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Bangkok International Film Festival, part II

Naomi Kawase’s Nanayo had its premier at the BKKIFF. The bulk of her oeuvre sits in a similar gray area between feature and documentary, like many of the films in the festival (see Part I).  The festival put Nanayo in its own category, as its closing film—fudging the distinction—but the film is, in fact, more like a feature than her previous work. In the jittery first act—Kawase’s style often includes the use of a handheld camera—Saiko arrives at Hua Lampong station and wanders around the area: in one amusing sequence, the hawkers in the stalls along the railroad use bamboo poles to pull their rain tarps back off the tracks, and in a unified, choreographed maneuver, let a train pass.
When her hotel inquiries get her nowhere, she gets into a taxi.  A Lost in Translation-style misunderstanding leads her to think she is being abducted. (Not the stuff of holiday brochures, but perhaps cowed by the thought of banning two Japanese films, the TAT—reluctantly, I heard—let the scene pass.)  Saiko runs out of the taxi and flees into the arms of a Frenchman. He is studying Thai massage with a woman named Amari, who lives by a peaceful klong somewhere outside of Bangkok with her small son, Toy, and these three soon become like an adoptive family.
Except for mother and child, none of the four really speaks the other’s language, so conversations often consist of the comparison of words:  "antarai" in Thai means "abunai" in Japanese:  they sound similar, and both mean "dangerous." And although danger seems to abate for a time, troubling truths about her Thai “family” soon begin to surface: the shady taxi driver—the reason Saiko has sought refuge in the first place—turns out to be Amari’s ex-, and they have a grown daughter, who is now a bar girl. But what is happening to the small child, Toy, bothers Saiko more.
I was late joining the Naomi Kawase fan club. The combination of her cinema-verité style, coupled with the understated culture of the small Japanese villages where she filmed her first works, challenged the audience to penetrate beneath the quiet surfaces and uncover the secret dramas there.  Fine and good; but I think these early films were at once too slow and too difficult.
Now she has matured, perhaps from working with cultures not her own. Her last film, Mogari no mori (The Mourning Forest), set in Europe, won the Grand Prix at Cannes and was nominated for the Golden Palm. In Thailand, Kawase has really bloomed.  Several directors, among them Aditya Assarat, have pursued a particularly Thai narrative trope of trying to convey a Buddhist sense of peace found within certain limits, but punctuating this calm with a sense of menace that comes from the big, bad world in all of its unpredictability. While some viewers lose themselves in the calm atmosphere of these less dramatic parts of the film, others complain about the longeurs. Whatever their value, I think it takes a talented director to convey the atmosphere just right. Aditya Assarat, in his Wonderful Town has his protagonist, Ton, find this kind of peace journeying to a small southern town.  This film was also shown in the festival, but several other directors have also played with the contrasting moods that Kawase balances:  Wonderful Town, to stick with one example, ends with Ton’s murder.
Above: Wonderful Town.
Back to Nanayo, it is interesting to observe dramatizing the non-dramatic by making us feel Saiko’s sense of calm. Besides the chirping of birds and the murmur of quiet conversations, Kawase flashes back to a favorite lover of Saiko’s in Japan--to convey a sense of happiness—but also confirms the Buddhist influence by cross-cutting between the roofs of two temples: we see the chofa of a Thai temple, and then the “demon” facing-tiles of a Japanese one. This also suggests that she is constantly comparing her adoptive home with her native one: "We have been very fortunate, blessed with peace,” she says to her Thai friends, “but we don't have the warmth that you do."
The prizewinner in the festival’s competition, coming all the way from Columbia, was also cinema verité. In PVC-1, a woman, unable to pay a ransom, is punished with a PVC collar bomb. She has only hours and minutes to free herself of the bomb tied around her neck.
Because his film was not in competition, Aditya Assarat was able to participate as one of the judges in the competition. He put the Columbian film’s appeal like this:  "The cool thing that we all liked about PVC-1 was that it was all shot in one continuous 90 minute take. The sheer technical challenge of that was appreciated by all three jurors." He pointed out that this "wasn't just empty technique,” but that it added  "a level of urgency and relentlessness to the story.”
Coverage is continued from Part I.
“Her last film, Mogari no mori (The Mourning Forest), set in Europe, won the Grand Prix at Cannes and was nominated for the Golden Palm.” The Mourning Forest was not set in Europe.

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