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Gaining momentum : On June 2, 2006

The butt-kicking babe from Chocolate and a phantom twin from Alone captured a decent share of the limelight for Thai films at this year's Cannes Film Market. Eyes were also fixed on the occult quiz show 13 and a flower-decked urinal in gender comedy Metrosexual. Sure enough, there were the flagships: Ong-bak 2 and Naraesuan, both still in production, but whose billboards already screamed with cocksure confidence on Cannes's beachfront Croisette road for two weeks.

Although no Thai features were invited to screen in the esteemed Official Selection at the 59th Cannes Film Festival, a number of in-production local titles have made their rounds in the Film Market, a large complex of trade exhibitions where movies are the sole commodity bought, sold and negotiated from May 17 to 28 (the Official Selection is the artistic section of Cannes with 50 titles selected each year, whereas the Film Market is the commercial trading floor in which over 1,500 films are screened by a few hundred companies).

Because Cannes is the world's largest congregation of movie people, everyone seems intent on exploiting the opportunity to plug their flicks. Thai titles like Tom-Yum-Goong and Shutter claimed international repute when they were advertised here in 2004 and 2005. Tony Jaa once flexed his muscled moves on the Croisette to pitch his martial arts movie; and GTH studio sold the rights of its horror tale Shutter to a Brazillian distributor at Cannes in 2005, and earlier this year the film became the South American country's number-one box-office hit. That's why everybody comes here with the hope of grooming a new hit. Not everyone always succeeds.

One of the biggest buzzes this year was when the Weinstein Company from New York snapped up the rights to Ong-bak 2 even though the film is still in production. The film will star Tony Jaa as a muay Thai maestro who travels to arenas around the globe to battle against fighters from different martial arts styles. It may sound like a video game scenario, but the fact that a big US distributor (Weinstein formerly ran Miramax) has secured the rights to an unfinished Thai film clinches Tony Jaa's reputation as an emerging butt-booting sensation - this despite his Tom-Yum-Goong proving rather stale.

Director Prachya Pinkaew, who shepherded both Ong-bak and Tom-Yum-Goong, will not return to direct Ong-bak 2 but will serve as the film's producer. Prachya, however, is set to helm Chocolate, a new martial arts flick featuring a female bare-knuckled fighter. The film is positioned as a key product of Sahamongkol Film, a major Thai studio behind all Tony Jaa's projects. At Cannes, Chocolate "drew much interest" from foreign buyers, including the Weinstein Company. The final deal, if one actually happens, will be formally announced later.

"We have good responses from buyers for many of our titles," says Gilbert Lim, vice president of Sahamongkol Film. "It was a very good year for us in Cannes."

Besides Ong-bak 2 and Chocolate, a savvy thriller called 13, which has already finished its final editing, is another Sahamongkol title that excited international buyers. The film, directed by the talented Chukiat Sakvirakul, stars Krisda Sukosol Klapp (or Noi from the rock band Pru) as a salaryman who gets sucked into a creepy quiz show. 13 is set for a fourth-quarter release in Thailand.

But a Thai movie that secured the best publicity space in Cannes is Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol's Naraesuan, which acquired a whole beachfront pavilion. The film, a historical mammoth and a sequel to Suriyothai, is moving forwards into its final episode of shooting (hopefully) and is set for the propitious release date of December 5, 2006 (hopefully, too). In Cannes, however, the Naraesuan pavilion was a showpiece rather than a centre of information, its impact more visual than commercial. Usually, Cannes's beachfront pavilions are reserved for national film insitutes - thus there are, say, the Hong Kong pavilion representing the Hong Kong film industry, likewise the Korean, the US, the UK, or the Moroccan pavilions - so it's special, and unusual, for a single movie to acquire an entire pavilion (and it must have cost a fortune too).

Wisit Sasanatieng, or rather his studio Five Star, unveiled his new project in Cannes, too. The period ghost film, called The Unseeable, caught the interest of foreigners largely because Wisit's name has carved out strong fan-bases in various territories after his Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog. Shooting has commenced, but no release date is yet fixed. Wisit, a maverick with a prodigious vision, is also preparing another film, a Thai-Singaporean co-production about a one-armed martial arts fighter called Armful.

GTH had a swell stint at Cannes market in 2005 largely due to the global hit Shutter. Last month at the Riviera the studio had a quieter spell, though several queries were directed at the new film from the two directors of Shutter, Bangjong Pisanthanakul and Pakpoom Wongpoom, another horror yarn called Alone. Starring Masha Watanapanich as a woman who discovers that she once had a Siamese twin, the film begins shooting this month.

Before we could see whether Alone is a step-forward for the two talented filmmakers, a gender comedy called Metrosexual is shortly set to tickle local audiences. Directed by Yongyuth Thongkongtoon, the movie aims to capitalise on the director's impressive track record as his previous gay comedies, the two Iron Ladies flicks, were hot-selling items among international buyers. Metrosexual stars the four female news anchors from the morning show Phuying Tueng Phuying as busybodies who try to determine if a man their friend is about to get married to is, well, a real man.

As the local box-office has experienced a slumber since January, an international film market like Cannes seems to shine some light at the end of the tunnel. Every studio head is fully aware that domestic performance remains his/her priority, and that the survival of commercial cinema depends on the audience's trust and confidence in the quality of homemade movies. But Cannes presents such a major lure that nobody wants to miss out, and Thai films that can make their presence felt here will have a bright future overseas. The Cannes Film Festival may celebrate the paragon of cinema art, but at the Cannes Film Market it's all about money - and not about art or pride.

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