Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

DVD: Bridge on the river Kwai

01.12.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

The epic adventure and anti-war film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was both popularly and critically acclaimed when released in 1957, being the highest-grossing film of the year, and also scooping seven Academy Awards. The tale, based very loosely on a true World War II story, follows the fate of a group of British prisoners of war who arrive at a camp to build a bridge for the Japanese. Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, a former silent screen star) and his English counterpart, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), clash over the fact that British officers are being forced to carry out manual labour. Meanwhile, an American sailor who has escaped from the camp (William Holden) is co-opted into British efforts to get back to the camp to blow the bridge up.

The epic adventure and anti-war film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was both popularly and critically acclaimed when released in 1957, being the highest-grossing film of the year, and also scooping seven Academy Awards. The tale, based very loosely on a true World War II story, follows the fate of a group of British prisoners of war who arrive at a camp to build a bridge for the Japanese. Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, a former silent screen star) and his English counterpart, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), clash over the fact that British officers are being forced to carry out manual labour. Meanwhile, an American sailor who has escaped from the camp (William Holden) is co-opted into British efforts to get back to the camp to blow the bridge up.

The film was shot on location in the colourful jungles of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). The beautiful, languorous cinematography mirrors the heavy steaminess of the conditions the men were under, foreign to the Japanese and British alike. To viewers today the shots may seem overly slow – indeed many of them are undoubtedly indulgent — but they’re a wonderful invitation to really immerse oneself in the world created on the screen.

While the theme of the film – the futility of war – has sustained the decades to remain at least marginally interesting, much in the detail is now quite laughable, but fascinatingly so. For example, it’s difficult to rouse much sympathy for the British officer for his “bravery” when all he’s doing is trying to get British officers to avoid manual labour. The subtext is that mere enlisted men should just put up with their rotten conditions. (These conditions are not actually represented to be as gruesome as history asserts they were.)

The representation of British colonialist attitudes, too, is unintentionally awful. “Here there is no civilisation,” complains one soldier. “Well then, we’ll just have to introduce it,” says Colonel Nicholson. The Brits will show the Japanese “Western efficiency”, even if that means they have to “build them a better bridge than they could have built themselves”. And although not meant to be historically accurate, what is chosen to be represented on the screen is still indicative of the era. “I hope the people who use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built, and who built it – the British.” In fact, the railway overall was worked on at its peak by 61,000 Allied soldiers, as well as 250,000 Asians. Many from various nations died.

There’s a curious lack of geographical knowledge of the region, which audiences in Thailand will find amusing. A British officer points to a map to indicate the camp’s location, for instance, and mistakenly points to Burma instead of Thailand. At least they really do speak Thai with the villagers who help them. But in the accompanying documentary on disc two, they’re called Burmese!

Directed by David Lean, who would later go on to make Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai is an important, and quite fascinating piece of film history, rather than an epic that will have audiences completely captivated today.

The DVD

VIDEO: The transfer appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 widescreen, and has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The extras are shown on a second disc. Given the age of the print, substantial flaws are to be expected, but Columbia Tristar has done a good job technically with the transfer. The opening scene of a vulture flying overhead is quite dusty, but the dramatic start credits, in their bold yellow font splashed over the lush green jungles, give a better indication of what’s to come. Some imperfections – grit, hair and so on – are occasionally visible, but for the most part the transfer is clean.

Most of the film is sharp, the brightness is good, and the colours in particular are very vivid, with the jungle background and browns of skins and uniforms dominating the palette. No pixellation was evident. Subtitled in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese and Thai.

SOUND: The original sound track is presented here as a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. The surround sound lends great natural depth to many of the action scenes, such as men marching into camp and scuttling along in rail cars. However, the general quality of the soundtrack does vary, with some scratchiness and a discernable variation in volume on numerous occasions.

MENUS: Basic, with the nice touch of bamboo doors opening and closing.

EXTRAS: There are plenty of extras if you think that 162 minutes is not enough. A basic trivia test and screen saver appear on the first disc, but the second contains the bulk of the extra features.

The Making of the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’: This newly made documentary, nearly an hour long, features interviews with film historian Adrian Turner and various people involved in the production of the film. While they provide some interesting trivia about the difficulties of production – the British War office for instance refused to cooperate – there’s a lot of fluff as well, such as discussion on how the actress who plays William Holden’s love interest, who reads all of about six lines, was chosen, what sort of an actress her sister was, and whether she looked better as a blonde or brunette.

The Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant: This short piece contains plenty of footage taken on the set, and provides some further trivia on the making of the film.

On Seeing Film: This is one of those offbeat gems that DVD devotees love. William Holden presents a 15 minute film from the University of Southern California on how to watch a film, using Bridge as a bit of a case study. Its beauty is in its datedness – can you imagine being told in 15 minutes how to watch a film today?

An Appreciation By John Milius: This short piece splices clips of the film with film-maker John Milius talking about the film’s brilliance.

Also: There’s a photo montage, various film trailers (including Lawrence of Arabia), and brief filmographies. The DVD pack comes with a souvenir booklet that replicates the original released with the film back in 1957. Mine did not seem to have the page numbers in the right order, but this probably happened to a small batch only.

Final Thoughts: Bridge on the River Kwai is an important film historically (in terms of film, not in terms of what it presents, which is largely inaccurate), and this DVD adaptation recognises this. Much of the detail in the film has not aged well, but again makes intriguing viewing in terms of history. This is a film for buffs, not for those who wish to idly be entertained for a few hours.

DVD: Gandhi

01.12.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

The winner of nine Academy Awards in 1982, Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi has endured as a compelling and powerful testament to one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic, awe-inspiring and influential people. Gandhi’s approach to life and politics were hardly conventional – it’s not everyday that one man says he won’t eat and a nation comes to a standstill – but this record of his life is.

The film begins with Gandhi’s massive 1948 funeral. Some 400,000 extras (a few throwing rose buds at Ben Kingsley’s cadaver in the hope of making him flinch) make these initial scenes superb feats in themselves. Then we flash back to Gandhi as a wet-eared but privileged attorney arriving in South Africa in 1893, only to be thrown out of first class due to his colour.

The story moves on chronologically from there, at a deliberate, slow pace but without being overly meandering. Sometimes the narrative’s fanatical reliance on accuracy wins out at the expense of explanation. Various characters, for instance, are trotted out for display seemingly so the historically attuned audience can tick them off, rather than being woven inextricably into Gandhi’s development as a leader and icon. Yet other characters – such as Gandhi’s children – are mysteriously quite invisible.

While such treatment does lend shallowness rather than intrigue to the characters, the grandeur of the scenery and the sweeping cinematography that captures them cannot be faulted for their ambition, nor their execution. Englishman Ben Kingsley – sporting a suntan he worked hard at — plays a faultlessly charismatic Gandhi, and is well-supported by a big name cast.

The pompousness of the colonial British, too, with their indignant cough spluttering and stupid, blinkered adherence to British law, is wonderfully presented. But the British were more than just a silly inconvenience, and the horror of a their rule is brought home soberly when British troops to fire on thousands of unarmed Indian protesters. It doesn’t make it difficult to comprehend why Gandhi, who once revelled in his sons being “proper little English gentlemen”, turns into one of the strongest driving forces behind the expulsion of the British from India.

Gandhi’s remarkable life was crying out to be recorded on film, and the events he lived through and helped shape are monumental enough to sustain the well-trodden narrative path Attenborough takes us along. While he didn’t devote much attention to gaining a fresh insight into the man’s life through a cinematic exploration of what made him tick, Attenborough nevertheless produced a masterful epic worthy of each of its Academy Awards.

The DVD

VIDEO: The nearly 20-year-old print used for Colombia’s 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is in superb condition, and allows audiences to see precisely why Gandhi won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The colours remain vibrant, rich and natural, an important virtue when long shots are so integral to the film overall. The images themselves are for the most part sharp and crisp, with consistent brightness. Specks and pixellation are not a problem, and although there are a few tiny jumps in the transfer, they are not enough to distract attention away from the film. This is a very impressive transfer – a shining example of why film-lovers should opt for rewatching all their favourite films on this medium. Subtitles are availabale in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai.

SOUND: The Dolby surround sound of Gandhi adds drama and movement both to the big scenes – and there are plenty of these, involving huge crowds and protests – to the smaller, more intimate scenes where simple things like doors being closed on one side of the room are picked up accurately. George Fenton and Ravi Shankar’s evocative score is given more resonance, too, by the crispness of the audio recording. Oddly – and inexcusably — the sound quality seemed to drop substantially during Ben Kingsley’s interview.

MENUS: Basic, easy-to-follow menus that follow the film’s themes.

EXTRAS:

Featurette: Interview with Ben Kingsley After seeing him play such a humble character as Gandhi, it’s surprising to see how quietly confident, or even arrogant, Ben Kingsley is in person. He claims – not in as many words, but in a roundabout way – that capturing Gandhi’s character was easier than learning how to spin and talk at the same time. Nevertheless, Kingsley provides some very valuable trivia about the making of the film (it took 20 years to get backing), the cast (he and Martin Sheen shared what he calls one of the greatest moments actors can have) and how he prepared to play such a revered Indian leader (lunch with Gandhi’s grandson, chats with Indira Gandhi). The only disappointment here is that this interview is the only one provided.

Newsreel clips of the real Gandhi: These are inspired choices to include on this DVD. You’ll think the portrayal of the British as pompous idiots in the film is bad enough: Then comes this fantastic collection of four short news reels about Gandhi they produced, with titles such as “Gandhi Goes to England”, which show how truly patronising the British were. Gandhi’s a “little man” who hundreds of Brits wait to see in the pouring rain on his first visit to England. “They waited to see what he really looked like. And they saw quite a lot of him — even his knees!” laughs the newsreader, making a reference to Gandhi’s traditional Indian attire. This stuff is worth its weight in Oscar gold.

Others: Two minutes of famous Gandhi quotes set to music are merely a time filler, while a photo montage of the making of Gandhi is only marginally interesting. A trailer and plenty of filmographies are also included.

Final Thoughts: As Ben Kingsley points out during his interview, Gandhi is one of the last true epics, with a fantastically huge cast rather than digitalised extras. This film is the result of the fitting efforts made by many people, but they still pale in comparison to the efforts Gandhi made throughout his own life. It’s a story that can’t go wrong, and a beautiful film well-worth watching in its DVD format.

Yuki Srikarnchana: Marking time

01.12.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: People ::

Some people know what they want in life, and they chase their ambition relentlessly. Others, it’s reassuring to know, take their time when it comes to finding their passion.

For Yuki Srikarnchana, taking her time has had something of a literal meaning. Since 1992, she’s beenthe managing director of exclusive watch retailers Pendulum. Locals with a taste for the luxurious frequent Pendulum’s three outlets, which stock more than ten international renowned brands, and the company also represent Bvlgari in Thailand.

It’s a multimillion baht business, but Yuki emphasises the sedate nature of the industry. “Watches are not very exciting business! It’s not fast-moving in the way that soething like IT is,” she says. Nevertheless, it’s a business she has grown to love, despire the road there taking some sharp diversions.

Yuki was born in Japan and grew up living around the world: Indonesia, Germany and the UK, where she received a bachelor of arts in drama and film studies. It was a childhood that taught Yuki and her siblings a lot. “We were exposed to different cultures, and therefore growing up we learned to interact with people from other cultures,” she says. “We learned not to feel shy or nervous when meeting foreigners.”

Armed with her degree, Yuki came back to Thailand when she was 21, but her Thai language skills had suffered while living as a global nomad, so she gave up hopes of teaching drama, and instead followed in her father’s footsteps into the banking world.

The experiment lasted two years. “I just knew that it wasn’t for me. So I moved on. I went to the Shangri La hotel when it first opened, which was a big change. It was faster, and more sales oriented.”

After a year there, however, Yuki found she was still not feeling fulfilled. She answered an advertisement for account executives at advertising agency Leo Burnett, and despite a lack of experience, was offered a position. “It was more of what’s me. It was very challenging, very fast-moving and more action- oriented.”

She stayed there happily for more than two years, then married and started a family. She worked part time after the birth of her first daughter, now aged 12, but following the birth of her second daughter, now aged 11, she left permanently.

“Pendulum came along after I’d been at home for around three years,” Yuki says. “I got a call froma friend whose husband was opening a watch retail shop, and they needed someone to take care of the business. The rest is history!”

In fact, the birth of Pendulum began when ML Chaiyotid Kridakorn (brother of Suriyothai actress ML Piyapas Bhirombakdi) was buying a Patek Phillipe watch in Singapore. He ended up falling into conversation with the shop owner and confided his dream of opening a niche-market retail shop in Bangkok, where the market had not yet been cornered.

Pendulum opened its first outlet two years later in the Peninsula Plaza. “It was very, very well-received. Our product mix was very strong, so people were very interested – especially men who enjoyed watches.”

Originally the mix was about 80% men’s watches, and 20% jewellery, but that’s now changed to be a 60/40 split as the female market has matured. Nevertheless, serious collectors remain largely male. “Each brand brings out something new every year, so there is always something to tempt collectors,” says Yuki, adding that spending upwards of Bt500,000 is not unusual for those making a serious investment.

There were less than a handful of staff back in 1992; now there are more than 60 employees.

Yuki describes being responsible for Pendulum as the biggest challenge of her career. There were plenty of sleepless nights, she says, worrying about everything from personnel to to operations to money matters. “If something goes wrong, even though you’re not directly responsible for it, it’s still your responsibility. You do get used to it, and better at it. I’m still learning, and you learn from your mistakes.”

At a personal level, the hardest thing at the start for Yuki was leaving her children behind. “I had been there for 24 hours a day, so it was difficult for them … I really didn’t think I’d survive. But after the shop had been open for around six months, everything started falling into place.”

Around that time, Yuki fell pregnant with her third daughter, now eight, but this time she didn’t give up work. “She was a very easy baby. I think you feel more relaxed by then as well – but to get to that stage, that was very difficult.”

Yuki wants her daughters to choose careers with passion. “Then you’ll do your job well. If you don’t have passion, you won’t feel fulfilled.”

It’s advice that Yuki takes to hear when it comes to managing Pendulum. She has surrounded herself with staff she describes as passionate and dedicated, and she emphasises the importance of teamwork and respect in her office.

In a word, Yuki’s management style is casual. “I encourage people to walk around, to talk to each other. I don’t have meetings. If people don’t come in to sit and talk to me, I’ll go out and talk to them. I believe if your colleagues interact well, if they’re happy, if there are good vibes, then the company will progress.”

To be a good manager, Yuki thinks, you need to know how to be a subordinate. Other important qualities are good judgement, and good listening skills. “And as a manager, you should project a very positive attitude, no matter what your mood. You might have family problems, or the company might be in trouble, but you have to be very strong. If you give up, your staff will lose their motivation.”

Indeed, the business has had its ups and downs – the same as any luxury import business in Thailand. Difficulties have included fluctuating taxes and currencies, and the vagaries of the business cycle. “People don’t really need watches, so sales ride with the economy. When the economy is bullish, people of course spend more,” Yuki explains.

So of course, as for many Thai businesses, the crash period of 1997 onwards was the worst. “We lost a lot of customers, and for qutie a long time. It was horrible. We were really having thoughts about whether we would survive.”

But survive they did. How?

Yuki believes it was the company’s style of operations. “We were always very conservative, and we didn’t dream too big. We didn’t have any big offices. We didn’t have an oversupply of staff.” In fact, despite concerns of survival, not a single staff member was laid off, and staff turnover remains very low.

Now that the business is “very much in place now”, Yuki salvages some time to relax when she can. “I have a very simple life these days. I don’t really have a night life. I go home, see my children. My relaxation is really just watching TV.”

Yuki also finds solace in spending her weekends cooking. Or you might spot her with her family at their favourite Japanese restaurant (it’s Gengi at the Hilton) or less frequently somewhere French or Italian.

On the subject of a favourite watch, Yuki shows her diplomacy by declining to answer. “I have lots of favourite watches! It depends on my mood, on my dress. If I’m wanting something dressy, I’ll go for something with diamonds, if sporty, something casual.”

Regardless of what she does choose, it’s clear that Yuki’s enjoying having the time of her life.

Bangkok’s French connection

01.12.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

“Perhaps more than anything else, it is the French chef’s willingness to question and build on the past, to innovate, to revise, that has kept French cuisine pre-eminent among western cuisines…” So says the Oxford Companion to Food under its entry for France.

In Bangkok, it’s two French-trained Thai chefs who are developing French food along a uniquely exciting trajectory. Chefs Sukvadee Tantayakorn and Sirirat Khositaphai have hit on a wonderful combination with their four-months young restaurant Mes Amis, where they serve up contemporary fine French food in stylish yet understated surroundings.

On the Thursday night we dropped by, the 60s-built house tucked away in a narrow Thong Lor soi– its renovation took four months – was humming with diners and the gentle clink of silver cutlery on white ceramic plates. We took a seat by the glass window overlooking a tiny garden area and were immediately convinced we’d made a superb find: Think sleek lines, blonde wood, taupe canvas chairs and soft downlighting, interspersed with oversized lampshades. While there’s something very contemporary Thai about the interior design, the simple short- stemmed single roses adorning each table acknowledge that subtle Gallic influences are at work here too.

After a dry martini that drew a five-star rating and a sweet house cocktail called the Mes Amis, Chef Pooky offered to take us under her wing for the evening, serving a selection of dishes from the restaurant’s new menu, due to be launched within a week or two of our visit.

First came a basket of quite perfect herbed breads, served warm and tucked under a crisp white napkin. Accompanied by individual servings of butter and piquant chicken liver pate, we were off to an impressive start. Jaunty French music – the sort that lets you imagine you just might be in France, without at all being embarassing – allowed each table an intimacy that other restaurants of this small size frequently find difficult to achieve.

Pooky sent us the tuna tartare (Bt320++), a blend of confident chunks of very fresh tuna topped with a delicate roe, and served alongside very thin triangles of crisp yet buttery toast. Next came pan-fried foie gras, topped with apple knobs and a red wine sauce (Bt820). The foie gras melted in the mouth immediately, its richness cut well with the gentle tang of the apple.

While the wine list has its emphasis on the French, it was encouraging to see there are plenty of new world wines cellared to keep oenophiles of all persuasion happy. At Pooky’s suggestion, our waiter popped the cork of a Robert Mondavi Caliterra 1998 Reserva cabernet sauvignon, just before our mains arrived.

And it was an excellent choice to accompany her veal escalope, topped with foie gras and bordelaise sauce (Bt 650++). The veal’s tenderness was countered by its crisp outer shell, then again by the delicacy of the foie gras, while the flavours performed their own little tug of war with great results. More innovative still was the charcoal-grilled lamb chops, served with home-made squid ink angel hair pasta and port jus (as yet unpriced). The Australian pink lamb was full-flavoured and juicy, but the pasta in particular was a real attention-grabber, thanks to its great bite and evocative garlic scent.

On a return visit I’ll be trying the frog legs in a brandy flambe (Bt280), perhaps with an organic mixed salad (Bt190) ,followed by a duck in red wine and prune sauce. On another I might head instead for the lobster bisque (Bt 190), before a pan-fried dover sole with lemon butter sauce (Bt450)… For there will be many return visits here.

Dessert confirmed this. A crème brulee (Bt150) with no dazzle – simply velvet and vanilla – was a classic conclusion that needed no elaboration. The lemon pie (Bt120++), on the other hand, was adorned with a criss-cross of fine meringue, a reminder perhaps, of its dowdier cousin the lemon meringue pie. But the mouth-puckering tartness of the lemon filling ensured that this pie was in a league of its own.

For smokers, the open-air terrace upstairs offers an equally pleasant dining location. Those wanting to linger over coffee and a chat can move up here for a change of scenery too. The split second level also contains a small gallery space, so daytime diners can get their fix of art on the walls along with art on their plates.

This is French food with a solid pedigree – no smoke and mirrors, no trivial diversions on the menu here – adapted for discerning Bangkokians. And with French culinary history famed for singing the praises of change, you can’t ask for more than that.

Mes Amis
102/3 Sukhumvit 53 (Thong Lor 5)
Bangkok 10110
Tel: 02 260 6445, 02 260 6446
Open daily, 11.30am to 2.30pm
Sunday to Thursday, 6pm to 11pm
Friday to Saturday, 6pm to 1am
Afternoon high tea 2.30pm to 5.30pm