AFM Special Report: Thailand

Are politics preventing the country from fulfilling its full potential?

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Thailand is one of the last countries in the world where the national anthem is still played before each movie screening. Audience members are expected to stand up while gentle clips of King Bhumibol roll across the screen.

That the king is highly revered and the anthem a nice piece of tradition -- even in the most modern multiplexes and no matter the genre of fare that follows -- most Thai folk happily agree.

Where they do not agree these days is on politics, which seems to have an annoying habit of getting in the way of the country's film industry.

Thailand has one of the most established film industries in the world ('nang farang,' literally 'foreign shadow theater' reached Thailand in 1897, only 18 months after the Lumiere brothers first show, and the then-monarch King Chulalongkorn was featured in a Swiss film in the same year). It has attractive stars, skilled directors, excellent post-production facilities and some of the most varied locations in the world (It recently doubled for China in The Weinstein Co.'s "Shanghai.") Plus, Bangkok's quality multiplexes have to be experienced to be believed.

However, the industry currently seems to be struggling for a new direction. This year has seen a string of flops for supposedly mainstream commercial films and only a handful pass the Baht100 million ($3 million) mark, usually considered the distinction of a major hit.

"This is not a reflection of the economic crisis, but of commercial films going nowhere," says Kriengsak 'Victor' Silakong, critic and head of the World Film Festival Bangkok, which kicks off this week (6-15 Nov) and overlaps with the American Film Market. "Audiences are simply tired of the same horror, same action and same gay films. People want to consume something else, not the same thing every day."

"What characterizes the Thai film market is unpredictability," adds Visute Poolvoraluks, CEO of the successful GTH studio, which backed the "Nang Nak," "Shutter" and the "Phobia" series. "You'd never guess that a gangster film would be a hit, or a ghost film made from a familiar story would still draw crowds. I don't think the Thai audience has changed from 30 years ago. Perhaps the demographic is a little younger, but basically everybody wants entertainment, and everybody wants something fresh."

That applies too to the big-budget action pictures -- many of which are backed by distributor-investor Sahamongkol and producer Baa Ram Ewe -- and made by world class action directors like Prachya Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai, who can call on top-class martial arts talents Tony Jaa (who also co-directed "Ong-Bak 2") and latterly Jeeja Yanin ("Chocolate").

The need for newness lifted "Fireball," a hit actioner by Thanakorn Pongsuwan featuring an undercover cop investigating a sadistic version of basketball. The film, made in late 2008 when rival political factions were on the streets of Bangkok, may also have resonated with audiences as it featured braying mobs and suggested that society could be torn apart by greed and self-interest.

On the other hand, in a country made almost ungovernable by three years of political tension, Silakong points to the unexpected success of GTH's "Bangkok Traffic (Love) Story" as a need for escapism. A romantic comedy set on Bangkok's ten -year-old skytrain network, it sets up a lonely office-lady with a railway maintenance engineer and sped past the $3 million milestone on its first week of release. It is now on track to be the biggest film of the year.

That kind of movie, or the many comedies which make use of local TV stars or models and border on slapstick, are a far cry from the refined breed of Thai art films which are seen at the world's top festivals.

Directors Penek Ratanaruang, Nonzee Nimibutr and Wisit Sasanatieng, who found success with the 'New Thai Cinema' wave that started in 1999, still deliver upscale art-house films. They have lately been joined by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose willfully obscure "Syndromes and a Century" and "Tropical Malady" entertain European critics, but recently they resonate less than before at the local boxoffice. Fortunately, all four are able to attract different degrees of foreign production finance.

Silakong now points to the current wave of new indie directors as good news for the industry. "These are the wave of film-makers who come after Apichatpong and Penek and see those guys as heroes," he says.

Most are self taught or studied at the (non-specialist) Mass Communications Department, or work in the commercials sector. Others have made use of the WFF's project workshop. Working mostly with digital equipment, many seem unable to avoid political undertones in their work.

Worth watching among the indie directors with new films are Nitchapoom Chaianun (the documentary "I am the Director"), Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose "Mundane History" (aka "Jao Nok Krajok") played in Pusan and opens the WFF, experimentalist Zart Tancharoen ("Lost Nation") and Uruphong Raksasad, director of "Agrarian Utopia." To that list are added Kongkiat Komesiri, director of bloody-but-intelligent crime thriller "Slice" and "Muay Thai Chaya," and Thunska Pansittivorakul, director of the gay drama "This Area Is Under Quarantine."

Unfortunately, "Quarantine" will not be seen in Thailand any time soon as this month it became the first picture to be banned under the new Film Law. The law, which was consistently opposed by much of the film industry, creates a seven tier ratings system. But, despite many years in the drafting, the law was rushed onto the statute book in August and was not entirely coherent -- the labels denoting the classification had to be redesigned within a month of their introduction; and "Quarantine"'s problem may be an administrative grey area in that it was neither a film for commercial release, nor submitted for classification by its rights owner.

More governmental confusion had surfaced too over what its support for the film industry is intended to achieve. One department recently bankrolled an Entertainment Expo, but lack of coordination meant that it did not coincide with the (other) Bangkok International Film Festival, started just days later with a curiously schizophrenic message in support of SE Asian films and 'old Hollywood'.

The BKKIFF is backed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which some feel sends out the message that government wants film to be a propaganda barker for the country's beach resorts -- rather than a distinct cultural sector or a serious industry.

Still there are signs of political progress. The new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, regularly cites film as a sector for development and has pushed for closer ties with the Korean film sector. And there is regular discussion of a financial or tax incentive scheme for incoming foreign shoots.

The private sector may also have decided not to wait for the government. This year saw the establishment of the Foreign Film Production Services Association, as a non-governmental promo body. And the local studios have green-lighted "Ong Bak 3," "Fireball 2" and "Red Eagle," a hero movie with a budget worthy of Sasanatieng's visual skills.