Jennifer Gampell
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February 7-8, 2003

More Smiles Than Substance at Bangkok's Film Festival

by Jennifer Gampell

Thai gliteratti, various stars of the big and small screen and anyone else who could wangle one of the 900 coveted invitations was at the Scala theater on January 17th for the official opening of the Bangkok International Film Festival (BKKIFF). The Scala, one of Bangkok's few remaining 60s-era movie palaces that hasn't been torn down or turned into a transvestite cabaret, sits on a narrow alley leading off the hyper-congested Rama I Road at Siam Square. For one night's festivities it had received a Cinderella-like makeover. The sweeping staircase leading up from the street entrance to the mezzanine had been carpeted in crimson. The normally dingy foyer fairly sparkled with fresh paint and twinkling chandeliers. And for once the restrooms--newly scrubbed and polished--provided toilet paper.

Outside, Siam Soi 1 had been similarly transmogrified from a vehicle-choked asphalt lane into a private driveway for celebrity arrivals. Searchlights swept over the Dunkin' Donuts sign and onto the huge Scala marquee emblazoned with a single word: Frida. Meanwhile the hordes of Thai teenagers who usually hang out around the tacky Siam Square shops after school were jostling for star-watching position behind the metal barricades.

This crowd didn't know--or care--that most of the A-list international celebrities originally slated to attend the BKKIFF (e.g. Salma Hayek, Malcolm McDowell, Marisa Tomei, Bruce Beresford) never showed. Likewise, neither the onlookers nor the swarm of Thai media recognized most of the foreign stars who did appear, among them David Alpay, Jennifer Tilley, Viveca Fox, and Bryant Gumbel. If French embassy officials hadn't rushed forward to greet a diminutive woman swathed in purple, Agnes Varda's arrival would have gone unnoticed. Apart from Asian heartthrobs Louis Koo, Rick Yune and Christy Chung, the only non-Thais who elicited loud screams were Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal (who turned up uninvited).

Once ensconced inside, the Bangkok beau monde watched female dancers dressed in gold body suits and feathers cavorting on stage. (They represented the half-human kinaree bird of Thai mythology and the Golden Kinaree award statuette.) Inaugural speeches by the organizers' representatives, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Juthamas Siriwan and deputy prime minister Korn Dabbaransi, congratulated the festival for promoting tourism and showcasing Thailand as a user-friendly and cheap location for filmmaking.

The carefully-chosen potpourri of 100-plus foreign and Thai films being screened, uncensored, at the festival garnered a one-sentence mention. (In Thailand, films with any hint of nudity or sexuality are usually cut, smeared with vaseline or just not shown.) At the end of a sappy tribute to the "grandmother of New Wave cinema," Agnes Varda received the first-ever Golden Kinaree award for a lifetime of achievement in cinema. Barely fifteen minutes into the festival's sole showing of Frida, several rows of local luminaries walked out.

For lumpenproletariat Bangkok cinephiles, BKKIFF had actually started on January 10th in four different theaters located in shopping malls along Rama I Road. Depending on one's tolerance for noise, pollution, navigating crowded sidewalks under towering concrete Skytrain tracks and riding escalators to the top floors of malls, the venues could be considered within walking distance. (Organizers frequently cited easy accessibility as one of the reasons why Bangkok would immediately overtake the long-running Busan as Asia's premiere film festival destination.)

Media reps and the several hundred TAT-sponsored guests could obtain their hi-tech plastic passes for any of the four theaters at a single venue, albeit only one day in advance because of the constantly changing schedules. The less fortunate moviegoer had to schlep from mall to mall, queuing for tickets that ranged from computerized to laboriously handwritten in triplicate. (Cinema seats in Thailand are assigned by number rather than on a first-come, first-serve basis.) The ticketing system left many frustrated film buffs complaining about ostensibly sold-out screenings that actually played to half-empty theaters.

Various groups--foreign embassies, the EU, artists, private individuals--have been organizing small-scale film festivals in Bangkok since 1997. Last summer the Nation media group was putting together the 2003 festival with Kriengsak Silakong, a francophone Thai who's produced a range of indies, documentaries and art films. The TAT then stepped in with a much broader, multi-pronged agenda. Leaving film selection with the Nation, the TAT hired an events planner, a PR firm and an executive director--all from Beverly Hills. Their brief: Make Bangkok the film festival hub of Asia…and bring over tons of Hollywood celebrities.

Spectacle-wise the TAT certainly realized its goals (for a cost reported at around US$4 million). Sidewalks and pedestrian flyovers around Rama I were blanketed in "Masters to Present" signage. Scores of foreign media were flown in to attend grandiose publicity events).

But world-class film festivals involve more than celebrity hoopla. The only film-related events at BKKIFF were two half-day workshops on digital cinema and film financing. Visiting film buffs, critics and filmmakers bemoaned the lack of opportunities for interacting with their Thai counterparts or even with one another. Staffed by TAT volunteers, the press room was long on smiles and short on movie-related information; the festival Web site hadn't been updated since Dec. 19th. Even the royal-attended presentation of the Golden Kinaree awards (touted as Bangkok's version of the Palme d'Or) at the Oriental focused more on exotic Thai music and cuisine than on the films.

Kriengsak Silakong and the Nation aren't waiting to see whether the TAT irons out some of the kinks next time round. They're already at work creating their own separate film festival for 2004. That scene in the TAT script where Rama I Road turns into the Bangkok version of la Croisette in Cannes has yet to be written.

Ms. Gampell is a freelance writer based in Thailand

Copyright 2003 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell