Thai cinema looks set for a rough ride in 2008
Observers have described 2007 as the 10th year of the Siamese cine-renaissance, a movement that began with Nonzee Nimibutr's 1997 release, Dang Bireley and Young Gangsters.
The past decade of "New Thai Cinema" was carpeted with thorny red roses and characterised by unfulfilled expectations. Two or three directors have matured into brand names of their own, but otherwise the industry has largely been driven by a sad mix of cheap, capitalistic impulses and a general lack of confidence. And at the beginning of a new cinematic decade, without wanting to sound too cynical, things look unlikely to get much better.
Several new elements appear set to complicate things. These include the controversial new Film Act, the old clique's new government, the completion of the Bangkok Modern Art Museum at Pathumwan, and studios' realisation that survival depends on keeping budgets low.
Meanwhile, the playing field will be kept ablaze with action by existing forces, namely the steady march of independent filmmakers, foreign funding that helps bold Thai films get made, the continued surplus of horror and slapstick movies and, as usual, the ongoing tug-of-war between the idealistic notion of film as culture and the sine qua non of business practices that commodify everything and judge the results on spreadsheets rather than creative values.
It's going to be a sticky year. The following is a brief look at some of the factors that will influence filmmaking and filmgoing in 2008, plus previews of some potentially hot movies to be released over the next 12 months.
THE FILM ACT
Passed hurriedly in the last weeks of the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly, the new Film Act replaces the Jurassic one from the 1930s, though many believe that the spirit of this new bill still reeks of feudal control.
For the first time, Thailand will have a film rating system that screens access to theatres (the Ministry of Culture will enact supplementary laws to enforce this) - and it's one knotty system indeed. The rating classes stipulated by the Film Act are: P (films that should be promoted to Thai audiences); G (fit for all age groups); under 13s not admitted; under 15s not admitted; under 18s not admitted; and under 20s not admitted. Luckily, the infamous "under 24s not admitted" was lifted.
Despite the rating system, which functions like a kind of censorship, the law authorises the State to cut or ban films that "undermine or disrupt social order and moral decency, or that might impact national security or the pride of the nation". This is more or less the same clause as the one in the 1930 legislation which has tormented filmmakers for what they perceive as unfair interpretation by conservative authorities. Worst of all, the "cut" and "ban" provision will continue to obstruct creative ventures, block the possibility of bold, challenging movies and could shape a film industry that is monopolised by silly comedies and horrors.
It will be interesting to see how daredevil indie filmmakers will react to the control-freak new Film Act - and the rise of the Samak Sundaravej government. It's even possible that at this very moment, someone somewhere is scheming to make a movie berating the new bill. If culture depends on the binary opposites of action and reaction to survive, the tight control and Right-leaning administration might actually foster an environment of new creativity.
As with the past few years, movies made by edgier, lesser-known directors, often with meagre means, are more inspiring than expensive mainstream products. When the Bangkok Museum of Modern Art is completed this year, chances are it will set aside a permanent space for screening movies, which, if true, could bolster the underground momentum of the local independent film scene. (It gives me goosebumps to recall that Mr Samak, when he was Bangkok governor, was determined to abandon plans for the museum and instead turn the space into a parking lot.)
Still, hope and fear are inseparable. It's often the case that indie flicks are unable to get releases at regular cinemas, but theatres such as House and Lido have been generous in agreeing to show small, little-publicised Thai titles like Bangkok Time and Lullabye Before I Wake. Meanwhile, events such as the Thai Short Film and Video Festival and Fat Festival remain hotbeds of free-flowing ideas and weird, intrepid, political, crazy movies by independent film guerillas prowling the jungle of mad, "official" movies. And although it is never easy to raise dough for an independent project, a number of young Thais have grown more adept at hunting for foreign funds designated for Third World moviemakers.
Which leads us back to the Film Act. Initially touted as means to support non-commercial movies for the cultural benefit of the nation, the bill passed by the parliament actually does no such thing. Right now, funding from the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture represents the only hope for start-up filmmakers.
THE MIGHTY MULTIPLEX
In case you haven't noticed, multiplex chains do more to dictate what moviegoers see than any other force in the film business. Their decisions actually shape the landscape of the movies, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
A small film, especially a small Thai film, usually gets a window of just one week to prove its worth to a mutiplex. After that, if audiences don't impress, it will be banished to just one or two screenings a week (at, say, 11am or 11pm), while the bulk of screens are occupied by more bankable movies, usually from Hollywood. This is hardly unusual in the world profit-seeking enterprises, but it does mean that viewers are manipulated into picking certain movies and are ultimately stripped of the benefit of variety.
One possible cure is a quota system, a double-edged sword that may protect local films from Hollywood's juggernauts but is against the spirit of free and open competition in a global environment. Korea has recently struggled to make its own quota system work and was forced to cut back the specified number of days for which Korean movies must be shown in theatres.
Lido and House currently provide another cure by offering screens for films that have value beyond the commercial. But this represents a mere drop in the ocean, and this is the area where support from the authorities is most needed.
The list includes both studio and independent films.
CHOCOLATE by Prachya Pinkaew
- A female version of Ong-bak, the film stars 24-year-old Nicharee Wimistanant as an autistic martial arts virtuoso who takes on a gang of yakuza to avenge the death of her mother. (February.)
AGRARIAN UTOPIA by Urupong Raksasat
- Independent director Urupong spent one year filming rice farmers in Chiang Rai, with the aim of capturing the hidden, metaphysical wisdom of the agrarian community. (Late 2008.)
INSEE DAENG (Red Eagle) by Wisit Sasanatieng
- Maverick Wisit dusts off Sek Dusit's Siamese superhero creation and casts star-du-jour Ananda Everingham in the role of Red Eagle, the crime fighter in a red mask. The series was first adapted into a movie back in the 1960s, with Mit Chaibancha as Red Eagle. (August, maybe.)
WONDERFUL TOWN by Aditya Assarat
- A heart-breaking love story set in the post-tsunami town of Takua Pa, from independent filmmaker Aditya. (Mid-2008.)
PID TERM YAI, HUA JAI WAWOON (literally, "Anxious Hearts of Summer Break") by Songyos Sukmakanant
- Four intertwining love stories make up a portrait of young romance in this new film by Songyos, who made Dek Hor (Dorm), a sleeper hit in 2005. (March.)
LIKE REAL LOVE by Anocha Suwichakornpong
- Independent director Anocha, whose previous short was selected by Cannes, will premier Like Real Love at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam later this month. This 40-minute movie is made up of three separate parts and relates the tales of people who confront something, well, like real love. (Slated for short film festivals here.)
KWAMSUK KHONG KATI (The Happiness of Kati) by Genwai Thongdeenok
- The film version of the SEA-Write-winning book of the same name by Ngampan Vejjajiva follows the growing pains of a nine-year-old girl who lives with her grandparents and who's about to face up to great loss.
KOD by Kongdej Jaturantrasamee
- A new romantic comedy/road movie about a three-armed man and a big-bosomed girl. From writer/director Kongdej, the most sought-after screenwriter of the moment. (February.)
KATAKAM KON KRUA by Jira Malikul
- The title translates as "Murder in the Kitchen". This new project by the director of Muang Rae is an adaptation of a short story by the late prime minister MR Kukrit Pramoj. (Late 2008.)
4 PRANG by four directors
- Banjon Psanthanakul, Pakpoom Wongpoom (Alone), Yongyuth Thongkongtoon (Metrosexual) and Pween Purijitpanya (The Body) each chip in with a 30-minute episode in this ghost ensemble. (Sometime after June.)
HAPPY BIRTHDAY by Pongpat Wachirabanjong
- Pongpat made a heart-rending debut in 2007 with Me... Myself, and he's set to return with another romantic drama about a girl in a coma and a man who refuses to let her go. (3rd quarter.)
NARESUAN 3: YUTHAHATTEE by MC Chatrichalerm Yukol
- The final movie in the King Naresuan trilogy will feature the same cast in the epic elephant battle between the titular king of Ayuthaya and Phra Maha Uparacha of Burma. (Late 2008.)
THE COFFIN by Ekachai Uakrongtham
- Ekachai (Beautiful Boxer, Pleasure Factory) directs Ananda Everingham in this supernatural thriller about a man who performs an occult ritual to ward off bad luck, only to get even more. (Mid-2008, hopefully.)
RAK SAM SAO by Yuthlert Sippapak
- Director Yuthlert (Bupa Ratree, Ghost Station) is back with a story of triangulated love between three college friends who find their friendship rocked by the prospect of romance. (June.)
PUEN YAI JOM SALAT (Queen of Lankasuka) by Nonzee Nimibutr
- The queen of the southern state of Lankasuka faces dual threats - a marauding horde of sinister pirates who practise the dark arts from their ships, and a deposed prince bent on seizing her throne. Assistance comes from a young sorcerer who can speak to fish and summon whales. (September.)
THE TRUTH BE TOLD by Pimpaka Towira
- This political documentary, which chronicles the life of media activist Supinya Klangnarong after she was sued by Shin Corp in 2004, will gain added mileage with the new Samak-led government and the possible return of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. (Mid-2008, hopefully.)