Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Faithful and creative

29.11.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone fans are desperate to know: “Is the film true to the book?”

Well, that depends. As the Sorting Hat says while reading Harry’s mind, “It’s all here, in your head.” The world that millions of passionate fans have conjured in their own imaginations based on JK Rowling’s writing is unlikely to coincide precisely with what director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire, Stepmom) has created for the big screen. And that may or may not be disappointing.

But purists will at least be reasonably pleased to see that the basic plot and certainly more dialogue than the norm have been preserved in Hollywood’s version. And that’s a very good start.

For those who haven’t read the book – which takes just eight hours to read aloud – a brief synopsis is possible. Harry Potter, who’s been brought up by his nasty aunt and uncle, discovers he’s a wizard on his eleventh birthday. His parents were not, after all, killed in a car crash when he was a baby, but were themselves masters of magic, tragically murdered by a wizard gone bad. During Harry’s first year of wizardry education at a very English boarding school, he has a mission to complete as he makes friends – and enemies – and uncovers more of his past.

Disclosure: I’m not a fan of the book. It’s a conventional magical tale of the poorly treated kid who comes to understand he’s special, simply but competently executed. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t envelop me and compel me to rush reading through to the end. But the film itself is more watchable than most other Hollywood productions of its ilk.

Despite the film’s length (152 minutes), some scenes have been skipped, and many efficiently streamlined or combined. For instance, there is not as much focus on Harry’s adoptive parents, and more specifically, Hermione uses a wave of her wand to get the gang out of a trap towards the end, instead of her steely logic. But there are some nice little changes: Harry’s adoptive brother Dudley ends up behind glass as the boa constrictor slithers away from the zoo, a chocolate frog springs to life in the train, and the design of the Quidditch spectator stands is marvelous.

And the characters remain mostly true to form. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) starts off a little woodenly, seeming quite unsurprised at his conversion to wizardry. He grows into character however, and has a very British capability of being a subtle but strong screen presence. Ron (Rupert Grint) is fine as Harry’s sidekick, delivering some good one-liners on cue, while the utterly precocious Hermione is delightful to watch. The only real disappointment is the downgrading of Draco Malfroy’s visibility a notch or two.

The adult characters, too, are finely conjured. Hirsute Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is the slightly dense but friendly giant with an accent true to the book, although his repetitive slips of tongue (“I shouldn’t have told you that!”) become a bit predictable. Snapes (Alan Rickman) is memorable as a very Gothic and teacher with a sinister talk; but headmaster Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall are unforgivably underused.

At the screening I saw, British sarcasm seemed for the most part to be lost on Thai audiences. When Hermione saves a screaming Ron from a writhing Devil’s Snare, and does so in the nick of time, a relieved Ron says “Thank goodness we didn’t panic!” (That’s one line, by the way, that’s not in the book.) On the other hand, Hermione only had to flick her hair and the audience was in hysterics.

The special effects are refreshing to watch, precisely because they are used as such – high- and low-tech effects used specially. They don’t overwhelm the film and undermine the story, but for the most part enhance it instead. The scene where hundreds of owls gracefully fly into school to deliver the mail is memorable, as is Mr Ollivander’s selection of Harry’s wand. Harry’s invisible coat is well-utilised and the three-headed dog, trolls, centaur and dragon are authentic enough. The Sorting Hat is a simple but excellent creation, and touches such as airborne candles and moving staircases provide further diversion. The Quidditch match, where seemingly dozens of players shoot around the screen on fast-moving broomsticks, is the only time the film moves too quickly for the audience and aims to dazzle for the sake of dazzling.

While attention was given to the visual effects, it’s a shame more wasn’t placed on John Williams’ bland and forgettable score. Not a single point for originality there.

In all, for a Hollywood production of a very English tale, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone succeeds. It’s at once mostly faithful to its creator, while bestowing some extra whimsical imagination for the screen. For some, that will be a delight. Others may prefer to go home and read their book again.

Lotus positioning

01.11.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Finance ::

The 42-storey Thai Farmers Bank headquarters lies on the “wrong” side of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, giving staff an unusual view of the city. This is not the bank’s only unique outlook: it’s considered to have one of the more visionary IT and overall re-engineering strategies in Thailand’s post-crisis environment.

Thai Farmers Bank (TFB), the country’s third largest, has been implementing a massive re-engineering process since its current president, Banthoon Lamsam, took the helm in 1992. Ongoing IT investment forms a substantial part of that process: this year’s IT budget alone is around Bt3 billion.

The bank’s latest project involves the installation of Citrix MetaFrame servers, which upon completion will provide employees across all 530 branches with access to applications such as LotusNotes and Microsoft Office. It’s a step the bank hopes will improve its stance even further in Thailand’s increasingly competitive banking environment.

“It will definitely add value in the longer term,” says JP Morgan and Chase banking analyst Pornchai Prasertsintanah. Although the bank’s operating profits are currently inferior to its larger rivals, Pornchai says TFB is implementing various important changes that should lay a solid foundation for future growth. “The next two to three years may be depressed in terms of their bottom line, but they’ll then be in a better position to compete with foreign banks.”

The project kicked off in 1996, when TFB moved to their current headquarters and prioritised linking employees to the central IT system, particularly so they could access Lotus Notes. Once that was done, the bank’s 47 zone offices were targetted. They were successfully integrated by 1998.

The following year, Citrix Systems was brought on board to help with the greater technical problems involved with deploying the system to all remaining branches. All Bangkok branches were connected by the end of August this year, while branches across the rest of the country are expected to be part of the system by year end.

For the bank, the rollout of what could be seen as a reasonably basic system translates into savings of time, money and productivity. Due to the project’s nature and integration with overall IT infrastructure, however, the bank says it cannot produce figures that measure this precisely.

“In terms of infrastructure, having Lotus Notes is like having a road connecting us to each province,” says first senior vice president systems group, Chartchai Sundharagiati. “We cannot tell what cost savings will be generated by having this infrastructure, but we have to build it if we are going to compete with other banks.”

Instead, they can provide simple examples of how things will improve under the system. For instance, memos from headquarters to branches will no longer need to be sent as hardcopy – they can be emailed instead. And in the future, online approval for loan applications will be possible. Currently, applications and supporting documentation need to be sent to headquarters as hardcopy, with a turnaround of up to two weeks. Under the new system, approval will take just a few days.

“If we can approve loans faster than a competitor, it means customers will come to us,” says assistant vice president of the research and process development department, Winij Panamaeta. “It will help make our products more competitive.”

It’s precisely these retail customers analysts say Thai banks must target if they are to stay afloat in a changing environment. Merrill Lynch banking analyst, Therapong Vachirapong, describes Thai banks as “sleeping giants”, with tonnes of customers they’re not making the most of. But with competition nipping at their heels, their market focus is gradually shifting away from corporations towards smaller retail markets.

The bank’s moves on information technology are likely to allow it to tap this market more efficiently.

“It’s a big step for TFB in terms of operational reforms – they’re basically changing the way they do business,” says Therapong. Banks used to lend money on a collateral-value basis, meaning risk evaluation was simple. Now, however, it’s preferable to assess clients on the basis of their cash flow. “But to do this, you need more analysis – and thus more information. This requires an upgrade of the IT system.”

TFB’s IT subcommittee, charged with formulating IT strategy, is comprised of a 50/50 split between IT staff and key users, and headed by the vice president of the IT department and top management. While president Banthoom Lamsam has not been directly involved, his influence has been felt via his encouragement to bring in various consultants – Accenture and McKinsey are just two of many – for advice along the way.

Chartchai says the current project’s biggest challenge has been dealing with the scale of its implementation. The lesson learned so far has been to plan well, and start out small by doing plenty of pilot tests. “If you don’t do a lot of testing, then you’re likely to get some surprises. You need to keep control of the system’s usage,” he says, before returning to his road analogy. “Too many cars -you’ll have a traffic jam.”

Despite upbeat assessments from analysts, Chartchai is circumspect in defining TFB’s IT position relative to other banks. “We’re an early adopter, we’re not a leader,” he says. “We might be leading in some ways, but our purpose is to utilise IT and apply it effectively.”

The bank can be sure that more eyes are focusing on the wrong side of the river than ever before to see how they’re managing their aims.

Carbon dated transactions

01.11.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Finance ::

When customers at a downtown branch of Thailand’s fifth-largest bank take a deposit or withdrawal slip, they take a sheet of carbon paper too – it means they can write their own receipt. It’s no surprise then, that Bank of Ayudhaya (BAY) customers were taken aback by the August launch of the bank’s first foray into online retail banking.

Executive vice president Charlotte Donavanik believes the bank’s conservative image could be an asset when it comes to enticing the more cautious customers online: "Customers are thinking, if we’re doing it online, it must be alright."

A soft launch in June, pitched at Bangkok’s Assumption University, attracted some 2,000 account applicants. The bank’s target for 2001 is 20,000, to be drawn substantially from the bank’s three million depositors, spread across 417 branches.

Thailand currently has around 100,000 online customers, split between four other banks. It is a small market – one that analysts aren’t certain it’s worth pursuing in the current difficult banking environment. "Shifting to retail online banking is fairly inconsequential to a bank’s overall operations here," says SG Securities Asia analyst Andrew Stotz. "Computer penetration rates are tiny, so spending is potentially a massive waste of money. It is possible, though, that it could help on the corporate side."

The bank does have this base covered too. In fact, the bank plans to spend Bt3.5 billion over the next three years on 27 individual IT projects, falling under five categories: e- business, branch automation, developing a centralised clearing system, core banking, and developing a data warehouse. Accenture finished a two-month review of the master plan in August, while Pricewaterhouse Coopers has provided the framework for overall IT security.

"This year is definitely a turning point for us," says Donavanik. "In the past, with traditional banking, we could plan and cope with our existing systems."

The regional economic crisis changed all that. It has taken a while, however, for the competitive implications to be felt, she says, as banks have been compelled to focus on solving more pressing problems, such as non-performing loans. "Competition really only started in 2000," she says, "so we are not far behind."

The sharpest focus is currently on the e-business category, within which seven projects fall:

* E-banking;

* E-trade, an electronic B2B trading system that allows corporations to conduct trade via the Internet, launched in April;

* E-payment, a gateway for B2C transactions, launching Q4 this year;

* Cash management, aimed at corporates;

* E-ATMs;

* Mobile banking, to be launched in October in conjunction with DTAC and AIS in Q4; and

* E-information, provided via their new corporate website www.krungsri.com, to be launched this month (September).

Senior vice president and vice president of IT development Suvichai Lovichit was brought on board in October 2000 to overhaul the bank’s IT strategy. "We looked at the existing system, what the competition was doing, and what future technology would be," he says. His team identified what the bank wanted to achieve and what users required; from there, they bought packages mostly off-the-shelf to match their needs, such as BroadVision applications.

The various working groups involved in the projects are comprised of a mix of business and IT staff, weighted towards the former to ensure results are exactly what users require. The six-member IT steering committee, which prioritises and reviews progress of the projects, includes just one IT manager.

Good communication between IT and business staff has been vital to the process, says Donavanik. "It’s a must for us that IT and business [managers] work together. The IT people should understand users’ back office requirements, and at the front end, they need to understand our products, our marketing strategies, our target groups."

By the same token, she says, business managers need to understand what IT is capable of providing – and not providing.

As the projects have rolled out, the lesson for management has been one in flexibility. Senior vice president and manager of the IT operations department, Werachat Wahawisan, says the schedule for completion of projects has changed as their true degree of difficulty has become apparent.

For instance, getting corporate customer services online has been a particular challenge. "Banking for our corporate customers was a priority. But when we explored what we needed to do to transfer our services online, it became quite difficult… It’s taken more time not only to develop the software itself, but to establish the business processes to handle [corporate] functions."

It’s too early to measure any project successes, but improved productivity and management of information are key objectives. While some staff cutbacks are part of the bank’s overall restructuring process, staff are not being made redundant as a result of IT changes. Instead, staff freed from their daily duties will be retrained as salespeople, charged with increasing the bank’s customer base and selling revenue-generating products.

While analysts agree on the importance of Thai banks investing in IT – chiefly to improve their efficiency, implement better risk management, and increase their revenue – they are reluctant to comment specifically on BAY’s overall plans alone.

"It’s easy to talk about plans – banks have to say that they will upgrade their systems," says one. "In terms of implementation, however, it’s a different thing. Once they seriously launch, then we’ll take a look at what it means."

So the jury is still out. In the meantime, at the very least, BAY’s conservative image is enjoying a remarkable makeover.