Letter from Bangkok: Thai Indies Flourish, and Face New Censorship

Directors Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Thunska Pansittivorakul dazzle international audiences, but find themselves less popular at home


Censored: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film "Syndromes and a Century" was banned for a scene depicting a monk playing guitar.
Censored: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film "Syndromes and a Century" was banned for a scene depicting a monk playing guitar.

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Mainstream Thai cinema is coming up on the international radar lately. In 2003, Francis Ford Coppola spearheaded the international release of Suriyothai, one of the highest grossing Thai films ever when it was first released in that country. It recalls the heroic exploits of a 16th Thai queen defending her country against Burmese invasion. More recently, a Thai fighter and former stuntman named Tony Jaa attracted legions of domestic movie goers to the action flick Ong Bak, generating comparisons to Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. The Weinstein Company released his next film, The Protector, in the U.S. in 2005 and it took in over $12 million.

Thai indies have experienced a similar rise in international popularity. The name on everybody’s lips lately is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who’s sleepy but provocative working-class love story told in the Exquisite Corpse style, 2002’s Sud sanaeha (Blissfully Yours), was only the second Thai movie ever to screen at Cannes. His 2004 feature, Sud pralad (Tropical Malady), another romantic tale, earned a Cannes jury prize.

Next month, Project 304, a media collective that lists Weerasethakul as a founding member, will partner with another one of his organizations, Kick the Machine, as well as the Thai Film Foundation, to host the Fifth Bangkok Experimental Film Festival. Hundreds of works, from shorts to features, will be shown at the event. “That’s how we keep our community going. The experimental groups find each other at the festival and help promote each others work,” says Chalida Uabumrungjit, project director for the Thai Film Foundation, a non-profit group that supports local grassroots filmmakers.

TFF also organizes the Thai Short Film and Video Festival, another indie showcase now in its twelfth year. “Filmmakers have the freedom to express with us. We don’t have any agenda,” Uabumrungjit says. “Our award is very small, but it’s encouragement and appreciation [for the filmmakers’ work]. We can connect them to other festivals and help give them a public profile.”

Many agree that this level of activity in Thailand cinema —especially among the independents working outside the studio system — is encouraging. But recently, Thai indie filmmakers say their biggest challenge is Thailand itself. In December, the Ministry of Culture oversaw an update to a 1930 censorship law. Though anti-censorship groups like the Free Thai Cinema Movement rallied heavily against it, the legislation was approved, ratifying the creation of a new ratings systems and a vague but broad (and potentially powerful) mandate to halt distribution of films that “undermine or disrupt social order and moral decency, or that might impact national security or the pride of the nation.”

Why does the Thai government place such a premium on regulating film? For starters, the regime has a strong paternalistic streak. In a Time magazine piece from October 2007, reporter Simon Montlake quotes the head of the Cultural Surveillance Department at Thailand’s Ministry of Culture as saying Thai audiences are “uneducated,” adding that “they’re not intellectuals.”

Thai film scholar Patsorn Sungsri offers another view, saying, “nation, religion and monarchy…these three pillars of Thai society form the basis for organizing and understanding the development of the Thai cinematic tradition.” In a country where the same monarch has ruled with widespread reverence from his subjects since 1946 and where some estimate that one religious group, Theravada Buddhists, comprise 85 percent of the population, the government’s zeal to nationalize standards of decorum has some context.

With social conformity a national virtue, it is not surprising that the most popular genres in Thai cinema have historically been studio projects of pure escapism: melodrama, comedy, musicals and horror. A film like Suriyothai, that big-budget homage to the Thai monarchy, is another typical project. The film was produced in honor of King Bhumibol (the world's longest serving head of state) and received production help from the military, ultimately earning a record-breaking 700 million baht (about $22 million) — beating out the country's previous box office record holder, Titanic.

It hasn't always been this way. Rare and grittier exceptions were released during a strong moment for Thai counterculture periodically between the early 1970s through the mid-1980s. The era saw the release of social consciousness films called nang sathorn sangkheum. The works, with names like The Rural Teacher and Gunman — often focused on poor people fighting injustice meted out by the upper classes. However, a few hints about the political sensitivities of the time can be detected if you look closely at the set decoration. Photos depicting the monarch or Buddhist structures are often faintly visible in the background. Though their social criticism was undeniable, Thai filmmakers still offered their audiences quiet assurances that they weren’t blasphemes.

Today, the new wave of Thai independent filmmaking seems to be working with a different sensibility — and with more autonomy and individualism — than either their fellow citizens or the official censors may be used to. “The aim of the film in the 1970s was to present left-wing activism,” says Sungsri, the Thai film scholar. “But current films express more personal ideas and feelings of filmmakers.”

And because declarations of institutional fidelity are simply no longer a priority, the latest batch of indies seem to be particularly vulnerable to government regulation. “I don’t think about audience when I’m working,” says Thunska Pansittivorakul, an award-winning filmmaker involved with ThaiIndie.com, an Internet community of Thais involved in independent film. “So many films try to please audiences but I don’t plan what I make," he says. "I work when I feel something really strongly.”

Pansittivorakul is openly gay and says he often uses his work to explore issues of sexuality. But even here, outsiders' impressions of Thai harmony and openness are often misplaced. “So many foreigners think Thailand is open about sex, but it’s really much different here,” Pansittivorakul says.

Though Pansittivorakul does not hesitate to mention his opposition to Thailand’s Censorship Board, he has (so far) not endured clashes with the group like those of his friend and colleague, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The censorship board banned domestic release of Syndromes and a Century, a recent film by Weerasethatkul, for his refusal to remove four scenes. They showed: 1.) a monk playing guitar, 2.) two monks playing with a Frisbee; 3.) a doctor kissing his lover, and 4.) doctors consuming alcohol. Though it has not been seen in Thailand, the film has been released in North America, and played at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives this past January.

Thai filmmakers say that, besides curtailing their freedom of expression, government censorship prevents audiences in their own country from developing an appreciation for a broader range of film work. “The overseas perception may be that the independents here [in Thailand] are popular because we get awards and screenings at big international festivals,” says Pansittivorakul. “But the Thai audience for independents is very small.” The TFF's Uabumrungjit agrees: “We don’t have a space for film outside of the mainstream context.”

Unfortunately, the government in Bangkok still seems hesitant to relinquish control over material that might reach filmgoers who, they claim, are ill-prepared to deal with art house releases. “Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong,” asserts the rep from the Ministry of Culture in Montlake’s Time article. “Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh.”

Related Links:

Watch the trailer for Sang Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century).

Read a letter defending Syndromes and a Century, written by the Free Thai Cinema Movement, a group that decries government censorship.

Learn more about The 5th Bangkok Experimental Film Festival.

Learn more about the Thai Film Foundation, a group that supports local filmmakers.

Visit ThaiIndie.com, an online film community for Thai Indie cinema.

Read Time's article on the new censorship rules in Thailand.