'Ten Years Thailand': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A futuristic outcry against the old order.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul leads the way on a Thai feature modeled on Hong Kong's award-winning political omnibus 'Ten Years.'

Soldiers clamp down on artists for being “out of touch with reality.” Feral mobs attack people who stray from the mainstream. Dictators torture arrested dissidents to preserve social harmony. Ten Years Thailand is set in 2028, but it might just as well be a depiction of what things are like in the Southeast Asian country today. Audacious and inventive, the portmanteau is the first of three local "remakes" borrowing the format of Ten Years, the banned-in-China Hong Kong omnibus film that defied the odds to win the top prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

Boasting a bigger budget and a lot more visual panache than the micro-budgeted original, Ten Years Thailand features contributions from two-time Cannes prize-winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, festival regulars Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town) and Wisit Sasanatieng (Tears of a Black Tiger) and video artist Chulayarnon Siriphol. Offering markedly different visions of a doomed dystopia, the film should be able to weave its way through the festival circuit after its bow as an out-of-competition entry on the Croisette.

The first story is Sunset, Aditya’s monochrome-shot chapter about soldiers and policemen inspecting a photography show (pointedly entitled “I Laughed So Hard I Cried”) in search of work that might lead “ordinary people” to develop “wrong ideas.” The ridiculousness of this pursuit is obvious when the officers take umbrage at a picture of a girl laughing in front of a national monument, and then at a photo of a cop weeping over his food in a fast food joint.  The implication, for them, is that foreign-educated artists are potentially bad influences on an impressionable public. (Aditya, like many of his Thai New Wave peers, was educated in the U.S.)

While the hubbub grows, rookie conscript Kaen (Boonyarit Wiangnon) has his eyes fastened on the young cleaner Ann (Waranya Punamsap). As the soldiers strut, swagger and sermonize inside the gallery, the pair make their mutual interest known. Rather than distracting from the central political message, this youthful romance makes the point that, in an age of extreme social control, human emotion persists as the only remaining glimmer of hope.

The same message runs through Wisit Sasanatieng’s entry, but in a wildly different artistic register. Set in a society dominated by half-feline, half-human creatures, Catopia centers around Methee (Kidakarn Chatkaewmanee), a young human who has somehow managed to exist undetected. His humanity is exposed and his life imperiled when he tries to save a cat-woman (Chotiros Naksut) from being stoned to death for her “human stench." Catopia excels with slick computer-generated imagery, but is undermined by its cartoonish premise and simplistic lines.

Chulayarnon’s episode, meanwhile, is situated on the opposite side of the stylistic spectrum. Highly abstract and dialogue-free, Planetarium depicts a realm headed by a mummified sovereign. The real power is wielded by a woman (Tanasawan Thepsatorn) who, through a “Ministry of VHS” and an army of zombie-like young men, has turned the country into one big cult of “happy faces”. Those who refuse to conform — that is, “protesters” who choose to lie face down on the ground rather than stand in silent respect for the rulers — are hauled in to have their minds and bodies reprogrammed.

Planetarium is perhaps the most daring and explicit critique in Ten Years Thailand. From that high point, the film switches back to a low-key depiction of reality with Apichatpong’s Song of the City. Set entirely in a roundabout under reconstruction in the director’s hometown of Khon Kaen, it doesn’t even look futuristic. The piece features a conversation between two old friends (Sakda Kaewbuade and Banlop Lomnoi, the stars of Apichatpong’s Cannes prize-winner Tropical Malady), and a man trying to convince a woman to buy a “Good Sleep Machine.”

All this seems pretty harmless. Looming large over them, however, is a statue of Sarit Thanarat, the military dictator infamous for his hard-line policies in the name of maintaining law and order for the national “family.” That the memorial remains standing and is even being refurbished signals the unchanging national narrative. Thailand has experienced 18 coup d’etats since the establishment of a parliamentary democracy in 1932, the latest being the one orchestrated by the current premier Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2014.

Still more eerie is how people appear to have normalized this legacy, as they pay scant attention to Sarit’s specter. For the four filmmakers, Ten Years Thailand is perhaps shaped as a wake-up call for their compatriots. The omnibus begins with a quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” While flawed in parts, Ten Years Thailand is a powerful outcry against the old order.

Production companies: Pop Pictures, 185 Films, Ten Years Studio
Cast: Boonyarit Wiagnon, Kidakarn Chatkaewmanee, Tansawan Thepsatorn, Sakda Kaewbuadee,
Directors: Aditya Assarat, Wisit Sasanatieng, Chulayarnon Siriphol, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Producers: Cattleya Paosrijaroen, Soro Sukhum, Aditya Assarat, Felix Tsang, Lorraine Ma
Executive producers: Andrew Choi, Ng Ka-leung, Teerawat Rujenatham
Directors of photography: Sarun Srisingchai, Pithai Smithsuth, Pasit Tandeachanurat, Chatchai Suban
Production designers: Akekarat Homlaor, Rasiguet Sookkarn
Editors: Lee Chatametikool, Kamonotorn Eakwatanakij, Harin Paesongthai, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Sales: Golden Scene
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
In Thai
95 minutes