I was in Luang Prabang last weekend _ for a film festival, of all things. A giant screen was put up in the main square near the Handicraft Market, and for five nights people _ mostly local, with a fair sprinkling of tourists _ turned up in the hundreds to watch movies under the black night. Luang Prabang, with its functional archaeology of ancient, glorious buildings, has no cinemas. That's even better, we could say, for the effort to boost the appetite for moving images and the idea of movies as a collective experience.
This is the third year of the Luang Prabang Film Festival (LPFF), spearheaded by Gabriel Kupperman, an American guy who's been living in the city for years.
The festival, in a prescient move, is devoted to Southeast Asian films, and this year we saw titles from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and of course Laos. Don't be surprised that people in Laos and Myanmar also make movies: they do, more and more so these days, and we in Thailand only have ourselves to blame if we're ignorant of that fact, or if we're deprived of a channel, official or otherwise, to watch them.
On the first night, Lao government officials took turn giving speeches; the festival, naturally, has the blessing of the Department of Cinema, who inspected every title before giving permission to screen it. And while we can bemoan the ongoing practice of censorship _ not just in communist Laos, but also in democratic Thailand or Malaysia or the Philippines _ a sign of open-mindedness was visible.
The LPFF this year screened a couple of horror movies, a genre that generally doesn't go down well with socialist ideology (think mainland China and how we hardly ever see a ghost movie from there).
Even more surprising was that the LPFF showed Enemies Of The People, a documentary about a Khmer Rouge general and Pol Pot's henchman; Boundary, a violent Filipino film about corrupt cops; and It Gets Better, a Thai transgender drama (all of this in a small indoor screening room and not the open-air cinema, however).
On the second night, Dec 2, which happened to be Lao National Day, something very interesting took place in the square. The first programme, which seemed like an ad hoc addition, was communist propaganda films, black and white, narrated in a headmasterish voice and recounting the founding of the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
But because of the poor setup, the films were cut off several times, with the sound going on and off, so we didn't get to experience this rare collection in full.
Next came another official documentary about the kaen _ a bamboo pipe that's also a favourite among Northeastern musicians _ and how it's the pride of Lao national heritage.
The best part came right after the kaen movie, a switch in mood so unexpected and spectacular: Lao B-Boy dancing. A young Lao crew, in the full regalia of the global hip-hop platoon, screened their high-energy promo-video in which they're seen dancing, jumping and twisting in front of Luang Prabang landmarks. The movie was made with impressive know-how, with the right camera angles and editing rhythm.
Then the crew of a dozen youths appeared and rocked the square with their live dance, in front of the movie screen, and the crowd was on their feet.
The memory of the propaganda films seemed very distant at that point.
When I told my friends that I was in Luang Prabang and staying in the luxurious Amuntaka resort (a sponsor of the festival), they were surprised _ no, they were dismayed _ that Luang Prabang is no longer the "sleepy", "quiet", "little-known" destination of a decade ago.
It seems we want Luang Prabang to remain nostalgic, soporific, undiscovered, perhaps with no B-Boy crew swaggering about. In short, we want the places we love to remain stuck in our dream _ Lao is land-locked, but is it time-locked too? True, Luang Prabang is now a popular spot, its airport is being expanded, its film festival gaining momentum, several fancy hotels having sprung up along the Mekong, and I wonder what it'd be like next year, five years, or 10 years from now.
But the march of time is ruthless and the town, which is still peaceful and pleasant now, will have to perform a balancing act that many other Southeast Asian "pretty towns" have failed to do.
As of now, the film festival only adds another good reason to visit the now-not-so-sleepy town. The story of Luang Prabang, on the big and small screens, will continue.
Kong Rithdee is deputy Life editor.
About the author
- Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor