Lekha J Shankar's article, "Canada takes its '1st Bite'",
Published June 23,'05 in

The NATION, Bangkok

Canada takes its "1st Bite"

Published on Jun 23, 2005

A Montreal director prowls Thailand with a multinational cast making a spooky romance film

Part black comedy, part voodoo ghost story, "1st Bite" is a full-course fantasia of sex, love, life and death," says the website devoted to the first Canadian film made in Thailand, which just ended a three-month shoot with a Thai, Canadian and Indian cast.

The movie is a mixture of Dracula gore and more common gourmet fare, judging from a chat with its director, Malaysian-born Montrealer Hunt Hoe, during a shoot at a Ratchaburi temple.

"1st Bite" is about Gus, who works in a Montreal restaurant and comes to Bangkok to learn Thai cooking. He meets Lek, a mysterious girl played by Napakpapha "Mamee" Nakprasitte, who lives in an island cave and whips up all kinds of exotic dishes for him.

Between his karaoke sessions and full-moon parties, Gus has a lot of fun, but then he begins to have eerie experiences, not least of which involves waking up on the beach and being helped by an Indian guru who heads the Institute for Enlightenment and Empowerment.

Back in Montreal, Gus falls in love with a Canadian girl, but the Thai sorceress refuses to let him go.

"It's not a linear, realistic tale like my earlier films," said Hunt, referring to "Foreign Ghosts" and "Seducing Maarya", which dealt with issues that Asian immigrants face in the West.

"Seducing Maarya" was screened at the 2000 Bangkok Film Festival, after a small furore because the print arrived late, and created a shockwave in India because it features a gay husband whose wife has an affair with his father.

Hunt screened his documentary about Asian men, "Who is Albert Woo?", at the 2001 Bangkok festival, and his regular trips here blossomed into a script, the director discovering that many of the myths he'd grown up with in Malaysia existed here as well.

"I got the puppet master [and National Artist] Suchart Sapsin to weave together the myths into a shadow-puppet show for my film, and the Thai crew all recognised the stories," he said with amazement.

He took a long time to find his Thai star, at one point lining up a talented but temperamental actress, only to drop her when she didn' t turn up for an audition.

Mamee came through Pasaree "Noi" Panya, who's worked with big names like Sean Penn and Mel Gibson.

"I saw a jeans ad of Mamee's, and I must admit I was not impressed by her cutsie looks- that was not what I wanted- but she went through an amazing transformation during the auditions."

"Mamee may not know much English, but she knows cinema and she knows the camera loves her. She loves acting, and has a lot of stuff in her!"

Known for his films' sex sequences, Hunt admitted there are erotic love scenes in "1st Bite", but no nudity.

For the role of the new-age guru, Hunt wanted a Thai actor, "but it was difficult to get someone who could recite the lines with power and intuition".

That's why he chose Indian actor Mohan Agashe, who played the father-in-law in "Seducing Maarya".

In the temple sequences in Ratchaburi, Agashe masterfully mouthed his "textbook lines" about dhamma opposite French-Canadian actor David Le Haye.

"We Hindus are familiar with the Buddhist dhamma concept of karma," Agashe said later, "so I enjoyed this small but interesting role."

Agashe, a noted stage and screen actor in India, was a jury member at The Nation's World Film Festival in 2003.

Le Hay said playing Gus was "a very unique role for me, not just because of the Asian theme, but because it's my first trip to Asia. It's an amazing experience.

"In many ways I think Canadians can relate to Thais because we are both down-to-earth people who are open to different cultures."

Le Hay's last movie, "Soft Shell Man", was shown at the Sundance Festival.

Art director Xavier George has built the sets for more than 150 Canadian films, but had never been to Asia before, and couldn't stop raving about the Thai crew.

"They've worked with Hollywood films and know their job very well," he said, singling out Pusana Ongchaisak, who previously served on "Anna and the King" in Malaysia and HBO's "Bright Shining Light" here.

Chief photographer Simon Weiss is a regular visitor to Southeast Asia, recently shooting a muay thai sequence for a National Geographic Channel martial-arts programme.

Hunt expects to finish the Montreal shoot for "1st Bite" within a month and release the film by the end of the year. He'd like it to be seen in Thailand, but confessed that "an Asian release is always dicey because of video piracy".

That certainly must have hit home when he saw DVD tapes of "Seducing Maarya" on sale at Bangkok's Mah Boon Krong mall. Its eerie nature would appeal to Thai audiences, but they may have to be content with any residual benefits its success earns for tsunami-struck Phang Na and Koh Lanta, where other sequences were shot.

They'll also be hoping for better results for the talented Mamee following her earlier outing in the ill-received "Butterfly Man".

Lekha J Shankar

Special to The Nation

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