Any city worth the name has to have a cinephile community of some sort, a group of people who live and die by movies, all movies, any movies.
Chiang Mai has such a group, but it’s very small – probably no more than a few hundred – and ‘community’ is a stretch.
They’re not like Chiang Mai’s opera people, who all seem to know each other, or the local book crowd, who love to meet and discuss.
Movie people here run into one another only occasionally, and usually by accident – at the Alliance Francaise on Friday movie nights, a FilmSpace screening at CMU, in the aisles of the sumptuously well-stocked DVD Video and Music shop off Suthep Road.
Thomas Ohlson, whose dedication to movies has inspired him to produce a weekly newsletter for the last six years, and an internet blog for the last two, is a familiar face in all these locations.
You will also find him laughing at a low-rent Thai comedy at the Vista Cinemas at Kad Suan Kaew, which annoys him by showing Thai films without English subtitles, and enjoying a Japanese horror flick at Major Cineplex out near the airport, although he is dismayed by the layers of accumulated hair oil he finds on the back of some seats there.
That is about as far as he will go in his critical remarks. A 76-year-old American expat who grew up next to the Disney lot in Hollywood (well, Glendale), Ohlson is a relentless booster of movies, all movies, any movies.
In both his newsletter (distributed at the two locations of Bake and Bite) and blog (thomatfilmblogspot.com), Ohlson tries to find a reason to recommend a particular film, sometimes against great odds.
“Even when they are really, really terrible, almost every movie has something in it that will be worthwhile for someone,” he says.
Recent exceptions include Jack Black in ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ which he truly hated, and ‘The Little Fockers,’ which he reviewed with just two words: ‘Must we?’
Ohlson, who studied theatre in college and has done some writing for the professional stage, sees his role as principally informational, not critical.
When he settled in Chiang Mai nearly a dozen years ago, he brought with him a taste for movies honed by many years of living in New York City, the ultimate cinephile haven.
Ohlson’s friend Bennett Lerner, another former New Yorker now living in Chiang Mai, a distinguished concert pianist on the faculty at Payap University, liked the movies, too. Lerner regularly sought Ohlson’s advice on what was playing and where.
Eventually Ohlson began to send him a weekly list of current attractions, annotated with plot summaries, casts, and other points of interest.
From this emerged the weekly newsletter and blog, which Ohlson produces in a single marathon stretch of 20 hours or more every Wednesday, the day film schedules are announced for the following week.
Ohlson takes to the Internet to find information on the films coming up, researching reviews and news items, and condensing them for his report.
If the film is one he can see in advance on DVD, he will. He sees four or five movies a week, on average, up to three or four a day during the European Union film festival every fall at Vista/Kad Suan Kaew.
As he was preparing the official programme for the 2009 EU event, Ohlson had a heart attack and a quadruple by-pass, so he has had to slow down a bit.
Still, the newsletter is out and the blog up on the Web every Thursday morning. And he rarely misses a special event.
Ohlson was among the first to get a ticket for a one-time-only showing last month of ‘Uncle Boonmie Can Recall His Past Lives,’ Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s top-prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival.
Ohlson calls Apichatpong – or Joei, as he is known –‘a national treasure’, and, now that he has established himself in Chiang Mai, definitely our local film celebrity.
“Joei has frequently spoken of his dream of starting a cinematheque in Chiang Mai. That would be great, and would change the film landscape here in incredibly positive ways.”
Among other Thai filmmakers, Ohlson especially likes the work of Chukiat Sakveerakul (‘Love of Siam’) and Wisit Sasanatieng (‘Citizen Dog’).
He dislikes boisterous Thai comedies involving at least one comical transvestite.
“Although,” he says, seeking always to be fair, “look at what we used to laugh at in America – Milton Berle putting on a dress. Bennie Hill. Not so different.”
His personal taste can be idiosyncratic. Ohlson loved ‘The Tourist,’ with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and found Cher a hoot in the equally reviled ‘Burlesque.’
“I’m not one for gritty British realism or backwoods Americana,” Ohlson admits. “I like movies to be fun.”