The 30th Singapore International Film Festival ran from 21st November to 1st December. The Festival included the first public screening of Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s Birth of Golden Snail (กำเนิดหอยทากทอง), at the National Gallery on 29th November. This silent film was shot on 16mm—like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ)—in the style of 1920s French avant-garde films such as Un chien andalou.
Birth of Golden Snail was inspired by legends associated with Khao Khanabham cave in Krabi. It begins with a group of cavemen spearing fish and lighting a fire. As they celebrate, a match cut transforms them into Japanese soldiers camping at the cave during World War II. (This transition, from prehistory to modernity in an instant, recalls the famous cut from the bone to the spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The soldiers capture a local schoolgirl after she glimpses them hiding gold bars in the cave. (The gold is tinted yellow, in an otherwise black-and-white film.)
The film was intended as a site-specific installation to be projected onto the Khao Khanabham cave wall, as part of last year’s Thailand Biennale. However, the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC) argued that its depiction of the Japanese soldiers could “make a bad relationship between Thailand and Japan.” (This is unlikely, as the soldiers are not portrayed entirely negatively: although they tie the schoolgirl to a tree, they offer her food, and when she escapes and is punished by her father—a character from Chulayarnnon’s film Vanishing Horizon of the Sea—they ask him not to beat her.)
In a dream sequence, snails appear on the schoolgirl’s body. One shot shows the creatures on her breasts, though strategically-placed gastropods and shallow focus ensure that there is no explicit nudity. Also, the sequence is comical (with a “Pregnant!” intertitle) and surreal (as a snail shell suddenly appears via a jump cut). Nevertheless, the OCAC claimed that the image of a pregnant schoolgirl set a bad example, and that the shot of her breasts was indecent.
They were particularly concerned because Krabi, the Biennale exhibition venue, has a one-third Muslim population, and they told the director: “It shouldn’t be screened in the Muslim community.” Those concerns were apparently well founded, as Chulayarnnon received a death threat from a local Muslim community leader. As the director told me in an interview last year, “He had a chance to see my film, and he posted on Facebook: ‘Do not look down on the cave, otherwise you will die!’” On the eve of the Biennale, Chulayarnnon was informed in writing that the film violated the “peace, morality, national security and dignity of Thailand”. (Their letter was exhibited at Field Trip Project Asia this year.)
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 OCAC acted beyond its jurisdiction, as the power of movie censorship rests solely with the Film and Video Censorship Committee (which did not view the film).
Negotiations with the OCAC progressed at such a snail’s pace that no agreement had been reached by the close of the four-month exhibition, and Birth of Golden Snail was effectively aborted. The film finally emerged from its shell in Singapore, and it will receive its Thai premiere later this month, at the 23rd Short Film and Video Festival.