Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Review: Skin Trade

  • Directed Ekachai Uekrongtham
  • Starring Tony Jaa, Dolph Lundgren, Ron Perlman, Michael Jai White, Celina Jade, Peter Weller, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 23, 2015; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

In order to have fight scenes, you must first have enemies, and Skin Trade gives Phanom “Tony Jaa” Yeerum plenty of those to deal with.

Along with roomfuls of anonymous henchmen to mow down, the Ong-Bak star also gets featured fights with experienced stars, something fans always clamor for. In Skin Trade, Jaa tangles with his much-taller co-star, action veteran Dolph Lundgren, a guy who has gone toe-to-toe with Rocky. And there’s Michael Jai White, the martial-artist and general bad-you-know-what. The Black Dynamite star gets into a knock-down, drag-out scene with Jaa.

The story is the barest of set-ups, standard Bangkok-noir elements that make up the canon of English-language Thai productions, in which foreigner gangsters are somehow allowed to operate without impunity. In Skin Trade (คู่ซัดอันตราย, Koo Sat Antarai), it’s a sleazebag family of Serbians who are trafficking young women through their network of gentlemen’s clubs, brothels and porn studios.

But unusually for a Thai film, some of the action is filmed overseas, with Vancouver, British Columbia, standing in for Newark, New Jersey, where a police officer (Lundgren) is leading an investigation against a former Serbian war criminal and current gangland kingpin. He’s played by Hollywood character actor Ron Perlman, who luxuriates in this thick bad accent.

The opening deftly toggles back and forth between Bangkok and the Garden State. On one side of the world, Royal Thai Police special branch officer Tony twirls around a luxury hotel room full of bad guys, to rescue a farmgirl from a life as a sex slave. Meanwhile, in Newark, there’s the discovery of a shipping container full of dead women, a scene that should resonate with fans of Season 2 of The Wire. Officer Nick gets into a dockland shoot-out, and ends up plugging the favorite son of the Serbian mobster. He retaliates by blowing up Nick’s house with a rocket, which leaves his wife and daughter dead and Nick with a facial scar.

The action then shifts back to Thailand, where a fugitive Nick arrives to a police welcome at Suvarnabhumi airport. A dodgy carpark shootout leaves Tony’s Thai cop partner dead and makes Nick an even bigger target, thanks to dirty double dealing by White’s character.

From there, Skin Trade proceeds at a mostly breakneck pace, running and gunning from tin-shack riverside slums to dusty warehouses to finally bring together to the two stars and turn them from enemies to friends. In the melee, Nick, in pursuit of the gangster Viktor, grabs a dirtbike and busts through a Chinese opera stage, while Tony pursues on foot. Of course, it's a chance to use his trademark acrobatic running and somersaulting through crowded market lanes, always a thrill.

There’s the featured fight with Lundgren, beautifully staged in a rice warehouse, and another with White. And in addition to the punch-ups, there are plenty of explosions, including a retaliatory rocket-launcher firing that brings down a helicopter.

Each actor gets their moment to shine. For Jaa, it’s a chance to try out new English-language skills. He’s always been a man of few words, mostly having to do with the location of a missing elephant. But he now has quips like “negotiation is over” or “you will rot in hell”, best said with a menacing hiss as someone is being dangled off the ledge of a five-star hotel.

Lundgren, with a polished granite exterior, is an big old softie inside, and his character is given just enough of a family life to make him someone with whom the audience can sympathize.

As the Serbian crime boss Viktor, Perlman sinks deep into that Eastern European accent, rolling off such phrases as “you have a strong heartbeat … there is a musicality to the rhythm”. The Hellboy star even gets to puff on one of his beloved cigars while dishing out punishment.

A handful of supporting characters also stand out. Celina Jade from TV’s Arrow is Tony’s girlfriend and playful sparring partner. A former sex-trafficking victim, she dons angel wings to work as an undercover informant in the Serbian club.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, a veteran of Showdown in Little Tokyo and other Lundgren pictures, turns up as a local polician, who has just enough influence to keep the cops away from Viktor's rackets.

And RoboCop himself, Peter Weller, is Lundgren’s police chief back home. He gets a healthy bit of exposition to deliver, and a possibility of seeing more action in a sequel.

Even seasoned Thai character actor Sahajak “Puu” Boonthanakit gets his licks in. He’s played cops and bad guys in countless English-language productions here, but his perverted porn director this time around is especially memorable. Hopefully, he received counseling after the cameras stopped rolling.

It’s all held together thanks to execution by director Ekachai Uekrongtham, a helmer who is known for theater productions, such as Chang and Eng, about the original Siamese twins, and arthouse movies like Pleasure Factory, about Singapore’s Geylang red-light district. But his work on the 2003 transgender-fighter biopic Beautiful Boxer and his current Muay Thai Live stage show in Bangkok made him a natural choice to help showcase Jaa’s first headline effort as an international star. There’s no muss and no fuss, and the style is consistent, whether the action is taking place in a New Jersey police station or a bar on Sukhumvit Soi 7/1. Framing is still and steady, allowing viewers to take in the full picture of the action and feel the impact.

Talents behind the scenes who surely aided those efforts include cinematographer Ben Nott (Daybreakers), veteran production designer Ek Iemchuan (Tears of the Black Tiger and Ong-Bak 2) and stunt coordinator and second-unit director Dian Hristov (Expendables 2).

Produced by Craig Baumgarten, Lundgren and Jaa’s Bangkok-based manager and producer Michael Selby, Skin Trade is a project that Lundgren helped write and has been trying to get made for many years. It came to fruition when he met Jaa while working on a Thai film called Ai Noon Gangnam (A Man Will Rise), an intriguing "Eastern western" that was set up at Sahamongkol Film.

Much of the news about Skin Trade has been overshadowed by a contract dispute between Jaa and Sahamongkol, where he made Ong-Bak, Tom-Yum-Goong and the aborted A Man Will Rise. The studio went to court to try and to prevent the Thai release of Fast and Furious 7, Jaa’s Hollywood debut in which he has a small but memorable turn as a villain who tangles with Paul Walker.

Skin Trade gives Jaa a chance to prove himself as a leading man alongside Hollywood heavyweights, and he acquits himself well. Coming up next is Jaa’s Hong Kong debut in Sha Po Leng II. But perhaps a sequel to Skin Trade ought to also be in the works?

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Thai documentaries on order for Doc Weekend 2015

 Ten recent Thai documentaries will screen this Saturday and Sunday during Doc Weekend at TK Park at CentralWorld in Bangkok.

It’s a chance to see some films that played in local cinemas but maybe you missed, including Somboon, Mother and Wish Us Luck.

It’s also an opportunity to catch up, with such examples as Siam Park City, a 2011 effort by Chonlasit Upanigkit, the film student who earned plaudits last year for his debut feature, W., a drama that was his graduation project and premiered in the Busan International Film Festival, and also had a limited local cinema run.

Curated by local filmmaker Supakit Seksuwan, who put together last year's Thai Aurora the Horizon, and organised by Streamline Film and TK Park, the line-up starts at 11am on Saturday with a trio of shorts, The Burmese in Thailand by Suree Kantayalongote, award-winner Panu Saeng-xuto’s Consider, which examines what happened when a transgender student was humiliated in front of the school by the principal; and The Cockpit, Napasorn Limchaiyawat’s profile of female Muay Thai fighter Petch JiJa, making her comeback in the ring.

At noon, it’s Wish Us Luck, in which twin-sister filmmakers Wanweaw and Weawwan Hongwiwat chronicle epic their journey home to Thailand from school in England. They took the train most of way, travelling through Russia, China and Vietnam. Their film made the rounds of festivals and was also screened in Thai cinemas.

That’s followed at 2pm by Somboon, Krisda Tipchaimeta's emotional portrayal of a couple in their winter years, a husband devoted to the round-the-clock care of his chronically ailing wife of 45 years. The film opened last year's World Film Festival of Bangkok and later had a limited theatrical run.

And Saturday’s closing entry at 4pm is Utopia, a brand-new feature by Kirimag Boonrom, who goes underneath a bridge to look at the people forced to live there, and what will happen when they are forced out.

Sunday’s programme starts at 11am with Siam Park City, Chonlasit’s 2011 observance of the many activities in Bangkok parks, from dawn to dusk.

That’s followed at noon by Mother, Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul’s brave look at his own family, and their unstable matriarch, who was left bedridden after a suicide attempt.

At 2pm, it’s The Missing Piece, Patana Chirawong’s project that enlisted youths with various disabilities to make films telling their own stories, and showing that they aren’t much different from anyone else.

And Doc Weekend wraps up at 4pm on Sunday with No Violence to Freshy, which looks at the long-standing tradition of freshmen hazing in Thai universities. It’s directed by Natpakhan Khemkhan.

Admission is Bt20, and it might not hurt to have an ID handy. TK Park is on the eighth floor of the CentralWorld shopping mall in Bangkok, above the Central Foodhall.

For details, check the Facebook events page, and you find out more at the fest's Exteen blog.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Apichatpong-a-rama: Cemetery of Splendour set for Cannes Un Certain Regard

Image from Cemetery of Splendour, courtesy of Kick the Machine.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul will return to the Cannes Film Festival with his latest project, Cemetery of Splendour, which was among the official selections added in a special announcement by the fest.

According to Apichatpong's Kick the Machine website, Cemetery of Splendour (รักที่ขอนแก่น, Rak Ti Khon Kaen) is about a lonesome middle-aged housewife who tends to a soldier with a mysterious sleeping sickness. She falls into a hallucination that triggers strange dreams, phantoms and romance – all the usual ingredients of an Apichatpong joint. Featuring Apichatpong's longtime leading lady Jenjira Widner, it was filmed last year in the director's boyhood hometown of Khon Kaen, in the Northeast of Thailand.

Cemetery of Splendour is among a trio of Asian titles added yesterday to the Un Certain Regard program. The others are also Cannes returnees. Filipino director Brillante Mendoza will be there with Taklub. He was in the main competition in 2008 with Serbis and won the best director gong the following year with his gritty crime drama Kinatay. And Japan's Naomi Kawase has been given the opening slot in Un Certain Regard with her latest AN. A frequent Cannes attendee, she was in the main competition last year with Still the Water.

They join a roster that will be judged by a panel headed by Isabella Rossellini, whose mother Ingrid Bergman adorns the festival's poster this year. Previously announced Un Certain Regard selections include Neeraj Ghaywan's Fly Away Solo and Gurvinder Singh's The Fourth Direction from India, Shin Su-won's Madonna and Oh Seung-wook's Shameless from South Korea and Kiyoshi Kurasawa's Journey to the Shore from Japan.

For Apichatpong, this year will mark his return to Un Certain Regard, an enigmatic category that tends to be more adventurous and avant-garde than the main Palme d'Or race, which can also be pretty far out. He competed in Un Certain Regard on his first trip to Cannes in 2002 with Blissfully Yours, which won the top prize. It was the first Thai film to win an award at Cannes.

Apichatpong returned to Cannes in 2004, entering the main competition with Tropical Malady, which won the Jury Prize from the panel headed by Quentin Tarantino.

His big triumph at Cannes came in 2010, with the top-prize Palme d'Or win for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, awarded by the jury led by Tim Burton.

Apichatpong also served on the Palme d'Or jury in 2008, and his mid-length effort Mekong Hotel had a special screening at Cannes in 2012.

Such a track record had fans and pundits assuming Apichatpong's latest project would be among the official selection that was announced by festival chiefs last week. But it wasn't. Instead, the fest's programmers went with another Asian trio for the main competition – Hou Hsiao-Hsien's period martial-arts drama The Assassin (starring Shu Qi as a sword-for-hire who falls for her target), Mountains My Depart by China's Jia Zhang-ke and Japan's Hirokazu Koreeda with Umimachi Diary. Hard to argue against any of those choices. Anyway, Film Business Asia had more on that.

Cemetery of Splendour also Love in Khon Kaen or Rak Ti Khon Kaen has been backed by the Berlin Film Fest's World Cinema Fund and the Rotterdam fest's Hubert Bals Fund. It is produced by Simon Field and Keith Griffith of Illuminations Films, who had previously backed Uncle Boonmee and the related Primitive art project.

The 68th Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13 to 24.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Hi-Jaa! Skin Trade opens in Thai cinemas

Well, no sign of an injunction.

And so the career rehabilitation of Thai action star Tony Jaa continues uninterrupted in Thailand, with today's release of Skin Trade, a gritty crime drama that has Jaa teaming up with Swedish bruiser Dolph Lundgren to go after human traffickers in Bangkok.

The movie comes hot off the success of the worldwide blockbuster Fast and Furious 7, which had Jaa making his Hollywood debut as a fearsome enemy operative who briefly trades blows and action-movie quips with hero Paul Walker. It's fun stuff. He's even mentioned in reviews.

But Skin Trade is Jaa's big star vehicle as he embarks on this new international phase of his career. The movie was developed with the help of Lundgren and Jaa's new manager, Bangkok-based businessman and movie producer Michael Selby.

It's directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham, a filmmaker and theater director who has been celebrating some of his own success lately, with the nightly stage show Muay Thai Live: The Legend Lives marking one year of drawing crowds to the tourist-ensnaring Asiatique the Riverside Bangkok. Ekachai previously won widespread acclaim for his work on the fact-based transgender drama Beautiful Boxer, which was a winning mix of Muay Thai action and art-house sensibilities. Not exactly an action-movie fan, he talks more about his work on Skin Trade and being initially shaken by the explosions in an article in The Nation.

Skin Trade has Jaa as a Thai policeman who teams up with a vengeance-seeking New York cop (Lundgren) to go after Serbian mobsters who are running a human-trafficking ring in Bangkok. A heavily accented Ron Perlman also stars, along with Celina Jade, Michael Jai White and Peter Weller.

The project is something Lundgren had been trying to produce for a long time. The fair-haired birch of an actor made his breakthrough as an imposing Russian boxer in Rocky IV and is among the cast of Stallone's Expendables movies. He met Jaa when the two were at work in Thailand on movie called A Man Will Rise, which was set up at Jaa's former studio, Sahamongkol Film. At the time, Jaa's career was going through a transition, and he decamped from A Man Will Rise amid a still-boiling contract dispute.

He set to work on Skin Trade after filming his scenes for Fast and Furious 7.

Sahamongkol, which contends that Jaa has another 10-year contract to work off and owes them for the money they spent on the unfinished A Man Will Rise, had sought an injunction to block the release of Furious 7 in Thailand, and though that didn't work out for them, there was still a bit of concern they might try to pull a similar stunt to get Skin Trade banned.

Meanwhile, Jaa has another movie on the docket, the Hong Kong martial-arts drama Sha Po Leng II. A Thai release for that one is still in the works.

Check out the Thai trailer for Skin Trade, embedded below. The Thai title is Koo Sat Antarai (คู่ซัดอันตราย), which I'm guessing very roughly translates as A Dangerous Pair Accused. Maybe more-Thai-savvy readers can do a better job with that.