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February 13, 2007

Thai Cinema


Umarin Wiyada in Angel (Chatrichalerm Yukol - 1974)

The book, Thai Cinema, with supplemental DVD, was primarily designed to accompany a group of Thai films shown last November in France. The collection of essays helps cobble together an overview on both the current state of Thai film as well as filling some of the gaps concerning Thai film history. The essays and the DVD also explain some of the gaps that exist in Thailand.

Chasms would be a better description. One clear example is Tonghathai Suddee's exploration of Thailand's official stance on piracy and the failure of enforcement. An interview with a producer shows why legal copies are prohibitively expensive for the filmmakers, while illegal copies remain popular with consumers. Tonghathai also notes the selectiveness in closing down sources of pirate DVDs, something I have witnessed firsthand. That enforcement is haphazard was made clear at a recent visit to a "VDO" store where The Departed was available days before its U.S. DVD release, and Babel was on the shelf, simultaneous to its theatrical release in Thailand.

Two of the biggest gaps remarked on by the writers are those of Thai movie audiences and official Thailand in relation to the films that have achieved the most critical or international attention. The DVD includes an interview with one of the producers of Five Star Production, discussing how the more mainstream, popular movies help support the production of the films by Wisit Sasanatieng and Pen-ek Ratanareung, films that are significantly more popular internationally than in Thailand. The DVD interviews with audience members also stresses that with the exception of a film like Ong-Bak with the athletic and charismatic Tony Jaa, Thais are often not that interested in Thai movies, prefering the technical virtues and polish of the big-budget Hollywood film.

Several essays also point to the lack of government support for Thai film, whether it is preservation or production. Even though royal interest in film dates back to the earliest years of filmmaking, there is little understanding or appreciation of Thai film as an art form or as a part of Thai culture. One suspects that Thai officials are discomfited with Apichatpong Weerasethakul winning awards in film festivals with films like Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady, as when it was reported that several officials were sent to Cannes, while the filmmaker had to pay his own way to the festival. It is almost no wonder that "Joe" calls his production company Kick the Machine. Another example of this disconnection is the change of submissions for the Academy Award after Invisible Waves had been announced as Thailand's official entry.

What is good about the book is that it is inclusive of short and experimental films. Websites are mentioned for those interested in doing further explorations of films only available through Thai sources. Published in France, the essays are in both French and English. My own French isn't fluent enough to judge what has been written, but some of English language essays would have benefitted from better translations or editing. As a collection of essays within one book, Thai Cinema is helpful for those who are exploring filmmaking in "the land of smiles".

Thai Cinema is available on-line through Asiexpo.

I also want to mention that each author lists ten favorite Thai movies. In keeping with that spirit, my favorite Thai films to date include 1. Monrak Transistor (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang - 2001), 2. Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng - 2000), 3. Daughter 2 (Chatrichalerm Yukol - 1997) and 4. Ong-Bak (Prachya Pinkaew - 2003). Currently I have been seeing as many of Chatrichalerm's films as are available on DVD with English subtitles.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 13, 2007 12:13 AM


Thanks for the review, Peter. I hope I can track down a copy of this book sometime. I've long been fascinated with these "chasms" you refer to, especially the one between Thai audiences and Thai directors with successes at film festivals. I wonder, does the book speak much to way Apichatpong and Wisit (or other modern filmmakers) make films in dialogue with popular Thai cinema and television of the past and present?

I also appreciate seeing your brief list of favorites. I finally got to see Tears of the Black Tiger in 35mm again this week here in San Francisco, and I remembered all over again why it made such an impression on me the first time. I really got a kick (har har) out of Ong-Bak, and I need to see more of Tan Mui's films. Monrak Transistor, on the other hand, is still my least favorite film by Pen-ek Ratanaruang (not having seen Invisible Waves yet). Perhaps I just need to see it again.

Posted by: Brian at February 14, 2007 12:11 AM

Director Ratana Pestonji has been cited as an influence on Tears of the Black Tiger. For Joe, the character of Iron Pussy is a parody of Sixties heroine Petchara Chaowarat. For those unfamiliar with Thai cinema, the scenes involving the film dubber in Monrak Transistor are probably baffling, especially as Pen-Ek is having fun by using Tears as the dubbed film. In the DVD supplement, someone mentions that film dubbing actually continued into the Eighties. I missed Wisit's latest film The Unseeable because I still hadn't learned my way to Airport Plaza where it was playing with subtitles. There are rumors that Syndrome and a Century is to open in March, but I don't know if it will play beyond Bangkok. At this time, Joe's latest film has been praised by Thai film critics, but has yet to be available to the public.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at February 14, 2007 02:28 AM

In some ways, I think the scenes in Monrak Transistor involving the dubber were the least baffling ones in the film to me. What I mean is, I couldn't understand why Pen-ek had decided to make such a messy, sprawling film after the more focused fun of 6ixtynin9. On that first viewing, I also didn't like the gross caricatures of characters, though since that didn't bother me at all in Tears of the Black Tiger, Country Hotel (the only Rattana Pestonji film I've seen, and the broad acting is one of the few obvious connections it seems to have to Wisit's film, though I'm probably not looking hard enough), or the Adventures of Iron Pussy. Thanks for the Petchara Chaowarat tip; I'm not sure I'd collected that name among my notes on that film yet.

I'm sorry to hear you missed the Unseeable. I'd have loved to hear your take. Airport Plaza must be new in the past six years or so, as I don't recall a cinema with that name.

Syndromes and a Century is coming to San Francisco in March! Unfortunately the single screening is on the very same evening that Hong Sang-soo is to appear at a screening of Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors. It's March 21st, and I'll be hosting a Blog-a-Thon on the latter film that day. Thankfully, six more screenings of Syndromes and a Century are planned at another venue here for mid-April.

Hope you get a chance to see it soon!

Posted by: Brian at February 14, 2007 03:28 PM

I can't tell you how lucky I feel having the two of you as filmbuds on whom I can rely to keep abreast of all things Thai. I love being a fly on the wall.

Posted by: Maya at February 15, 2007 11:38 AM