Choosing a wedding reception venue in Bangkok

So you’ve each decided to commit for life; besides organising the ceremony, it’s time to plan for the party. What should you consider when choosing a venue to have your wedding reception at?

Most Bangkok receptions are held in hotels, says Dalin Snidvongs, director of catering at the Regent. "All the guests will know where the hotel is, parking is easy, and it’s usually cheaper than elsewhere – choosing a venue where you need to provide your own caterers is going to be more expensive."

Sumalee Panumphan, catering sales manager at the Marriott Royal Garden, notes that most hotels offer very similar types of packages: invitation cards, food for the reception, a guest book, garlands for the bride and groom, ice carvings, a wedding cake, flower decorations and accommodation for the bride and groom – give or take a VIP room for the wedding party, and a first anniversary dinner.

So what else is crucial in helping to make that final decision?

The Date

Dalin advises that the most important thing to consider as soon as possible is setting a date. "You should book a venue four to six months in advance. November is the most auspicious month, so you need to get in early if you’d like to book then."

If you leave things too late, the date you’ve set can determine where you’re able to have your reception. Plus, some areas are only by hotels during particular seasons of the year. The Regent, for instance, only uses its terrace area after the rainy season has ended.

Sumalee says that the Marriott organised over 200 weddings throughout 2000. "The most auspicious dates were September 8 and November 4. If you choose a popular date, you have to get in early."

The Food

The next question is what kind of food you’d like served, and whether the venue you’ve selected can provide this. "There are three standard types of receptions: cocktails, Chinese and buffet," says Rakklaw Thankunpanit, the Regent’s dedicated wedding consultant. Sit down meals with set menus can also be provided at some venues, but standard prices aren’t usually quoted. "If there are elderly people attending, you might prefer a buffet, but even with cocktail receptions some chairs are provided."

Most venues will offer these choices, but you might wish to choose somewhere with a menu that particularly appeals.

The Guest List

Hotels may require a minimum number of guests for some rooms or areas to be used for a reception. "You don’t need to confirm numbers until three or four weeks before the reception," says Dalin. "And sometimes the numbers can change a lot between then and the day." But a ballpark figure to work with at the start is a good idea.

The Budget

"People usually don’t want to tell us their budget – they prefer to tell us the number of people they’d like to have, and see what the price will be," says Rakklaw. "However, it is better if you let us know your budget, then we can let you know what we can do for that price."

She also notes that hotels in a particular bracket will usually offer packages that differ only very slightly in price. "Most people will have three hotels or so in mind, and it won’t come down to the price. It will come down to first impressions about the hotel."

Sumalee says that most clients spend around Bt200,000 on their receptions; Rakklaw and Dalin estimate that 180,000 to 250,000 is the norm.

The Music

Can the venue hold the type of musicians you’d like to have at your reception? "Trios, quartets or quintets are the most popular," says Dalin. "Some people like to arrange to have a normal band, or a jazz band instead."

The Theme

Sumalee says that one of the most enjoyable weddings she has attended was one where there was an ocean theme. "All the guests wore Hawaiian shirts, the women wore Hawaiian skirts. The venue decorations were blue and white, and there were flowers set up in the sand next to the pool. The bride and groom also wore Hawaiian-style clothes," she says. Another one she attended featured fireworks on the river. So if you have a theme in mind, or something special you’d like to happen at your reception, you’ll need to consider this as well when choosing a venue.

It may seem a little daunting at first, but sitting down and thinking about how you’d like to organise your reception should save you a lot of trouble later on. "Make a timeline," advises Dalin. "List what you would like to have, and by what date it should be completed."

Putting a gym through its paces

So you’ve finally gotten around to sticking to that New Year’s resolution to lose weight or just get fit – it’s time to pound that pavement and find a health club to suit your needs. This is a serious commitment you’re about to make – just think of the number of hours you and your new club are going to be spending together – so take a few moments to find out what you should check out before laying your money on the table.

"The first thing you should notice is whether or not you’re taken care of," says Debbie Jackson, who has worked in the luxury club industry for fifteen years in places as diverse as Italy, the UK and Hong Kong. She now manages the Sukhothai’s health club. "You should get a full tour of the facilities, see a list of classes, notice what level they’re offered at. Ensure that you are given a fitness test, otherwise the club can’t give you a personal programme."

According to Jackson it’s also important to find out whether the instructors are qualified. "I would certainly ask. And check to see whether the club offers personal trainers. These are a good asset for clubs, as they’ll give you individual attention and keep you motivated."

Furthermore, Jackson suggests talking directly with the staff. "A lot of the time a manager will show you around, but what you want to make sure is that you like the staff – they’re the ones who will be answering your questions once you join. So go up to the staff, and check their ability to communicate."

Piyapong Limpipipat, managing director at Body System, says that an individual’s choice of a health club really depends on what that particular person is looking for. "You need to consider both the value for money offered, and what the gym offers to suit your needs. Both factors are equally important. For instance, some people really like to work out using weights, but other people find that boring. Those people need to look for a gym that offers other facilities."

Jackson agrees. "The club needs to suit your individual needs. If you’re happy to go into a gym and just do your own thing, then go somewhere no frills, without the luxury locker rooms. Low budget gyms can be good value. The luxury gyms offer a more personalised service – you don’t need to bring your own towels, shampoo, and so on. Some people can be put off by the price, but they don’t take into account the services being offered."

Piyapong suggests looking at your budget first up. "Clients need to consider how much they are willing to spend. If they want to spend less, they might need to go to a small establishment. Larger establishments might need to charge more because of the services they provide."

Checking out the overall staff-to-client ratio can be a reasonable indicator of service levels, but Jackson says that it’s even more important to actually check out the club at the times you would normally expect to be working out there. "You don’t want to be disillusioned when you do start going and find that you have to wait to use the machines you like."

Finally, Jackson suggests that you make sure the club you’re checking out takes an interest in the latest fitness trends and ideas. "Many gyms are a bit stale and don’t offer newer classes, such as cycling classes, power yoga, cardio-combat, Pilates and so on. Salsa classes are becoming popular in gyms now too. You want more than the standard step and hi-lo impact classes – these are still good, but look for more than that." Classes should also be on at convenient times.

Joining a health club that manages to satisfy all of these criteria will mean you’ll have absolutely no excuses for not being on your way to that new you.

Choosing an engagement ring

It’s a big decision to get married, but it’s only the first of many in your new life together. Picking the engagement ring is probably one of the earliest that will need to be made. But how much should you spend? What styles are in fashion? And how can you get the best value for money?

ABC Jewellery’s Apple Hiranya, a graduate from the Gem Institute of America, says that in the US, people are usually advised to spend around two months of their salary on an engagement ring. "But in Thailand, it’s probably a little more because the groom’s parents will contribute towards some of the cost."

Prior to the economic crisis three years ago, Apple estimates that people spent around Bt300,000 on a two-carat diamond. Throughout the crisis, however, people were spending from Bt80,000 upwards. "This year things have picked up and now people are spending Bt300,000 upwards."

Gemsmond’s Bhuvanart Bhuvanattrai says that people are spending anything from tens of thousands to several million baht. "But of course, the price and size of the diamond are not everything. People need to take the design, the craftsmanship, the hand of the bride-to-be herself – among many other things – into consideration."

Currently, the most popular engagement ring for Thai couples is the single diamond solitaire, set in white gold. "Thais tend only to buy diamonds for engagement rings – only a few buy coloured stones," Apple says. "Ninety percent of the cost of a ring will depend on the diamond. Only ten percent or less of the cost is for the setting itself and the band."

Bhuvanart concurs with this trend, adding that it’s a round brilliant diamond on a prong setting that remains the most popular style. "Yet Thai women are increasingly seeking an engagement ring that signifies their taste, style and personality. Fancy-shaped diamonds are getting in on the scene more and more."

Apple says she’s noticed heart-shaped diamonds are becoming more popular, even though it can be very difficult to judge whether the cut is of a high quality.

It seems that unlike in the west, where men are often pressured into surprising their bride-to-be with the perfect ring, in Thailand couples usually shop together. "Maybe he doesn’t want to surprise her with something she may not like," says Bhuvanart.

Apple adds that whole families -parents, grandparents – used to come in together to choose a ring everyone liked, but now it’s usually the couple who come in together. "It’s very sweet. She says, ‘It depends on what you’d like to give me’ while he says ‘It depends on what you like’!"

This means that words of advice on how to covertly find her ring size are superfluous; what’s more important is that the couple educate themselves about the so-called 4Cs of diamonds – clarity, cut, colour and carat – so that they can make an informed purchase.

Both jewellers warn that there are plenty of tricky characters in the industry. "Bangkok is well known as one of the world’s leading gems and jewellery centres – I’d say Bangkok is one of the best places to buy engagement rings," says Bhuvanart. "But as with anything else, you have to pick a good and reliable store – because there are also a lot of bad ones out there."

Apple strongly advises shopping around and suggests couples educate themselves by talking to jewellers. "The only mistake that people make when buying an engagement ring is not understanding what quality means," says Apple. "The price for a particular quality of diamond will not vary much from shop to shop, but you need to be sure that the diamond has been graded correctly."

She knows some customers who have flown to New York or Belgium to buy rings. "There was no need to fly anywhere. Thailand has a lot of good jewellers. You need to find one you can trust, and they will be the jewellers who take time to explain to you what you should look for."

Support for breast cancer sufferers

"It was like the end of my world," says twenty-eight year old Penkhra Jitjamnong, of being told two years ago that she had breast cancer. "I had so many questions, like why me? There were no right answers. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to say when people would ask me ‘Are you going to die?’ "

As her illness progressed, she asked nurses about whether there were any support groups for breast cancer patients, and eventually a nurse gave her a brochure about the Bangkok Breast Cancer Support Group (BBC). "I’m so happy I found out about them. I’ve connected to a big family," she says. "The BBC will tell you about what to do if you lose your hair, how to feel good about yourself and stop thinking about being sick."

Dr Narongsak Kiatkikajornthada, an oncologist at Samitivej hospital, says that it can help cancer patients to talk to other people who have had a similar experience. "So you know that you will be okay later on. But in Thai culture, I’m not sure how it would work… At the moment, [a support group] would have to be gradually developed."

The BBC was launched more than a year ago by American Connie Larkin and two other women. When several of Larkin’s friends were diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to do something to help them by getting the group going. "In America, support groups are very, very prevalent," Larkin says. "Even in a couple of other places in Asia, but not Bangkok."

The group consists of volunteer women from diverse backgrounds – there are currently nine women on the committee, who speak five languages between them – who are able to provide emotional support to people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. "What we are trying to do with this group is provide alternatives to people, both Thais and expatriates. When people are diagnosed, they can call us and ask ‘Where do I go in Bangkok? What’s here for me? What services exist?’ "

As well as promoting community awareness of breast cancer, another of the group’s objectives is to create a resource centre with literature and current information. "We have tried to gather information from various cancer societies. We’ve also purchased books, and we research what’s coming out of the major cancer institutes. If people go to a doctor’s office here, there is little to sometimes no information."

Larkin hopes that doctors will let their patients know about the group. "Part of our success will be based on getting the support of physicians and their referrals. This is our main obstacle at the moment."

One of the main activities of the group are the monthly emotional support group meetings, held at a different hospital each time, which Penkhra found so useful. "I think we’re going to increase the number of meetings because the people who are sick and are coming to these meetings say they want more," says Larkin. "What we’re trying to do is encourage them to support each other, so after every meeting we send a list to everyone who participated and they can call each other."

Pensri Wanrakakit, an oncology nurse, says that she has often been asked by patients about whether it is possible to contact a support group anonymously. "Some patients want help over the phone, or Internet instead," she says.

Culturally, then, perhaps the group will take some time to be sought out by Thai women. Penkhra, however, remains baffled by this lack of enthusiasm to meet and talk about problems. "I don’t understand why Thais don’t talk. If you talk about something, it makes you feel better. When I was going to hospital, I wanted to talk to the other patients there, ask them how they were feeling. I thought maybe we should share our experience together," she says. "I really needed someone to talk to."

Penkhra has now recovered and is returning the favour to other patients by remaining active in the BBC. "If there’s someone new, I want to help her. I want to hug her, tell her that she will be fine. I understand what she’s feeling. I lost my hair – if someone is going to lose their hair, I’ll tell them to look at me," she says, indicating her now very healthy-looking locks.

Breast cancer in Thailand

Worldwide, it affects millions of women: It killed 385,000 women globally in 1997 and one in nine American women will have it by the age of 85. But there is some good news on breast cancer: with an increasing awareness of the disease, and more sophisticated technology, the early detection and treatment of breast cancer is becoming easier and is improving women’s chances of survival.

In Thailand, the statistics on the number of women diagnosed are difficult to pin down. For Bangkok, it’s estimated that just over 20 women in every 100,000 will be diagnosed with breast cancer – a rate higher than the rest of the country, but similar to rates in developed countries.

Dr Narongsak Kiatikajornthada, an oncologist at Samitivej Hospital, says that people are more aware of breast cancer than ever before. "And the incidence of breast cancer is now higher partly because we can detect it more easily. [At Samitivej] we see more breast cancer than cervical – but if you look at the national figures, cancer of the cervix is number one."

This, he says, is probably because the hospital’s patients tend to come from a higher socio-economic group among whom there’s a higher awareness – and fear – of the disease. There’s also a possible link between the diet of this group compared to others.

"There are now facilities all over the country, and we have the technology to detect breast cancer in its early stages. The problem is getting people to go and be examined," says Dr Sankiat Vayakornvichit, a gynaecologist at the same hospital.

Regular breast examinations and mammograms (breast x-rays) have a vital role to play in the early detection of breast cancer, when treatment has a much higher rate of success. At Samitivej, doctors recommend that women start to regularly self-examine with the onset of puberty, but they note that there are some cultural barriers to overcome for Thai women to do this. "The culture of Thai women means they are usually not keen on doing breast examinations," says Dr Pornthep Pramyothin, a surgeon on the Samitivej team.

But self-examinations alone are not enough – they are a necessary complement to regular mammograms. "If you can feel a lump in your breast, there’s a fifty per cent chance that it may spread through your system," says Dr Pornthep. Mammograms, on the other hand, can detect lumps that you can’t yet feel yourself.

"Guidelines for when to start screening for breast cancer vary between different national cancer bodies around the world, and between hospitals," says Connie Larkin, founder and co-ordinator of the Bangkok Breast Cancer Support Group. "We tend to promote the American Cancer Society’s guidelines because they are the most conservative."

These guidelines recommend that self-examinations should be done monthly from the age of 20, a clinical breast exam should be done every three years for women aged 20 to 39, and women aged over 40 should have a mammogram and a clinical exam every year.

When a lump is found a biopsy is required to find out whether it is cancerous. If cancer is detected, the course and combination of treatments followed will depend on the individual woman’s risk factors, her genetic disposition and the characteristics of the cancer."There is some choice," says Dr Pornthep. "The main objective is to control the disease. We need to consider the pros and cons of different treatments, explain the options to the patient and make a recommendation."

Dr Sankiat strongly encourages women to see their gynaecologist annually. "Please have a physical exam once a year – not just for a pap smear, but for a breast exam. It’s an integral part of a woman’s check up. And see a gynaecologist directly – we have more expertise in this area, it’s what we do. We want to see patients before they have a lump, rather than at a late stage, because with early detection, patients have a better prognosis."

The median age for women with breast cancer is 50 years old – that is, in a group of 100 women with breast cancer, around half will be aged close to 50. "If you are young and you find a lump, it’s probably fibrocystic disease, which is benign," adds Dr Narongsak. "I’ve seen many young women who have not been able to sleep because they have found a lump. They need to know that they are not in a high risk group, but they should still seek medical advice."

Smile, you’re on daddy’s cameras

Meet The Parents

It’s an experience that most people have had to endure at some time or other: getting through the initial introduction to the parents of their loved one. But Greg (Ben Stiller) has to overcome more than a few obstacles and biases when it comes to winning the affections of Pam’s father, Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro).

Jack loves his daughter and has clearly scared off her beaus before: "Try to be nice to this one," Pam pleads. "I kind of like him." But that’s not all. Greg will soon discover that Jack is an ex-CIA agent with ways of making people feel uncomfortable – he’s not merely a harmless florist who likes exotic flowers. (Which makes Greg’s very thoughtful present of a rare orchid rather redundant.)

The movie kicks off with a lovely scene: Greg’s about to propose to Pam (Teri Polo) by getting her kindergarten class to hold up the question from their classroom window. But his romantic plan is interrupted by a phonecall from Pam’s sister, who announces her hasty upcoming wedding instead.

So there’s no proposal. Instead, the wedding weekend gives Greg the chance to finally meet Pam’s parents. On arrival he learns that she still hasn’t told her parents that they’re living together, and that he’s not allowed to smoke.

Pam’s childhood home lies in a typical American upper-middle class neighborhood. Russet-colored leaves and huge houses suggest a wealth that Greg’s never going to achieve himself, particularly on his nurse’s salary. "So Greg," says Jack, during their introductory chat. "There’s not a lot of men in your profession."

You can feel the tension building already, and that director Jay Roach manages to sustain that tension and very gradually intensify it for more than the next hour is one of the movie’s pleasures.

Greg finds himself blurting out irretrievable sentences and desperately trying to cover his tracks, all beneath the fantastic and frightening scowl of Robert De Niro – and that’s before Pam tells him about her father’s real CIA background.

Pam’s sister and her fiance arrive, but their presence only serves to make Greg look and feel like more of an outsider. That Greg manages to give the bride-to-be a black eye, burns a major wedding present and loses the family’s precious cat allow there to be plenty of good lines as Greg’s hopes of being loved – let alone liked – plummet.

A clever but minor subplot involves Greg stalking Jack as he seemingly participates in some sort of covert operation involving Thailand. Ex-CIA? It seems to Greg as if he’s still involved in something undercover. Thai audiences will particularly appreciate the scene with Robert De Niro actually speaking Thai on the phone.

This is really likeable mainstream comedy that doesn’t resort to toilet jokes – save the scene where a car gets stuck in the overflowing sewage – or underestimate its audience’s intelligence. There might the occasional groan as Greg spins himself deeper into the vortex of lies he’s created, but overall this is a script that provides well for its actors.

And the actors return the complement. Stiller plays the nice-guy-hardly-done-by to garner as much empathy as possible, but it’s really Robert De Niro who steals many of their scenes together with his withering looks of scepticism and disbelief. Pam’s role is quite undemanding, while her mother (Blythe Danner) plays the conciliatory matriarch with great vagueness. Indeed this is probably the type of family and neighborhood where valium would help. Pam’s ex-boyfriend Kevin, the seemingly ubiquitous Owen Wilson, also puts in a notable performance with his dulcet voice and upper-class ways.

The movie winds its way towards a reasonably predictable resolution, but it’s topped off with some very funny scenes of Greg taking his revenge on Jack’s secret cameras. Not only will you walk out of this film feeling good, you’ll walk out with a genuine smile on your face.

Hardship in fairyland

Where The Heart Is

You are hereby warned: this is a sentimental, melodramatic film about working-class women just trying to keep their lives afloat for themselves and their children. Based on an Oprah-recommended book by Billie Letts, it’s a meandering tear-jerker that is only watchable on the strength of its cast, not its script.

Seventeen-year old Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), is seven-months pregnant and she’s leaving her Tennessee trailer park home with her boyfriendWilly Jack (Dylan Bruno). They’re heading for California, where Novalee hopes to live somewhere with an outdoor patio set, where she can sit and drink chocolate milk and watch the sun go down.

But there’s a slight hiccup. They stop at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma so that Novalee can use the bathroom and when she reemerges, Willy has left her stranded. Novalee reacts in a daze, failing to demonstrate much spirit. She doesn’t cry, doesn’t get angry, and she doesn’t try calling any of her friends. She simply sits and waits for things to happen to her.

And they do. An oddball but warm-hearted woman Thelma "Sister" Husband (Stockard Channing) mistakes her for someone else; a Wal-mart photographer Moses Whitecotton (Keith David) recommends she give her baby a strong name (she chooses Americus). She happens to be in the bathroom when the Wal-Mart is closing, so she stays there, at a loss to do anything else. And she stays for six weeks, venturing out to go to the library, where she meets Forney Hull (a very wooden James Frain, who lets the cast down), the de facto librarian covering for his drunken sister.

Novalee goes into labor (it is, of course, a dark and stormy night) and is rescued by her knight in shining armour: Forney has been keeping an eye on her (which is pretty creepy, actually), and now he smashes through a plate glass window to get to her.

The film then turns highly epidodic and starts to flounder. Cut to the hospital, where Novalee wakes up to meet the chatty Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), who for some reason becomes her best friend. Novalee has become a celebrity, the mother of the Wal-Mart baby, and is offered a job with Wal-Mart "anywhere in the country!" Novalee’s mother (Sally Field) turns up briefly, after having abandoned her when she was five years old. This scene is representative of many in the film: there’s potential for a great scene with two fantastic actresses, but they’re given a paucity of material to work with by screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. It’s almost embaressing to watch.

Novalee finds a home with Thelma, and audiences are then treated to the trials and tribulations of being a beautiful single mother in small-town America. Novalee’s ex-boyfriend turns into a country and western star (with the help of a brilliant Joan Cusack); fundamentalist Christians kidnap Americus; ; a tornado rips through town; Novalee decides to become a photographer so so there are various superfluous scenes of her gazing at black and white prints.

But the world of Novalee and Lexie is not convincing. Bad things happen, such as an attack on Lexie’s children and unwanted pregnancies (hasn’t anyone heard of abortion?), but it’s obvious that they’re happening on a movie set. By the time Novalee gets her patio set and chocolate milk, the schmalz is in full swing.

Natalie Portman and to a lesser extent Ashley Judd do their utmost to save the melodrama by injecting some great acting. And although their perfect looks, healthy figures and immaculate grooming are not at all representative of working class single American mums, their commitment to their roles is what prevents this film from being a watchable bad film – rather than just a bad film.

Waiter, there’s no spice in my romance

Woman On Top

The poster for Woman On Top looks rather Pedro Almodovar-like: lascivious, sexy and playful. And the film’s idea is an imaginative and original take on the Like Water For Chocolate/Eat Drink Man Woman food-sex nexus.

Brazilian Isabella Oliviera (Penelope Cruz) is born with a severe case of motion sickness. As a child, there’s little she can do outdoors so instead she cultivates her culinary skills, becoming a chef with a passion for her fiery hometown cuisine. But love interrupts her plans to travel the world: Isabella meets and marries Toninho (Murilo Benicio).

All is rosy for a while, with Isabella cooking in the little seafood restaurant that Toninho owns and fronts a band in . She can control her motion sickness, we’re told, as long as she controls the motion. So Isabella must be the one driving, she’s got to lead on the dance floor, she can’t catch lifts, and when it comes to sex, she’s got to be on top. Eventually a life with such restrictions gets too much for Toninho.

"I’m a man, I’ve got to be on top sometimes!" he implores when Isabella catches him in bed with a neighbor. Isabella flees the pastel-colored shores of Brazil for San Francisco and the comfort of her drag queen friend Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr), and it’s here that the movie really begins. Can Isabella stop loving the husband of her dreams and make her way in the world alone?

Only with the help of Yemanja, the ocean goddess to whom she delivers an offering in order to put a stop to her love for Toninho; and the help of her incredible culinary skills. When TV producer Cliff (Mark Feuerstein) catches the scent of her cooking – and is also dazzled by her looks – he manages to get her a prime-time slot hosting her own TV show, Passion Food Live. It drives male audiences crazy.

And therein lies the major problem with this potentially great film. It’s supposed to be about passion and sensuality, but Penelope Cruz is a man’s woman with all the joie de vivre of a 1990s heroin chic model. Where’s her oomph? Monica herself tries to instil a bit of the brazenness of Brazil into Isabella’s suitor-producer by throwing his thousand-dollar watch out the window. "Isabella is Brazil, Brazil is Isabella," she instructs. Actually Isabella’s just a pretty girl who has all the charisma of chorizo.

But Toninho chases after her with his guitar-playing friends, determined to win her back, and even submit to being on the bottom if that’s what it’s going to take. Unfortunately director Fina Torres (Celestial Clockwork) not only fails to ignite any flames between these two, she expects the audience to want them to get back together. Almodovar Torres ain’t. Isabella might not have an awful lot of personality, but any sensible female in the audience will be wishing that she had enough self-respect to just get on with her life.

Contributing to the lack of energy is some very stilted acting. Monica delivers some good lines with enough panache to almost steal the show; she ruins her chances, however, by also delivering some real clangers.

Woman On Top promises far more than it delivers, hinting heavily at spiciness but delivering lukewarm porridge. Coming on the tail-end of the Bangkok Latino craze, Thai audiences will probably enjoy the soundtrack and be kept entertained by this film, but they deserve to have been served a much heartier dish.

Unbelievable

Unbreakable

Writer and director of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan, is back with a film equally as engrossing, well-paced and seductive. Unbreakable’s main downfall, perhaps, is that it follows hot on the heels of such a smash; as such, it has an impossible lot to live up to. Expectations aside, however, and Unbreakable holds its own as a beautifully spare, melancholy and well-crafted film.

The first scene opens with security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) chatting up a woman on a Philadelphia-bound train; despite his politeness, she’s spooked and changes seats. There’s a sense of spying given to the scene, which is framed between the two seats in front of them; it’s a device that’s employed on numerous occasions throughout the film.

Willis is again in a role to which he brings complexity and restrainedness; he’s likeable and at the same time he’s not, having attempted to cheat on his wife.

The train later crashes, and Dunn is the sole survivor. Things aren’t going well in his life: he’s having major marital problems; life just doesn’t seem satisfying; and now he has to somehow give meaning to his strange escape from death.

Then a note left on his windscreen asks him how many days he has been sick in his life. He tracks down the writer of the note, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who has suffered from a disease that makes his bones incredibly brittle from birth. Elijah’s mother encouraged him to participate in the world by getting him to read comics. As an adult comic book art-dealer, Elijah has come to develop a theory: that if someone as fragile and close to death as he is exists, perhaps there is someone at the other end of the spectrum, someone invincible, a real-life version of a superhero.

Dunn resists, but slowly comes to realize that there is truth in what Elijah says. One of the most genuinely amusing scenes in cinema here in Bangkok for some time has to be when Dunn and his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) realize together that he does possess incredible strength. "You know what to do if something goes wrong," Dunn says a he lifts a remarkably heavy weight over his chest. "Get Mom," replies Joseph solemnly.

As Dunn begins to accept his potential power – and dons an over-the-top hooded jacket that reads ‘Security’ across the back – Dunn’s wife Audrey Dunn (Robin Wright Penn) decides that she wants to give their marriage another go. Her performance is as faultless and riveting as that given by the other actors, but their relationship is perhaps not as fleshed out as is it could be. She remains unaware of his newfound powers, while an emotional Joseph is let in on the secret.

The inevitable twist is not as satisfying as that offered in The Sixth Sense. While The Sixth Sense offers magic that’s unbelievable, Unbreakable offers a neat twist that’s both clever and unbelievable. Without the magic, audiences might not be as willing to suspend their disbelief – it’s devastating news they’re given rather than anything uplifting. Forget The Sixth Sense though, and Unbreakable is a mournful and haunting film in its own right.

Bloodthirsty battles, cartoon characters

Bangrajan

Since first being turned into a popular novel in 1968, Bangrajan is a story that’s been told in numerous forms in Thailand. The year is 1767, and the Burmese are advancing on the former Thai capital of Ayutthaya from the west and north. The troops advancing from the north have already been frustrated in their attempts to reach the capital three times by a small group of villagers from Bangrajan, enraging the Burmese, who vow to keep attacking.

When Bangrajan’s original leader is injured, outsider Nai Jan (Jaran Ngamdee), who is famed for his bravery against the Burmese, is asked to lead the village’s defence. As villagers from surrounding areas come to Bangrajan to help the resistance, others flee to Ayuttaya in fear of the impending Burmese invasion. This is the tale of the Bangrajan villagers’ attempts to save their village and preserve their lives: "Better a dead free man than a live Burmese slave".

The movie opens with the fourth battle in full flight. And it’s an intense, impressive scene, a no-holds-barred visionary record of the awfulness of battle, not unlike the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.

The unfolding tale centers on four of the eleven warriors who are immortalised in Singburi province’s Bangrajan Monument: Nai Jan, Nai Thong Men (Bin Banlualit), Nai In (Winai Kraibutr), and Nai Meuang (Atthakorn Suwannaraj).

Nai In has just married E Sa (Bongkoj Khongmalai), who is upset to learn she is pregnant during this time of war and won’t tell her husband, while Nai Meuang confesses his love for E Tang On (Suntharee Maila-or). As the battles progress, their respective stories unfold.

As a war movie, this version of Bangrajan certainly succeeds. There are numerous graphic scenes of raw violence: massive swords slice through the air before sinking deep into flesh and dismembering limbs and heads; arrows pierce the unprotected bare chests of warriors, and axes are hurled with disconcerting accuracy. Director Thanit Jitnukul has done a fine job of putting together some amazing battle scenes, with the impressive sound effects – and the music – being particularly noteworthy.

As a history, what appears on the screen is fascinating, but as in any big screen depiction, one wonders about the accuracy of the story, the depiction of the characters, and the recreated lifestyles. Whether or not the story is true can perhaps be excused by the average non-purist; there are plenty of instances of directors interpreting history to suit their own whims (think Oliver Stone’s JFK, Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth).

The characters, too, may be "real" or not: that’s a question for historians to debate, and poetic license in films is quite acceptable. What’s more concerning are some comments made by Jitnukul that the research into the way people lived 300 years ago was done without any assistance from historians. "We intended to do so for fear that a dramatic element of story telling would be destroyed by factual information, and, subsequently, all enjoyment would be lost," he reportedly said. Which is a shame, as one of the strong points of the film seems to be its attention to detail in the way people looked and dressed. Perhaps that explains a slip up by E Tang On, who asks Nai Thong Men whether he’s brushed his teeth today…

The real weakness of Bangrajan, however, is its two-dimensional characters and their unconvincing dialogue. While there is some occasional humor skilfully inserted into the exchanges between the characters, the overall impression is that the characters are neither well-rounded nor believable. Although the characters are based on statues, it’s a shame they took that a bit too far and decided to act like them too.