Korean thriller, Hollywood style


A blockbuster in the best (or worst) of Hollywood traditions, Shiri is a fast-paced thriller with plenty of style, intrigue and explosions. While the plot is at best erratic and at worst occasionally indecipherable, there are enough solid scenes and emotional drama to maintain a momentum of tension and air of mystery.

The film kicks off in gruesome fashion, with scenes from a North Korean elite military training camp in 1992. Whether they are true North Korean militants, or an independent hardline group working towards their own agenda at this stage is unclear. Prisoners are murdered as part of the soldiers’ brutal training programme – the brutality seems especially highlighted while snow falls softly around the troops.

Star student Hee, who shoots with incredible precision, is sent to the South where her mission seems simply to be to kill South Korean agents. Cut to 1998 and enter hero and special agent, Ryu (Han Suckyu) who along with his partner Lee attempts to foil a new operation that suggests Hee is back in action. Eventually the audience learns that Hee is from a group frustrated by the slow pace of reunification. Led by Park (Choi Minsk), Ryu’s old nemesis from a failed hijacking attempt, the group is attempting to provoke a war between the two sides in order to hasten reunification (never mind the logic there).

To do this, they get hold of ten capsules of CTX, a nitroglycerin-like substance that self-detonates when exposed to both heat and light (just like the nitroglycerine in Vertical Limit – sigh – seen it all before), killing all within a massive radius. But attempts to foil the group by Ryu and Lee keep going wrong, until it becomes obvious there is a leak among the special agents. At the same time, Ryu has decided to marry his girlfriend Hyun, an aquarium and fish shop owner with a former alcohol problem. The fish theme persists throughout the film, and allows for some nice scenes, such as the agents’ office filled with calming tanks.

Despite the political undertones (that those in the North are starving while the South is enjoying hamburgers, cheese and coke), Shiri makes clear that it is much more a study of love, friendship and trust under circumstances that make allegiences necessary but fraught. It’s disappointing that the boundaries are pushed through situations rather than any semblance of sophisticated dialogue. Allowances could be made that something is lost in the translation as the English subtitles are startlingly poor, but even that seems unlikely.

The main actors are faced with a challenging script and put in very competent performances, pushing emotions that aren’t often seen done well in this genre. Lee’s devastation is beautifully portrayed as he finds out who the leak is, while Hyun shows versatility and grace in her role. The scenes with these two together sparkle – but they are quickly overshadowed by heavy-handed action scenes.

There are too many holes and convenient plot devices to start listing – particularly without giving the ending away – so if you’re planning on catching Korea’s most expensive and financially successful film ever, be prepared to seriously suspend your disbelief. (But to name just one: Except for providing a poignant ending, what’s the point of the character who lives in care by the sea? Oh, and just one more: It was Lee who gave Hyun the CD, right? So how could Hyun have been the one keen on him? Too fluky!)

In reward (or not) you’ll walk out knowing that when it comes to making a thriller, Korean film-makers are certainly on par with the best from Hollywood, while being able to maintain a style that’s quirky and individual.

Eyes half-closed look at yesteryear

The Legend of Bagger Vance

Director Robert Redford has created a cinematic oil painting with The Legend of Bagger Vance. Reminiscent of Redford’s previous film The Horse Whisperer in terms of style – and unfortunately, vacuous content – the lush film attempts to portray an inspirational if obvious message that transcends golf: that every person has an authentic swing to find.

It’s a simple message to convey, but perhaps too fortune-cookie like for a feature-length film. The film is an adaptation of Steven Pressfield’s novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, a novel centring on Hindu spiritual thought (Bagger Vance represented the Baghavad Gita). It was always going to be an ambitious step to translate the spiritual book onto the screen, and the results of Redford’s efforts are disappointingly questionable.

For the message itself may be timeless, but the method of telling it in 2001 shows a Hollywood mindset still stuck in Savannah, Georgia 1931, the place and year in which most of the film is set.

The film is narrated by Hardy Greaves (Jack Lemmon as an adult, J Michael Moncrief as a child), who is just eight years old when Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) returns from World War I, a spiritually-broken man who was once the star golf-player of the South, but is now more likely to be found drinking and gambling with the town’s blacks – now there’s a downfall! – than swinging a club on any green.

He left behind girlfriend Adele (Charlize Theron), to whom he did not even correspond with while away and has not sought out since his quiet return. But in his absence, Adele’s father has committed suicide and she has sought to fulfill his dream of having the best golf course in the south. When his creditors appear likely to thwart that dream, she responds by organising a golf tournament with $10,000 between Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill).

The local townspeople demand that a local be included in the match, and young Hardy suggests Junuh, whom he has idolised from an even younger age. Hardy races off to find and ask him, closely followed by various townsfolk and Adele, but he is not persuaded. That’s until the mysterious Bagger Vance (Will Smith) turns up delivering homespun truths while Junuh is out practising his swing.

Even putting aside the problematic stereotype of black Americans existing to enlighten less spiritual whites (even if they might be an angel – we must assume Bagger Vance is one, as little else about him is deemed worth explaining), the film embraces an era of racism without questioning it directly or indirectly. And Adele, although feisty and strong-willed, eventually crumbles into Junuh’s arms despite there being little shown in the characters of either to suggest why they should be attracted to the other.

While performances are as solid as the light script allows – even Will Smith is believable as somebody serious – it’s the young J Michael Moncrief who really steals the show with an earnest portrayal of Hardy Greaves.

This tale of redemption seems to lack real challenge and truly thoughtful wisdom. Junuh is hardly shown to be in true crisis, particularly compared to Savannah’s black population at the time, of whom few are seen, and the lines of advice offered might give audiences a warm and fuzzy feeling, but they’re nothing one doesn’t read in a basic self-help book. The lack of sophistication in the story is not reflected, however, in the fine cinematography that still makes this a very watchable, if soon-to-be-forgotten, film.

Wedding centres in Bangkok

Organising a wedding can be as smooth as silk, or as messy as a mudbath. For the reception, there are two main groups of people you should get on your side as soon as possible: those at your reception venue, and those at a wedding studio of your choice. While choosing a venue will largely depend on your personal style (see Wedding Receptions), wedding studios are less differentiated but can be just as vital in ensuring your wedding is memorable.

What do wedding studios do?

First made popular in Taiwan, wedding studios kicked off in Bangkok seven years ago and their focus remains on the wedding photos themselves – which are taken three to four months before the wedding day. "The process of manually retouching the photographs does take some time," says Jittima Manachaiyarak, assistant manager at Surrealist Studio.

The busiest months for weddings are May, November and December, so as with venues, it’s advisable to book well in advance.

Prior to the day wedding studios can arrange invitation cards, thank you cards and personalised giveaway gifts for your guests. On the day itself, they will hire the bride and groom the same outfits they wore for the photographs, and provide a make-up and hair service. A photographer can also attend the wedding.

Most recently, studios have started to provide CD-ROM or video packages about the couple and how they met and fell in love, which are shown to the guests at the wedding. "These are very popular among the hi-so," says Piccha Prakalylerdluk, marketing manager at the Marriage Studio.

What do you pay?

Three main categories of studios have developed in Bangkok: low-priced, mid-range and high-end studios. The low-priced are mostly located in the Banglamphu area, where attention to touching up photos is minimal. Although the quality is lower, the pricer is lower as well.

Then there are the mid-range and high-end studios, both of which are mostly in the Thong Lor and Ekamai areas, were much more expensive when the market first developed in Bangkok. "Now there is a high supply, so we have to compete," says Jittima. "People are getting better value than they did in the past – most studios are willing to give the customer as much as they can."

Couples at the Surrealist Studio spend on average around Bt20,000 on a basic package. However, Jittima says, once they see the photographs, they will often order more and end up spending a total of Bt40,000.

At Thailand’s first Thai-owned operation, Marriage Studio, the most popular package is Bt39,500. "Some people are price sensitive, but most couples don’t care about the price because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing – quality is much more important to them," says Piccha. "And you do get what you pay for."

Shop around

Studios will offer promotions at different times of the year, so Jittima advises shopping around. "Some couple cover three studios a day. It’s very competitive, so do ask if there are promotions, and try to negotiate."

You may also wish to consider where the photographs themselves will be taken. "We have our own garden out the back, so photos can be taken there," says Usamas Aiemlaor, account executive at Viva Forever Studio, where package prices range from Bt16,000 to Bt88,000.

Jittima also suggests that couples sit down early on and plan their time carefully. "There will be so many tasks to do. Write a To Do list, and then ask your friends and family to help."

You want more?

Or perhaps your wedding studio can help if something extra needs doing. "We had a couple come in last week asking if we could decorate the restaurant cowboy-style for her reception. We have an art department, so they’ll do it," Jittima says.

Feeding the wedding guests

Choosing the menu style for your wedding reception is important as it will largely dictate the overall ambience of your special day. Want something breezy and informal? Go for the increasingly popular cocktail menu. Is paying homage to your family’s traditions important? Perhaps you’ll hold an authentic Chinese banquet instead.

JW Marriott Hotel account manager Narumol Thamrongsat says most couples already have a good idea about the style of menu they want before they approach a hotel. "Thai-Chinese will mostly go for the set menu or buffet-style, while Thais tend to go for the cocktail receptions," she says.

There are three basic options: a cocktail reception; a buffet or a banquet. The cheapest is a cocktail reception, which can cost as little as 360 baht per person. Buffets cost between 400 and 800 baht a head and Chinese banquets can set you back as much as 9,000 baht for 10 people.

Cocktail receptions came of age during the economic downturn, but are now embraced by many younger couples for more than just financial reasons. The Peninsula’s banquet sales manager Khanitta Wantanapreeda says that they’re popular because they’re relatively uncomplicated. "Couples feel more comfortable with their style. They’re more informal, and people can walk around and talk to each other. Also, the event doesn’t take as long as others – they usually only last for around two hours."

Khun Pharanya from the Century Park Hotel puts it simply. "If most of the guests are your friends, choose a cocktail reception. But if most of them are your parents’ guests, choose the buffet."

The food on offer at cocktail receptions tends to be light: hot and cold canapes, a carvery and sweets are usually offered. Current menus in Bangkok include imaginative dishes like parma ham with rockmelon, cheese mousse with green olives on rye bread, beef kebab with grilled pita bread, scallop dumplings with chilli and roasted pork loin with mustard sauce. "Food stations" featuring heavier food can be additionally provided at extra cost.

Narumol adds that cocktail receptions are more flexible when it comes to numbers. "If, for example, you expect 400 people but 430 turn up, you won’t have to pay any extra because the hotel doesn’t have to provide any extra food." If, however, even more people turn up, the hotel would discuss with the couple on the day as to whether more food is required, and would charge extra for soft drinks.

This is in contrast to buffets and banquets, where heads are counted and must usually be confirmed at least 72 hours before the event. If less than the expected number turn up, the confirmed number of heads must still be paid for.

Buffets are the middle ground between cocktails and Chinese-banquets. "If you have older people in the group, you may prefer to have a buffet rather than cocktail reception so they can sit down," Regent wedding consultant Rakklaw Thankunpanit says. "But there are some chairs provided at cocktail receptions."

Buffets are declining in popularity and are being replaced by cocktail receptions. At face value, they are not as cheap as cocktail menus, although if food stations are included, the price may be comparable. Most hotels offer both Thai and international style buffets, the latter of which tends to be more popular.

Chinese banquets are popular among more traditionally-minded Thai-Chinese, who want to be more generous towards their guests. "Younger couples might prefer to have a cocktail reception, but their parents want to have the set menu instead," says Khanitta.

Once the style itself is chosen, the precise dishes chosen become important. According to Narumol, people can be particularly concerned about the Chinese set menus. "It’s not unusual for special menu requests to be made, such as extra shark fin in the shark fin soup – and people will check that the food is coming from the hotel’s Chinese restaurant."

Throw away your glasses

More and more Thais are gleefully throwing away their glasses, thanks to developments in the refractive surgery industry. Technology is improving, and prices are falling as competition among centres increases.

What does refractive correction surgery involve?

"Lasik" (laser in-situ keratomileusis), the latest development in refractive surgery, can correct myopia (short sightedness), hyperopia (far-sightedness) and astigmatism – but not yet presbyopia, which all people over 40 will develop.

While the patient is under a topical anaesthesia, the ten-minute (per eye) procedure involves creating a flap in the top one-third of the cornea, prior to exposing the underlying cornea to an excimer laser. This effectively changes the shape of the cornea. The flap is then repositioned closed, where it is left to adhere without sutures. Due to the lack of disturbance on the corneal surface, recovery time is quick – it takes about six hours for the wound to heal.

Lasik has largely replaced PRK (photorefractive keratectomy), where an excimer laser directly reshapes the cornea. "The procedure results in an open wound, which takes around four days to grow back," explains Dr Chate Kietrsunthorn from Bumrungrad Hospital. This makes Lasik more optimal in the majority of cases.

The risks

Lasik surgery is reputed to be the safest in the history of eye surgery – but low risk does not mean no risk. The presentation shown to prospective patients at the Refractive Surgery Centre (TRSC) is sobering. "No one has ever gone blind from Lasik, but you can always be the first," warns Dr Ekktet Chansue, the centre’s director.

Anoma Rutnin Sethpornpong, executive director of the Rutin-Gimbel Excimer Laser Eye Centre, says that it’s a very personal decision. "If you are happy with glasses or contact lenses, stay with them. But your lifestyle can change a lot as a result of surgery."

There is a 1 in 5000 risk of developing a serious infection, and a one in 100 chance of developing serious complications – both of which could lead to a loss of vision.

Other risks include:

· developing a permanent "dirty windshield" type problem (more common with PRK);

· a reduction in night vision;

· developing night glare, where starbursts or halo patterns can be seen around lights;

· a complication in creating the corneal flap; and

· several minor side effects such as tearing, burning and dry eyes, which usually go away within a few days.

There are also no guarantees when it comes to achieving perfect vision. "Your eyesight will not be any better than what it is with your current glasses," says Dr Ekktet.

Mr Amatzia Sadan, 61, is one of Bumrungrad’s happy customers. He considered the risks, but the thought of life without three different pairs of glasses – for reading, long distance, and the sun – was too good. "Within two minutes of stepping outside after the first consultation, I said, ‘I’m going to do it!’ Now I still need my glasses for reading, but not all the time, and I wear sunglasses but without any number. I would recommend the operation one hundred per cent."

Not suitable for all

To be a suitable candidate, you need to be over 18, have had stable vision for at least one year, and not be pregnant. Up to ten per cent of prospective patients may be turned away due to other existing eye problems or characteristics.

Choosing a centre

"Find a friend who can recommend a good doctor," advises Rutnin-Gimbel’s Anoma. "Check how many eyes your doctor has done, how many complications there were, and ask what the worst complication was. Check that they are up to standard."

Rates of success in achieving certain levels of vision varies, so do check this as well.

The TRSC’s Dr Ekktet also encourages patients to ask as many questions as they like. "There is a lot of information available – possibly more than you can digest quickly. Find out as much as possible and ask questions – no questions are too dumb."

Pedicures for punished feet

They’re easy to forget about, but your feet deserve some special attention occasionally: the average person walks more than six kilometres per day, or an astounding 184,000 kilometres in a lifetime. And bearing the brunt of this are those two complex but compact anatomical networks at the end of your legs, containing 26 small bones and more than 150 ligaments.

One way to treat your feet is to give yourself a home pedicure. You’ll save the cash you’d otherwise spend on a salon pedicure, and the time you’d have to spend getting there as well.

They’re not just a luxury

Arline Finch, a beauty consultant with Spa of Siam, advises that pedicures can do much more than soothe tired feet. "They can help reduce fluid retention, and help the lymphatic system get toxins out of your body. And they improve the visual appearance of your feet, which can be important in places like Thailand, where open-toed shoes are popular and perfectly pedicured toes are really noticed."

She recommends the following:

· Take either a foot spa if you have one, or a bowl of warm water and add some essential oils. Lavender is good choice for its relaxing and rebalancing properties, while lemon and lime are uplifting.

· Soak your feet for five to 10 minutes to soften up hardened skin and cuticles.

· Use an almond-kernel based body scrub to sweep away the dead cells from the surface of your feet’s skin. Rinse off.

· Dry your feet with a towel, and clip your nails back using clippers. Make the shape slightly rounded: keep some support in the sides of your nails to prevent weakening.

· Use an emery board to smooth the nails.

· Apply cuticle cream remover around the cuticle area, and massage.

· Take an orange stick, protect the end with a piece of cotton wool, and gently push back your cuticles.

· Using cuticle clippers, trim hangnails.

· Use a shoal scrubbing pad to remove dead skin cells still left on the bottoms of your feet.

· Massage an edible oil such as almond, avocado or sesame, or a naturally-based cream into your feet.

· Weave a folded tissue between your toes to separate them.

· Use a nail polish remover to clean off the toes, then add a base coat, two coats of colour and a top coat.

If you’re in a hurry

Nirin Saiseang, a manicurist/pedicurist at The Oriental Hotel, recommends the following no-frills procedure be done fortnightly by those who are in a hurry but are still want good-looking feet:

· Soak your feet in warm water with a dash of Dettol – good for its antiseptic qualities – for about five minutes.

· Rub a quality body lotion around your nails to help further soften your cuticles.

· Moving your fingers in a circular motion, massage your nails and push your cuticles back.

· Take a wooden toothpick, snap it in half, and cover one broken end with cotton wool. Use it to push back the cuticles a little further.

· Use the sharp end of a nail file to clean the nails if necessary.

· Take a soft brush and shower gel or soap, and wash your feet.

· Change the water, add some more Dettol and soak your feet for a further five minutes.

· Men should cleanse the foot with an alcohol before adding a massage or cream lotion, while women should add a massage lotion prior to painting their nails if desired. (Nirin advises that you should use a cream on your feet every second day. Apply to your feet before bed.)

"Nurture yourself," are Finch’s final words. "If you’re busy and successful, it’s important to take time out to look after yourself and recharge your batteries."

Protein makes perfect

With lifestyles changing and hair colouring being more popular than ever before, your hair could benefit from adding a regular salon protein treatment to your hair care routine.

"It depends on what you expect from a treatment," says stylist Schai from Schai Coiffeur. "Nowadays nearly everyone has a colour, perm or some kind of chemical treatment. Plus there’s pollution, and even if you go swimming, your hair’s natural condition changes."

Panipa Pavanarit, president of the Hairdressers’ Club of Thailand and manager of Panipa Hair and Beauty, explains that a protein treatment will bring the hair back to its natural condition. "The difference between a normal conditioner and a treatment is that the conditioner stays on the outer layer of the hair, making it shiny, soft and easy to comb. Protein, on the other hand, actually penetrates right into the hair shaft."

The protein gets right into your hair

Each strand of human hair features seven to twelve layers of cuticle scales, which protect the inner structure of the hair. In healthy hair, these scales stay flat and give the hair its sheen. However, if you have your hair chemically treated, swim in chlorine or salt water, expose your hair to the sun, or use heating products, the hair will be damaged and the scales will break or fan out. This results in weak, dry hair that loses its lustre.

Hair is basically protein. When proteins such as collagen, keratin or silk are "hydrolysed" or chemically broken down, they can be applied to the hair and will actually fill in the gaps in the scales.

"There are so many good treatments around," says Panipa. "Each brand develops its own combination of ingredients or proteins. Speak to your stylist – we work with the products all day long, year by year, so we know which brands are effective on different types of hair."

But not everyone will benefit to the same degree by using a treatment. "If you have ‘virgin’ hair, and you use a good shampoo and conditioner, you might not need a treatment. But they have to be good!" warns Schai.

"The effect is not the same if you apply it to hair that doesn’t need it," agrees Salon de Bangkok’s branch manager Aek Vibulsiriwongse. "It is also possible to apply treatments too frequently."

So how often is appropriate?

Most stylists agree that the average person, whose hair is simply stressed from Bangkok’s humidity, pollution and the sun, can benefit from treatments at least once or twice a month. But if your hair is severely damaged, once a week can be optimal. "After a month of weekly treatments, the condition of your hair should be better, so you could then drop back to once every two weeks, and once it’s back to normal condition, once a month," says Schai.

In the salon, the treatment will be applied to your hair before it’s trimmed. After a shampoo featuring a head massage to help stimulate the hair follicles, the head will be wrapped in a special plastic and then placed under a steamer for around ten to fifteen minutes to help the protein penetrate into the hair shaft.

If you can’t make it to a salon, there are still take home treatments, but they’re not as concentrated as those used in salons. "Apply the protein to towel-dried hair, leaving it on for up to twenty minutes underneath a shower cap," suggests Panipa.

But there’s no point getting a treatment if you’re not going to back it up the rest of the time. "Use a good shampoo and conditioner from a salon," says Schai. "It won’t wash away the nutrition the treatment gives. And choose from the same brand – the ingredients will support each other."

No more squinting

Whether you wear glasses and put off going to get your script checked, or you’ve never worn glasses before in your life, it’s worth considering whether a trip to an optician or opthamologist might be beneficial.

What’s the difference?

Opticians or technicians usually work in shops selling glasses and contact lenses, while opthamologists are qualified doctors. Opticians are able to give you a prescription to correct your vision, and will refer you to an opthamologist should they suspect you have more than just refractive problems.

"We check people’s distance and up-close vision, and will correct it," says Rachanee Leicester, optician and manager of Boonteng Optical. "We can also check for cataracts, plus if we are unable to correct a patient’s vision to 20/20, we’ll refer them to an opthamologist."

Opticians may only see patients within a certain age bracket, depending on their own expertise. Wichai Manonom, an optician at Smile Optic, sees patients aged only 15 to 60. "These patients can be more complicated, so it’s better if they see a doctor."

Opticians may not be qualified

Rachanee notes that regulation in the optical industry is lax. "There are not many qualified opticians in Thailand – there is no law that people cannot practise without a licence." But this is improving, with the introduction two years ago of a short course approved by the Thai Optometric Association.

Therefore it makes sense to ensure that your optician is properly qualified. "Qualified opticians will test using more than just a computer," says Rachanee. "For instance, a retinalscope [a torch-like instrument] should be used to check the eyes." If there are too few machines in the testing area, and your test is very quick, consider going elsewhere for a second opinion.

Who should be checked and when?

It is crucial that children have their eyes tested, says Dr Sorot Wutthiphan, an opthamologist at Samitivej Hospital. Soon after birth, babies should be checked by their paediatrician for infections and structural defects, cataracts, and glaucoma. Eyes should be checked again by an opthamologist when aged six months, three or four, and then five or when the child starts school. "Opthamologists will have testing boards with pictures, so it’s easy for children to look at them and tell us what they can see," says Dr Sorot.

One condition that is vital to pick upearly is "lazy eye", or amblyopia, which is the loss or lack of development of central vision in one eye. It usually develops before age six. "If treatment is left until after age eight, it is usually ineffective," says Dr Sorot. ‘The younger the child is, the more effective treatment is."

If children have no problems when tested at age five, or they have myopia (shortsightedness), they should still be tested every year. If they have hyperopia (farsightedness), testing should be done every six months.

Adults, whether they have problems or not, should aim to be tested every two years, although those with hyperopia should consider an annual checkup. A normal consultation with an opthamologist can detect glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration and retinal problems. "People who are diabetic, have other eye conditions, or have a close relative with glaucoma should be seen more regularly," says Dr Sorot.

When symptoms strike, get help

If you have the following symptoms, you should see an opthamologist:

· decreased vision;

· flashing;

· red eyes with pain or blurred vision;

· double vision; or

· floaters.

But even without symptoms, regular checkups are important. "There are many people in Thailand – usually poor people in rural areas – who are blind from treatable diseases, such as glaucoma," says Dr Sorot. Chronic glaucoma sufferers show no symptoms until the late stages of the disease – when it’s too late for medical intervention.

The rhythm’s gonna getcha

"We are authentic," says Vicente Lerro Fong, director of Cubanos, the latest Latin venue to hit Bangkok. "We have authentic Cuban food, Cuban cocktails, Cuban cigars, a Cuban band …"

We’re sitting on the mezzanine level of the two-level Cuban restaurant and pub, watching the staff prepare for the evening behind the long bar that curls below. "But to really be Latin, you have to have the Latin feeling inside. We don’t compete with the other Latin restaurants because only we are authentic. Of course, what they are doing can be very good, but it’s not the same."

Fong should know – the Cuban-born guitarist has spent most of the past three-and-a-half years in Bangkok playing in a Latin band at various venues, including Senor Picos, the Pathumwan Princess and the Siam Novotel. When the band’s last gig ended, everyone went back to Cuba except for Fong, who decided to give his own venture a go, along with several partners.

"See," he says in a bewitching accent, as he waves his hands around at the white stuccoed and arched walls. "This is like a real Cuban house. We worked for eight months to get the design just right."

Since their November opening, Fong has been playing in the resident band, Mambo Asi. "This is what’s fun. It would be boring to just be an owner. I’m not in this to make money, I’m here to have fun. If I make money, though, that’s okay."

My cocktail arrives – I’ve gone for the very refreshing mojito, a mixed cocktail made of Havana Club rum, lemon, sugar, fresh mint and soda water (Bt160) – and after ensuring I’m happy with it, Fong makes a few menu recommendations.

We start with the Tamales en Hoja a la Criolla (Bt100), finely minced corn and chicken triangles wrapped in fresh corn leaves. They come with three delicately spiced sauces on the side which complement the meat very well.

Soups are next; I dig in to the Ajiaco "Gransopa de Cuba", a typical Creole vegetable soup (Bt100), while my partner goes for the hearty black bean soup known as Frijoles Negros (Bt100). We’re both impressed by the robust flavours that are simple and uninhibited.

Is it difficult to get the ingredients that go into Cuban dishes here in Thailand? "Look, Cuba is here," Fong says, drawing a straight line through the air. "And Thailand is here." In other words, the countries are located on similar latitudes, sharing the same climate, so the basic ingredients of Thai and Cuban cooking grow equally well in either place.

But there are some things that are uniquely produced in Cuba: like Cuban beer. "We hope to have Cuban beer here in a few months." The appalled look on Fong’s face when I ask him whether Cuban beer is any good is enough of an answer.

For mains, I tackle a serving of Aporreado de Pescado, a fish stew (Bt 200). It’s a tad on the salty side, but that just makes me hanker for another cocktail. Is this a tactic to loosen me up for the dance floor? My partner heads for the Papa Rellena Con Pollo, chicken stuffed in potato balls (Bt 200) and is suitably satisfied. The innovative rice servings are worth noting: they’re shaped mounds, a diagonal half of which is plain rice, with the other a more colourful black-bean rice.

This is well-priced, unembellished Cuban food. I suspect that its aim – beyond making you believe you really could be in Cuba – is to sustain you for a full night’s dancing.

Fong envisions a lively restaurant where locals can come and let the rhythm of Latin music infect them. "People can try something different here. Thai people are soft, Cuban people are very energetic. You can come here and be loud, learn how to dance Cuban-style."

Cubanos, 19 Sukhumvit Soi 19, Sukhumvit Rd, Klong Toey Neua, Bangkok 10110. Tel: 255 5800-1/01 840 6426. Call to find out more about Latin dancing classes, which happen from 10am to 10pm above the restaurant.

The perils of sitting in a dentist’s chair

The tears erupted as soon as I saw the long chair, surrounded by shining, sharp instruments whose only possible purpose could be pain. My fear surprised me. I’m normally quite tough when it comes to pain – I was one of the few girls in my peer group who could handle using an Epilady when it hit the shelves during my teens. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because it was some sort of medieval torture device dressed up as a modern way of removing hairs from your legs. It had a revolving spring that caught hairs between its coils before ripping them out, follicle and all. It didn’t last long.

My Man looked helpless as I sunk into the chair, whimpering. He took up the observation position in the corner. Tried valiantly to look like a stalwart. The nurse bustled around me, tying a bib around my neck (so I was supposed to act like a baby?) and making as much noise with the sharp instruments as she could. The tears kept springing forth. Finally the dentist appeared, his mouth already covered with a clean white mask to hide his malevolent smile.

Despite having had braces and attending an orthodontist’s surgery for what seems like my entire adolescence, I was afraid. Very afraid. I’d never had anything done in a dentist’s chair before. No fillings, no extractions, no caps. The gum around my right bottom wisdom tooth had swollen up the night before and it hurt. I’d popped into the hospital to see if they could suggest a dentist to see as I’d never had cause to go to one in Bangkok. They had their own dental clinic; they told me to come back at 4 o’clock. 4 c’clock! But it hurt now!

I’ve become far too used to Bangkok’s excellent drop-in services that range from getting your shoes fixed under Skytrain steps to your hair cut in your favourite salon. An appointment! In Australia, making an appointment is the norm. A friend had a tooth of his flare up just before Christmas in Australia. They gave him aspirin and told him to come back in mid-January.

My dentist ignored my tears as he prised open my mouth and stared. His breath made a laboured noise through the woven cotton. Inhale, exhale, inhale.

"X-ray," he said.

"I had x-rays in October and the dentist…"

"You have the x-rays?"

"No, but he said…"

"You need x-rays."

I took a bunch of tissues and headed into the x-ray room. I stopped crying. Had the x-rays. Went back to the chair of torture, where the dentist was looking at them already.

"Extraction," he announced. I looked wildly around the room.

"When?" I said weakly.


He was unimpressed with my questions. I wanted to ask what was wrong with the tooth. Did it absolutely have to come out? Was it growing crooked? Was there a cavity? Should I just have all the wisdom teeth out at once? How long would this take? Didn’t people normally get knocked out for this sort of thing?

I didn’t ask a thing. Somehow along the way we westerners have been taught that it’s good to ask questions about any procedures you’re having done to your body. It’s your body, after all.

But in the face of this dentist’s shortness I withered, shrivelled to nothing. I was utterly at his mercy, and I was annoyed with myself for being intimidated. I wanted to know things. Was this an example of the sort of high-handed arrogance that I have often heard Thai doctors accused of? There are certainly western doctors who behave this way, but somehow it’s not the same. They know the deal. They’re expecting you to ask questions, even if they think they know all the answers.

I started crying again, closed my eyes tightly and opened my mouth widely, surrendering. Cotton wool soaked in anaesthetic deadened the gum before I was given needles – two and a half, My Man said – and the tooth was ripped from my gum. It took less than twenty minutes.

I didn’t feel a thing. Not even those needles. The worst thing was the string pressing on the corners of my mouth while the stitches were being tied. What a pathetic drama queen! I was so pleased I forgot to say thank you as I skipped out, hitting my chin and feeling amused at how I still couldn’t feel a thing. I wondered if my smile was crooked, tried to feel my lips.

My Man was not quite as sanguine. Pale-faced, he told me that if he ever got a sore wisdom tooth, he’d rather put up with the pain than have that happen to him. I can’t imagine how he’s going to cope being a birthing partner should we have children. At least he won’t have to worry about ever falling pregnant himself.

Other People’s Horror Stories started flowing right from the moment we rang to let a friend know we couldn’t make his party that night. "The only thing I can imagine that could be worse than getting your wisdom teeth out is being castrated," he said. "I was laid up for a week in agony." I looked forward to my anaesthetic wearing off.

Another friend told of having all four out at once and not being able to eat a thing; then there was the student hospital where a dentist pulled out the wrong – unanaesthetised – tooth. Others said they were certain they hadn’t got the anaesthetic before the needle – maybe it was a good thing that I had openly demonstrated that I was petrified. One friend, however, insisted she’d had hers pulled out without anaesthetic while she was in high school. "And then I went to the movies."

I recovered within a week. Many painkillers and mashed potatoes were the keys.

But spare a thought for the dentist. Sure, he could have been a bit nicer, a bit chattier. In fact in my humble western opinion he would have been more of a professional had he encouraged some dialogue.

But dentistry must be the absolute worst profession in the world. How frightening to have a petrified patient shaking and moaning and blubbering as you try to make an exact incision in their pus-filled gums. How rotten to have to break people’s jaws, sew up their gums while they swim in pools of blood, deal with their stinky breath. I know it’s not a simple cause and effect thing, but I’m not surprised that I’ve read dentists have one of the highest suicide rates among occupational groups, (along with physicians, lawyers and military personnel – I know, the lawyer thing seems strange).

I went to university with a friend who had really wanted to be a dentist. I don’t understand why. But I’m glad that there are some people who do.