Fun Bar Karaoke

Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Stars: Fey Ussawaweth, Ray McDonald, Champaigne X
Time: 93 minutes?
Year: 1997

With the international success of “Last Life in the Universe” Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang staked his claim to being one of the more interesting and talented young filmmakers currently on the scene.  His four films* have drawn comparisons at times to both Wong Kar-wai and Quentin Tatantino from critics, but what has impressed most is how different his films are from one another in style and content.  His films are hard to define – they are nearly genreless in a genre filled world. His stories range from a woman finding a bag of money outside her door and ensuing dead bodies within to an army deserter on an Odyssey like journey to get home to the woman he loves to a Japanese ex-pat dealing with feelings of suicide and newfound affection for a woman while trying to avoid the Yakazu in Bangkok. These are modern day slice of life fables that he surrounds with intense imagery, bright colors, rapid mood swings, droll black humor and a dream like quality.

All of these characteristics are present in Ratanaruang’s debut film, Fun Bar Karaoke. Prior to this, he had spent nearly a decade living in New York City studying art history at Pratt Institute and then later working as a graphics designer. When he returned to Thailand he went into advertising, and then directed some commercials and music videos. At the time the Thai film industry was in a terrible slump and for all practical purposes was off the map in terms of global visibility. In 1997 this film along with Nonzee Nimibutr’s “Dang Bireley’s Young Gangsters” ushered in a new fresh period in Thai film that has jumpstarted the film industry, helped foster an environment of cinematic creativity and brought Thai films much attention on the global stage.  The vast majority of Thai film is still commercial pabulum, but there are a contingent of young directors who have been pushing the boundaries of Thai film in fascinating directions.
Whimsical almost to a fault, Fun Bar Karaoke sparkles and charms in its attempt to defy gravitas and gravity as it pulls together various threads in dreamy deadpan fashion. Coming from his background of commercials and music videos, Ratanaruang not surprisingly seems more at ease with imagery and style than dramatic tension or a straightforward narration as the film playfully bounces around with sly humor. The film though much to its credit does not rely on quick editing or attention deficit camera movement – often a trademark of directors weaned on music videos – but Ratanaruang very patiently allows the story to slowly form and keeps the camera relatively static even if off balance at times. It is his color schemes, camera angles and lighting that give it a distinctly modern look.
Pu (Fey Ussawaweth) dreams every night of her dead mother and while awake worries about her dissolute father. In a daily ritual she wakes up and finds his drunken body splayed out on his bed or in the bathroom and she cleans up after him, undresses him and puts him to bed. Comfortably wealthy, he spends his evenings at a karaoke bar drinking and flirting with the hostesses and often taking them to a cheap hotel in the after hours. Night after night in her dreams Pu sees her mother building a house out of sticks and when a wannbe fortuneteller warns her that when the house is built her father will die she fears for his life. To ward this event off, the fortuneteller asks her to boil fifty-one eggs and alternately rub them clockwise and then counter-clockwise around her face. Unfortunately, the next day he realizes his math was wrong and it should have been fifty-two eggs leading Pu to feel that her father is fated for death!
His actions certainly seem to be pushing him in this direction as he has become enamored with the Yok, the mistress of Mafia Toeng, a gang head who has the nasty habit of killing anyone who sleeps with his woman. Yok is played by the extremely alluring Champaign X, who co-incidentally also was the femme fatale in “Dang Bireley’s Young Gangsters”. Pu meanwhile has begun a mild flirtation with a shy young man (Ray McDonald) who she meets in a 7-11 – not knowing that his day job is killing people for Mafia Toeng and that he is studying English to immigrate to America. The director in an interview mentioned that the idea for the film came from a story that someone told him about themselves and that he wanted to use it as a device to show the mix of modern and traditional that is Bangkok today.
The attention that the director has received because of his previous three films has made many fans anxious to see this debut feature but for a long time it was seemingly unavailable. In fact though it is out on VCD with English subs – obtainable at – but the transfer is full screen and not that good. There may also be some time missing though I would not have gathered this from watching the film. On internet sites the time is always listed at 103 minutes, but the VCD runs for only 93 minutes. One site – a film festival from a few years back – relates some background information on the killer that is not in this VCD – so perhaps some of his story was dropped from the transfer for some reason.

My rating for this film: 7.5

*Last Life in the Universe – 2003
Monrak Transistor – 2001
6ixtynin9 – 1999
Fun Bar Karaoke – 1997