Asia on the big screen

What to watch and look out for on the big screen

App War

App War, film T Moment

The Thai film App War deserves more audience attention than it has got since its opening last week. The romantic drama set against a backdrop of two tech start-ups competing to get funding for a new app has so far made 10 million baht at the box office. At this rate, it will soon leave the cinemas with receipts of around 15 to 17 million -- not dismal, but disappointing given the fairly decent quality of the film.

This is a worrying blip on the radar: an OK film, not great but entertaining, well-scripted, and all in all agreeable enough, should have a place in the market. It shouldn't be punished because it couldn't cook up a hype, inspire a social media hashtag, or because the trailer made it look too "serious". App War, the second film by new studio T-Moment, is a rare Thai film that focuses on the workplace and professional rivalry, as two groups of young tech types try to outsmart each other in developing a new social media app. It features a cast of good-looking young actors playing programmers and marketers, and though the story loses its focus and goes a little erratic in its romantic part, it's still an above-average package, a good effort in giving something slightly different to the viewers.

In other words, the industry needs more films like this -- mid-budget films with some (not too much) ambition, films that keep the wheel turning. To maintain a healthy industry, we can't just rely on mega-hits (100 million baht or above in box office), which are hard to come by these days, and, at the opposite end, on award-winning films with artistic courage and film festival exposure. We need those two, of course, but more than that we also need something in the middle to keep things moving.

App War is still in cinemas this week.

Shoplifters & Burning

It's not often that we have two acclaimed Asian films in our cinemas mere months after they premiered triumphantly at Cannes Film Festival. But here they are, drawing crowd and praise: Shoplifters, the Palme d'Or winner by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, which opened last week; and Burning, a Korean film by the revered Lee Chang-dong, which has been playing for a few weeks but is still going pretty solid.

Films from 2018 Cannes Film Festival Published caption : Shoplifters. CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

Shoplifters, showing at House RCA and Scala, will send you out swelling with conflicting emotions: heartbreak, warmth, pain, despair and acceptance. Kore-eda's greatness lies in his ability to make feel-bad movies that leave enough room for hope, or at least for that fragile, wistful belief that the tragedy of having a family can't be as bad as not having one.

In Shoplifters -- a film that combines many of the director's signature elements -- a family of five ekes out a living in the underbelly of Japanese society -- as petty thieves, as a peep-show dancer and even a professional emotional blackmailer (Kirin Kiki, playing a grandmother who preys on the guilt of her ex-husband's new family). One night, the father (Franky Lily) and mother (Sakura Ando) bring home a little girl who's been abused by her parents, and the arrival of this new "family member" will soon unravel the secrets of everyone in this unusual household. The central question in Shoplifters pertains to the thing that bonds a family together. What connects two (or six) people who share the same roof? Blood? Love? Death? Money? In a way, Shoplifters is built on an outrageously melodramatic plot, but in Kore-eda's hands, it comes off as natural, touching and genuine.

I've already written about Burning, a slow-burn drama about loneliness and class tension. If you haven't seen it, hurry up. The film should leave cinemas within a week.

Manta Ray

A few words now -- and more later -- on the Thai film Kraben Rahu (Manta Ray). The feature film by Phuttiphong Arunpheng will premier at Venice International Film Festival at the end of this month, the only Thai film to be invited to the oldest cine-festival. The film, a Thai-French co-production, tells the story of a fisherman who finds an injured man in the forest -- probably a Rohingya. They form a friendship, but when the fisherman doesn't return from the sea, the stranger begins to take over his friend's life.

Phuttiphong has long worked as director of photography for feature films and commercials. Manta Ray is his first movie as a director, and it's a thematic continuation of his short film Ferris Wheel, which tells the story of a migrant worker in a northern border town.

After Venice, the film is likely to be booked at various other film festivals and will probably be released here later in the year.

Mantay Ray, film photo: vimeo.com/user35323361