If a movie falls to the Bangkok International Film Festival bureaucracy, will it make a noise?
By Kong Rithdee
The movie is called Children of the Dark. But it's the adult Thais who'll be kept in the dark, under the same airless lid of unawareness, when this potentially notorious but practically harmless movie was disqualified from being screened at the Bangkok International Film Festival.
A month ago, film selectors of the BKK IFF, working under no influence from the main sponsor, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), selected Children of the Dark for the line-up. The film is Japanese, and tells the story of a journalist and an activist who arrive in Bangkok and try to help young Thai boys and girls from a ring of child prostitution.
Naturally, the movie makes it clear that there are children being forced into the sex trade here, though in the end, it points the accusing finger at sex tourists, Japanese and Western, who prey on the weaknesses of a less developed society and help perpetuate this contemptible practice.
True or false, your call. By all means, however, this is a small film, well-meaning but far from brilliant. In early 2007, the Japanese producer of the film went through the proper channels by applying for permission to shoot in Bangkok. After reading the script, the Thailand Film Office, the agency supervising foreign film shoots, denied the permit on grounds it contained unsavoury scenes that are difficult to stomach. Yet by some sort of Japanese black magic, Children of the Dark was shot in Thailand anyway, after a clever, or cunning, zig-zagging through the registration process.
When the BKK IFF programmers selected the film, they grouped it under the section Made in Thailand, which features three other foreign movies that were filmed here (one about an obese farang and his skinny Thai girlfriend; one about a northern boy and an elephant; and one about a Japanese girl and a lesson in Thai massage).
The programmers told me they wanted to show how this country is perceived by foreigners, then we can have a debate on that. But it was not to be. When the Film Office learned the movie they'd denied a permit for would be screening here, they notified the TAT and the Ministry of Culture. After a deliberation, the festival organisers decided to axe the movie from the line-up because it is, according to our playbook, inappropriate. This makes one wonder whether we can will something into non-existence. When we pretend that something doesn't exist, well, does it still exist for everyone else? It's strange, even comical, to blindfold ourselves when all other eyes are wide open.
Children of the Dark was released in Japan, and has travelled to a few movie festivals in Europe. That means quite a number of people have already seen it. If the movie can actually tarnish the pristine image of this country in the eyes of the international community, it's too late to stop that. And now we're deprived of the opportunity to judge for ourselves how badly, awfully, abominably, or how truthfully, this movie has portrayed us. Fair enough, to screen a film that was earlier denied permission to shoot would make us look weak. It would, granted, look like visiting filmmakers can disrespect our regulations and go scot-free.
But we could've seized this opportunity to show our poise and generosity. Perhaps we should've shown the film, on grounds that it would contribute to a useful social discussion, then we could've sought other forms of rebuke against the Japanese, like submitting an official complaint or even taking legal action, and publicising it as a precedent. This way, we would have maintained the integrity of our rule while allowing our people to see ourselves as others see us - and I don't mean as Nicholas Cage sees us in that truly abominable film Bangkok Dangerous. Maybe we were delighted to have Bangkok Dangerous filmed here because the movie is a phony representation of this city; it is, in short, a fantasy.
But we have problems with films like Children of the Dark because it is realistic. And funny how we're more ready to cosy up to a pack of lies than to a glimmer of truth.
Last year, the BKK IFF, fearing controversy, cancelled the screening of Persepolis, a French animation about an Iranian girl and the Islamic Revolution.
Months later, the movie opened in one Bangkok cinema and ran for almost two months. There was no controversy. As they say, what's captured on film means it exists. Whether we want to believe it or not.
Kong Rithdee writes about movies and popular culture in the Bangkok Post real.time section