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March 29, 2008

Fun Bar Karaoke

fun bar karaoke 1.jpg

Fan Ba Karaoke
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang - 1997
Solar Marketing VCD

The original Thai title is said to translate as "Dream Crazy Karaoke". Pen-Ek Ratanuruang's debut is a movie about dreams, and at one point a dream about movies. The influence of Jim Jarmusch's deadpan humor is very evident as well as one scene that seems inspired by Michael Madsen's deadly dance in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Pen-Ek's background in advertising is very much at play with a scene of a photo shoot for a face cream, part of the action taking place in a 7-11, and some unusual product placement for Coca-Cola. There are a couple of scenes of people dancing, not dance numbers per se, but still it suggests that it would most likely be Pen-Ek who might create the great Thai musical.

Many of the elements of Pen-Ek's future films are already in place. Characters are connected to each other in ways they don't expect while the family unit is often fractured. One of the characters, a young man named Noi, is a small time gangster whose dream is to walk away from that life. The film is in part about the clash between traditional Thai beliefs and like in modern, crowded and international Bangkok.

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That Fun Bar Karaoke is currently only available on a frequently unavailable VCD belies the film's historical importance. Pen-Ek's film was one of the first films to bring attention to Thailand by western film critics, and helped kick off the era of younger Thai filmmakers who were college educated, and often studied abroad. In terms of an era of Thai cinema that seems to have been curtailed following the 2006 military coup, to not have a better version of Fun Bar Karaoke available is almost the equivalent to not having the first feature of Claude Chabrol or Francois Truffaut.

As the title play on words indicates, this is a film about a part of Thailand that is not strictly Thai. Thailand's history is one of resistance and absorbing of Anglo-American, Japanese and Chinese influences. As such, Fun Bar Karaoke is a reflection of the changes in Thai identity. Even the soundtrack incorporates this cultural meshing with Thai pop music as well as a song by Nina Simone (an American woman with a French stage name). Pen-Ek's films reflect the push and pull of identity with characters either going further into the country, that is to say deeper into Thailand and Thai identity, or leaving Thailand altogether. Fun Bar Karaoke begins with the beautiful image worthy of a Minnelli or Donen, with two characters dancing together in a totally white studio, the first of the dreams within the film. The real life dreams that the characters achieve in the end are far more mundane. I hope that Fun Bar Karaoke gets the kind of DVD treatment it deserves. Almost in advertising fashion, Pen-Ek's first film is that of someone who developed his style before fully articulating what he had to say.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 29, 2008 12:05 AM


I just got this, too!

Posted by: Curtis at March 29, 2008 01:28 PM

I like FUN BAR KARAOKE very much. I even prefer this film to 6IXTYNIN9 (1999, Pen-ek), TRANSISTOR LOVE STORY (2001, Pen-ek), or LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (2003, Pen-ek). I also like Fay Atsawet, the leading actress, very much. I regret that she didnít star in more films.

I agree with you that FUN BAR KARAOKE is historically important. Personally, I think the year 1997 is the most important year for my Thai-film watching activity. The year 1997 is not only a year of FUN BAR KARAOKE and DANG BIRELEY AND THE YOUNG GANGSTERS (1997, Nonzee Nimibutr), which helped reviving Thai cinema, but also the year of the FIRST BANGKOK EXPERIMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL, which showed a short film of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and two short films by Sasithorn Ariyavicha. 1997 is also the year of the FIRST THAI SHORT FILM FESTIVAL, which showed short films of many Thai directors who later went on to direct some feature films, such as Boonsong Nakphoo and Witthaya Thongyooyong. I think Soraya Nakasuwan, who directed FINAL SCORE (2007), might have a short film screened in the STUDENT FILM FESTIVAL in 1997, but Iím not sure about that.

I think you have made a very apt comparison. Maybe 1997 for Thai cinema is like 1959 for French cinema.

Posted by: Celinejulie at April 1, 2008 09:18 AM