Saturday, November 03, 2007

Closely Watched Films

For a movie fanatic like myself, moving to Bangkok is equivalent to a retreat in the desert. In the three months of my sojourn here, I've seen only a handful of films: two Hollywood blockbusters, a couple of classics I surreptitiously downloaded from the net, and several French flicks that played at the Lido, the city's only art house (with multiple screens, I might add). The Hollywood films seem to remain forever, even though, in my experience, the luxury cinema multiplexes are mostly empty. Maybe it takes a long time to make Thai subtitles?

So it was with glee that I learned a screening of "Closely Watched Trains," the classic film by Czech director Jirí Menzel, called one of the all-time 100 Best by Time, would be held at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand. Even better, the director himself would be present to take questions. Jerry snuck me in to the penthouse digs of the FCCT where a crowd of professional expats, many in suits, were tucking in to a pitiful insufficient buffet and looking for the promised Czech alcoholic spirits (a no show). We found seats at the bar with good views of the three TV sets and a big screen, and thoroughly enjoyed the movie, a delightful coming-of-age tale set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Milos, the young train station employee, suffers from premature ejaculation and a suicide attempt before rising to a heroic action at the end (after finally losing his virginity to a pretty partisan). It won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1968.

I learned too late that Menzel was in Bangkok for a screening of his latest film, "I Served the King of England," at the 5th World Film Festival which ends this weekend. The day before his FCCT dog-and-pony-show (which he has no doubt performed hundreds of times in the forty years since "Trains" was released), I went to the festival at the splashy Esplanade Cineplex on the top floor of a new mall near the Thailand Cultural Center, and chose two films to watch in the afternoon and evening. The first, "Possible Lives," a film from Argentina, was directed by Sandra Gugliotta, and featured a woman who mistakenly finds her missing husband in the desolation of Patagonia. Is he or isn't he? We never find out. The second was "Help Me Eros," a surreal story by Taiwan director Kang-sheng Lee that was neither helpful nor erotic. I almost walked out when the fat lady got in the bathtub full of snakes. But with so little cinema to see here, I didn't want to take chances and miss something. Lee's hero, his brain addled by pot, finally killed himself. Or did he?

I unfortunately missed seeing Menzel's newest film at the festival, failing to realize that it was the veteran director's latest opus and opting for dinner instead. And it came to me during the screening of "Closely Watched Trains" that I'd never seen it before either. Menzel, accompanied by a tall blonde woman clearly half his age, gave short and laconic answers to a few questions from the audience through the medium of an interpreter (though he clearly understood the questions voiced in English). His first film, made when he was in his twenties, was a lucky break, pairing the young student with a popular novel by Bohumil Hrabal (the two went on to collaborate on several other films). Menzel and his fellow directors Milos Foreman and Ján Kadár were praised for initiating the Czech New Wave in cinema. But this springtime of filmmaking ended abruptly when Soviet tanks invaded Prague in 1968. Foreman went to Hollywood where he made "Amadeus" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," while Menzel stayed home, producing small humorous films about Czech life under communism. Today at 69, he continues to act and direct, and to tour the global film festivals with his consistently praised works. He particularly likes Bangkok, it was mentioned, because he was married here three years ago. And when asked how he manages to get funding for his films, he pointed at her and said "my wife takes care of that. Would you turn her down?"

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