January 13–24, 2005
At the time of this writing, two domestic events of historical significance have recently come to pass in Thailand. The latest, in early February, was the re-election of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s incumbent political party, Thai Rak Thai, for a second term. The former, occurring just weeks prior in December, was a natural calamity that had buffeted select coastal regions in the south, devastating property and slaughtering thousands. In the wink of time in between, the annual Bangkok International Film Festival found itself tasked with restraint in light of the country’s misfortune.
For a government-funded event of indulgence and glamour, restraint necessarily meant re-branding since, by the admission of its organisers, the festival has in recent years become renowned more for its parties than its programming strength. Lest there be any misconception that the event has sold itself out, let it be known that cinema was nary a priority from day one, three years ago. Thus, a great show of philanthropy was predictably played out, which entailed the donation of all screening revenues to ongoing relief work. Such conscience was also borne in the city’s dailies, awash with coverage of adversity in lieu of celebrity. How tourist dollars could be salvaged had also topped some headlines – concerns shared by the festival since its objective is predicated squarely on attracting tourism revenue.
Put into context then, the festival also figures as an event where national interests are at stake. As with previous editions, the sizable investment it receives from the government for its operation has bought itself the instant reputation of being one of the best-funded film festivals is Asia, although such privilege has not translated into the programming edge that other well-endowed festivals in Asia enjoy, which is unfortunate. This year however, springing from this existing framework was a potent expression of nationalism in the form of Thai films selected for the festival’s program.
Besides the long-standing popularity of horror and transvestitism, contemporary Thai genres are also marked by frequent bouts of nationalistic pride, which occasionally intensify into jingoism. You might detect this pattern in films like Bang Rajan (Thanit Jitnukul, 2000), a domestic hit about a Thai village’s brutal solidarity to protect Siam’s ancient capital of Ayutthaya from Burmese invasion; or in Suriyothai (Chatrichalerm Yukol, 2001), another theatrical success charting the sacrifices of a 16th century heroine for her country against the backdrop of power struggles in the royal courts and amid the opportunism of Burmese incursion. Elsewhere, in a film like Province 77 (Smith Timsawat, 2002), nationalism is mediated by the tenacity of identity as played out in the struggles of immigrants in Los Angeles’ Thai Town. Taking a hint from its slogan, “Across the world we exist”, the title cheekily references the city’s swelling Thai diaspora, which easily figures as a 77th province in addition to Thailand’s 76.
More recently in Ong-Bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003), such pride and sentiment are candid, yet self-conscious. Beneath a malnourished plot involving the retrieval of a stolen head from a revered Buddhist statue, every minute of the film is calculated to showcase the prowess of Thai consciousness as personified by Tony Jaa. Make no mistake: the entertainment is orgasmic. But as exemplified in the scene where a craggy thug spoils for a fight with the omnipotent Jaa by uttering politically-charged lines such as “Fuck Muay Thai” and “Thai women come to my country to become hookers”, one feels the film tries too hard to fend off the foreign gaze by resorting to self-provocation, for Muay Thai is after all its cultural export.
Although nationalism was not a strict thematic in this year’s selection of Thai films, its dominance – ranging from blatant to sublime – is cause enough for mention. In no other film was this more apparent than in the hardcore action flick, Born To Fight (Ked Ma Lui) (Panna Rittikrai, 2004). Here, military insurgents hold a rural village hostage and threaten to nuke Bangkok if their demands to have authorities release a drug lord in custody are not met. The heroes who will thwart their plans are a group of visiting athletes (played by real national sporting celebrities) who sport a range of agile martial abilities to combat the onslaught of weaponry. In between round after round of gloriously insane stunts (Panna incidentally was fight choreographer in Ong-Bak), the octane hit is punctuated with cringe-worthy sequences of athletes charging with the Thai flag to assault the militants (captured at funeral pace) or unifying the hostages by belting out the national anthem, all of which are mishandled as overbold attempts to incite patriotic fervour.
In the jesting antics of Maid (Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, 2004), a government agent in the secret service approaches four country girls to go undercover as maids to spy on a senior politician suspected of being corrupt, and are sold the idea on the importance of national duty. The film’s Thai title, Jaew, refers to the stereotypical name for a domestic servant in Thai dramas. Hilarity and hysterics aside, a fairly racist subplot involves one of the four girls, a Karen refugee from Myanmar being crowned the clown of the ensemble, who willingly partakes in the sting because she desires Thai citizenship. In exaggerated flashbacks, we see her village being torn apart by bombs as a result of civil unrest related to the push for an independent state by Karen rebels. The film thus exploits one upshot of this internal strife, which has witnessed a minority of the Karen population fleeing to Thailand for asylum.
In Sagai United (Somching Srisupap, 2004), an opportunistic soccer referee fleeing from the mafia exploits a group of ethnic Sagai boys from the southernmost province by entering them into the annual King’s Cup soccer tournament after realising their dexterity at the game. Paying somewhat diluted homage to Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow, 2001), Sagai United is nonetheless typical triumph-of-the-underdog material, especially given how the team is humiliated in the media as “forest men” who do not wear shoes – a characteristic which is precisely their winning asset. Traveling to Bangkok for the game, the boys’ road to victory is further encumbered by culture shock of the big city. Further, their drive to win is underscored by the belief that the King’s Cup trophy – His Majesty personified – will save their fellow Sagai folk from a killer epidemic. As such, much of the film’s second act becomes a modest pageant for royal deference.
In reverse gear is The Judgment (I-Fak) (2004), where Pantham Thongsang mounts a sharp critique of ignorance and persecution in a puritanical village. The prefix “I” in the title describes an offensive salutation for men and refers to the plight of the film’s guileless hero, Fak. Returning to his village to enter the priesthood after military service, he learns that his father has married Somsong, a retarded bombshell. None in the village have approved of this union, and after his father’s death, Fak’s promise to look after his stepmother is met with cynicism, whose puerility provokes blind antagonism from the villagers, along with a series of cumulative misunderstandings for Fak. Adapted from Kham Phiphaksa (The Judgment), a 1981 novel by Chart Kobjitti, Pantham never tires of portraying how the menace of conformity stemming from Thai values leaves little room for empathy for society’s marginalised. In the most telling scene illustrating this, a flag raising ceremony accompanied by the singing of the national anthem in a school field provides the backdrop for the image of Somsong heaving an injured Fak away after he has been assaulted by the villagers.
Nevertheless, this largely nationalistic streak hitherto will not explain why The Shutter, 2004’s top-grossing Thai title, was the least “Thai” of all, especially when it looks set to jolt foreign markets. For one, remake rights have since followed its box office successes domestically and in other parts of Southeast Asia. Then at the festival, it was one of the hottest tickets among the foreign press, its title uttered excitedly as if it was a fearsome thrill ride to be experienced. It is. One of the better horror films to emerge this past year, Thailand’s latest supernatural foray is heavily influenced by the indefatigable Japanese horror tradition, and its story is best explained by its Thai title, Sutter Kodtid Winyan, which loosely translates as “press the camera’s button and see a spirit”.
Compared with Pisaj (Kon Phee Pisaj) (Chukiat Sakweerakul, 2004), the only other Thai horror flick about a boy who sees ghosts in a printing factory, The Shutter ranks as the superior of the two evils. Driving home after a night out, Ton and Jane run over a figure on a deserted road. If they had done the civil thing, the film might have been a drama instead. But they flee, and in a horror film, not being accountable for one’s actions invariably spells disaster for the living. A photographer by day, Ton soon discovers that the photos he has been taking all manifest a diabolical presence. Worse, he also learns that his buddies are committing suicide in succession.
The Shutter is the debut feature of directors Parkpoom Wongpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun, who have managed to integrate the art of photography seamlessly into the effort. The film’s lack of subtlety does not lessen its impact, whose success owes much to exploring new grounds within the genre. Without risking much disclosure, one clever sequence features a character trapped on the fourth level of a stairwell despite futile attempts to descend to the ground floor. The significance: in Chinese and Japanese, both the enunciations of the number “4” rhyme with the word for “death” and are thus symbolically avoided.
If The Shutter was the most sensual film, then Wisit Sasanatieng’s Citizen Dog (Ma Nakorn) (2004) was the best looking, recalling at once the copious iridescence he infused Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) with, but also the pantheon of fantastic films whose fraternity demands gleefully absurd and visually arresting dispositions, such as Magnolia (1999), Amélie (2001), Chicken Poets (2002) and Baober in Love (2004). Wisit’s latest is his cinematic attempt to visualise Bangkok as a literal and eternal daydream to counter the metropolitan nightmare it really is. Like wading through a child’s storybook, its yarn follows an established Thai drama convention of a country boy who heads to the urban unknown only to experience dislocation, except that here, his predicament is rendered as fantasy.
Narrated by a pensive Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Citizen Dog will beguile with its winsome cinematography, visual effects, and set design, yet at the same time may frustrate with a meandering story which does not come across as strongly as its mastery of imagery. Ignoring his grandma’s warning that he will wake up with a wiggling tail if he gets a job in Bangkok, Pod leaves his agricultural abode and heads for the semiotic city of angels. Here, signifiers are both generic (workers wear insignias on their breasts stating their occupation) and outlandish (a storm causes a downpour of maroon motorcycle helmets), while what is signified is best freely interpreted, according to Wisit.
Along Pod’s job hops from factory worker to security guard to taxi driver, he falls for Jin, a mania-ridden office maid hooked on serial romances, obsessed with cleaning, and awestruck by a book whose language she does not understand. But his love is unrequited. Jin’s fixation soon turns to a foreign hippy whom she misconstrues as a vanguard for environmental activism, whose aloofness nonetheless inspires her crusade against plastic bottles. Other supporting city slickers and their habits are all unique and lovable, from a chain-smoking prepubescent girl and her debauched teddy bear to a man who, like a dog, enjoys licking everything. Perhaps such are the squirmy tales of conformity that Pod’s grandma was so afraid would grow on him.
The festival’s most decent retrospective was an exhibit of four films by Vichit Kounavudhi (1922–1997): First Wife (Mia Luang) (1978), Mountain People (Khon Phukhao) (1979), Son of the Northeast (Look Isan) (1982), and Her Name is Boonrod (Phuying Khon Nan Chue Boonrod) (1985). A writer-turned-filmmaker, Vichit made a name for himself as a teenager when he contributed short stories for various print media before writing extensively as a journalist and novelist. In the 1950s, he entered motion pictures by playing villains in a couple of films, and then moved to concentrate on screenwriting, directing and editing. According to Knit Kounavudhi, who had worked with his father on his films since his school days, Vichit’s work can be divided into two distinct phases. His early works dealt with family and domestic subjects and were based on the stylistics of Thai novels during the period. His later works would assume documentary-like qualities, as evidenced in Mountain People and Son of the Northeast. Despite just four titles, this spectrum was agreeably represented.
Both Mountain People and Son of the Northeast provide fascinating insights to the ethnic communities of Northern Thailand and are often referred to as “semi-documentary” on account of how Vichit directs them as ethnographic subjects. The opening sequence in Mountain People features an anonymous narrator introducing some of the indigenous groups of Northern Thailand and Indochina such as the Egaw, Karen, Lisu, and Yao, while also describing their cultural traits, temperaments and the tensions that exist between them – though not always with the most neutral eyes. The ensuing story is both an adventure and coming-of-age rite that Aryo and Armi-yo, an Egaw couple, must undertake. After Armi-yo gives birth to twins, an elder decrees that the offspring are a punishment from the devil and that disaster will befall the village unless the fetuses are killed and that they live in exile for a year. The deed is carried out and the saddened couple is put on their way. Aryo’s and Armi-yo’s encounters with vulturine Chinese bandits, sympathetic Thai police, and a Christian missionary who has managed to sucker a neighbouring village will characterise much of their voyage across treacherous rural topography, upon which the basis for a love story naturally develops.
Son of the Northeast is of a similar vein and is considered by both Thai critics and Knit to be Vichit’s finest, a compassionate work that exalts the values and solidarity of the people of Isan, a region in Thailand’s northeast bordered by Cambodia and Laos. The story centres on the way of life of a community of agrarians who must overcome a drought by voyaging to the nearest oasis. In the time leading to this, Vichit illustrates the quirks that make life interesting for these folks, such as the endless spats between Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant merchants which are played out at their expense and to the amusement of the Thais. In reality, Isan is characterised by its hot and dry climate, an attribute the film’s cinematography captures vividly in the scorching and arid terrains. Unfolding in an otherwise subdued tone, the film’s most rousing sequence showcases a mongoose hunt which doubles as a lesson on loyalty and gratitude. Despite clocking in at less than five minutes, the chase – presumably unrehearsed – is both exhilarating and amusing since none of the villagers are able to match the lightning ball of fur.
Although Vichit’s films are imbued with earnest reflections on national pride, negligence to uphold this pride was precisely encapsulated in this retrospective, whose whole point was to familiarise audiences with the ancestors of Thai cinema. As with Ratana Pestonji last year, the late director was also conferred a Lifetime Achievement Award – a coronation not without charming irony. Of the more than 40 films Vichit made, only about ten remain. On account of this loss, coupled with the want of literature on him and his works, the festival’s praise of Vichit as “a master of the Thai motion picture industry” certainly risks losing its clout over time.
With thanks to Aphiradee Iamphungphorn, Knit Kounavudhi and Chalida Uabumrungjit.