Tuesday, May 29, 2018


It has been seven long years since Thai director, Pen-ek Ratanaruang's previous theatrical feature “Headshot”; far too long between films for a talent such as he. As such, my anticipation for “Samui Song” was so large that I included it on my list of most anticipated films of 2018. Whilst initially I expected to have to wait until MIFF this year for a possible chance to see it, I was pleasantly surprised when it received a blu ray release in the US just the other week, giving me a chance to finally catch up with “Samui Song”. I wanted to go in without any baggage and preconceived expectations as to what I was going to get, and thus only watched the film's trailer the once. This was a good thing because “Samui Song” is a thriller bordering on noir, that is full of twists and turns that are better experienced than ruined.

The basic story of “Samui Song” is about a soap opera actress named Vi, who is feeling increased pressure from her French husband, Jerome, to commit to the religious cult that he has found himself a part of. She has no interest in it, only going from time to time to appease him, but Jerome's demands become so regular and threatening that she starts fearing for her safety, but knowing that divorce is not an option as it will leave her totally broke, she feels trapped in a life she cannot escape. This sets the scene for a dark story involving hitmen, murder, intimidation, rape, blackmail and revenge, with a small smattering of love, of both the romantic and familial kind.

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of twists and turns in “Samui Song” that are better left experienced, but in saying that, there is no way for me to comment on parts of this film without spoilers, so I suggest that if you want to go in fresh, please read this review only AFTER you have seen the film. Early on, it is easy to see that Pen-ek Ratanaruang is still at the top of his game with his storytelling abilities and his creation of mood. All of his films seem to have an atmosphere of melancholy attached to them and “Samui Song” is no different. It is about people who are not content with their lives, trying to escape them to something better, but making the wrong decisions in doing so. There is always a feeling that this is never going to end well. As a thriller it is continually building, sometimes not in a linear fashion, both in suspense and intrigue. Vi ends up meeting, by chance, a man who appears to be able to give her an out to her situation. This man, Guy Spenser, is also desperate in that he is low on funds to afford the medicine his very sick mum needs to survive. Thus he proposes a solution to Vi which sees both their needs sorted; she will be free from her situation and he will be payed for it, thus being able to continue to look after his sick mum. However being as Guy is less of a professional and more of an opportunist, his attention to detail at completing his task is less than ideal that leads to their situations becoming more dangerous than before.

While the religious cult is a major aspect in the story, it is treated more as a background to the main story being told which is really about both Vi and Guy attempting to better their lives. In regards to performances in “Samui Song”, it is a bit of a mixed bag. Cherman Boonyasak (in her first film for Pen-ek since their earlier collaboration in “Last Life in the Universe” from 2003) plays Vi and she is fantastic in the role; she is the anchor to the film and owns every scene she is in. She expertly portrays a woman unhappy in her life, but is never over the top with it; she is calm, but willing to fight to get what she wants. Amusingly when we do see a snippet of one of Vi's performances on her soap opera she is completely over the top and ridiculous. Her presence is so impressive that when she is not onscreen, which happens later towards the end, the film is worse off for it. David Asavanond on the other hand, who plays Guy, isn't as convincing in his performance to be believable as the “heavy” he is trying to portray, although he is much more successful in the scenes with his mother where he gets to show his more caring and humorous side to his persona. I wouldn't say that his performance was poor, but it certainly doesn't carry the same weight as Boonyasak. The other main role is that of Jerome, Vi's husband, who is played by French artist Stephane Sednaoui who performs his role entirely in English. This was such a strange choice because Vi always replies in Thai, so it gives a jarring effect to the relationship between the couple. I'm not sure if this is a deliberate tactic by Pen-ek to show that communication is already tough enough even without the cult's involvement, but I thought it was an odd choice.

Visually, “Samui Song” looks magnificent (like all of Pen-ek's films). His regular director of photography Chankit Chamnivikaipong returns once again and fills the screen with beautiful autumn colours such as yellows, oranges, dark greens and browns. His shot selection also leans heavy on the noir aesthetics too and are just stunning and fit the mood perfectly. This is such a handsome thriller, and appeared set to be a new classic for Pen-ek Ratanaruang. However there is a meta quality to the film that I have yet to mention that, for mine, seriously undercuts the goodness in this film because, after admittedly only one viewing of “Samui Song”, I think it just does not work at all. Throughout the film Ratanaruang is at pains to remind the viewer that they are watching a work of fiction. Most of these are minor, and could be missed, but they are there in the background. The first instance of this is when the cult leader is being interviewed on a television screen in the background, bemoaning the idea of prayer and saying that most people use it as wish fulfilment. He asks the interviewer if he prays and if so what for, to which he replies that he prayed for his movie to be successful, and if so, he would offer God a pigs head for his troubles. The interviewer is Pen-ek himself, so it is an amusing meta moment that I initially thought was cute. The next moment comes when Vi is looking for work stating that she wants to work with a particular Thai director. Her agent looks back in disbelief and says that that director's films are boring and make no sense and mentions that she once watched one where a character was walking around a ship the whole film, that she feel asleep, and when she woke, he was still on the ship! This is Pen-ek having a laugh at himself and his 2006 film “Invisible Waves”. Again, this was another cute meta-moment. However the whole ending to the film is where I lost my appreciation of this meta quality and thought that it inversely affected the enjoyment of the film. Without giving away the actual ending, I will say that everything we thought we were watching may not be the actual truth and that Ratanaruang is in fact playing in a completely different wheelhouse than what is first assumed. Granted I will admit that, again, after only one viewing of the film, I haven't given the proper thought or analysis as to what is really going on or what Ratanaruang is wanting to say (and for that reason alone you may wish is discount my feelings on the ending or its effect on the film in total), but the ending left me filled with both anger and a feeling of frustration, as after committing to a story for ninety minutes, there ends up being no pay off to it all........or not the kind that I was expecting or that fit the rest of the film tonally. I understand this all has to do with my own expectations and baggage I brought to the film and not necessarily the fault of the director, but this is how I saw it. I will say though that it is a very similar reaction that I had to David Lynch's “Mulholland Dr.” after my first watch; a film that I now consider a total masterpiece, so all is not lost on “Samui Song” and my potential appreciation of it.

Overall, “Samui Song” is both a great return by Pen-ek Ratanaruang and to his growing number of stories about inept hitmen, but it is also at times super frustrating, especially towards the end, due to a meta element that is introduced into the film. For mine, it didn't work (at least during my first watch of the film), but until that moment I thought Ratanaruang was firing on all cylinders and that “Samui Song” was an excellent noir-drama. I should mention also that although the film deals with a lot of dark themes, the tone at times is quite light, even bordering on humorous. The film is very entertaining, and while it is not the absolute classic I anticipated it would end up as after its very strong opening hour, “Samui Song” is still another impressive film from this talented Thai director and I hope that it is not as long a wait for his next.

3.5 Stars.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018


2017 was a unique year for Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia in that it is the only year in his whole career that he premiered two feature films. The first was the very funny and disturbing “The Bar” (read my review here), whereas later in the year saw him release “Perfect Strangers (Perfectos desconocidos)”; a film that was another first for him in that it was the first remake he had ever been involved in.

Perfect Strangers”, which is a remake of the 2016 Italian film of the same name, has a simple but brilliant (not to mention, very funny) idea at its core. On the night of a rare Blood Moon, a group of long time friends come together for a dinner party. After being friends for around twenty years, with these dinner parties being a semi-regular occurrence, there is a feeling among the group that something is missing. While the occasion is pleasant enough, it is lacking something; a spark to elevate this get together from something more than just the norm. In an effort to add spice to the evening, it is decided that everyone in attendance must place their mobile phones on the table in front of everyone and any message, voice call or photo received must be shared with the rest of the group. For a group of friends who have known each other so long, and share everything with each other, surely such a game would be pointless......then why was everyone so hesitant or nervous to play this game? Whatever the outcome, it is safe to say that his dinner party will be unlike any other; but will the friendships and relationships survive this night after their secrets begin to be revealed?

I feel I need to point out that I have never actually seen the original film that this is based on, so I am unable to report on how this film works as a remake nor if it differs in any way. Looking at trailers for both films, as well as reading their synopsis, it appears that Alex de la Iglesia and his regular writing partner, Jorge Guerricaechevarría have stayed very close to the Italian original. While I would never assert that this is one of Iglesia's best films, I will say that I had a very enjoyable time with “Perfect Strangers”. I think he has done a great job of casting the film and creating a believable atmosphere where after being with these characters for just a brief time, you can tell that they have been friends for ages. The seven friends all come from different walks of life but there is an easiness between them all. The banter between them is natural, funny and with a lot of ribbing of each other. They feel like long time friends, rather than just a cast of actors put together for a film. The highlight for me was Pepon Nieto who plays Pepe, a former gym teacher and the only one of the group who is unmarried. He brings depth and a sadness to his role, mainly due to the way society has treated him because of his secret that is eventually uncovered from a phone call. He comes across as a genuine person of good, and this is shown in a great scene where he becomes angry when he is forced into a situation to protect another one of his friend's secrets, that he does not in any way approve of. The other standout in the cast was Eduard Fernandez who plays Alfonso, husband to Eva, and the only character who truly appears to have nothing to hide during this game. When it comes to the women characters I must say that they have been portrayed much broader then the men, to the point that two of them come across as rather neurotic. I must say though that Dafne Fernandez is a stunningly gorgeous woman, and with her character of Blanca, is the standout of the female cast.

The whole point of this film is to ponder the question just how well can you know someone, even when you have known them for so long. Everyone has a side to themselves that they hide from others, so can you truly know someone. As such, the text messages and phone calls that follow begin to reveal secrets of each of the characters. As this is the crux of the film, I do not have a problem with such a conceit but the amount that comes out in such a little time is both convenient and quite unrealistic. Sure, I understand that everyone of these characters could have these secrets, but to have them all exposed on the same night is a stretch. While the game starts off innocent enough, each successive secret dramatically alters the status quo amongst the friends, as affairs and fetishes are exposed, one of them is outed as a homosexual, while a few of them realise that their partners are unhappy within their marriages. Iglesia does an expert job of keeping and increasing the tension as secrets are exposed within the group, to create a film that is both incredibly funny (in his usual dark way) and at times, quite suspenseful. Being that this is a film that is essentially set solely around a dinner table, he is unable to have the visual flourishes that are the norm for an Iglesia film, but instead he keeps the performances real and the film moving at a natural and fluent pace, making the whole thing a joy to watch. The film has been edited superbly by Domingo Gonzalez giving it an effortless feel to it all; it just flows so beautifully that you never are aware of a jarring edit once. It feels very natural and again real (which I assume to be a hard task as Alex de la Iglesia's films tend to live in a slightly heightened world). While much of the enjoyment found in “Perfect Strangers” is due to the dark comedy as these friendships dissolve in the most amusing ways, the absolute highlight of the film comes from a phone call a father has with his teenage daughter about whether or not she is ready to lose her virginity that night. It is such a beautiful moment, stunningly performed, that is also so powerful. It is not a secret that is revealed here but just how great a father this man is, and how lucky a daughter she is to have him love her and to trust her. Seriously, for a film of such absurdity to have such a powerful moment like this within it....; I cannot talk more highly about this scene, it is just a brilliant moment.

From brilliance to what I felt didn't work in the film, and that was the whimsical nature or events that happen from time to time in “Perfect Strangers”. I really cannot go into too much detail in regards to this because it all has to do with the film's ending, but for me, it just did not work at all. Not only did I feel it went totally against the tone of the entire film, it also felt like a massive cheat. It also adds very little to the film, and if it was removed, you would never have felt like the film was missing something. I understand that the same ending was used in the original film, but personally I felt like this was a chance where Alex de la Iglesia could have made a change, and the film would be stronger for it. Obviously this is my own opinion, but I thought this level of whimsy and dare I say it, magic, ruined part of what made the film so great. Another thing that I did not like was the visual representation of the blood moon; it was very cheap and a poor CGI creation.

Overall, while I did have a great time with “Perfect Strangers”, it is not what I would call one of Alex de la Iglesia's best. It is almost like a “B-side” movie from him, which may seem a little harsh as the results are very entertaining. The film is well cast, and moves fluently and quickly through its story and is very funny. It is an interesting look at how technology has taken over our lives and how it is complicit with our deceits and secrets, asking the question as to whether or not it has improved our lives or changed them for the worst. It is interesting stuff told in a comedic manner that is the trademark of director Alex de la Iglesia. While I preferred “The Bar” more out of his two 2017 films (mainly due to its ambition), “Perfect Strangers” is still a fun, if minor, entry to this talented director's oeuvre.

3.5 Stars.