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January 20, 2007

A Century of Thai Cinema

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Compiled by Dome Sukwong & Sawasdi Suwannapak
English edition translated and edited by David Smyth
London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. - 2001

I was hoping to post a review of the biggest movie in the history of Thailand a couple of days ago. Scheduled to play in theaters all over Thailand on January 18, the film was not even available for Bangkok audiences until Thursday evening, while people in Chiang Mai were told to wait until Friday. When I checked the most reliable guide to films playing in Thailand, I found that there were no subtitled prints in Chiang Mai at this time. Keep in mind that normally an English subtitled print of a new Thai film always plays at at least one theater here, irregardless of the quality of the film. The first film in the trilogy of films about King Naresuan may not be a blockbuster going by the first English language reviews. Weighing in are Kong Rithdee of the Bangkok Post, a positive review by Thanong Khanthong of The Nation, Chaiwat Ahantharik at Monsters & Critics, and some funny observations about the selling of the film by Wise Kwai.

2007 may possibly be the year that Thai cinema stumbles after finally attaining international recognition. This month alone has seen the postponing of the Bangkok International Film Festival from January to July, when Thailand is hot or wet, or hot and wet, due to last minute decisions by the Tourist Authority of Thailand. The problem plagued opening of the first King Naresuan film needs to overcome lost momentum, crucial for a film that will primarily earn money from its small domestic market. Official Thailand looks foolish when their Academy Award entry is changed after making a formal announcement. Among Thai film critics and historians is the hope that the newest film by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, Syndromes and a Century, actually gets its promised theatrical run this March. Like several of his talented peers, the filmmaker known as Joe is better appreciated outside his home country.

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There is very little written in English concerning the history of Thai cinema. Finally available in the U.S., A Century of Thai Cinema is somewhat helpful in providing an overview. What is needed is a more detailed examination such as Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie's history of Japanese film. Dome and Sawasdi have a book that is comprised of a few short paragraphs and lots and lots of pictures. There is some discussion about the first feature shot in Thailand, by silent veteran Henry MacRae. Royal involvement with film started from the beginning with the filming of King Chulalongkorn in 1897, while Prince Sanbhassagtra is noted to be Siam's first cinematographer in 1900. The best reason for getting a copy is for the visceral pleasure of the posters, all reproduced in color, with several full page reproductions. The posters that are most fun to look at promise two-fisted adventures with girls and guns, or girls and guns. The artwork from the Sixties frequently resembles some of the posters I remember from American International films, while the posters from the Seventies made me think of some of the films produced by Roger Corman when New World ruled the exploitation market. There are also posters indicating more refined artistic sensibilities at work, such as the above poster. The book overflows with promotion photographs, magazine covers, Thai posters of western films, and photos of film related playing card, records and other collectables. There is also historical information regarding 20th Century Thailand, a monarchy that has simultaneously hosted several military dictatorships, with brief periods of "democracy". A Century of Thai Cinema does very little to add to the woeful lack of information found in the Internet Movie Database. What the book does well is offer some temporary visual enjoyment, both silly and superficial, not unlike most Thai movies.

Posted by peter at January 20, 2007 03:20 AM

Comments

A Century of Thai Cinema is little more than a picture book, though it's fun to look at.

Apparently, there are some scholarly papers out there, but you need to subscribe to the various academic journals to get them.

And some more books are coming online, Thai Cinema / Le cinéma thaïlandais by Asiexpo, and Contemporary Asian Cinema, edited by Anne Tereska Ciecko, but neither are the authoritative, in-depth look that's really needed.

Posted by: Curtis at January 22, 2007 12:38 PM