The Bangkok International Film Festival Concludes: Fiveplay…”Phobia 2″

October 4, 2009

phobia2So, the last installment in our roundup of the Bangkok International Film Festival, comes from the host country of Thailand. No, it’s not Sawasdee Bangkok! the country’s official entry (fer chrissakes, that movie is 247 minutes long–I couldn’t watch Freema Agyeman bathe for 247 minutes…well, maybe…probably not…possibly…), no, instead we’re going to look at a scary little installment called Phobia 2 (or Haa Phrang in Thai—Five Crossroads). Phobia 2 is a series of five horror vignettes, directed by some of Thailand’s most successful commercial directors. As a general rule, I’m not a huge fan of vignettes—movies or TV shows—since by design they can’t delve too deeply into the worlds they present. In this case, as a horror-injection system, they work pretty well. It kept the girlfriend huddling against me in fright, and what more can you really ask of a horror film?

Segment 1: Novice—This is the best and my favorite segment of the film. In part, because of the gorgeous cinematography, but also because its connections to traditional Thai spirituality give it an added dimension of weirdness—at least it does to this farang. In Novice, Pey, a troublesome teenager is sent to a remote monastery after a petty act of vandalism leads to a car accident and the inadvertent death of the driver. Pey’s a mean little dipshit, who can’t seem to internalize how much trouble he is in. He doesn’t much take to monastery life or the jungle village in which it’s located. The village pays homage to the Tall Ghost—a local deity they make regular offerings to—and yes, there does seem to be something unsettled in the wilderness. Still, it doesn’t stop Pey from breaking all kinds of taboos. First off, he makes himself a midnight snack. Second off, he takes food left as offerings to the Tall Ghost. Okay, so here’s a cultural note: don’t eat ghost food. No matter how good the Ramen noodles or strawberry Fanta looks, do not eat it. Pey learns this the hard way. Novice is a great-looking episode, buttressed by some great performances by Jirayu La-ongmanee as Pey, and Ray MacDonald (last seen in Dear Galileo) as an older monk who attempts to keep Pey on the straight and narrow. Director Paween Purijitpanya is a remarkably subtle and evocative director and gets the most out of his creepy locations. A few shots of the jungle at night and it’s easy to believe that it’s teeming with the supernatural.

Segment 2: Ward—This is one of the film’s weaker entries, mostly due to its static location and, for that matter, lead character. Dan Worrawech plays a young bike messenger checked into the hospital for an overnight, observational stay after being hit by a car and having both legs broken. As if that’s not bad enough, he has to share a room with a comatose old man whose body is covered with creepy tattoos. Well, the evening goes about as you’d expect—with all sorts of frightening goings on, and shocks, and various indications that the man behind the curtain is something other than the unconscious husk at death’s door he appears to be. Ward is fairly effective, but neither character has enough detail to make them anything other than plot elements. The ending is twisty but not enough to prove any real kick. I mean, what else would a dying, old cult-leader want the healthy (if banged-up) young dude in the next bed for? Wait, that came out wrong…

Segment 3: Backpackers—Making a nice bookend with Novice, this segment also showcases the fearsome remoteness of Thailand’s countryside, while featuring updated horrors and a morality play for a borderless world. Backpackers begins like Hostel or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with two none-too-bright teenagers hitchhiking along a lonesome stretch of highway someplace in Thailand’s low country (probably down south). They snag a ride in a grungy cargo van driven by a taciturn older man and his young, 20-something assistant , Neither is very friendly, but both seem very uncomfortable. Okay, need I even point out that nothing—not one thing—can possibly go well with this scenario? I mean, do you really think that the truck will pull into the parking lot of Disneyland at the end of this segment? Yeah, it doesn’t. What happens is the cargo in the back of the truck begins pounding on the walls. Guess what the cargo is? Hint: it’s not Hello Kitty sex toys. But it gets worse, as the “cargo” seems have all expired  from a bad batch of drugs the younger smuggler forced them to swallow before their trip. So now the one cargo has killed the other cargo, which means that some set of bosses are going to be very, very upset. In the middle of it are two, innocent backpakers who can’t even understand the language. When the situation becomes much, much worse, well, words really aren’t necessary. “It’s gonna eat you!” is pretty much the international language.

Segment 4: Salvage—Like Ward, this segment is somewhat hamstrung by a fairly predictable and familiar concept. Singer-actress Nicole Theriault plays a mercenary used-car dealer who blithely sells recovered and repaired cars as “gently-used” and neglects to tell her buyers about the various wrecks they’ve been in and the safety risk that poses. Payback come sin the form of a serious of ghostly visitations at her used-car lot, where she must navigate the maze of refurbished death-traps she sells in order to find her juvenile son who has gone missing. There’s nothing really wrong with Salvage. It has a few genuine scares and fairly memorable ending, but it doesn’t really stick. We’ve seen morality plays before and vengeful ghosts, so there’s not really much new here.

Segment 5: In the End—The movie’s ultimate episode wins some points for originality, and it almost does. In the End is a clever meta-comment on Asian horror films, as it follows the travails on just such a film set. Marsha Wattanapanich plays the diva-ish star of a horror-film sequel (despite the fact that she–and everyone else–died in the first film) which is beset by strange occurrences and possible hauntings. The episode sends up any number of A-horror clichés: the endless churning out of sequels, the creepy girl with the stringy, black hair, and most amusingly the completely arbitrary screenwriting that accompanies most of them (I only wish they’d worked in a dig against Hollywood’s mindless remakes). Unfortunately, rather than letting the jokes breathe, the movie devolves into a lot of running and screaming and slapstick comedy—too bad, it was a cool idea. Still, it manages a blackly funny ending.

So, the BIFF has come to an end. Next up, back to the usual offerings.

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