FILM IN THAILAND: HISTORY, CENSORSHIP, AND FILMMAKERS LIKE APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL

FILM IN THAILAND

Thailand’s Tourism Authority has said it wants to “position Thailand as the film-making capital of Asia. On the World Film Festival of Bangkok, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in the Washington Post: “ When it began in 1998, the Bangkok Film Festival seemed about as exciting as a college flick fest. At a theater atop a Bangkok mall, small groups of local movie buffs sat through obscure international releases. Prints sometimes failed to materialize, leaving the audience waiting in the dark. By 2006, the film festival was hardly recognizable. Featuring filmmakers who during the past decade had transformed Asia into a hub of the movie universe, the little gathering had grown into an orgy of glamour, with paparazzi lining up for views of international stars such as Catherine Deneuve and Oliver Stone. [Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, Washington Post, December 10, 2006]

Thai film director Tran The Dan told the Bangkok Poast the living standard of some well-off Thai families, who could afford to send their offspring to Hollywood or renowned American movie schools, had done much for the development of this art. "I am very impressed by the way Thai movies have taken off, in terms of technique and creative achievements," he said, referring to success stories like Fun Bar Karaoke and Nang Nak. "When we can catch hold of the right topic, we will have a great chance of creating a good film. But I think Thai films, like all Asian films, have to make sure to protect their national identity. If we try and follow American culture, we get nowhere," the former, and eminent, film director explained, hoping that more collaboration on film-making would develop within the framework of Asean. [Source: Wanphen Sreshthaputra, Bangkok Post, February 26, 2000]

One European director who used Thai crewmembers and actors on film shot in Thailand told The Nation: “The crewmembers are very consistent. From the first day to the last they were always on time, always at the top. We had a couple of Thai actors [including "Day" Thaitanium]. It was a real exchange. It was really a good souvenir! Even the government people and the police really tried to make things possible. It is a very creative politics for films and that's why more and more film teams are coming here. The message you're giving to other European directors is that Thailand is fantastic and it's safe. [Source: Subhatra Bhumiprabhas, Aree Chaisatien, The Nation February 2, 2012]

History of Thai Film

Thai film has a 100 year history. It dates back to the early days of filmmaking, when King Chulalongkorn's 1897 visit to Bern, Switzerland was recorded by Francois-Henri Lavancy-Clarke. The film was then brought to Bangkok, where it was exhibited. This sparked more interest in film by the Thai Royal Family and local businessmen, who brought in filmmaking equipment and started to exhibit foreign films.

The royal family began making documentaries in 1900. The Thai motion picture industry's first film was made by a younger brother of King Chulalongkorn. By the 1920s, a local film industry was started and in the 1930s, the Thai film industry had its first "golden age", with a number of studios producing films.Nangsao Suwan was a U.S–directed film shot in Bangkok was one of the first fictional stories shot in Thailand. Double Luck, the first Thai feature film, was released in 1927.

The years after the Second World War saw a resurgence of the industry, which used 16 mm film to produce hundreds of films, many of them hard-driving action films or light musical comedies. In the 1980s, Thai studios churned out over 200 feature films a year, making Thailand one of the world’s top 10 film producing nations. By the late 1980s, some 3,000 feature films had been produced and a National Film Archives established. Although a few of these films, such as Tong Pha Luang (“Yellow Sky,” 1980) and Sut Thon Nun (“End of the Road,” 1985), were well known outside Thailand, the language barrier rather than their quality or relevance limited their distribution internationally. [Source: Library of Congress]

Competition from Hollywood brought the Thai industry to a low point in the 1980s and 1990s The 1997 Asian Economic crisis dealt a serious blow to the Thai film industry. In 1998, only 11 Thai movies were released. The economic crisis sucked up money to make films and buy movie tickets, Since then the Thai movie industry has been dominated by Hollywood blockbusters and multiplex cinemas.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Thailand experienced a sort of "new wave", with directors such as Nonzee Nimibutr, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul as well as action hero Tony Jaa being celebrated at film festivals around the world. More and more young people are showing an interest in making films.

Film Censorship in Thailand

Thais can be very shy and conservative when it comes to sex. Most Thai actress refuse to do nude scenes and explicit sex scenes are cut from movies. Politics and controversial social issues are also largely absent from Thai filsm. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, acclaimed Thai film diector Apichatpong Weerasethakul said that due to the strict local censorship requirements, Thai filmmakers resort to either action movies or comedies rather deal with more serious social themes or controversial topic or touch on subjects that even hint of politics. [Source: The Nation, May 26, 2010, *]

The Nation reported: “Apichatpong is not alone in fighting rigid local censorship. Earlier, "Nak-Prok", a Thai movie about three bandits who disguise themselves as monks, almost did not make it to theatres. The film contained scenes that depicted supposed members of the monkhood engaging in inappropriate behaviour. This despite the fact that audiences are mature enough to understand that these scenes are fictional. Why can't we get over this? It's the same as Hollywood films portraying sex scandals in the Catholic church. *

“The Thai censorship board has a thick skin when it comes to what's shown in public theatres, whose audiences are supposedly protected by the classification and rating system. Sensitive about many issues, the board turns a blind eye to graphic violence and other destructive scenes seen in almost every TV soap opera by both young and old in their living rooms. While the board imposes strict rules on certain themes by defining them as issues that threaten "moral decency", it allows soaps to feature scenes of rape, sexual harassment and verbal abuse, aired every night as if these are acceptable acts in our society. *

Besides this, these state-appointed arbiters come mostly from the security apparatus. They are not filmmakers or people in the film industry, who should be able to provide balanced comments on whether to rate or assign a film to a certain classification. The Culture Ministry and interested agencies should be more open-minded, to enable directors to explore new themes and creativity. While film scripts are mostly fictional, the directors' interpretations can give insight or prompt an audience to look at issues with more understanding. This should enable people to better understand society and themselves. *

“It's inevitable that censorship will exist, but there must be a transparent process for the censorship board's decision-making. Likewise, audience response is the most important factor for directors when deciding whether to explore certain sensitive themes...The maturity of a society can be reflected in the movies that it produces. It is welcome that Thai films have flourished partly because their directors are able to explore human emotions and themes such as gender, history and spiritual belief. Nevertheless, more needs to be done to support freedom of expression and the creativity of directors. Thailand has a culture and tradition that inspires local artists to explore. And local filmmakers don't ask for anything more than space to experiment with visions and ideas.” *

In 2007, AFP reported: “The culture ministry is reportedly considering changes to the Thai Film Act, which would introduce a ratings system that filmmakers say would be more effective than censorship or bans. But some fear the new rules could make things even worse. "It seems they may leave the rules on censorship, and introduce a rating system as well," said Banchong Kosalwat, a professor at Thammasat University's school of mass communications who has campaigned to liberalise the law. "They would censor a film first -- and then give it a rating. This would be a double lock on the industry." [Source: AFP, May 7, 2007]

Thai Filmmakers

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is regarded as one of Asia’s most stylish directors. Last Life in the Universe (2004) was described one critic as “the off-kilter romance of one of the world’s oddest couples.” It is about a lonely, obsessively-organized Japanese librarian played by Tadanobu Asano who spends hours contemplating the best way to commit suicide, and his relationship with a Thai woman (Sinitta Boonyasak), who finds him among the stacks in a library. Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times the film is “a wistful mood piece whose contemplative tone is periodically punctuated by eruptions of violence. A mediation on the mysterious symmetry of lies and the unlikely attraction of opposites...allusive and enlightened, with hallucinations that view with reality in the characters.”

Prince Chatri Charlem Yugala is a film director and member of the Thai royal family. He won awards for social dramas he made in the 1980s. In the late 1990s he made a horrible Buddhist science-fiction comedy called the The Box as well as Suriyothai, a film about the 16th century warrior queen Suriyothai in a project initiated by Queen Sirikit. The latter film cost $5.4 million to make, a record for a Thai film, and featured a minor princess in the starring role but did not live up to expectations. The battle scenes and landscape shots were stunning but the story was hard to follow and the pacing was slow and the characters are not very engaging.

Wisit Sasanatieng made The Tears of the Black Tiger”, described by A.O Scott in the New York Times as a “Thai cowboy melodramas of betrayal and forbidden love...mad about its own craziness.” “What is most starling is not Sasanatieng’s compulsive, fetishist, assembly of bits and pieces of the movie past; this kind of pastiche has, over the past decade and a half, gone from novelty to cliche. The source of the movie’s seductive aooela lie less in its vivid fakery—the mock vintage technicolor hues, the musical and visual quotations, the miasma of camp hanging in the air—than in its disarming sincerity.” It is about the son of a peasant who becomes a feared outlaw.

Other Thai film makers include Bhandit Rittikol, director and writer of the film The Moon Hunter. Thai films from the late 2000s included "Chocolate" (2008 Thailand), a kung-fu action flick using no computer graphics effects or equipment and directed by Prachya Pinkaew;"Handle Me with Care" (2008), written and directed by Kongdej Jaturanrasmee; and "Love of Siam" (2007), directed by relative newcomer Chookiat Sakveerakul, who wrote the screenplay for "Chocolate." "Handle Me with Care" is a surprising road movie concerning the love life of an unusual young man. "Love of Siam" focuses on the friendship and soul searching of young people in Siam Square in Bangkok.

Danny and Oxide Pang

Danny and Oxide Pang are Thai-born, Hong Kong-based identical twins who have directed over a half dozen direct films together and apart. They made The Eye (2002) a frightening , well-made, low-tech, ghost story about a blind girl who has her sight restored and starts seeing all sorts of horrible things. Hollywood has bought the rights for the film.

John Hodgeman described their style in the New York Times as “an audacious cascade of varying film stocks, colors and speeds that is equally adept at capturing the agonizing slow motion of a sexual assault as it is the strangely painterly image of a man fighting off a horde of phantoms with his own luminous flatulence.”

Danny and Oxide Pang were born in 1965. They have also made thrillers, crime stories, comedies and psychological dramas, including the retro-Wester-musical Fa Talai Jone and the gritty thriller Bangkok Dangerous , about a deaf-mute hit man. The Eye was the first Hong Kong movie the Pangs made. Before that the worked mostly in Thailand.

The Pangs shot their first English-language film, The Messengers , in Saskatchewan. Released in 2007, its about a Chicago family that move to a sunflower farm haunted by a family of ghosts and nasty bunch of crows. The Eye 10 is a sequel that isn’t really a sequel. It has a completely different story line and is a comedy. It show the desire of the brothers to avoid being pigeonholed.

Even when Danny and Oxide work on the same film they are rarely together. Typically they alternate days on the set with one brother directing while the other works on rough edits of the previous days works. After The Eye they worked on separate projects: Leave Me Alone by Danny and Ab-Normal Beauty by Oxide. Japanese director Hideo Nakata was chosen to direct the Hollywood version of the Hong Kong horror flick The Eye.

Nozee Nomibutr

Nozee Nomibutr was one the most acclaimed Thai film maker in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His film Nang Nak (1999) brought him international attention. A film version of a classic Thai ghost story that had been filmed numerous times before, it was well received by critics, was a big hit in Hong Kong and Japan and set box office records in Thailand. It is about a man who leaves his village to fight in a horrible battle. After he returns home he is treated strangely by his family and friends. It features sensuous love scenes between the main character and his wife, both of whom have beautiful bodies.

Nomibutr made his debut in 1997 with Dang Birelet and the Young Gangsters, a film about crime set in the 1950s. The Story of Jan Dara (2002) was about a sex-obsessed rich family living in Bangkok in the 1930s. The story revolves around a boy who has an affair with his father’s new wife. It features a sensuous love scene that begins with the main character rubbing ice on the back of his lover. The Thai government forced Nimbutr to cut scenes because of their sexual content.

Nomibutr also produces films. He worked with Hong Kong director and producer Peter Chan to make Three, a collection of three short ghost stories, and produced a film by a South Korean film maker that was screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival. His film Last Life in the Universe was jointly produced by Thailand, Japan, the Netherlands, France and Singapore.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010 Cannes Film Festival Winner

In 2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul became the first Thai filmmaker to win the prestigious Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He won it for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a story of Thais in the Northeast who believe in spirits and reincarnation. His whimsical style has been compared to the magical realism of the writer Gabriel García Márquez. His visual journeys have been also credited for introducing ordinary Thai life to the world. [Source: The Nation, May 26, 2010]

Tropical Malady /em>, a film directed by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. The Jury Prize is the second highest award. Fahrenheit 9/11 by Micheal Moore won the top award, the Palme d’or, that year. The Daily Telegraph called Tropical Malady a film that “will make you rub your eyes in disbelief and scream with confused delight.”

On Apichatpong’s success at Cannes in 2010, Mike Collett-White and James Mackenzie of Reuters wrote: “A mystical Thai movie exploring reincarnation won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival, beating out pre-award favorites including Britain's Mike Leigh who left empty-handed. "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" was directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who nearly did not make it to Cannes to present his film due to political unrest at home. "I think Thailand needs some kind of hope in other ways because we ... are very depressed about the confrontation of different ideologies," he told reporters after receiving the Golden Palm for best picture at a glitzy closing ceremony. [Source: Mike Collett-White and James Mackenzie, Reuters, May 23, 2010]

Uncle Boonmee, eagerly anticipated by highbrow cinephiles, was shot in a flat, naturalistic style and featured conversations with hair-covered spirits and talking catfish. U.S. filmmaker Tim Burton, head of the jury, described Uncle Boonmee as "a beautiful strange dream. "The world is getting smaller and films get more Westernized or Hollywood-ized and this is a film for me that I felt I was watching from another country, from another perspective." Weerasethakul, an Asian favorite in Cannes who won lesser awards with previous entries, beat frontrunner Leigh, whose critical hit "Another Year" was overlooked. Leigh won the Palme d'Or in 1996 with "Secrets and Lies." [Ibid]

Apichatpong Weerasethakul Targeted by Thai Censors

In 2007, AFP reported: "’Syndromes and a Century’ by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul recounts memories of his childhood and his parents, who were doctors at a rural Thai hospital. It was among the films commissioned for Vienna's New Crowned Hope Festival to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth last year. The film went on to win praise at festivals in France, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Australia, among others. But at home in Thailand, censors objected to four seemingly benign scenes -- including shots of Buddhist monks playing a guitar and flying a remote-control airplane. [Source: AFP, May 7, 2007,**]

"I feel ashamed to be a Thai citizen," Apichatpong said. "The way I have been treated is very disrespectful, not only as a film maker, but also as a human being." Censors also demanded that Apichatpong cut a scene in which a doctor mischievously reveals to her colleagues she has hidden whisky inside a prosthetic leg, and they decide to have a quick tipple in the hospital basement. A fourth scene in which a doctor kisses his girlfriend in a hospital locker room also landed on the censor's editing floor. **

“Apichatpong refused to alter the film, and instead cancelled its planned release in Thailand last month. The censors then refused to return the original print, for fear he would screen it without their permission, infuriating Apichatpong. "As a filmmaker, I treat my work as my own children," Apichatpong said. "When I conceive them, they have their own lives to live. If these offspring of mine cannot live in their own country, for whatever reason, let them be free elsewhere." **

“Two of Thailand's leading film bodies have launched an online petition drive, winning more than 4,500 signatures to call for the abolition of the 77-year-old Thai Film Act, which governs censorship of movies. Thai filmmakers often feel that the censors' decisions are arbitrary, handed down by a panel of people with little interest in or knowledge of the industry, said Kong Rithdee, film critic for the Bangkok Post newspaper. "('Syndromes and a Century') is small -- it does not have the backing of a big studio," added Kong, who has been writing about Apichatpong's films since the director's early days. "This makes a big difference. If you have some connection, someone you can talk to, it may be negotiable." **

Popular Thai Films

Thanit Jitnukul directed Thailand’s top grossing feature film as of 2001, Bang Rajan, about a group a Thai villagers who were attacked by Burmese invaders. It was made at a cost of $600,000, about double the cost of most Thai feature films. It earned over $6 million in Thailand alone.

The Iron Ladies (2000), a stand-up-and-cheer movie about a championship transvestite-gay volleyball team and its lesbian coach, for a time was the second-highest-grossing Thai film. It is based on a true story.

Other popular mainstream films have included Hom Roang and Ong Bak. As of 2000, Nang Nak (Mrs Nak) was the highest-grossing Thai movie ever.

The Bodyguard (Dangerous Hero)

The Bodyguard (aka Dangerous Hero, 2004) is one of the most popular Thai films of all time. Rob Daniel of Fareastfilms.com, wrote: “Following 'Ong Bak' and 'Born to Fight', Sahamongkol Films and Baa-Ram-Ewe productions continue Thailand's increasing domination of action cinema with 'The Bodyguard'. Comedian Petchtai Wongkamlao, the sidekick from 'Ong Bak', takes the reins as actor, writer and director in this fast and furious comedy actioner, where the firepower is fierce and the farce frenetic. [Source: Rob Daniel, Fareastfilms.com, 2004,^]

“Bodyguard Wongkom (Wongkamlao) fails to prevent the assassination of a business tycoon, and suffers the wrath of the businessman?s son Chaichoi (Apiraktanakorn). When an attempt is made on Chaichoi?s life, in order to seize control of the family corporation, the callow youth seeks refuge in a slum village. Here he discovers the true meaning of community and assists in the regeneration of a local school, while attempting to court a tomboy paramedic (Ong Bak?s Yodkamol). Finally, the criminal gang catch up with him, as does Wongkom, still swearing to protect his new charge. ^

“Like much Asian cinema, 'The Bodyguard' is a wild mixture of violence, sentiment, heavy-handed humour and first-rate action. At its core is the same sense of national pride and idealism seen in 'Ong Bak' and 'Born to Fight', going those films one better by climaxing with the underclass and upper class uniting for an improbable wedding. But, whereas Sahamongkol Films' two crown jewels of action cinema wear their authentic stunt work as badges of honour, 'The Bodyguard' is more indebted to Hong Kong cinema, with liberal use of wirework, John Woo style gunplay and a blatant nod to 'Once Upon A Time In China' during the final fight, complete with Under the General's Orders accompaniment. The film's closest cousin is Wong Jing and Jackie Chan's 'City Hunter', with humour boiled down to fat men in Speedos and foul-mouthed harpies, wild shifts in tone and self-reflexive in-jokes to previous movies and real-life actors. As a nod to the film that started it all, Tony Jaa pops up for a one-scene cameo, throwing impressive shapes as he inevitably kicks goon butt. ^

Wongkamlao is a competent director and is assisted by the soon-to-be-legendary Panna Ritikrai as martial arts choreographer and Chaiyaporn Junmoontree on stunt duty, with his visuals given a professional sheen by 'Nang Nak' and 'Tears Of The Black Tiger' DP Nattawut Kiitikhun. But, the fact that the film ends with a news reporter recapping the simple plot reveals the director's lack of faith in his storytelling abilities. While not matching the ambitions of Ong Bak or Born to Fight in no strings attached mayhem, 'The Bodyguard' is continued proof that Thailand's popular cinema has a secure future. ^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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