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April 15, 2007

Syndromes and a Country


In Thailand, general film audiences were able to see within the space of a couple of minutes both the rear view of a naked young woman and a hand lopped off by a long, sharp knife. This was in the preview of a new Thai horror film The Haunted Drum.

I cite this film preview as an example of how arbitrary the Thai government is in their concerns about what is appropriate for Thai audiences. What I noticed during my four and half months is that every Thai film was supposedly PG13. That same rating was also applied to Hollywood films like Charlotte's Web and The Last Mimzy. The Thai censors seem to have little problem with violence, I saw a couple of horror films with body parts severed and victims meeting violent deaths, in an audience that included young children. Likewise, language seemed to be of no concern as a well-known four letter word was stated clearly and frequently according to the subtitles. Sex seemed to another matter. While there was suggested nudity in several Thai films, it basically involved seeing the backs and at most, the briefest glimpse of a breast. 300, rated R in the US, was shown as PG13 in Thailand, with pixels covering up Lena Headey breasts and backside. Gerard Butler appeared to be wearing a shingle over his rear. Surprisingly, Babel appeared unaltered, but the ads listed the film as rated R.

Comedies concerning Buddhist monks are a staple of Thai film. While there is no criticism of Buddhism, the monks, usually novices, are shown in silly situations. Humor in Thai films often involves fat people, ladyboys, women and non-Thais.

Quoting Bangkok Post film critic, Kong Rithdee, these are the scenes that the Thai censors objected to in Syndromes and a Century: "The scenes the board found objectionable show a young monk playing a guitar, a group of doctors drinking whisky in a hospital basement, a doctor kissing his girlfriend in a hospital locker room, and two monks playing with a radio-controlled flying saucer."

Even before the military coup, official Thailand has been at odds with Apichatpong Weerasethakul also known as Joe. I have not found the source, but I recall reading that a Thai delegation was flown to Cannes because one of Joe's films had won a prize. Joe had to fly on his own dime as he was told all there were no available seats. While there is a sense of pride that Thai filmmakers have gained international attention, there seems to also be great unease that the most critical accolades have been given to a gay man whose films are not conventional in style or subject.

Since the coup last September, Thai officials changed their mind about which film would be their entry for the Academy Award. After Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves was announced as the official entry, the film was withdrawn. The decision was made by government representatives who objected to a multi-language, pan-Asian film as the Thai entry. It should be noted that two of Pen-Ek's previous films were Thailand's Oscar entries. After the announcements were published, and the film submitted to the Academy, it was decided that Thailand would be better represented by another, more clearly Thai, film.

I was planning to go to the Bangkok International Film Festival during the time I was in Thailand. There were major kick-off events in the Fall of 2006. I knew some people had expressed concern that the festival was not well-attended and was not doing what some had hoped in helping Thai filmmakers, or attracting a Thai audience. The festival was scheduled for late January 2007. The Los Angeles based organizers of the festival were fired around Thanksgiving of 2006 by the Tourist Authority of Thailand. The plan was to have the festival run entirely by a Thai team. The festival was still to go on as scheduled. A couple weeks into January, after assuring everyone that the festival would take place, the Tourist Authority of Thailand announced that the festival was postponed until July. Part of this was to make sure that the maximum number of screens were available for the first King Naresuan film, a guaranteed money maker for Thai theater owners. But postponing until July means hoping that the international film community would want to visit Thailand during the hottest, wettest time of the year.

I understand the sense of national pride Thais have for themselves and their country. What is of concern is that the government continually undermine their credibility at a time when Thai films have attracted international attention. This sense of pride comes with a short-sightedness that makes Thailand look foolish. Whether it's a matter of film preservation, or supporting their filmmakers, Thai officials have little sense of value. Even though I fully expect Thai officials to dismiss this petition on behalf of Syndromes and a Century as interference by "outsiders", please sign it to let them know that people are paying critical attention to Thailand.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 15, 2007 12:00 PM


Great write-up, Peter, infused with your personal experiences in Thailand. Thank you. Censorship is usually ridiculous in hindsight, Dave Thomson noted when talking about how Some Like It Hot wrestled with the censors; but, ridiculous or not, it's shameful in the present context.

Posted by: Maya at April 15, 2007 01:24 PM

Well said. A beautiful summary of the frustrating state of Thai cinema. I hope you get a change to see Syndromes. It's amazing.

Posted by: Curtis at April 15, 2007 02:13 PM

Thank you very much for writing about this. Iím fed up with what the Thai authority did to Thai cinema, too. Itís bad enough that the Thai authority rarely helps Thai cinema. But thatís tolerable, in my point of view. I think that getting no help from the government is bearable. But what is unacceptable is that the authority now becomes the enemy of good Thai cinemaóby trying to censor SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY. In conclusion, what I want to say to the authority is, ďI donít mind if you donít help us, but please donít destroy us.Ē

The Thai Censorship Board seems to have no reliable standards. I donít understand why they want to try to censor the scenes about doctor drinking and doctorís covered erection in SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY. There were two Thai films in the past which told two true stories about Thai doctors who kill their own wives. These two films are NUANCHAWEE (1984) and SAYAMOL (1995, Apichart Halumjiak). So what the Thai Censorship Board did is like saying, ďItís okay to make a movie about doctors who kill their own wives, but itís not okay to make a movie about doctors who drink alcohol and get a hard-on in his trousers.Ē Isnít this kind of thinking absurd? What reasons? So killing oneís own wife in Thailand is more acceptable than drinking alcoholic drinks?

The censoring of covered hard-on scene is ridiculous, too. I havenít seen SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY, but Iím sure the hard-on scene in this film is not as explicit as the one in TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY, which is allowed to be shown in Thai theatres with no censorship.

The behavior of the monks in SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY might be wrong according to the religious principles, but I think every filmmaker has the right to portray wrong behaviors of people if itís not too much. And certainly playing guitars and playing flying saucers are not too much. Some Thai monks do things much worse than that in reality. In Thailand, some Thai monks are murderers. They kill each other. And ten years ago, one British tourist was raped and murdered by a Thai monk. I wish some filmmakers make a movie out of this murder story just to annoy the Thai Censorship Board.

Posted by: celinejulie at April 15, 2007 03:08 PM

Interesting that you bring up TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY, celinejulie. Seeing as I'm in the perhaps unique position of having seen that film last night, and SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY the night before, (though both for the first time), I feel particularly qualified to answer your question.

The differences between the two scenes are:

1) In SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY it's apparant that the doctor is in a state of arousal, but it's a realistic shot; it's no more apparant than it would be if you saw someone in real life in a state of arousal with his pants on. While in TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY the clothing forms around the erection in a highly stylized, unrealistic, blatant way.

2) In SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY the crotch is briefly grabbed. If I interpreted the action correctly, it was as an "adjustment" most pants-wearing men should be familiar with. In contrast, no hand was involved in the corresponding shot in TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY. That was the whole point of the scene in fact; erection through pure force of will.

3) The man with the erection in SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY is Thai, while Jack Black is an American. I suspect there is a double-standard at play here on this point. Perhaps a double-standard is warranted in this situation, but I rather think not. Anyway, when I was living and working in Thailand several years ago, I encountered double-standards on an almost daily basis. Certain behavior acceptable for me as an American was not acceptable for my Thai co-workers, neighbors, friends, etc. And for other behavior, vice versa. I must admit that part of the reason why I decided not to remain and continue my career in Thailand was because I grew tired of seeing my countrymen exploit certain cultural double-standards, and tired of having people expect that I would do the same.

I've strayed from the point, but I just wanted to end by thanking Peter for writing this piece. Your perspective rings true for me in every regard.

Posted by: Brian Darr at April 16, 2007 03:01 AM

Thanks for the comments. There is a dichotomy between Thai films for Thai audiences and the Thai films that are best known in the festival and art theater circuit that some readers may not be aware of. I also hoped to encourage a few more people to sign the petition.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at April 16, 2007 05:16 AM

Thank you very much, Brian Darr, for you comparisons. I also think Thailand is full of double standards, too.

Peter Nellhaus, thank you very much for your helping people to sign the petition.

Posted by: celinejulie at April 16, 2007 01:18 PM

i followed this link from celinejulie's blog

after finished reading this makes me ashame of what we are , but yes it's real

maybe because of lots of thai people especially people that tied themselves up with their career , their honor ,their illusions thwy don't want to see how ithe reality was

it was better to dream about what it should be that what it was

but the things that surprising me is lots of thai people except the censorship because they think FILMAKER have to show their response to social by making CLEAN MOVIE for all kind of audience

so it could only be a PROPAGANDA FILMS
sorry for my english language and thankyou very much for helping us

Posted by: FILMSICK at April 17, 2007 02:17 PM