joko finds freedom. Neither the story, nor the way it is filmed is in any way intersesting which is disheartening considering what filmmakers like Milos Forman and Ivan Passer did with greater restrictions.

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Bye Bye Blackbird is officially from Luxembourg, but is an English language British co-production. Centered around a circus in pre-World War I Europe, the film is a triumph of set design and camera angles. The main character, Josef, is a trapeze artist. Unlike Carol Reed's Trapeze which essentially filmed the action from the point of view of audience, the high wire acts in Blackbird are filmed with the artists breaking in and out of the screen, or using disorienting angles to suggest an environment literally less grounded for the performers. The film is less interesting on the ground. Josef is caught in a triangle with Anna, the starring trapeze artist and owner's daughter, and the mysterious gypsy, Nina. Against this is the story of the circus owner, an aristocrat by marriage, who sees his old way of life disappearing. Blackbird also becomes less interesting when it shifts completely into allegory, when Josef loses his ability to fly in his feathered costume, and remains with the circus as caged bird.

As the circus owner, Derek Jacobi is compelling as usual, a great actor who has never achieved the star status of some of his peers. Nina is played by Johdi May who first got noticed in 1988 in A World Apart. One of the clowns is portrayed by French actor Michael Lonsdale. The director, Robinson Savary received the 2005 Fipresci Prize for Best Director and will hopefully be heard from more decisively in the future.

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Less artistic but clearly more entertaining is Simon by Eddy Terstall. The comedy-drama gets some milage from the odd couple pairing of a straight, cheerfully obnoxious and decidedly non-PC drug dealer and a shy, gay dentist. The film is made up of flashbacks after Simon runs into Camiel, almost as he had fourteen years previously. The film pokes fun at Amsterdam drug culture, vacations in Thailand, and the Netherland's legalization of gay marriage. The narrative takes a more dramatic turn in examining Simon's life with brain cancer and his choice of euthenasia. The film concludes with the idea that life is essentially about taking chances, a point not to be missed with a shot of Simon taking a high dive from a cliff into a river.
While Simon can be argued to be a life affirming film, as part of this festival, this and the preceding films did little to sell me on wanting to go to what appeared to be strange countries populated by people who are mildly eccentric if not plain crazy.

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Tuesday: Maximum Velocity was at least as good as anything I covered at the Miami Beach Italian Film Festival last month, which is to say that at best it was mildly diverting. The story about a car mechanic who races on the side has been a film staple since at least Howard Hawks' The Crowd Roars. The mechanic, Stefano, takes on an apprentice, Claudio, who is more technically adept forcing Stefano to update his methods, and also helps create a faster race car. The film wants to be the Italian equivalent to the recent Fast and the Furious, but budget and technical restrictions make it closer to the Roger Corman movie of the same name. Again, citing the Hawks template, a girl gets between the bonding of the two guys. I was also reminded of Robert Bresson's L'Argent with its cause-and-effect display of unraveling relationships following each of the characters act of dishonesty. The film offers a different Italian locale with the beach setting of Ostia.

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Blue Moon is one of the rare road movies where the characters, and by extension, the audience, go in unexpected directions. A prostitute, Dana, and a courier, Johnny, steal their mutual client's Cadillac and head east from Austria through Slovakia. After Dana disappears, Johnny seeks her out, eventually winding up in the Ukraine where he discovers her twin sister, Jana. The film is something of a commentary on how historical events affect people personally, with characters seeking validation through money, religion or the memory of ideals - those of Lenin's U.S.S.R. or the dream of a place called America.

Posted by peter at November 23, 2006 03:29 PM

Comments

I attended this festival six and a half years ago (it was in the spring or early summer then). I never really figured out exactly why such a festival, but I enjoyed being able to take advantage of the opportunity. The line-up that year included Festen and la Promesse, neither of which I'd seen before.

I didn't realize your stay in Chaing Mai was going to be such an extended one. It's hard not to imagine how the city might be different from my memory of it by now.

Posted by: Brian at November 23, 2006 08:09 PM

oops, left out a word in that last comment. Namely, "existed", between "such a festival," and "but I enjoyed".

Posted by: Brian at November 26, 2006 01:47 PM