Bangkok Loco

Reviewed by Simon Booth

Director: Pornchai Hongrattanaporn
Cast:  Khridsada Terence, Nountaka Warawanitchanoun, Niphon Chaisirikul
Year: 2004
Runtime: 94 minutes

Bay is a young, good-natured but rather geeky young lad. One day he's lost in a bit of a drumming session, when suddenly he notices that he's not holding drumsticks but meat cleavers, and not hitting drums with them but chopping the body of his landlady into mince meat! But, he can't have murdered her, because if he'd violated any of the Buddhist commandments (e.g. "Don't kill people"), he would no longer be able to practise the Drums Of The Gods techniques. And he can, which is fortunate, because it's only a few days away from the once-every-decade drumming duel between the Drums Of The Gods and the Demon Drums - and Bay is due to play for the Gods!

If that plot synopsis sounds a little strange, it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the strangeness that lies within BANGKOK LOCO. I've watched a lot of films over the years (my mother would certainly say "too many"), and I do actively seek out the strange, unusual, unique, silly and extreme that the cinematic world has to offer. As a result, it's pretty hard these days to find something that's truly surprising or different to things I've seen before. This year the two films that have been most unlike anything else I've seen have both been from Thailand - CITIZEN DOG was the first, and BANGKOK LOCO is the second - and the most bizarre! LOCO indeed!
It's difficult but not impossible to draw some comparisons with other films. CITIZEN DOG is one of the first that springs to mind, because of the colorful visual style and the subtly creative use of CGI. MONRAK TRANSISTOR also springs to mind, because both films send their protagonists on surreal musical odysseys. Japanese film SURVIVE STYLE+ springs to mind because of the sharp, music-video influenced and luridly colourful cinematography and the quirky characters. The slapstick comedy and parodies of other movies and pop culture might put one in mind of a Stephen Chiau film, the secret scroll that gives the bearer supernatural drumming skills recalls any number of Wu Xia films, and... actually the film is *full* of references to other films, but it blends them all into its own strange, unique universe in a way that ultimately defies a real comparison with any other film, or even a genre. Right from the opening credits (which are placed in the scene as props during a chase that seems to be paying homage to Ong Bak) the film announces its intention to be different, and fulfills that promise over and over again right up to the end.
It's as if the film-makers have taken the entire history of cinema, lifted bits that they particularly liked and then woven them into a wholly new vision of what cinema could be. OK, that sounds a little too portentous - but for me it's films like this that remind me why I do spend so much time, effort & cash tracking down obscurities from wherever in the world they come, rather than heading down to the multiplexes with a gang of friends to watch the latest Hollywood brain-number and eat popcorn. It's not, after all, because I don't have any friends or I don't like popcorn! (That's just coincidence).
It must be admitted that BANGKOK LOCO does sometimes try so hard to be silly, strange, creative or just different that it does itself harm - breaking immersion with the film's world and reminding the viewer that they're watching a bunch of film-makers experimenting with every technique and style they can cram into the 90 minutes running time. For people that do not typically enjoy stylistic excess, and would rather just have a nice solid story that lets them forget about their external environment for a few hours, BANGKOK LOCO is likely to be torture. It's a film that is constantly going nudge-nudge wink-wink to the viewer, drawing attention to the fact it's a film, and a very silly one at that, but one that's fully self-aware in its silliness. It certainly can't be said to be taking itself seriously, but sometimes it works a little bit too hard to make sure we know it.
The film is packed full of references to and parodies of other films, but a lot of those are Thai films so the references might be lost on an audience that hasn't seen many of those - I've seen more than most, and some of them were nearly lost on me. There are also other references to Thai culture that went right over my head - I was aware that something was being spoofed or lampooned, but didn't know quite what. One doesn't have to have too much knowledge of world affairs to understand why a chicken with a runny nose warrants a horror-movie musical cue, or what's going on in the "tea parlour" scene, but other references are more subtle - but it's definitely not necessary to catch each & every reference to enjoy the film - enough is universal that it can still be appreciated without knowing, for example, that two characters who are hitching a ride on the side of a truck are from Bang Rajan, or that the phone number 999-9999 the two main characters come across is a reference to a Thai horror film of that name.
Special mention must go to the film's soundtrack, which is particularly integral to the film since it revolves around the Drums Of The Gods and features quite a few musical numbers. The style of the soundtrack is eclectic, from hard techno down to melancholy Luk-Tung ballads (Thai Country Music, basically). There's some great songs that
are as much a part of the film as the soundtrack to Monrak Transistor, for example. And some truly amazing drumming!
For me, there's not a lot bad I can say about BANGKOK LOCO, because it's just the sort of thing I love and that keeps me interested in cinema. It reminds me of the experience of watching TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER, which was the first Thai film I saw and the one that made me think "Wow, here's a country that I need to see more films from". In fact, TOTBT is probably the closest film to BANGKOK LOCO in quite a few ways, now that I think about it, but the two are paced & pitched so differently that it's still only a vague analogy.
As much as I enjoyed it, I can't give it a blanket recommendation, because I'm sure the self-conscious style will be utterly intolerable to some people. If you're looking for something fresh, and different to whatever else you've seen recently, then BANGKOK LOCO may well be worth a try though. Luckily the Thai DVD is cheap and has excellent picture, sound and English subtitles, so there's really no reason not to give it a chance :)

Rating: 9/10