Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Come and See

Come and See
After Nottapon Boonprakob submitted his documentary Come and See (เอหิปัสสิโก) to the Thai censorship board, they phoned him and explained that some board members had reservations about it. Would he mind if they rejected the film, they asked. Naturally, he did mind, so they invited him to a meeting. After the phone call, the Thai Film Director Association publicised the case online, and the stage was set for another Thai film censorship controversy. However, when Nottapon met the censors on 10th March, they told him that there was no problem, and the film was passed uncut with a universal ‘G’ rating.

It’s likely that the censors capitulated as a result of the publicity generated by their rather naïve phone call. The earlier case of Nontawat Numbenchapol’s Boundary (ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง) was very similar: that film’s ban was swiftly reversed following online publicity about it. (Nontawat’s film was subject to a token cut, imposed to save the face of the censorship board who had originally banned it.)

Come and See and Boundary are both documentaries about controversial temples. In Boundary’s case, the controversy was territorial, with Thailand and Cambodia both claiming ownership of the disputed Preah Vihear on the border between the two countries. Come and See, on the other hand, examines the cult-like practices of the Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple complex (in Pathum Thani province, near Bangkok) and its former abbot, Dhammajayo, who has long been suspected of money laundering.

Dhammakaya is a Buddhist sect recognised by the Sangha Supreme Council, though it closely resembles a cult. Dhammakaya supporters are encouraged to make large financial donations in return for their salvation, and thousands of followers have given their savings to the temple. (Come and See interviews both current devotees and disaffected former members.) After Dhammajayo was accused of corruption, a declaration of his innocence was added to the temple’s morning prayers. (The film shows temple visitors reciting this like a mantra.)

The Dhammakaya complex itself is only twenty years old, and its design is inherently cinematic. The enormous Cetiya temple resembles a golden UFO, and temple ceremonies are conducted on an epic scale, with tens of thousands of monks and worshippers arranged with geometric precision. The temple cooperated with Nottapon, though his access was limited. Come and See doesn’t investigate the allegations against Dhammajayo, though it does provide extensive coverage of the 2016 DSI raid on the temple and Dhammajayo’s subsequent disappearance.

One of the film’s interviewees, a Buddhist scholar, hits the nail on the head when he argues that the long-running Dhammakaya scandal is not an anomaly; rather, Dhammakaya is simply a more extreme version of contemporary Thai Buddhism, which has become increasingly capitalist. Come and See also hints at the institutional corruption and hidden networks of influence that characterise the modern Thai state.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

จวบจันทร์แจ่มฟ้านภาผ่อง

Thanavi Chotpradit
Thanavi Chotpradit’s จวบจันทร์แจ่มฟ้านภาผ่อง: ศิลปะและศิลปินแห่งรัชสมัยรัชกาลที่ 9 (‘when the moon is high, the sky turns bright and blue: art and artists in the reign of King Rama IX’) was published last year by Same Sky Books. The book is from the same series as Nattapoll Chaiching’s ขอฝันใฝ่ในฝันอันเหลือเชื่อ (‘I dream an incredible dream’). Thanavi has also written Prism of Photography (ปริซึมของภาพถ่าย), a visual record of the 6th October 1976 massacre.

จวบจันทร์แจ่มฟ้านภาผ่อง includes chapters on specific exhibitions, such as Rupture (whose Thai title, หมายเหตุ ๕/๒๕๕๓, was changed to minimise any reference to the May 2010 military crackdown), Prapat Jiwarangsan’s I’ll Never Smile Again (a song title, though also a pun on The King Never Smiles), and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Green (a reference to Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue series of abstract paintings). It also examines art made in response to the lèse-majesté law.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

ในฝันอันเหลือจะกล่าว

Duanwad Pimwana
Duanwad Pimwana’s latest novel, ในฝันอันเหลือจะกล่าว: นิยมนิยายอันเหลือจะบรรยาย (‘indescribable fiction: unspoken dreams’), was published last year. Duanwad, a pen name for Pimjai Juklin, is one of Thailand’s leading contemporary writers, and ในฝันอันเหลือจะกล่าว was inspired by Don Quixote, the first novel in the Western canon.

Duandwad has spoken out in opposition to the current military government, and the novel takes place in the chaotic atmosphere of the 2013 PDRC protests leading up to the 2014 coup. Her political stance is clear from chapter seven: its title, แผนฆ่าประชาธิปไตยในห้องปิดตาย, refers to the death of democracy.

Uthis Haemamool’s recent novel ร่างของปรารถนา (‘shadow of desire’) also comments on the 2014 coup. Duanwad wrote a chapter in the anthology Remembrances of Red Trauma (1 ทศวรรษ พฤษภาฯ เลือดปี ’53), reflecting on the impact of the 2010 massacre on Thai literature.

“Fox recklessly disregarded the truth...”

Dominion Voting Systems yesterday filed defamation charges against Fox News, seeking $1.6 billion in damages. Their lawsuit accuses the network of broadcasting “a series of verifiably false yet devastating lies” and “outlandish, defamatory, and far-fetched fictions” in the aftermath of last year’s US presidential election.

Fox News hosts Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Sean Hannity, and Jeanine Pirro spread outlandish conspiracy theories in the weeks after the election, seeking to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victory by falsely alleging that Dominion rigged the election. Dominion’s lawsuit states: “Fox recklessly disregarded the truth. Indeed, Fox knew these statements about Dominion were lies.”

The allegations of election fraud were also repeated on a daily basis by Donald Trump himself, who refused to concede the election. The ultimate impact of such dangerous misinformation, and the culmination of Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in American institutions, came on 6th January when he incited a riot at the US Capitol.

Fox News defended another of its hosts, Tucker Carlson, against defamation charges last year, arguing that his show should be viewed with “an appropriate amount of skepticism”, and last month Fox Business cancelled Lou Dobbs Tonight, its highest-rated show. Smartmatic, another voting technology company, is currently suing Fox for $2.7 billion.

Monday, 22 March 2021

Derivatives and Integrals

Derivatives and Integrals
Derivatives and Integrals
Derivatives and Integrals
Derivatives and Integrals (อนุพันธ์ และปริพันธ์) opened at Cartel Artspace in Bangkok on 5th March, and runs until 10th April (extended from 28th March). The exhibition includes a copy of the banned book The King Never Smiles on a small Buddhist altar, though the cover photograph has been replaced by a photo of Stephen King. All ‘sensitive’ text on the book jacket has been covered by the logo of the anonymous artist กูKult, whose exhibition this is. (The artist is due in court today, charged under the Computer Crime Act and the lèse-majesté law.)

On closer inspection, the book on the altar is not actually The King Never Smiles: inside the dust jacket is another hardback of the same size, the first volume of Continuous Multivariate Distributions. (Revealing this feels a bit like pulling back the curtains on the Wizard of Oz, though of course that’s also what the exhibition is doing.)

Propping up the altar is another book, a Thai self-help guide, though a simple equation has been written on its cover (one interpretation of which could involve regnal numbers and a gun calibre). The exhibition’s full title is a more complex algebraic expression, \frac{df\left({x}\right)}{dx}\Bigg\vert_{x=c}\wedge\int_{a}^{b}f\left({x}\right)dx.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

สถาบันพระมหากษัตริย์กับสังคมไทย

Democracy Restoration Group
Royal Thai Police
This afternoon, police searched the offices of Same Sky Books and confiscated 10,000 copies of a booklet by pro-democracy protest leader Arnon Nampa. The booklet, สถาบันพระมหากษัตริย์กับสังคมไทย (‘the monarchy and Thai society’), contains the text of a speech delivered by Arnon at Democracy Monument on 3rd August 2020.

The booklet’s publishers, the Democracy Restoration Group campaign, announced yesterday that it would be given away at a REDEM protest rally at Sanam Luang this evening, and many copies were distributed there despite the police seizure. (Arnon had previously distributed small quantities of the booklet last year.) Riot police used water cannon, tear gas, and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters, as they had on 28th February.

Today’s police raid has echoes of an almost identical case last year, when an announcement that a similar booklet would be given away at a protest drew the attention of the authorities. That booklet—ปรากฏการณ์สะท้านฟ้า 10 สิงหา (‘an earth-shattering event on 10th August’)—was also seized by police before the rally, though some copies were eventually distributed.

Monday, 15 March 2021

Micro Politics

Micro Politics
Micro Politics, published in 2018, is a collection of four contemporary Thai plays and theatre performances: The Disappearance of the Boy on a Sunday Afternoon (การหายตัวไปของเด็กชายในบ่ายวันอาทิตย์) by Thanaphon Accawatanyu, A Nowhere Place (ที่ ไม่มีที่) by Pradit Prasartthong, Bang La Merd (บางละเมิด) by Ornanong Thaisriwong, and Hipster the King by Thanaphol Virulhakul. The scripts are printed in both Thai and English, and the book also includes interviews with each playwright.

The four works were all performed in the aftermath of the 2014 coup, at a time of increased political repression. Military officers attended and videotaped almost all performances of Bang La Merd, in an act of intimidation through state surveillance. As the publishers explain in their introduction, the collection is “a chronicle of social changes during those trying times, reflecting on the effects of the regime on individuals, questioning the events, and offering insights towards political problems in Thailand.”

Friday, 12 March 2021

Coup, King, Crisis

Coup, King, Crisis
After “Good Coup” Gone Bad, Pavin Chachavalpongpun has turned his attention to the 2006 coup’s more repressive sequel: the 2014 coup (from Bad to worse, as it were). Coup, King, Crisis: A Critical Interregnum in Thailand, edited by Pavin, focuses on Thai politics under the junta and the succession from Rama IX to Rama X. (After the Coup is an earlier anthology of essays on the 2014 coup.)

Pavin’s introduction summarises the 2019 election anomalies and the “political earthquake” of Thai Raksa Chart and Princess Ubolratana, though these really require their own chapters. Sarah Bishop writes about the Thai Raksa Chart dissolution, refuting the notion of ‘judicial coups’, though her argument is unconvincing as she ignores the Constitutional Court’s disqualifications of Samak Sundaravej, Somchai Wongsawat, Yingluck Shinawatra, and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. (For a more persuasive analysis of the politicised judiciary, see Eugénie Mérieau’s chapter in Military, Monarchy and Repression.)

The most interesting contributions are Kevin Hewison’s chapter on the royal succession, Paul M. Handley’s updating of The King Never Smiles, Tyrell Haberkorn’s discussion of Mor Yong, a primer on military factions by Paul Chambers (co-editor of Khaki Capital), and an account of self-censorship by David Streckfuss (author of Truth on Trial in Thailand). Streckfuss discusses the use of metaphor by writers and artists as a strategy to evade censorship, noting the “tension between letting readers in on the joke and somehow concealing it from the authorities”, citing the short story Hakom and the film Cemetery of Splendour as examples.

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

“I have realized the wickedness of a
person who calls himself a scholar...”

Nattapoll Chaiching
Nattapoll Chaiching
Historian Nattapoll Chaiching’s book ขุนศึก ศักดินา และพญาอินทรี การเมืองไทยภายใต้ระเบียบโลกของสหรัฐอเมริกา 2491-2500 (‘feudal warlords and the eagle: Thai politics and the United States 1948-1957’), about Thailand’s relationship with the US during the Cold War, was a runaway bestseller among liberals and political enthusiasts when it was published last year. His earlier work, ขอฝันใฝ่ในฝันอันเหลือเชื่อ ความเคลื่อนไหวของขบวนการปฏิปักษ์ปฏิวัติสยาม (พ.ศ. 2475-2500) (‘I dream an incredible dream: the anti-Siamese revolutionary movement 1932-1957’), published in 2013, also saw a revival in sales after it was among five titles seized by police from the offices of the publisher, Same Sky Books.

Nattapoll has been heavily criticised by conservatives, culminating in a lawsuit issued on 5th March. In December last year, Chaiyand Chaiyaporn, a professor at Chulalongkorn University, accused him of falsifying references in the Ph.D. thesis on which his Cold War book was based. A week later, an ultra-royalist former monk, Suwit Thongprasert, accused him of lèse-majesté: “I have realized the wickedness of a person who calls himself a scholar and has got a Ph.D. who dared to develop a thesis with false information... harmful towards the royal institution.” (Suwit’s statement was issued under his monastic title Buddha Issara, though he was defrocked in 2018 as a result of his role in the 2014 PDRC protests.)

Last week, aristocrat Priyanandana Rangsit sued Nattapoll and Same Sky Books for defamation, seeking ฿50 million in damages. According to the lawsuit, Nattapoll’s books incorrectly assert that her grandfather, Prince Rangsit Prayurasakdi, sought an improper political influence over Phibun Songkhram’s government in the 1940s. She argues that this misrepresentation of her ancestor—who died seventy years ago—tarnishes her family name, and is thus defamatory to her personally.

Friday, 5 March 2021

Thai Cinema Uncensored

Art Review
My book Thai Cinema Uncensored is reviewed in the March issue of Art Review magazine (volume 73, number 1), on page 111. Reviewer Max Crosbie-Jones writes: “Thais and Thailand watchers will recognise the bigger story, an all-too-common narrative arc streaked with moments of fear, absurdity and humour, in Hunt’s lingering closeups on the mangled, hidden wreckage of film censorship.”

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Stanley Kubrick Produces

Stanley Kubrick Produces
James Fenwick’s Stanley Kubrick Produces focuses not on Kubrick’s artistic achievements as a director, but on his role as a producer and his place in the studio system. The book makes a revisionist assessment of Kubrick’s work, as Fenwick argues that the last decades of his career represented a debilitating decline in his ability to operate as a producer: “What emerges is almost a tragic narrative, Kubrick’s rise and fall as it were.”

The book covers Kubrick’s producing career chronologically, beginning with the independent films he both produced and directed. Fenwick even tracks down a copy of World Assembly of Youth, a short documentary that Kubrick once claimed to have worked on. (“Despite long-standing speculation about Kubrick’s involvement in the project, there is little evidence to support this.”) Fenwick makes an additional discovery: that Kubrick was involved in the sound editing of a film with the working title Shark Safari in 1953. Supported by extensive archive research, the book also provides detailed accounts of Kubrick’s producing partnership with James B. Harris, his collaborations with Kirk Douglas, and his various studio contracts.

The central thesis is that absolute control is a double-edged sword. Kubrick secured total control over every aspect of his films, though this was ultimately a Pyrrhic victory, as his micromanagement increasingly delayed the development of new projects: “Kubrick had become an impotent producer, overwhelmed by his own centralized management style and the information and research that he sought.” (The Channel 4 documentary The Last Movie made a similar point, comparing late-career Kubrick to a computer overloaded with data.)

Monday, 1 March 2021

REDEM

Riot police fired rubber bullets last night, when a protest near Prayut Chan-o-cha’s residence turned violent. The police also deployed rubber batons, tear gas, and water cannon against the protesters. More than 1,000 people had gathered at Victory Monument in Bangkok yesterday afternoon, before marching to the Viphavadi Rangsit Road military barracks where Prayut resides. They attempted to remove shipping containers that the authorities had installed as a barrier, and threw rocks and other projectiles at the police. There were injuries on both sides, and a police officer suffered a fatal heart attack.

The protest was organised by REDEM (Restart Democracy), a rebranding of the Free Youth movement. (Free Youth had previously relaunched as Restart Thailand, though their RT logo, with its Communist hammer and sickle design, raised concerns among other pro-democracy groups.) REDEM issued a manifesto on 24th February, with three demands: a reduction in state spending on the monarchy, the removal of the military’s political influence, and a welfare state to ensure economic equality.

Last night represents an escalation of tensions between protesters and the authorities, and marks the first use of rubber bullets by the police since the protests began last year. It also indicates a more aggressive approach by elements of the protest movement, which is increasingly fragmented and leaderless. The various protest groups have differing demands, some of which are viewed as too extreme by potential allies. Protest leaders Panusaya Sithjirawattanakul, Arnon Nampa, Parit Chirawak, and Panupong Jadnok, amongst others, are facing multiple charges including sedition and lèse-majesté.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Bangkok Screening Room

Bangkok Screening Room
The Third Man
Bangkok Screening Room, the boutique independent cinema, will be closing at the end of next month. Like other entertainment venues in Bangkok and elsewhere, BKKSR has borne the brunt of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. All cinemas in Bangkok were closed in April and May last year, during the country’s first coronavirus lockdown, and since reopening they have been operating at limited capacity to maintain social distancing.

BKKSR opened in 2016, and quickly established itself as the city’s leading arthouse cinema. It offered a unique Hollywood and world cinema repertory programme, plus screenings of contemporary Thai indie films, and revivals of Thai classics. The BKKSR team also curated seasons dedicated to marginalised filmmakers, including an LGBT+ Film Festival, a Global Migration Film Festival, and a Fem Film Festival.

BKKSR’s inaugural screening was The Third Man, starring Orson Welles, and fittingly this classic film noir will also be the last film screened there, on 31st March. (It will also be shown on 19th, 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th, and 28th March.) BKKSR is the second Bangkok cinema to close as a result of the pandemic, after the Scala shut its doors last year. (Also, Cinema Oasis has been closed indefinitely since last March.)

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Cinema Lecture

Vertigo
Persona
In March and April, the Thai Film Archive will show a range of classic films introduced by academics and film critics. The Cinema Lecture season includes Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on 3rd April and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona on 24th April. The screenings are free of charge.

Vertigo, voted the greatest film ever made in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, has previously been shown at Bangkok Screening room in 2016 and at Cinema Winehouse in 2018. Persona was screened twice in 2014, at Thammasat University and Jam Café.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Politics and Ideology
of Thai Film Censorship

Friday Forum
I will be giving an online lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies on 19th March (midday, US central time), with an introduction by historian Thongchai Winichakul. The lecture, Politics and Ideology of Thai Film Censorship, will be streamed on Zoom (ID: 979 8213 2663), and a video will be available on the Center’s website after the live stream. (The lecture will begin at midnight on 20th March, Thai time.)

The Center describes the session as follows: “Matthew Hunt wrote a book on Thai film censorship that includes interviews with ten directors whose films have been cut or banned. In this lecture, he will present an overview of the history of film censorship in Thailand, examine the consequences of the rating system, and show how filmmakers are finding ways to comment on Thailand’s volatile contemporary politics.”

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Mike Ward S’eXpose

A long-running defamation case came before the Supreme Court of Canada yesterday, when lawyers representing comedian Mike Ward argued that his stand-up routine about Jérémy Gabriel was not discriminatory. Gabriel suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome, and Ward joked about attempting to drown him because he had not yet died from this genetic disorder.

The gag was part of Ward’s live show between 2010 and 2013, and is included on his live DVD Mike Ward S’eXpose (‘Mike Ward exposed’). In 2016, the Human Rights Tribunal of Quebec awarded Gabriel $35,000 in damages, and this decision was upheld by the Quebec Court of Appeal last year. A final verdict from the Supreme Court is expected in the next few months.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Thai Cinema Uncensored

The Big Chilli
The first print review of my book Thai Cinema Uncensored has been published, in The Big Chilli magazine. The full-page article is on page 25 of the January issue.

Friday, 5 February 2021

“Smartmatic seeks to recover
in excess of $2.7 billion...”

Smartmatic, the voting technology company whose systems were used in Los Angeles County to process votes in last year’s US presidential election, is suing Fox News and three of its hosts for $2.7 billion. The company’s lawsuit, filed in New York yesterday, states: “Smartmatic seeks to recover in excess of $2.7 billion for the economic and non-economic damage caused by Defendants’ disinformation campaign as well as punitive damages.”

The lawsuit, which is almost 300 pages long, argues that Fox News presenters Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, and Jeanine Pirro spread outlandish conspiracy theories in the weeks after the election, seeking to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victory by falsely alleging fraudulent voting in Democratic states. This fake news campaign began in earnest on 12th November 2020, when former President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was interviewed on on Lou Dobbs Tonight and falsely claimed that “this was a stolen election.”

Of course, these allegations were also repeated on a daily basis by Trump himself, who refused to concede the election. The ultimate impact of such dangerous misinformation, and the culmination of Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in American institutions, came on 6th January with the unprecedented storming of the US Capitol.

Fox News defended another of its most popular hosts—Tucker Carlson—against defamation charges last year, arguing that his show should be viewed with “an appropriate amount of skepticism”, though Fox Business has decided to cancel Lou Dobbs Tonight, its highest-rated show. Giuliani is also named as a defendant in the Smartmatic case, and in a separate defamation lawsuit by another voting technology company, Dominion.

“Malicious communications...”

Stop New Normal
Piers Corbyn, brother of former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, was arrested yesterday and charged with “malicious communications and public nuisance” after he distributed leaflets containing dangerous misinformation about coronavirus vaccines. The leaflets included a drawing of the Auschwitz concentration camp gate, with its infamous “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” (‘work sets you free’) sign replaced by the Evening Standard newspaper headline “VACCINES ARE SAFE PATH TO FREEDOM”. The drawing, by Alexander Heaton—who was also arrested yesterday—falsely implies that vaccine safety is as deceptive as the Auschwitz slogan.

The leaflets were produced by the Stop New Normal group, which organises ‘anti-vax’ campaigns and discourages the wearing of facemasks, despite the coronavirus pandemic. The politicisation of facemasks, and the spread of harmful and false vaccine conspiracy theories, are more widespread in the United States (following former President Trump’s refusal to endorse mask-wearing), though malicious groups such as Stop New Normal show the extent to which this toxic fake news is also spreading in the UK.

Thursday, 4 February 2021

“Vicious, vindictive, despicable...”

The Meaning of Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey’s sister, Allison Carey, is suing the pop star for “heartless, vicious, vindictive, despicable and totally unnecessary public humiliation” after the release of the best-selling autobiography The Meaning of Mariah Carey last year. In the book, the singer wrote: “my sister drugged me with Valium, offered me a pinky nail full of cocaine, inflicted me with third-degree burns, and tried to sell me out to a pimp.” Her sister’s lawsuit, filed at the New York Supreme Court on 1st February, will almost certainly be dismissed, as it does not actually dispute any of the claims in the book.

“If things go wrong,
the government cannot sue...”

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is now facing another lèse-majesté charge, relating to a television interview he gave to Al Jazeera English broadcast on 29th January. Thanathorn highlighted a hypothetical consequence of the deal between AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience to produce coronavirus vaccines in Thailand. He noted that—as Siam Bioscience is a Crown Property Bureau company, and thus ultimately under the King’s prerogative—“if things go wrong, the government cannot sue the owner of the company.”

Thanathorn made similar comments in a Facebook Live video on 18th January, and is facing lèse-majesté and Computer Crime charges as a result. He was also charged under the Computer Crime Act in relation to another Facebook Live video, streamed on 29th June 2018. After his Future Forward Party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court last year, it was rebranded as Move Forward, a progressive movement calling for military reform, which may explain the continuing intimidation of Thanathorn by the authorities.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

A Good True Thai

Sunisa Manning’s debut novel, A Good True Thai, is set during one of Thailand’s brief spells of democratic rule, a period bookended by the massacres of 14th October 1973 and 6th October 1976. The book’s title is a reframing of the traditional notion of ‘Thainess’, the insistence that ‘good’ Thais (khon dee) value nation, religion, and monarchy above all else, while progressives are regarded as unpatriotic.

The novel’s three central characters (friends Det and Chang, and their mutual love interest, Lek) are university students caught up in the intense political atmosphere of the period. For example, Lek reacts to the infamous Dao Siam (ดาวสยาม) newspaper’s headline accusing Thammasat students of lèse-majesté: “It must be a mistake! Lek brandishes the page at her brother... No wonder the city roils. They think the students have staged a hanging of the Crown Prince.”

A Good True Thai was published in October 2020, when a new generation of students were demonstrating against the military and the monarchy: as it was in the 1970s, ‘Thainess’ is currently being challenged and redefined. Although it was written before the recent protests, the book is therefore extremely timely.

A Good True Thai has superficial similarities with other novels set during periods of political instability. Uthis Haemamool’s ร่างของปรารถนา (‘shadow of desire’), for example, takes place against a backdrop of the 1991, 2006, and 2014 coups. Duanwad Pimwana’s ในฝันอันเหลือจะกล่าว (‘unspoken dreams’) is set during the PDRC protests. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Win Lyovarin’s Democracy, Shaken and Stirred (ประชาธิปไตยบนเส้นขนาน) traces sixty years of Thailand’s modern political history.

The book has more in common with films such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง) and Pasit Promnampol’s พีเจ้น (‘pigeon’). Both Manning’s book and Anocha’s film are self-referential, featuring protagonists who are also writing a book and making a film, respectively. Pasit’s short film, like Manning’s novel, dramatises a student’s decision to join the Communist insurgency.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

ร่างของปรารถนา

Uthis Haemamool
Uthis Haemamool’s ร่างของปรารถนา (‘shadow of desire’), published in 2017, follows the sexual and political awakenings of an art graduate from Silpakorn University (where Uthis himself studied painting). The novel’s frank sexual content is combined with commentary on Thailand’s three most recent coups (1991, 2006, and 2014).

Some passages are printed in a new typeface—ปรารถนา (‘desire’)—commissioned especially for the novel, with letter forms that resemble sexual positions. In a nod to the book’s risqué content, its pages are sealed with a perforated strip that must be torn off before reading.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

A Promised Land

Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, was published in November last year, barely a week after Joe Biden won the US presidential election. This is the first of two volumes, and covers most of Obama’s first term as President, ending with the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. As Obama explains, the book was intended to cover both terms of office in under 500 words, though this first volume alone is more than 700 pages long: “It’s fair to say that the writing process didn’t go exactly as I’d planned. Despite my best intentions, the book kept growing in length and scope—the reason why I eventually decided to break it into two volumes.”

Obama’s literary talents were evident long before his presidency, having already written two best-selling and highly acclaimed memoirs. So, as expected, A Promised Land is a remarkable book. One chapter, for example, ends with Obama musing on the fates of the letters he wrote: “Eventually the letter would fall into a drawer somewhere, forgotten under the acculumation of the new joys and pains that make up a life.” What other presidential memoir could describe correspondence in such poetic terms? (Certainly not George W. Bush’s Decision Points.)

It comes as no surprise that Obama distrusts Vladimir Putin, describing him as “the leader of what resembled a criminal syndicate as much as it did a traditional government”. As for Donald Trump and his disgraceful ‘birtherism’ lie, Obama is refreshingly direct: “the conspiracy theory he was promoting was racist.” A Promised Land is a reminder of the total contrast between Obama and his successor, a man not even fit to shine Obama’s shoes, let alone to fill them.

Monday, 25 January 2021

1410

1410
1410
1410
Like several other Thai filmmakers, Yuthlert Sippapak has become more politically engaged as a result of the long-running political crisis that has polarised Thai society for more than a decade. (This political consciousness is known in Thai as ta sawang.) When I interviewed Yuthlert for my book Thai Cinema Uncensored, he said: “I never gave a shit about politics. But right now, it’s too much.”

Yuthlert’s ta sawang moment came when the military withdrew its support for his film Fatherland (ปิตุภูมิ). Far from the propaganda vehicle the military was expecting, the film instead exposed military corruption in southern Thailand. As Yuthlert told me: “Money is power. And the person who created the war is the military. I said that, and I don’t want to take that out. That’s the truth. And they don’t want the truth. I want the truth.”

Since then, Yuthlert has turned to political activism, campaigning against Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government. On 27 August 2019, he criticised the Constitutional Court on Twitter—“สงสัยว่าศาลรัฐธรรมนูญ เสือกอะไรกับประชาชน ก็ได้เหรอ?” (‘what gives the Constitutional Court the right to intrude on its citizens?’)—and he was summonsed to apologise for contempt of court.

Last year, he faced a Computer Crime charge after criticising minister Puttipong Punnakanta via another Twitter account on 20 April 2020: “รัฐมนตรีเฟคนิวส์ อยู่เบื้องหลังสาเหตุของการตายของม้าในประเทศไทย” (‘the minister of fake news is behind the horse deaths in Thailand’). That tweet was from his NMG (No More General) campaign against Prayut.

Yuthlert’s latest provocation is 1410, a proposed new political science-fiction film starring Chaiamorn Kaewwiboonpan, whose hit single 12345 I Love You was appropriated by anti-government protesters. Yuthlert held a press conference with Chaiamorn on 18th January at the Jam Factory in Bangkok, announcing a plan to crowdfund the budget for 1410 through online donations.

He is also currently working on two political satires: Seven Boy Scouts (a horror film in which the evil characters share their nicknames with Thai politicians) and The Last Dictator (อวสาน ร.ป.ภ; a comedy in which a filmmaker dying from COVID-19 vows to assassinate a coup leader). Whereas Seven Boy Scouts is almost complete, The Last Dictator seems to be on the back burner. Yuthlert is also working on another (shorter) edit of Fatherland, for a future Netflix release, though real-life political protests are taking up most of his time.

1410’s title is a reference to the 14th October 1973 student protest that led to the (brief) restoration of democracy, though Yuthlert hasn’t revealed any specifics about its characters or plot. The tagline for the film’s teaser poster is “ภาพยนตร์บันทึกอดีตอันเลวร้าย ถ่ายทอดความเสื่อมทรามของปัจจุบัน เพื่อต่อต้านเผด็จการโสมมในอนาคต” (‘a film about a terrible past and a worsening present, to prevent corrupt dictators in the future’).

A 1410 exhibition is on show at the Jam Factory from 18th to 27th January. A large mural (with stylised typography by PrachathipaType) features the slogan “ศักดินาจงพินาศ ประชาราษฎร์จงเจริญ” (‘may feudalism be defeated; may the people prosper’), and a dartboard uses Headache Stencil’s portrait of Prayut as a bullseye. This is Yuthlert’s third appearance at the Jam Factory: he was a guest speaker at the Uncensored event there in 2019; and The Land We Call Home, an exhibition of Sira Twichsang’s photos from Fatherland, was held there in 2014.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Irréversible (DVD)

Irreversible
Irreversible
Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible is notorious for its real-time rape sequence, its brutal (CGI) fire extinguisher murder scene, and its reverse-chronology narrative structure (though the latter was heavily influenced by Memento). Irréversible (like most of Noé’s films) is sexually explicit and intentionally confrontational; to see it on its theatrical release in 2002, I had to drive to a cinema thirty miles away (as local cinemas wouldn’t screen it) and read a notice warning viewers that it contained disturbing images.

Last year, Noé recut the film, putting it into conventional chronological order. This new version was released on DVD and blu-ray in France and Germany by Studio Canal in 2020, and will be available on blu-ray in the UK from Indicator later this year.

The recut version is actually shorter than the original, losing almost ten minutes of footage, notably from the S&M club sequence: explicit shots of sexual activity both outside and inside the club have been removed. Another change occurs after the end credits: the caption “LE TEMPS DETRUIT TOUT” (‘time destroys everything’) has been replaced by a new, more optimistic maxim: “LE TEMPS RÉVÈLE TOUT” (‘time reveals everything’).

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Hakom

Hakom
Remembrances of Red Trauma
Charuphat Petcharavej’s short story Hakom (ห่าก้อม) was first published in an anthology of Isaan literature, มวลดอกไม้ในยุคมืด (‘flowers in a dark age’). It was translated into English last year, and reprinted in Remembrances of Red Trauma: The Tenth Anniversary of the Political Violence of 2010 (1 ทศวรรษ พฤษภาฯ เลือดปี ’53), a collection of articles reflecting on the 2010 massacre and “Thai society’s deep-rooted culture of impunity.” (Pisitakun Kuantalaeng’s Ten Year project also commemorated the tenth anniversary of the massacre.)

Hakom is a supernatural tale of a phi pob spirit possessing an Isaan villager, though the story is also a political metaphor. The fictional village of Dong Bong is a microcosm of Thailand, and its former headman, Wan, is a proxy for Thaksin Shinawatra. Charuphat writes that Wan became persona non grata: “A group of villagers had driven him out of the village, forcing him to make a new home for himself on a hill, far away from the village.” This mirrors Thaksin’s self-exile following the 2006 coup against his government.

Wan’s sister, Buaphan, thus represents Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, and the story describes her futile efforts to protect the village from its attackers: “Against these poisonous animals and fierce beasts out on the streets in a show of full force, the villagers [had] little at their disposal to fight back. So many of them went to see Nang Buaphan for help. But she had nothing to match the power of the attackers. She could only tell the villagers to endure this crisis until one day, the monsters would run out of energy and leave.”

This vivid description of a village under siege echoes the military massacre of red-shirt protesters in 2010, and the 2014 coup against Yingluck’s administration. Ukrit Sa-nguanhai’s short film The Pob’s House (บ้านผีปอบ) also employs a phi pob as a metaphor for political violence. In Ukrit’s film, an elderly woman is beaten by her fellow villagers, who believe her to be possessed by a phi pob. Like Hakom, The Pob’s House was also a response to the 2010 massacre.

How to Swear

How to Swear
How to Swear: An Illustrated Guide, by Stephen Wildish, features etymologies and derivations of seven swear words in infographic form. (The chosen words are not the same as George Carlin’s famous septet, with more emphasis on British slang.) Chapter seven is devoted to the c-word, which Wildish calls “the most offensive word in the English language and one of the last words that still has the power to shock.”

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

“Do you hear the people sing?”

Reform
In 2018, Rap Against Dictatorship’s single My Country Has (ประเทศกูมี) encapsulated the frustrations of anti-coup protesters. In 2020, when the protests expanded to include calls for reform of the monarchy, the band released Reform (ปฏิรูป), a song whose lyrics address Prayut Chan-o-cha and King Rama X directly. (Lines such as “pawns have a king captured” in the song’s official English translation are even more blunt than the Thai original.)

The video for Reform—blocked by the government on YouTube—was filmed at Siam Square in Bangkok on 16th October 2020, and includes footage of riot police using water cannon to disperse the protesters. The Commoner’s video คนที่คุณก็รู้ว่าใคร (‘you know who’) also features water cannon clips. The music video for Elevenfinger’s เผด็จกวยหัวคาน (‘get rid of the dickhead’) was also filmed during the protests, and is even more confrontational than Reform. Elevenfinger hurls insults at Prayut and others, and lyrics such as “ละควรรีบๆตาย” (‘hurry up and die’) are as subtle as a brick through a window.

The lyrics of another recent song are addressed directly to Rama X: Paeng Surachet’s กล้ามาก เก่งมาก ขอบใจ (‘very brave, very good, thank you’). Its title is an ironic appropriation of a comment made by the King to one of his supporters during a walkabout on 23rd October 2020, and its lyric video features animated yellow ducks in reference to the inflatable ducks used by protesters to protect themselves from water cannon.

Paeng’s song takes the form of a breakup message to an unfaithful lover, with lines such as “ประนีประนอมได้ไหม ไม่ compromise นะถ้าทำตัวเเบบนี้” (‘Can we compromise? No, I won’t compromise if you behave this way’). ‘Compromise’ is a reference to a comment by the King on another walkabout: on 2nd November 2020, he told a reporter that “Thailand is the land of compromise.”

Protesters have also reappropriated existing songs. Do You Hear the People Sing? (from the stage musical Les Misérables) was sung at several of last year’s protests in place of the national anthem. Chaiamorn Kaewwiboonpan performed his hit single 12345 I Love You at a protest near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on 14th November 2020, leading the crowd in chants of “ai hia Tu” instead of “I love you” during the chorus. (Ai hia is a strong insult, and Tu is Prayut’s nickname.)

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

The Making of a Masterpiece

The Making of a Masterpiece
The Making of a Masterpiece
The Making of a Masterpiece
Taschen published The Stanley Kubrick Archives as a collector’s edition in 2005, and last year they launched a new series—The Making of a Masterpiece—based on material from that still-definitive work. Each book in the series is essentially a reprint of an individual chapter from The Stanley Kubrick Archives, reformatted to a square 12” format (the same size as an LP sleeve), and bundled with a DVD and poster.

There are three titles in the series so far: A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The LP-sized format allows for some impressive full-page illustrations, and the authorised poster reproductions are a welcome bonus. The inclusion of the DVDs is more surprising, though, as most readers will either already own them, or prefer to stream the films online. Also, the DVDs are vanilla discs with no bonus features.

While the essays and images are almost entirely the same as the original chapters in The Stanley Kubrick Archives, completists should note that the new books do feature a small amount of new material. In the 2001 book, this includes two letters from Kubrick to Arthur C. Clarke, and a few additional photographs of Kubrick on the set. (On the other hand, Kubrick’s 1968 Playboy interview is missing.)

The A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon books include slightly more new material, each adding a handful of on-set photos and a few script pages. Barry Lyndon also has an additional letter from Kubrick, to a studio executive in Japan. In the letter, Kubrick attempts to assuage the Japanese censor’s concerns that pubic hair is visible in the film’s bathtub scene. (Any depiction of pubic hair is forbidden in Japan.) Kubrick reassures the executive that the actress in question was wearing a bikini to preserve her modesty.

Friday, 1 January 2021

ปฏิทินพระราชทาน

Khana Ratsadon
Yesterday, a member of the pro-democracy group Khana Ratsadon was arrested at home and charged with lèse-majesté. Police also confiscated 174 desk calendars, which had been sold online by the group since Boxing Day.

The calendars feature cartoon drawings of yellow ducks, which became a pro-reform symbol after protesters used inflatable rubber ducks to defend themselves against water cannon on 17th November last year (as seen in Sorayos Prapapan’s short documentary Yellow Duck Against Dictatorship). Khana Ratsadon’s fake banknotes featuring a similar yellow duck symbol are also under investigation.

The lèse-majesté charge stems from the calendar’s title and two of its illustrations. According to the police, the title—ปฏิทินพระราชทาน (‘royal calendar’)—implies that the calendar is an official publication rather than a parody. One drawing features the words “กล้ามาก เก่งมาก ขอบใจ” (‘very brave, very good, thank you’), spoken by King Rama X during a walkabout on 23rd October last year. The other controversial picture shows a yellow duck with a bead of sweat on its beak: a reference to King Rama IX, who was photographed with a bead of sweat on his nose, symbolising his hard work.

This is the fourth calendar to be investigated by the Thai authorities in recent years. Wall calendars featuring greetings from Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawawtra were seized in 2018 and 2016. In 2010, a wall calendar by the beer company Leo, featuring models in body paint, was accused of promoting alcohol in contravention of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act.

Monday, 28 December 2020

The Role of the Scroll

The Role of the Scroll
The Role of the Scroll, by Thomas Forrest Kelly, is the first book to provide a history of scrolls as a medium for documenting and displaying text and images. As its subtitle (An Illustrated Introduction to Scrolls in the Middle Ages) suggests, the book is concerned mainly with medieval scrolls, though ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman scrolls are covered in the introduction.

Like most studies of medieval documents (such as surveys of illuminated manuscripts), the book’s focus is on European production, though the introduction has brief coverage of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Ethiopian, and Middle Eastern scrolls. However, the ‘Qingming Scroll’ (清明上河圖), perhaps China’s most famous painted scroll, is not discussed, and there are no illustrations of Middle Eastern or Japanese scrolls. (For a more detailed history of Japanese scrolls, see Dietrich Seckel’s book Emakimono.)

Scrolls are typically regarded as an ancient medium, superceded by the bound book, though Kelly argues that digital scrolling (browsing social media newsfeeds, for example) represents the return of the scroll: “We are now in the new age of the scroll. All you have to do is look at your computer screen, tablet, or e-reader, and just scroll down.” In addition to legal, devotional, and ceremonial scrolls, he also discusses the use of scrolls in literature and performance, though at under 200 pages this is not a comprehensive account.

An expanded history, with more coverage of Asian and Middle Eastern scrolls, will hopefully follow this introductory book. It could conceivably feature fold-out reproductions of famous scrolls, and should include a bibliography. (Kelly’s bibliography is currently available only online.) It could also discuss modern artistic uses of scrolls, such as moving panoramas, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road manuscript, and Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll performance.

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz
The Technicolor musical The Wizard of Oz wasn’t originally considered a Christmas film, though for generations of British children it’s become an annual Christmas TV tradition. Its first UK television broadcast was on Christmas Day in 1975, and it’s been shown during the Christmas holiday almost every year since. It’s fitting, then, that Bangkok Screening Room will be showing The Wizard of Oz just after New Year, on 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 13th, 16th, and 17th January 2021.

The film has been shown at Bangkok Screening Room before, last year (as part of the Judy Garland Focus season) and in 2018. It also played during this year’s World Class Cinema (ทึ่ง! หนังโลก) season at the Scala, and at Cinema Winehouse in 2018. There was a sing-along screening at the Bangkok Community Theatre in 2013, and later that year it was shown as part of Jam Café’s Dark Side of the Rainbow double-bill accompanied by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album.

Friday, 18 December 2020

The Cost

The Cost: Trump, China, and American Revival, by Maria Bartiromo and James Freeman, was published a week before the US election. After reading a dozen books on the Trump presidency (the others being Rage, Fear, Fire and Fury, Inside Trump’s White House, The United States of Trump, A Very Stable Genius, Trump’s Enemies, The Trump White House, Too Much and Never Enough, The Room Where It Happened, and Team of Five), I sincerely hope that this is the last Trump book I’ll ever read.

Bartiromo, like most of her fellow Fox News anchors, asks the softest of softball questions whenever she interviews Trump on television. In the most egregious instance, on 29th November she conducted the first post-election TV interview with Trump, encouraging him to rehash a stream of conspiracy theories and lies about election fraud. Bartiromo and Freeman also interviewed Trump for their book; he refers to former House speaker Paul Ryan as “a f______ disaster”, and says that he was on the verge of telling China: “Go f___ yourself”. [The authors censored the f-words.]

Unsurprisingly, Bartiromo and Freeman stick closely to the discredited Trumpian narrative, arguing that Trump was the victim of a deep-state conspiracy: “the abuse of federal investigative power against him is the greatest scandal of his era.” They also claim that the mainstream media is “unable or unwilling to report on Donald Trump objectively,” which is ironic given the biased, hagiographic nature of their own book.

Saturday, 12 December 2020

24th Short Film and Video Festival

24th Short Film and Video Festival
24th Short Film Marathon
24th Short Film and Video Festival
Give Us a Little More Time
Prelude of the Moving Zoo
The 24th Short Film and Video Festival (เทศกาลภาพยนตร์สั้นครั้งที่ 24) opens at the Thai Film Archive in Salaya on 14th December. More than 300 films were submitted, and screened alphabetically in a Short Film Marathon (หนังสั้นมาราธอน) from 3rd November to 10th December. Around 10% of those submissions were selected for the Short Film and Video Festival itself.

Highlights include Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s Give Us a Little More Time (ขอเวลาอีกไม่นาน), which premiered at the CityCity Gallery in Bangkok and was shown at the Marathon on 10th November. This rapid-fire video montage remixes and distills six years of mainstream press coverage of the military government, and was created from a six-volume collection of more than 1,000 newspaper collages. Its sarcastic title is a line from a propaganda song released by the junta, Returning Happiness to the Thai Kingdom (คืนความสุขให้ประเทศไทย).

Chulayarnnon’s film is screening in a programme titled These Kids Don’t Know Thai History (เด็กรุ่นใหม่ไม่รู้ประวัติศาสตร์), an ironic reference to a criticism unfairly directed towards young Thais with anti-establishment attitudes. The programme also includes Sorayos Prapapan’s Prelude of the Moving Zoo, which was shown at the Marathon on 13th November and was also screened yesterday at N22 in Bangkok. It documents the closure of Dusit Zoo in 2018, and begins subversively with a cylinder recording of the royal anthem, accompanied by footage of penguins seemingly standing to attention.

The These Kids Don’t Know Thai History programme will be shown on 21st December, and repeated on the last day of the Short Film and Video Festival, 27th December. Admission is free.

ANIMAL KINgDOM

Animal Kingdom
A House in Many Parts
Yellow Duck Against Dictatorship
Shadow and Act
Prelude of the Moving Zoo
A House in Many Parts (บ้านเเหวกศิลป์), the arts festival being held at various Bangkok venues from 1st to 16th December, continued yesterday at N22 with ANIMAL KINgDOM, a selection of short films programmed by Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa. The outdoor screening was divided into two sections: ANIMAL and KINgDOM (the lower-case ‘g’ indicates a double meaning: human kinship with animals, and the kingdom of Thailand).

The ANIMAL programme included two new films: Taki Sakpisit’s Shadow and Act and Sorayos Prapapan’s Prelude of the Moving Zoo. Both feature sequences shot at Dusit Zoo, which was closed by royal decree in 2018. (The zoo was situated on Crown Property Bureau land, which King Rama X reclaimed.)

Prelude of the Moving Zoo, filmed on the last day of the zoo’s operation, begins subversively with a cylinder recording of the royal anthem, accompanied by footage of penguins seemingly standing to attention. Shadow and Act also includes shots filmed at another prestigious institution from a bygone age, the Chaya Jitrakorn photography studio. As in A Ripe Volcano (ภูเขาไฟพิโรธ), Taki’s camera pans slowly and elegiacally around the studio’s fixtures and fittings, settling upon dusty portraits of Cold War dictator Phibun Songkhram and other kharatchakan (‘civil servants’).

The KINgDOM segment included Ukrit Sa-nguanhai’s The Pob’s House (บ้านผีปอบ), which was previously shown at Histoire(s) du thai cinéma, another film programme curated by Wiwat. In The Pob’s House, an elderly woman is attacked by villagers who believe her to be an evil spirit. Her granddaughter is also killed, and the child’s body is beaten in an echo of the mob violence of 6th October 1976. A little boy turns to the camera and grins, in reference to the smiling boy from Neal Ulevich’s famous 6th October photograph. The Pob’s House was made in response to another massacre, in 2010, and as Ukrit explains in a voiceover, his film is an allegory for the violence “buried in people’s minds.”

The evening ended with Yellow Duck Against Dictatorship, another new film by Sorayos, compiled from raw footage of riot police firing water cannon at protesters outside parliament on 17th November. The protesters used inflatable rubber ducks to protect themselves from jets of water laced with tear gas, and Sorayos was on the front line with the protesters, whereas most news camera crews were behind the barricades.