Thai director takes fight to censors

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BANGKOK - Censorship in Thailand has a long and complicated history, with the powers that be resorting to everything from watered-down news reports to blurred nudity to outright bans, depending on the year and the topic.

Despite the arrival of democracy and its associated liberties to Thailand in 1932, freedom on film has largely been ignored. Thai films today are judged using guidelines that date back to 1930.

Though the system has seen many Thai films avoid any major cuts, and a few go on to break attendance records and sell overseas -- the violent martial-arts epic "Ong Bak" or the disquieting ghost film "Shutter" to name but two -- others still fall pray to what filmmakers say is an arbitrary code hurtful to the industry.

There was a glimmer of hope at the recent introduction of Thailand's first film ratings system.  But on March 12, the Censorship Board upheld its year-old decision to cut parts of director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's autobiographical film "Syndromes and a Century."

The appeals committee rejected the internationally acclaimed director's final request for a reprieve, holding firm that the film included four scenes harmful to Thai society. The board also dictated a fifth scene be cut.

The censored scenes include a doctor drinking whiskey and a monk playing a guitar.

"They asked me how I could make such an inferior movie that degrades doctors, which was not my intention at all, as both my parents are doctors," said Weerasethakul, director of "Blissfully Yours," which received the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. "But at the same time, even if I did make a film that showed doctors in a bad light, I should be allowed to do it. I just hold a mirror up to the real world."

In another recent example of interesting choices in censorship, the Spartan epic "300," in which gory decapitations were de rigueur, saw a brief glimpse of a woman's breasts blurred out.

Similarly, many scenes that include a gun, a cigarette or anything remotely Buddhist -- in alleged offense to the country's dominant religion -- often seem to have been altered.

It's the censors' lack of consistency that frustrates.

"Their rationale is that I disrespect Thai culture, which is ridiculous," said Weerasethakul. "There is so much other crazy stuff out there. The issue is not about Thai culture, it's about unfair treatment."

In protest, the 37-year-old director will run his film as ordered in Thailand, but he'll keep black frames in place of the scenes he was forced to cut.

"I have to live by Thai laws, but I also have to expose how bad the issue is," he said. "I hope that when the audience experiences silence and darkness, it will create a dialogue about censorship and help spur the introduction of reasonable legislation."
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