Three Thais and the bear

BERLIN - One of the largest film events in the world, the 65th Berlin International Film Festival awarded this year's top-prize Golden Bear trophy to Jafar Panahi's "Taxi", which banned Iranian director made with a dashboard camera in a taxi he drove around Tehran.

Three Thai titles were also screened at this festival though not as part of the main competition.

"How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)", directed by Josh Kim, and Anucha Boonyawatana's "The Blue Hour" ("Onthakan") were selected for the Panorama section while Kongdej Jaturanrasmee's acclaimed documentary "So Be It" was shown in the Generation section, which mainly focuses on youth films.

Anucha, who showed his second short film "Erotic Fragments No 1,2,3" in the Berlinale Shorts in 2012, was delighted to be invited back to screen his first feature, an extended version of an episode in the TV horror series "Puen Hean Rong Rean Lorn".

"Television channel GTH On Air asked me if I was interested in making a mid-length teenage horror feature and I immediately said yes," recalls Anuncha, who directs commercials for the Bangkok-based G Motif Production.

"I had read in the papers about teenagers killing their parents and was fascinated by the case of a teenage killer who looked the media straight in the eye and denied the charges.

His face revealed absolutely no feeling," says Anucha, whose thesis film "Down the River" ("Tam Sai Nam") received critical acclaim and won an award at Thai Short Film and Video Festival in 2004. It was eventually picked up by a US company for release on DVD.

"Thanks to the support of my friends at GTH On Air and G Village Co-Creation Hub, we were able to turn the episode into a feature film" he says.

The additional scenes and content rendered the feature unsuitable for small-screen broadcast and with reason. "The Blue Hour" tells the story of Tam (Atthaphan Poonsawas), a boy often harassed by his friends and pressured and beaten up by his parents until the day he meets the mysterious Phum (Aobnithi Wiwattanawarang) in an abandoned swimming pool.

Their relationship develops and soon Tam is involved in the underbelly of the criminal world.

"It's such an honour to be in the Berlinale", Anucha says. "It's only a small film and it was shot in just seven days. Without the help of everyone who supported me during the whole process, I might not have made it here."

"The Blue Hour" will be screened in other film festivals and is expected to be released in Thailand sometime this year.

"How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)" director Josh Kim says he was inspired by Rattawut Lapcharoensap's book "Sightseeing".

"The book revealed a side of Thailand I'd never seen before," says Kim, a Korean-American who first visited the Kingdom in 2005. "I knew I had to come back to make the film. I called the publisher, and they put me in touch with the agent.

It took nine months for me to acquire the film rights. That period, I came back to shoot my short film and it helped me learn more about the country and I had a really good time."

With several years of filmmaking experience to his credit, including a co-producer credit of the big-budget South Korean remake of "A Better Tomorrow", Kim had no trouble picking two short stories from "Sightseeing" and turning them into his first feature film.

"I picked 'Draft Day', which is about two brothers. I have an older brother as well and I really connected with the story," the Texas-born Kim says.

"Thailand is one of the few countries that has a lottery for military service. In South Korea it's mandatory, while in the US it's totally voluntary. This is something in between."

"How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)" tells the story of siblings Ek (Thira Chutikul) and Oat (Ingarat Damrongsakkul). Ek is gay and in a relationship with Jai, a rich boy, but their relationship is put to the test when he learns that Jai's parents have bribed an official so that their son doesn't have to report to the army.

Conscription day is drawing near. Oat tries to find money to bribe the official so his brother can escape his two years of military service, but what he does actually makes things worse.

"How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)" will now travel to more film festivals and Kim is in talks with a distribution company in Thailand.

Kongdej's documentary "So Be It" was well received in the Generation category, where most of the audience was made up of schoolchildren.

"They are eager to ask questions, and sometimes their questions are more interesting than an adult's," said Kongdej after the screening, adding that the young audience was curious to learn more about Thailand and about Buddhist beliefs, such as karma.

"So Be It" follows the life of William, a boy who joined TrueVisions' "Plook Panya Dharma Novice" Buddhist documentary series. In contrast to the well-mannered William, who is genuinely interested in becoming a monk, Kongdej profiles a Karen youngster, Bundit, a bratty boy who is desperate to escape the temple where he lives.

The film, which premiered at last year's Busan International Film Festival and had a limited run at Bangkok's House cinema, is expected to continue making the rounds at festivals. It will also be aired soon on TrueVisions' Thai Film channel.