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Will Thai Reforms Make Censorship Worse?

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See if you can spot anything offensive about the following scenes from Syndromes and a Century, the dreamy new $1.1 million movie by Thai director and Cannes 2004 Prix du Jury winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul: a Buddhist monk strums a battered guitar; two monks play with a remote-controlled flying saucer in a park; a doctor kisses his girlfriend in a locker room; a group of doctors share a bottle of whiskey in a hospital basement.

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O.K., so the boozing and smooching docs might set a bad example for medical practitioners, but what's wrong with flying saucers or a musical monk? Apichatpong, 37, spent two years filming the story, based loosely on the lives of his physician parents, and says he doesn't know why Thailand's censors wanted to cut the four scenes. He also refused to play along. So Syndromes, which opened last month in London as part of an Apichatpong season at BFI Southbank, won't be showing anytime soon in Bangkok. "I'm sick of this system," the director sighs.

He's not the only one. The process of deciding who watches what in Thailand is governed by a 1930 law that gives the police the right to censor films. But that might be about to change. This month, the Ministry of Culture is pushing before Thailand's military-appointed legislature a controversial new law that proponents say would move the country's censorship rules into the modern era. Many filmmakers, however, fear the proposed changes will only make censorship worse. "They want the power to control us," says Chalida Uabumrungjit, head of the nonprofit Thai Film Foundation.

Under current rules, producers and directors often find their artistic visions held hostage by the whims of the police, whose tastes run to head-spinning violence and slapstick comedy — but no politics or nudity, please. Fewer than 50 local movies are shown annually in Thailand, and the competition for screens spurs many studio bosses to work closely with censors or risk being shut out. The alternative is self-censorship. "We have learned to self-censor ourselves for a long time," says Pimpaka Towira, director of the critically lauded 2003 feature One Night Husband.

By establishing fresh guidelines for censors and audiences, and taking the scissors away from the police, the proposed Film Act ought to please filmmakers. Officials for the Ministry of Culture, which would be responsible for classifying films under the proposed law, say they have the industry's support, and point to the ministry's success in introducing a similar system for Thai television channels. But many film directors are actually aghast at the prospect of more government interference. Far from overhauling an outdated law, they say, Thailand's cultural guardians are finding new ways to suppress controversial films. Opponents also claim that the criteria for classification are intentionally vague. One sweeping clause in the draft legislation states that films should not "undermine social order or moral decency" or affect the "security and pride of the nation." And X-rated works are simply not allowed: under the proposed law, films classified as such must be either bowdlerized or banned.

After years of biting their tongues in public over censorship, filmmakers are now finding their voice — and not just art-house mavericks like Apichatpong. The Thai Film Directors' Association is lobbying lawmakers not to pass the act in its current form. Prachya Pinkaew, director of international martial-arts hits Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong, now sports a NO CUT, NO BAN anticensorship T shirt.

In the opposite corner is Ladda Tangsupachai, 58, head of the Cultural Surveillance Department at the Ministry of Culture and a prime mover behind the legislation. Her department already scrutinizes television shows, magazines, Internet cafés and schoolgirl fashions; they are keen to take on movies. "Uneducated" is the term Ladda uses to describe Thai filmgoers. "They're not intellectuals — that's why we need ratings," she says.

Film-industry folk support the idea of classifying movies, provided they have a voice in the process. But many believe that simply transferring the regulatory role from the police to the Ministry of Culture is a jump cut from the frying pan into the fire, especially in the postcoup climate, when political and social conservatism are on the rise. Ladda counters that the audience is on her side when it comes to choosing a flick. "Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong," she says. "Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh."

There's certainly a degree of dark humor in Apichatpong's latest predicament. Frustrated, and with the domestic prints of Syndromes currently in police custody, he has found inspiration for his next project, a film about censorship in Thailand with the working title of Primitive. The only problem is that there's no guarantee anyone in Thailand will be able to see it.