Perhaps it is nothing more than a convenient coincidence that both Los Angeles and Bangkok are referred to by their inhabitants as the City of Angels. But this curious fact makes a nice hook for a film series, and the crafty programmers of the UCLA Film and Television Archive are making good use of it, tying an odd assortment of good-to-terrific movies into an appealing "thematic" package.
The archive's current program, "Bangkok: Cinema City," (Sunday through Wednesday), could be fully justified in terms of timeliness alone. Thailand, which had one of six Asian films in competition at the recent Cannes Film Festival, is the scene of the latest national renaissance in Asian cinema, inheriting the buzz that recently accrued to South Korea.
The rebirth of the film industry in Bangkok is even more dramatic. After flourishing until well into the 1970s on a steady diet of sub-Bollywood musicals (three-hour epic soaps shot in 16 millimeter and shown mostly in drive-ins), Thai cinema had declined almost to nonexistence in the early '90s.
The "City of Angels" references add an extra level of insight. For one thing, they allow Bangkok: Cinema City to be positioned as a follow-up to the archive's recently completed program, "Los Angeles: Site Unseen," a loosely knit group of pictures united only by the fact that they all offer illuminating sidelong glimpses of the city in which they were created. The French thriller "The Outside Man" (1973), for example, which was filmed on and around the Sunset Strip by a wide-eyed foreign crew, is an inadvertent time capsule of a tumultuous period in the city's past, which forms the backdrop of the movie's conventional Mafia hit man plot.
We don't often get the chance to see our own environment through the eyes of strangers, as we do in a movie like "The Outside Man." But our initial experience of any foreign cinema is always partly that of a tourist. It turns out that many of Thailand's neophyte moviemakers have studied filmmaking overseas or have jump-started their careers working on commercials. And now that they're attempting to jump-start a national cinema, they are getting some mileage out of the fact that their country has never before been presented to the world in "real movies," films with this kind of glossy, "global" fit and finish. What's surprising is how fresh and how local many of the pictures feel, despite the imported slickness.
"My Girl" ("Fan Chan," 2003), the series' opening-night attraction, is a lovely small-town coming-of-age story saturated with the artifacts of pop culture, from sugary Thai love songs to highflying Chinese martial-arts serials. The movie feels like a relaxed first-person narrative even though it was made, with impressive technical flair, by a team of six directors who were film school classmates.
One of the movie's producers, Prasert Wiwattananonpong, will appear at the screening; perhaps he can explain this prodigy of seamless collaboration. The familiarity of the narrative format of "My Girl" presents a priceless opportunity to experience a foreign pop culture on the ground and in action, playing a formative role in the lives of its consumers, who in this case are a pack of droll, imaginative, naughty kids -- universally recognizable bike-riding, puppy-loving troublemakers.
It may seem at times that too much of the energy in the new Thai cinema has been devoted to reinventing familiar commercial genre forms. But in the best of these movies the predictability of the genre story seems to liberate the filmmakers to relax and observe, to flood the screen with color, texture and vividly home-grown behavioral quirks. Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "6ixtynin9" (1999), one of the earliest of Thai films to attract attention at international festivals, is a loose-limbed, sardonic crime thriller that takes off from one of the oldest pulp fiction plots: A desperate schmo (Lalita Panyopas) finds on her doorstep, and decides to keep, a box full of mob money.
Although the rapidly unfolding plot of "6ixtynin9" is just about as inventive as it needs to be to hold our interest, it soon becomes obvious that what matters most to writer-director Ratanaruang is the stuff around the edges, his observations of lowlife in the big city, the knucklehead street culture of Bangkok petty criminals. The movie is a dry, Elmore Leonard-style crime comedy of escalating chaos and accumulating corpses, and its incidental pleasures are its raison d'etre. "6ixtynin9" is much more nuanced than the superficially similar "Bangkok Dangerous" ("Krung Thep Antharai," 2000), a post-Tarantino hipster thriller about a soulful deaf-mute hit man, co-directed by the identical twin Pang brothers ("The Eye"), which is long on edgy attitude and neon illumination and noticeably short on substance.