SIFF Day 5 – Bangkok summer, Shanghai winter

Thai crowd pleaser BANGKOK TRAFFIC (LOVE) STORY strikes a rare balance between Schadenfreude and pathos, whilst modest slice-of-life RETURN TICKETS brings Shanghai’s migrant workers into focus…

Theeradej Wongpuapan and Sirin Horwang in BANGKOK TRAFFIC (LOVE) STORY

>>> รถไฟฟ้า..มาหานะเธอ (BANGKOK TRAFFIC (LOVE) STORY) (Thailand, 2009, 126′) Dir. Adisorn Trisirikasem – Scr. Adisorn Trisirikasem/Benjamin Srabua/Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit – DP. Somboon Piriyapukdeekul – Music. Hualumphong Riddim – Prod. Jira Maligool/Vanrdee Pongsittisak/Chenchonnanee Soonthonsaratool/Suwimol Techasupinan [Screening in Thai Week block]

Mei Ly (Sirin Horwang) is a single, 30-year-old virgin, living with her parents and Chinese grandmother in Bangkok, where she works 9 to 5 as sales rep for a solar panel manufacturer and desperately seeks a man to call her own. After a humiliating evening at the wedding of her best friend, Mei Ly drives home drunk and tearful and crashes her car by a road-side cafe, where dreamy bachelor Lung, a.k.a. “Uncle” (Theeradej Wongpuapan), narrowly misses getting brained by Mei Ly’s flying wing mirror. Uncle and Mei Ly do not meet again until her father, by chance, contacts Uncle to come and answer for the behavior of a young man that Mei Ly has caught having sex with her grandmother’s nurse on top of their building. From here Mei Ly and Uncle begin circling each other in the awkward, hap-hazard manner formatted by romantic comedies and soap operas the world over.

What sets BT(L)S appart from its contemporaries is a story driven by characters with conflicts rooted in the real world and, eventually, by their ability to make, stick-by and regret decisions motivated by more than just the contrivances necessary to maintain the genre formula. BT(L)S successfully straddles the line between out-and-out comedy and heart-felt romantic drama – largely by splitting itself into a film of two halves – in a manner that does not so much elevate it above other crowd pleasers as provide the audience with a purer form of the genre: a film silly enough to keep the laughs flowing but serious enough about its central relationship to actually earn the happy ending its audience craves.

The latter half of the film is certainly the stronger half in terms of its screenwriting and visual storytelling, but for those open to some daft comedy and Sirin Horwang’s considerable comic timing, there are plenty of laughs (the constant threat, from Mei Ly’s boss, of joining the team now marketing pink solar-powered bras is cashed to great effect more than once).

However, the gags come packaged with a jaunty musical score, xylophone slides and, occasionally, that most hoary of comic sound effects: the whistle tube. Little surprise in this case, given that BT(L)S is composed by Hualumphong Riddim, one of the culprits responsible for THE LITTLE COMEDIAN soundtrack. Not wanting to walk out of two films in one week (especially not with water drops the size of apples falling outside) I fought to ignore this unfortunate feature of the soundtrack. Mercifully, director Adisorn Trisirikasem is somewhat more restrained than LITTLE COMEDIAN directors, Witthaya Thongyooyong and Mez Tharatorn, and eventually the characters manage to reach the end of a scene without the intervention of any sweetening. Strangely enough, from the earliest scenes there is a great disparity between BT(L)S’s score and its visuals. Though the music is cheesy and often invasive, Trisirikasem chooses simple, even drab, locations and realistic lighting for most of his scenes (though Uncle’s river-side apartment does stretch credibility) and does not go out of his way to glamorize his protagonists, except in Mei Ly’s snappy internal monologs. Removing Riddim’s score would inevitably yield a hugely different viewing experience; likely preferable for any opportunity to let the actors take responsibility for the jokes’ delivery and let the actors’ faces dictate the level of emotion. It is entirely possible that, with a 2 hour running time, the producers might have requested a peppy soundtrack to liven-up the loosely composed plot and occasionally flat pratfalls (comedically, the dialog and creative imagery are the film’s strongest suits). On the other hand, Thailand is one of many East Asian countries beloved of whacky sound-effects and plinky-plonky piano themes, so perhaps it is wishful thinking to blame anyone other than the director and composer for the score.

Noted in the Thai press for its strong appeal to Thailand’s female audience and distributor GTH’s savvy marketing campaign, BT(L)S became Thailand’s highest-grossing film of 2009 by a long stretch and earned many awards at home. Though it does not shy-away from the barbs that single Asian women over the age of 25 must endure on a daily basis, the script has no aspirations towards satirizing or addressing the culture of rejection that so cripples the romantic ambitions of many Asian women. Viewers seeking such a film should look elsewhere, but viewers keen for a deserving dose of romantic escapism should not let the occasional whistle-tube put them off.

Qin Hai-Lu in RETURN TICKET

>>> 到阜阳六百里 (RETURN TICKET) (China, 2011, 88′) Dir. Teng Yung Shing – Scr.Yang Nan Chian/Teng Yung Shing/Qin Hai Lu/Ge Wen Zhe/Xi Ran – DP. Hsia Shao Yu – Music. Deep White – Edit. Liao Ching Sung – Prod. Shan Lan Ping/Teng Yung Shing [Screening inAsian New Talent Award competition]

The feature debut of Taiwanese commercial director Teng Yung Shing is clear festival fodder from its opening onwards. The style is spare and realist, telling a slice-of-life story about migrant workers subsiding in Shanghai. Cao Li (Qin Hai Lu) arrives in Shanghai after a failed venture in the clothing market and returns to the cramped loft apartment of an old friend and fellow Fuyang native, played with tremendous power and clarity by Fang Xiao Yue. Also from Fuyang is odd couple Guo (Li Bingbing) and Jiuzi (Shen Yi Qun), who hit on the idea of repairing an abandoned bus for transporting fellow Fuyang residents home for the Chinese New Year holiday and make some considerable cash in the process. As Cao Li goes about finding passengers for the bus, she questions what she really has to return to and what her home really means to her in a world where everyone takes the importance of home largely for granted.

Partly inspired by the vast migration of people during Chinese holidays (also documented in epic scope by the 2009 documentary, LAST TRAIN HOME), RETURN TICKET is down-to-earth in a manner typical of many fine Chinese indies. The no-frills style and heart-felt working-class subject matter are not at all surprising in the context of an A-class film festival. What is surprising is the film’s knack for drawing viewers into the lives of its many characters and the dank, creaky Shanghainese houses they inhabit. Often this is done by way of the simplest of things: expositional dialog – but expositional dialog so effortlessly natural and telling stories of such great sadness, that when the character being discussed appear in the next scene their faces have almost taken-on new features.

Teng Yung Shing and cinematographer Hsia Shao Yu make fine use of both Shanghai’s traditional and colonial architecture and the available light within to create a simple beauty to the world the migrant workers inhabit and Shanghai’s grim, overcast winter weather plays a well-judged supporting role in setting the tone of the film. The minimal musical score by Deep White is consistently beautiful and never placed where it might disrupt or over-emphasize the clear emotional highs and lows of Cao Li’s conversations with Guo and Jiuzi or her landlady’s thankless, heart-breaking interactions with a teen-aged daughter naturalized to the big city’s habits of disconnection and happy to ignore her heritage in favor of life as the mistress to any one of Shanghai’s many over-night millionaires.

Not lacking for comedy, memorable imagery or emotional impact, RETURN TICKET slowly but steadily engulfs the audience and is more than capable of eliciting moments of unguarded emotion and profound sadness when the timing is right without the tat of sentimentality to ruin the genuineness of what the audience can experience.

The bittersweet coda super-imposed over the final image of buses mounting an elevated road covers the story that most of the film’s viewers were probably expecting: the journey to Fuyang itself. Though Teng has a duty to his audience to cover this portion of the story, the inclusion of the card, rather than filmed sequences, is a clear indicator that RETURN TICKETS is not a film about the journey home but the reasons why the journey must be made and why some are not prepared to make it.

RETURN TICKETS trailer (Mandarin – English subs)

^ BANGKOK TRAFFIC (LOVE) STORY trailer (Thai – English subs)

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