Ruining Our Lives for an Ideal

Certified Copy A few days ago, I finally caught the film Certified Copy at the local art cinema.  Directed and written by Iranian Abbas Kiarostami and starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, the movie is an afternoon-long discussion by a man and a woman as they visit a Tuscan town.  Their conversation covers a lot of ground and it is never clear whether they are or are not a married couple.

As the story opens, we see that he is an author in town on a Saturday afternoon for a speaking engagement about his new book, in which he argues that copies of masterpieces are as valuable as the originals themselves, in that the copies can bring us to the originals and a greater appreciation of them.  She is in the audience but has to leave early, giving her number to the organizer of the event.  

The following morning, he shows up at her shop and she drives him to a nearby town to see a famous painting there that was, after hundreds of years being assumed to be an original work, determined eventually to be a copy.  It is on that journey that their conversation happens.

I won’t talk about the film as a whole, although it is worth watching.  What struck me, so much so that I grabbed a notepad from my bag and scribbled it down, was a phrase uttered by a secondary character. 

The man and woman stop for a coffee at a small shop.  The man steps outside to take a phone call and the old lady running the shop speaks with the woman.  She assumes that the man and woman are married, an assumption the woman does nothing to dispel.  In fact, the woman complains about her husband’s long absences for work, propensity to shave only every other day, and his other faults.

The old woman running the shop observes that it is a Sunday morning and the man has taken his wife out for some coffee, whereas most men would instead choose to sleep in.  “It would be stupid of us to ruin our lives for an ideal,” she admonishes the woman.

It would be stupid of us to ruin our lives for an ideal.

That line seems a very apt piece of advice, both about relationships (certainly!) as well as our lives in general.  It also seems to balance nicely the entry I recently wrote about being the best possible version of ourselves.  While perfection cannot be achieved and we should certainly strive to be our best, what is the value of striving if the cost is the ruination of our lives?


Demolition of the Siam Theatre

Pent-up anger fueled the flames of arson when forty days of anti-government protests ended on May 19 with the surrender by protest leaders to the police.  The crowds that had blocked one of Bangkok’s main intersections for more than a month dispersed but before they did, violent elements in the crowd set fire to several buildings around the city in what appeared to be a deliberate and preplanned attack. 

In addition to more than 80 people killed and 2100 injured during the protests, one of the victims of the arson attack was the the 44-year old Siam Theatre, which was one of only two remaining single-screen first run cinemas in Thailand’s capital.

Photo courtesy Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project

Opened in 1966 in Siam Square, one of the first shopping areas in what is now the nexus of Bangkok’s lively Ratchaprasong shopping district, the Siam Theatre along with its sister complex, the Scala, were a reminder of a bygone era.  Tickets were still paper and you chose your seats from a photocopied seating chart, which the ticket cashier then dutifully crossed out with a pen.  The ushers, uncles that seemed to have been working at the theatres since the very opening, dressed in black slacks, white shirts, and yellow jackets.


In the aftermath of the fire, the bulldozers have moved in and started to demolish the burned out shell and surrounding shops.  The property owner, adjacent Chulalongkorn University, has long held a master plan to redevelop this area into a more modern shopping complex as they did just down the block a year ago.  Their good fortune, then, that this damage paved the way for the master plan to be implemented.


One wonders why we need another mall in a neighborhood (and an entire city) that is teeming with them.  Siam Square and the Siam Theatre were unique elements of the city and were especially important to teenage and university life.  As I understand it from my friends who grew up in Bangkok, hanging out in Siam Square was a rite of passage in that period of life where you transition from childhood to adulthood.  Another few blocks of those memories have been razed.

Thankfully, the Scala Theatre and the nearby Lido three-plex, both operated and owned by the same family that owned the Siam Theatre, continue to operate.


Recap of 2009 BKK Int’l Film Festival

The Bangkok International Film Festival 2009 closed Wednesday.  After seeing thirteen programs in six days, I was generally impressed with the programming and disappointed with the operations. 

As for the festival’s operations, they remain more focused on attracting celebrities unrelated to the films and creating events for hi-so types, rather than on connecting ordinary people with interesting films from around the world. 

  • The interesting films are there – good programming by the Thai Film Directors’ Association – but scheduling is poorly thought out (120 films in 2 venues in 6 days) with few early or late shows and a lot of overlapping of films that would appeal to a similar audience.

  • Publicity about scheduling was largely missing or, when it did exist, was late.  The final schedule wasn’t released until nine days before the shows began.  Even then, information was missing on the poorly-designed website.  The comprehensive programs guides, which were nicely done, weren’t available until the opening day of the festival, much too late to do any good.

  • Finally, ticketing policies were a mess.  The two cinemas are operated by different chains, one provided some advance tickets, the other did not.  Both offered different discount voucher schemes which could only be used for films at their cinema.

As I mentioned, the programming was good.  Here are the films I saw that I think you should really make the effort to seek out.  With the exception of the final one, they will likely play in your area, either in limited commercial release or as part of a film festival.  At the very least, look for them on Netflix.

Agrarian Utopia
Uruphong Raksasad (THAILAND)

Facing seizure of their own lands, two families find themselves farming together on the same field, hoping to get through just another rice-farming season.  But no matter how much the world is evolving, how much the country is going through economic, political and social changes, they still cannot grasp that ideology of happiness.  This beautifully shot documentary captures the reality of tennant farming and sheds light onto a side of life in developing economies that are far outside the tourism authorities’ camera lens.

Burma VJ
Anders Høgsbro Østergaard (DENMARK)

Armed with small handy cams, undercover “Video Journalists” in Burma keep up the flow of news from their closed country despite risking torture and life in jail. Their material is smuggled out of Burma and broadcast back via satellite.  This opportunity to see more footage of the recent uprising in Burma, especially with the foreknowledge of how it all turns out, is stirring, and the story is well-constructed.  Geting outside the two-minute briefs from the nightly news provides additional insight into the plight of the Burmese people.

Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi

This is a feature-length documentary that follows the relationship between an Afghan interpreter and American journalist Christian Parenti.  This intimate portrait of two colleagues shifts dramatically when Ajmal is kidnapped along with an Italian reporter.  The situation goes from bad to worse as foreign powers pressure for fast results, the Afghan government bungles its response and the specter of Taliban power looms in the background. What follows is the tragic story of one man forgotten in the crossfire.  A bit difficult to watch but an important peek behind the curtain at the personal cost paid by those who try to get the story of their country out to the world.

I Killed My Mother
Xavier Dolan (CANADA)

Cannes Film Festival award-winning director Xaview Dolan tells the semi-autobiographical story of a brash 17-year old who dislikes his mother intensely.  He gauges her with contempt, only seeing her out-of-date sweaters, her kitschy decor and the vile bread crumbs that lodge in the corners of her noisy mouth.  Confused and torn by a love-hate relationship that obsesses him more and more each day, the young man wanders in and out of an adolescence that is both marginal and typical, combining artistic discovery, openness to friendship, ostracism, and sex.  All the while, he is consumed by his all encompassing contempt for this woman he somehow once loved.   Very original story and a strong debut film.

Sawasdee Bangkok
Various Directors (THAILAND)

Sawasdee Bangkok is a collection of nine short films that celebrate – and take a long, hard look at – various aspects of Thailand’s capital city.  The movies show the lives of Bangkokians big and small, young and old, rich and poor, which altogether form a colorful, complex tapestry of the people and the place known to many as the City of Angels.  More cohesive than Paris j’taime, this film serves as a fascinating insight into the city and, despite being funded by a public agency, doesn’t shy away from showing the city’s blemishes.

Bangkok … Bananas!

Many cities in Asia try to trumpet their lively arts scene, positioning themselves as cities of culture on the pages of tour guidebooks and travel magazines.  The Big Mango is no exception.  Last week the Ministry of Culture launched the first “Bangkok … Bananas!!” contemporary arts festival.

Above, a crowd gathers to watch a stage performance while a sculpture titled “Alien” watches them.

It was a combination of everything from live performance to sculpture installations to cinema screenings.  Interestingly, it was geared heavily towards Thais – i.e. no Thai subtitles on films or at live events. 

It is great that Thais are getting more exposure to their own contemporary arts scene, something that is sorely lacking here.  But I think that, given the drop off of tourists (arrivals down some 30% year-over-year) caused by both the global economy and the ongoing political unrest here, Bangkok … Bananas!! is the type of event that could draw tourists.  The only thing is, you have to tell them about it and you have to make sure it is accessible.

Nearly a full moon over Siam Paragon mall, site of many of the Bangkok … Bananas!! events.

In true Bangkok fashion, the setting for most of these art events was the shopping district – where Rama I and Ratchaprasong roads meet.  In fact, most of the staged events took place in the two public plazas located between three of the largest malls: Siam Discovery, Siam Center and Siam Paragon.


The best event, in my opinion, was the series of nightly film screenings.  These were done outdoors with a screen set up between two malls.  This is reminiscent of the history of Thai motion picture exhibition, which used to be done from the back of a truck that would travel from town to town, setting up the screen and showing the movies, the sound coming from a speaker on the top of the truck.

In fact, there was a restored movie truck, repainted with the name and claims of an old pharmaceutical company, as these were the usual sponsors of these village screenings.  Harking back to the old days, they had a classic Thai silent film one night, with veteran voiceover actors providing the dialogue live from a table at the rear of the plaza.

All of this was great fun, but largely unintelligble to me.  All the more sad because several of the films they showed were true classics of Thai cinema, films that are rarely seen and are not available on DVD. 


Of special interest to me were the projectors.  My first job was in a cinema and I spent 13 years working for the AMC Theatres chain.  So I was thrilled to see two classic 35mm projectors and watch the projectionists do changeovers at the end of the reels.