Friday, 28 December 2018

Military, Monarchy and Repression

Military, Monarchy and Repression
Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand's Authoritarian Turn is the first book to examine the causes and consequences of Thailand's 2014 coup. The essays were first published in the Journal of Contemporary Asia (volume 46, number 3; August 2016). In their introduction, editors Veerayooth Kanchoochat and Kevin Hewison summarise the country's volatile political climate since the previous coup in 2006: "Thailand's politics has been marked by multiple military interventions, political mudslinging, spates of violence, a "tradition" of street protests, and repeated civilian uprisings, usually followed by efforts to lay the foundations of electoral democracy."

Chris Baker (author of an excellent Thaksin Shinawatra biography) analyses the causes of the coup, from short-term PDRC demonstrations ("almost six months of constant protest which created the context for the coup") to long-term social trends and traditional power structures. He also argues that the current junta is more repressive than many previous coups ("this was clearly a military government of a kind not seen in over 40 years"), though he is optimistic about the country's political future: "The present generation of the Bangkok middle class, who grew up against the backdrop of the Cold War and the ninth reign, will be replaced by another which grew up in Bangkok as a globalised city."

Other contributors are more pessimistic. Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat (editors of Khaki Capital) believe that the military-dominated status quo will continue: "Perhaps only another 1992 military massacre of civilians will sufficiently taint the image of the armed forces to the extent that civilians cohere against them, monarchical support for the military diminishes, and soldiers return to the barracks. More likely, for the foreseeable future, military officers will continue to play a prominent role in Thailand, guaranteeing the resilience of monarchised military". Similarly, Prajak Kongkirati concludes that the 2014 election (later invalidated) and the ensuing coup "plunged Thailand into a state of uncertainty and (potentially violent) instability, possibly for years to come."

Eugénie Mérieau highlights the Constitutional Court's "effective usurpation of sovereign power". (The Court has disqualified four prime ministers from office: Thaksin Shinawatra, Samak Sundaravej, Somchai Wongsawat, and Yingluck Shinawatra.) Mérieau's argument is persuasive, though she refers to the politicised judiciary as a "Deep State", a term more often used by conspiracy theorists. Likewise, Chris Baker refers to an "Illuminati" of influential anti-democratic figures: again, the thesis is reasonable, though the terminology implies paranoia. Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat's term "parallel state" is a less problematic description for the pervasive influence of unelected institutions on Thailand's nascent democracy.


Theatre censorship in the UK was abolished fifty years ago, and London's Victoria & Albert Museum is marking the anniversary with Censored! Stage, Screen, Society at 50, a small exhibition devoted to UK censorship. The exhibition covers theatre, film, music, and media censorship, with exhibits including the 3rd June 1976 issue of Gay News (containing James Kirkup's poem The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name) and the 'Schoolkids' issue of Oz (which was the subject of a long-running obscenity trial in 1971). Censored! opened on 10th July, and runs until 27th January next year.

The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress
The Hidden Fortress
Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人) will be screened on the rooftop of Smalls, the Bangkok bar, on 30th December. The screening is free. The Hidden Fortress was Kurosawa's first widescreen film, and its combination of action and comic relief was one of the key inspirations for Star Wars.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Thai Film Archive

Thai Film Archive
Tropical Malady
This Saturday, the Thai Film Archive at Salaya will host a free double bill of two exquisite films: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady (สัตว์ประหลาด) and Anucha Boonyawatana's Malila: The Farewell Flower (มะลิลา). After the screenings, Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn will give a talk about the cinematic forest.

Visual Journalism

Visual Journalism
Visual Journalism: Infographics from the World's Best Newsrooms and Designers, edited by Robert Klanten and Anja Kouznetsova, was published last year. (Like Information Graphics, it includes an essay by data journalist Simon Rogers.) The book is primarily a survey of contemporary infographics from newspapers and magazines, though it includes chapters on two modern masters of news graphics: Peter Sullivan and Nigel Holmes.

Sullivan's graphics were not only visually innovative, they were based on data he obtained in the field: he was as much a journalist as a designer. His editor at The Sunday Times, Harold Evans, called him "the most important graphic journalist in the world." For Holmes, a former graphic director at Time magazine, infographics are unapologetically artistic: "It is not information, it is art." (This put him at odds with infographics guru Edward Tufte, who criticised his approach in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.)

Visual Journalism begins with an essay by Javier Errea, outlining the history of news graphics, including several elaborate 1930s examples from Fortune magazine. Errea cites a 12th September 1702 map in The Daily Courant as (probably) the first graphic image in a newspaper. He also highlights the "legendary" plan of Isaac Blight's house, published in The Times on 7th April 1806. (Oddly, the Blight house graphic is not reproduced in Visual Journalism, though it does appear in Harold Evans' classic Pictures on a Page.)

Monday, 24 December 2018

Bangkok Screening Room

Taxi Driver
Bangkok Screening Room will be showing Fritz Lang's masterpiece Metropolis in the first week of 2019. The silent science-fiction epic will be screened on 29th and 30th December this year, and 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th January next year. There will also be a retrospective of Martin Scorsese classics in the new year, including GoodFellas on 19th January and Taxi Driver the following day.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Birth of Golden Snail

Thailand Biennale
Office of Contemporary Art and Culture
When will Chulayarnnon Siriphol's short film Birth of Golden Snail (กำเนิดหอยทากทอง) emerge from its shell? The film has been in limbo for the past seven weeks, and is effectively banned from the Thailand Biennale in Krabi.

Birth of Golden Snail was inspired by the history and myths associated with Krabi's Khao Khanabnam cave, and was intended as a site-specific installation to be projected in 35mm directly onto the cave wall. It presents fragments of the area's past, including its status as a camp for Japanese soldiers during World War II. The twenty-minute film was made in black-and-white, and shot on 16mm.

Chulayarnnon also explored the legacies of specific locations in two previous short films: A Brief History of Memory (ประวัติศาสตร์ขนาดย่อของความทรงจำ) examines UDD violence in Bangkok's Nang Loeng community, and Planking refers to the 6th October 1976 massacre on Thammasat University's football pitch. (He is also one of a quartet of directors responsible for the superb Ten Years Thailand.)

At a preview screening of Birth of Golden Snail on 17th October, the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC) raised several objections, claiming that the portrayal of a pregnant schoolgirl set a bad example, and that a shot of her topless was indecent. As Chulayarnnon told me in an interview last week, the OCAC were also concerned that the representation of Japanese soldiers "can make a bad relationship between Thailand and Japan." What's more, a resident of Krabi even posted a death threat on Facebook, accusing the director of disrespecting local culture.

The OCAC asked Chulayarnnon to cut the film, though he declined to do so, as he explained in a Facebook post: "the committee asked me to re-edit and cut some scenes out from the film because they were afraid of negative feedback from local people in Krabi. I understood the comments from the committee but I refused to censor my film". On 1st November, only a day before the Biennale opened, the OCAC wrote to the director confirming that the film could not be shown without cuts.

The OCAC cited the Film and Video Act, § 29, to justify their ban, though the paragraph in question states: "if the Film and Video Censorship Committee considers any film as having content which undermines or is contrary to public order or good morals, or may affect the security and dignity of Thailand, the Film and Video Censorship Committee shall have the power to order an applicant to edit or cut off the scene before granting approval". In other words, the power of movie censorship rests with the Film and Video Censorship Committee (which did not view the film), rather than the OCAC.

After this legally questionable verdict, the film was excluded from the Biennale, and Chulayarnnon's negotiations with the OCAC have since been moving at a snail's pace. As he said in last week's interview, he is defending freedom of expression and setting a precedent: "I use this film as a case study, to understand and question the system. I don't fight for myself, but I fight for the next film, the next project in the future." The Biennale runs until 28th February next year, though it remains to be seen whether Birth of Golden Snail will be aborted or not.

Nang Nak

Nang Nak
There will be a free outdoor screening of Nonzee Nimibutr's classic Nang Nak (นางนาก) this evening at Sanam Suea Pa in Bangkok. Both a critical and commercial success, the film is one of the most famous adaptations of the legend of Mae Nak, and one of the milestones of the Thai New Wave.

The screening has been organised as a public relations exercise by the Crown Property Bureau, which owns the land around Sanam Suea Pa. The adjacent Dusit Zoo was closed earlier this year, after the Bureau reclaimed the land it occupied. Also, a plaque commemorating Thailand's democratic revolution was removed from the nearby Royal Plaza last year.

War and Piss

War and Piss
The adult comic Viz published its first Profanisaurus as a cover-mounted booklet in 1997, and the title was later expanded to Roger's Profanisaurus. Various updated editions followed, including Profanisaurus Rex, The Magna Farta, and Das Krapital. The latest edition, War and Piss, features more than 20,000 swear words and sexual slang terms, including more than 60 variants of the c-word.

Entries are submitted by Viz readers, and the book was edited by Simon Thorp and Graham Dury. Green's Dictionary of Slang is the definitive slang dictionary, whereas the Profanisaurus has more in common with the online Urban Dictionary, though its neologisms and definitions are funny and inventive.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Trump's Enemies

Trump's Enemies
Corey R. Lewandowski and David N. Bossie were the manager and deputy manager, respectively, of Donald Trump's election campaign, and their new book, Trump's Enemies: How the Deep State Is Undermining the Presidency, is every bit as biased as expected. They outline what they see as "the war against President Donald J. Trump, which is being waged at various levels of the intelligence community, the halls of Congress, and even from inside the White House itself."

When they're not recycling 'deep state' conspiracy theories from Fox News, they lavish unconditional praise on Trump. Even Ronald Kessler's hagiographic The Trump White House occasionally tempered its flattery with minor criticisms, though in Trump's Enemies, Trump is practically perfect in every way. The book is ultimately a propaganda exercise, itemising Trump's 'achievements' in a four-page "copy of a list that the president sometimes reads from when he speaks at rallies and other events."

Kessler's book was a response to Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury, and Trump's Enemies is a similar attempt to challenge Bob Woodward's superb Fear. Just as Kessler claimed that Wolff's book was "riddled with false claims," Lewandowski and Bossie describe the meticulously-sourced Fear as "filled with inaccuracies and lies from disgruntled former staffers."

Trump's Enemies includes a lengthy though obsequious interview with Trump, in which he dismisses Woodward: "Look, I don't think he's a very good writer, personally." (In August, Trump told Woodward that he had always admired him.) The authors boast that their Oval Office encounter is "the only formal book interview President Trump has sat for since being elected to office," though Kessler also spoke to the President, claiming that his conversation was "the only interview for a book that Trump said he has given or will give as president".

Monday, 17 December 2018

Shakespeare Must Die

Shakespeare Must Die
Ing Kanjanavanit's Shakespeare Must Die (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย) was banned in 2012. When I interviewed her about the film in 2016, she didn't mince words, describing the censors as "a bunch of trembling morons with the power of life and death over our films." The Appeals Court upheld the ban last year. Ing and her producer, Manit Sriwanichpoom, are currently appealing to the Supreme Court, though in the meantime, the film remains in limbo.

While it cannot be screened commercially in Thailand, as it remains banned, it was shown yesterday at a members-only event at Cinema Oasis, the venue Ing and Manit founded earlier this year. Cinema Oasis is also the only cinema willing and able to show Ing's Censor Must Die (เซ็นเซอร์ต้องตาย), her documentary about the banning of Shakespeare Must Die.

Shakespeare Must Die is a Thai adaptation of Macbeth, with Pisarn Pattanapeeradej in the lead role. The play is presented in two parallel versions: a theatrical production in period costume, and a contemporary political interpretation. The period version is faithful to Shakespeare's original, though it occasionally breaks the fourth wall, with cutaways to the audience and an interval outside the theatre (featuring a cameo by the director).

In the political version, Macbeth is reimagined as Mekhdeth (also played by Pisarn), a head of state facing a crisis. Street protesters shout "ok pbai" ('get out!'), and the protests are infiltrated by assassins described in the credits as 'men in black'. Ing denies any direct satire on Thai politics, though "Thaksin ok pbai" was the PAD's rallying cry, and 'men in black' were blamed for instigating violence in 2010. Another line in the script - "Dear Leader brings happy-ocracy!" - predates Prayut Chan-o-cha's propaganda song Returning Happiness to the Thai Kingdom (คืนความสุขให้ประเทศไทย).

The climax, a recreation of the 6th October 1976 massacre, is the film's most controversial scene, and the main reason for the ban. A photograph by Neal Ulevich, taken during the massacre, shows a vigilante bashing a corpse with a chair, and Shakespeare Must Die restages the incident. A hanging body (symbolising Shakespeare himself) is repeatedly hit with a chair, though rather than dwelling on the violence, Ing cuts to reaction shots of the crowd, which (as in 1976) resembles a baying mob. Ing previously painted a series of portraits of onlookers from Ulevich's photograph for the Flashback '76 (อดีตหลอน) exhibition.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Ten Years Thailand

Ten Years Thailand
Ten Years Thailand had its gala premiere yesterday at the Scala cinema in Bangkok (followed by a Q&A with three of its four directors: Aditya Assarat, Wisit Sasanatieng, and Chulayarnnon Siriphol). A portmanteau of four short films, it offers a dystopian vision of Thailand a decade from now, and represents a voice of dissent in a time of military rule. Thai history seems destined to repeat itself, stuck in an endless cycle of political instability. Thus, the future predicted by Ten Years Thailand is also a commentary on Thailand's past and present.

The film's first segment, Aditya's black-and-white Sunset, is based on an event that occurred last year. In the film, a group of soldiers inspect an art gallery and order the removal of 'inappropriate' images from a photography exhibition. The film's artist (Sirikanya Thomson) and exhibition (I Laughed so Hard I Cried) are fictional, though in 2017 a group of soldiers demanded the removal of photographs from Harit Srikhao's Whitewash exhibition at Gallery VER in Bangkok. For added verisimilitude, Aditya's restaging of the military's art censorship was filmed at Artist+Run, a gallery adjacent to Gallery VER. As an in-joke, Artist+Run's gallerist Angkrit Ajchariyasophon plays one of the soldiers in the film.

In Wisit's quirky Citizen Dog (หมานคร), city dwellers all grew tails. Catopia, his segment of Ten Years Thailand, is a much darker variant on the theme: almost everyone has (CGI) cat's heads, and the few remaining humans are hunted and killed. The film critiques Thailand's traditional values of social conformity and unity, and also echoes the country's anti-Communist paranoia of the 1970s, when suspected Communists and left-wing students were attacked by militia groups. Yet, despite its political satire, and some full-frontal female nudity in Wisit's segment, Ten Years Thailand was passed uncut by Thailand's censors, and even received a surprisingly lenient '13' rating.

In Chulayarnnon's science-fiction segment, Planetarium, citizens demonstrate loyalty by standing to respect their leader, and those who lie on the ground in protest (as in Chulayarnnon's short film Planking) are detained. The kitsch design elements (neon pyramids, an animated stargate, and pink costumes) are a mask for an authoritarian regime, just as Thailand's repressive junta pledged to 'bring back happiness to the people'. The leader and her minions all wear Scout uniforms, recalling the Village Scout vigilantes that instigated violent attacks on students in 1976. In Chulayarnnon's dystopian vision, the entire country has been taken over by this royalist militia.

Ten Years Thailand begins with a quotation adapted from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four ("Who controls the past... controls the future"), and Planetarium is the film's most Orwellian segment. Its vision of surveillance and obedience is shared with Thunska Pansittivorakul's Supernatural (เหนือธรรมชาติ), which used the same Orwell quote as its tagline.

Ten Years Thailand concludes with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Song of the City, in which a man attempts to sell a "Good Sleep Machine" guaranteeing peaceful sleep. Throughout his sales pitch, a statue of military dictator Sarit Thanarat looms over him, indicating the perpetuation of the country's militaristic ideology. Sarit's ominous presence is also felt in Apichatpong's Cemetery of Splendour (รักที่ขอนแก่น), as his portrait hangs on a canteen wall. In that film, which was also made under military rule, soldiers suffer from a mysterious epidemic of sleeping sickness: for Apichatpong, sleep is a metaphor for an oppressive society, and a source of escapism for the oppressed.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Anatomy of Silence

Anatomy of Silence
Pachara Piyasongsoot's exhibition Anatomy of Silence (กายวิภาคของความเงียบ) is currently on show at Bangkok's Artist+Run gallery. On the surface, Pachara's paintings depict tranquil landscapes, though they also contain hidden meanings relating to Thailand's violent political heritage. To use Dutch painter Armando's term, they are 'guilty landscapes', silent witnesses to past traumas.

Pachara's works are divided into two exhibitions: Nabua (นาบัว) and Sequence (ผลสืบเนื่อง). The paintings in the Nabua series, which were on show from 24th November to 7th December, feature incongruous objects situated in natural landscapes, such as a temple gate on the seashore. These works allude to Nabua's legacy as a site of state-sanctioned anti-Communist purges.

Specifically, the gate refers to a local temple where Communists were detained in 1965. A slogan painted on the gate (No Happiness Other than Serenity) conceals the site's sinister legacy, and Pachara uses the slogan as the painting's ironic title. (Apichatpong Weerasethakul's short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (จดหมายถงลงบญม) also examines anti-Communist violence at Nabua.)

The Sequence series opened on 8th December, and runs until 20th December. The works in this exhibition allude to further acts of state violence and military dictatorship: the 6th October 1976 massacre and the 2006 coup d'état.

What a Wonderful World: Parallel Side of the Red Gate (another deeply ironic title) is the most powerful painting in this series. It was inspired by the documentary The Two Brothers (สองพี่น้อง), about two men who were hanged by police from a gate in 1976 for the 'crime' of campaigning against Thanom Kittikachorn's return from exile. Pachara's painting shows the view from the gate, representing the men's last sight before their deaths.

Similarly, The Sun Is Gone but I Have a Light also shows the final viewpoint of a hanged man: that of a taxi driver who hanged himself in protest at the coup. The landscape has been obscured with white paint, rendering the image abstract and literally whitewashing the man's martyrdom.

Another work also refers to a specific victim: Undergrowth with the Lovers features a portrait of Ampon Tangnoppakul, who died in jail while serving a twenty-year sentence for lèse-majesté. (Another Apichatpong connection: his film Cemetery of Splendour (รักที่ขอนแก่น) features a journal entry ("ขอให้อากงได้ออกมา") calling for Ampon's release.)

The Anatomy of Silence catalogue, with essays by the artist and Thanavi Chotpradit, also includes some of Pachara's earlier works, such as The Garden. This painting features the distinctive tree trunk from Neal Ulevich's photograph of the 1976 massacre.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Freedom Thai Film

Freedom Thai Film
Freedom Thai Film
A panel discussion about Thai film censorship took place this afternoon at BACC in Bangkok. Freedom Thai Film (กู้อิสรภาพหนังไทย), organised by the Thai Film Director Association, was introduced by Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, whose Insects in the Backyard (อินเซค อินเดอะ แบ็คยาร์ด) was released last year.

The event was prompted by the censorship of Surasak Pongson's Thibaan: The Series 2.2 (ไทบ้านเดอะซีรีส์ 2.2) last month: three cuts were required before it was passed for release. (I interviewed Surasak before the discussion started, and he explained that he worked around the clock for two days to release the film on time despite the censorship.)

Manit Sriwanichpoom, producer of the still-banned Shakespeare Must Die (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย), also took part, as did Theerawat Rujinatham, director of Rap Against Dictatorship's anthemic music video Which Is My Country (ประเทศกูมี) and Chulayarnnon Siriphol, whose short film Birth of Golden Snail (กำเนิดหอยทากทอง) was banned from the Thailand Biennale last month. The event was similar to Freedom on Film (สิทธิหนังไทย), a seminar held at BACC in 2013.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018


Daily Mail
Daily Mail
Two years ago, the Daily Mail newspaper was fined £40,000 for not sufficiently disguising the identity of an alleged sexual-assault victim. On 19th September 2015, the Mail had published a pixelated photograph of a man known by the alias Nick, though only the centre of his face was obscured.

The man, whose real name is Carl Beech, has since been charged with perverting the course of justice, after it became clear that his allegations of a political paedophile network were fabricated. Yesterday, Newcastle Crown Court ruled that his identity could be revealed, and on page five today the Mail has published an unpixelated version of his photograph.