Friday, 27 November 2020

Khana Ratsadon

Police have launched an investigation into the mock banknotes that were distributed to protesters at an anti-government rally on 25th November. 3,000 of the coupons were issued at the protest, outside the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank in Bangkok. Each coupon had a face value of ten baht, and could be used to purchase food from street vendors.

The coupons were produced by Khana Ratsadon, one of the groups leading the recent protest movement. (Its name is a tribute to the political party that launched the 1932 revolution, transforming Thailand from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional democracy.) The fake banknotes may result in counterfeiting charges, though—bearing an image of a bright yellow duck—they could hardly be mistaken for legal tender. (The duck is wearing a crown and a crop-top, which may also lead to charges of lèse-majesté.)

The rally itself was peaceful, though a man threw a ping-pong bomb while the crowd was dispersing. Shots were fired shortly afterwards by another man, wounding one of the protest guards. (Earlier this month, shots were fired at protesters outside parliament, injuring six people. At that rally, protesters used inflatable ducks to shield themselves from water cannon.)

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Avalon

Thunska Pansittivorakul’s new autobiographical documentary Avalon (แดนศักดิ์สิทธิ์) begins with a full-frontal sex scene between Thunska and his then-boyfriend Harit Srikhao. (Co-director Harit’s exhibition Whitewash was censored by the military in 2017.) Harit is twenty years younger than Thunska, and the dynamic between them recalls the similar opening sequence in Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo) by Carlos Reygadas.

Around half of Avalon’s one-hour running time consists of sex tapes recorded at different stages of Thunska and Harit’s relationship, including a ménage à trois with Itdhi Phanmanee, who co-directed sPACEtIME (กาล-อวกาศ) with Thunska and Harit. Few contemporary films are as revealing (both physically and emotionally) in their exploration of an artist’s sexual history, and Avalon has more in common with New York underground films of fifty years ago, such as Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses and Kathy Acker’s Blue Tape.

Although Thunska has included hardcore sequences in several of his previous films—Reincarnate (จุติ), The Terrorists (ผู้ก่อการร้าย), and Santikhiri Sonata (สันติคีรี โซนาตา)—Avalon is his most explicit work. It’s also a logical extension of his increasingly participatory filmmaking style: in Happy Berry (สวรรค์สุดเอื้อม) he attempted to pull down a man’s shorts, in the short film Unseen Bangkok (มหัศจรรย์กรุงเทพ) he touched a man’s penis while interviewing him, and in Reincarnate he masturbated one of his actors.

Avalon also includes scenes filmed at a housing project abandoned after Thailand’s 2011 floods. The floods were mismanaged by Yingluck Shinawatra’s incoming administration, though Avalon is less political than Thunska’s other recent films, such as Supernatural (เหนือธรรมชาติ) and Homogeneous, Empty Time (สุญกาล; also co-directed by Harit). (For Thunska, however, sex on screen is itself a political act.) The deserted location, with an empty swimming pool, could be a metaphor for the Avalon of the title: an idyllic and private space, like the island of Arthurian legend.

There is also a flipside, however: the film charts the disintegration of Thunska and Harit’s relationship, and the empty pool evokes Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les diaboliques, with its own doomed love triangle. (The title sequences of Avalon and Les diaboliques both feature lingering shots of murky, stagnant water.) The accusations and recriminations resulting from the break-up (blocking each other on social media, etc.) are the least engaging aspects of the film.

Avalon received its world premiere on 28th October at the DOK Leipzig film festival in Germany. A Thai release would be impossible, though after his film This Area Is Under Quarantine (บริเวณนี้อยู่ภายใต้การกักกัน) was banned, Thunska has refused to submit any of his films for classification. As he told me in an interview for Thai Cinema Uncensored, “Since then, I decided not to show any of my films in Thailand.”

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

“Thailand is the land of compromise...”

Yesterday saw the return of political violence in Bangkok for the first time in a decade. Anti-government protesters gathered near Sappaya-Sapasathan, the new parliament building on the bank of the Chao Phraya river, which had been surrounded with concrete barricades and razor wire. All afternoon, riot police used water cannon laced with tear gas to prevent the protesters from entering the parliament complex.

In the evening, the protesters breached the barricades, though they were met by a royalist counter-protest. Riot police did not intervene as the royalists, wearing yellow shirts, clashed with the anti-government protesters. Gunshots were fired, and projectiles were thrown by both sides.

This was the third deployment of water cannon by riot police in the past month—after similar anti-government protests at Siam Square on 16th October and near the Grand Palace on 8th November—though the use of live ammunition by royalist counter-protesters marks a significant escalation in the conflict. Another rally will take place this afternoon at Ratchaprasong, the site of a military crackdown on anti-government protesters a decade ago.

On 2nd November, King Maha Vajiralongkorn made his first public comments on the political tensions when Jonathan Miller, a correspondent for the UK’s Channel 4 News, interviewed him during a royal walkabout. (Miller’s scoop was regarded as somewhat audacious by the deferential Thai media.) The King called Thailand “the land of compromise”, though the possibility of negotiations between the govenment and the protesters seems increasingly remote.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Insects in the Backyard

Insects in the Backyard
Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s film Insects in the Backyard (อินเซค อินเดอะ แบ็คยาร์ด) is showing at Lido Connect in Bangkok on 19th, 21st, 22nd, 24th, 25th, 27th, 28th, 29th, and 30th November. The 21st November screening will include หลังพรมภาพยนตร์ (‘behind the red carpet’), a talk by the director on fundraising for independent filmmakers.

Director Tanwarin, Thailand’s first transgender MP, was dismissed from parliament last month, accused of owning undeclared media shares. She won her seat at the 2019 election as a member of Future Forward, though the party was dissolved earlier this year. (It is now known as Move Forward.)

Insects in the Backyard premiered at the World Film Festival of Bangkok in 2010, though requests for a general theatrical release were denied, making it the first film formally banned under the Film and Video Act of 2008. When the censors vetoed a screening at the Thai Film Archive in 2010, Tanwarin cremated a DVD of the film, in a symbolic funeral. (The ashes are kept in an urn at the Thai Film Museum.) Tanwarin appealed to the National Film Board, which upheld the ban, so she sued the censors in the Administrative Court.

As Tanwarin told me in an interview for my book Thai Cinema Uncensored, the censors condemned the entire film: “When we asked the committee who considered the film which scenes constituted immorality, they simply said that they thought every scene is immoral”. When she appealed to the Film Board, their reaction was equally dismissive: “we were told by one of the committee members that we should have made the film in a ‘good’ way. This was said as if we did not know how to produce a good movie, and no clear explanation was given.”

On Christmas Day 2015, the Administrative Court ruled that the film could be released if a single shot was removed. (The three-second shot shows a clip from a gay porn video.) Although the film was censored, the verdict represented a victory of sorts, as the Court rejected the censors’ view that Insects in the Backyard was immoral. As Tanwarin told me: “The Court’s verdict was that there are no immoral scenes in the film as it’s a film focussing on problems in Thai society.”

After the Administrative Court’s ruling, Insects in the Backyard was shown at Bangkok’s House Rama cinema in 2017. In 2018, it was screened at Bangkok Screening Room, Sunandha Rajabhat University, and ChangChui in Bangkok. It was shown at the Thai Film Archive in 2018 and 2020.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Panorama

The Princess and Panorama
Diana: The Turth Behind the Interview
Diana: The Interview that Shocked the World
The Diana Interview: Revenge of a Princess
Martin Bashir’s extraordinary Panorama interview with Princess Diana was broadcast on BBC1 on 20th November 1995. Diana’s criticism of Camilla Parker-Bowles provided the key soundbite (“there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”), though her comments about Prince Charles’s accession were even more remarkable. Asked whether their son, William, should succeed the Queen instead of Charles, she replied: “My wish is that my husband finds peace of mind. And from that follows other things, yes.”

Bashir has never explained how he gained Diana’s cooperation. A BBC2 Arena documentary about the programme (The Princess and Panorama, broadcast on 8th November 2005) interviewed everyone involved, except Bashir. (At the time, it was fascinating; in hindsight, it seems like a whitewash.) Recently, the other terrestrial channels—ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5—have all produced new documentaries on the Panorama interview, all of which accuse Bashir of breaching journalistic ethics.

Channel 4’s Diana: The Truth Behind the Interview (broadcast on 21st October) alleged that Bashir commissioned a graphic designer to create fake bank statements, which he used to convince Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, that the security services were spying on her. But this was first reported by The Mail on Sunday as long ago as 1996, and noone with first-hand knowledge of the events took part in the Channel 4 programme.

Channel 5’s Diana: The Interview that Shocked the World (broadcast on 11th October) included a first-hand account from a former BBC executive, Richard Ayre, though it minimised the significance of the fake bank statements. It also featured an anecdote from Richard Eyre, who broke royal protocol by revealing that the Queen described the Panorama interview as a “frightful thing that my daughter-in-law did”.

Ayre also appeared in ITV’s two-part The Diana Interview: Revenge of a Princess (broadcast on 9th and 10th November), along with Panorama cameraman Tony Poole and Mail on Sunday journalist Nick Fielding. Part one was a familiar recap of Charles and Diana’s marriage (including ‘Camillagate’). In part two, ITV scooped its rivals with the first broadcast interview with the graphic designer who created the fake bank statements, Matt Wiessler.

Monday, 9 November 2020

Two Little Soldiers

Two Little Soldiers
Two Little Soldiers
Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang has produced a new short film for the Bangkok Art Biennale 2020 (บางกอก อาร์ต เบียนนาเล่). The film, Two Little Soldiers (สาวสะเมิน), begins with an homage to Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, though in this case the body in the woods is only resting.

The film’s seemingly idyllic scenario, in which two young soldiers and a local woman relax by a river, is contrasted by its soundtrack: a government statement (heard via a transistor radio) announcing a crackdown on protesters at Phan Fah in Bangkok. (Except for the radio announcement, the film is silent, with intertitles rather than spoken dialogue.) The film’s release coincides with a new wave of anti-government rallies: yesterday, protesters marched from Democracy Monument to the Grand Palace, to deliver an open letter to the King, though riot police used water cannon to prevent them from entering the Palace grounds.

The crackdown at Phan Fah took place on 10th April 2010, with the military deploying automatic weapons against red-shirt protesters. Twenty-five people were killed. Two Little Soldiers shows how military propaganda misrepresented the incident, with the radio announcement accusing the protesters of “the intent to incite violence” and denying the use of live ammunition: “False rumors have been spread that the military have used live fire on protesters and that the prime minister has ordered the killing of civilians. These are not true.”

This form of propaganda, broadcast via military-owned radio and television stations, has been utilised by successive Thai miltary governments for the past fifty years. Just this afternoon, army chief Narongpan Jitkaewthae held a press conference at which he accused yesterday’s protesters of inciting violence. Like Two Little Soldiers, The Terrorists (ผู้ก่อการร้าย) also shows how Thailand’s military propaganda demonised red-shirt protesters. Like Sayew (สยิว) and The Island Funeral (มหาสมุทรและสุสาน), Two Little Soldiers represents military crackdowns via radio broadcasts rather than reenactments.

Two Little Soldiers represents the first direct reference to contemporary politics in one of Pen-ek’s films. His documentary Paradoxocracy (ประชาธิป'ไทย) ended with Thaksin Shinawatra’s first term as Prime Minister, thus omitting the political crisis that followed his re-election. When I interviewed Pen-ek for my book Thai Cinema Uncensored, he expressed some solidarity with the red-shirt movement: “If the ‘redshirt’ people can separate themselves from Thaksin, then I would become completely a ‘redshirt’.”

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Thai Film Archive

2499
2499
2499
The Thai Film Archive at Salaya will screen two classic blockbusters, Jaws and Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangsters [sic] (2499 อันธพาลครองเมือง), later this year. The screenings are free of charge.

Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Jaws, one of the key New Hollywood films, broke box-office records in the US. Nonzee Nimibutr’s Dang Bireley’s is arguably its Thai equivalent, breaking the domestic box-office record and launching the Thai New Wave.

Dang Bireley’s will be screened on 28th November. It was previously shown at the Archive earlier this year, at the Scala cinema in 2018, and at Ramada Plaza in 2010.

Jaws will be shown on 5th and 13th December, as part of the World Class Cinema (ทึ่ง! หนังโลก) season. It was due to be screened at Scala earlier this year, though that screening was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Bangkok Art Biennale 2020

Bangkok Art Biennala 2020
Law of the Journey
Eros and Psyche
Donald Trump
The inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale’s theme was Beyond Bliss (สุขสะพรั่ง พลังอาร์ต), and this year the Biennale (บางกอก อาร์ต เบียนนาเล่) returns with a new theme: Escape Routes (ศิลป์สร้าง ทางสุข). The exhibition—occupying three floors of the BACC, and nine other venues around the city—opened on 29th October and runs until 31st January 2021.

The BACC’s Biennale exhibition is dominated by dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Law of the Journey, an inflatable refugee boat that’s fifty feet long. The show also features a selection of works by provocative American photographer Andres Serrano, including Eros and Psyche from his Immersions series (a statue immersed in urine) and a pre-presidential portrait of Donald Trump from his America series.

Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang has produced a new short film for the Biennale, Two Little Soldiers (สาวสะเมิน). The film is accompanied by twelve black-and-white drawings by the director, and alongside each print is a QR code linked to a different online video clip, in which the actors (and Pen-ek himself) read from the Two Little Soldiers script. As in the film itself, there is a stark contrast between the calm narration and the disturbing events being described.

Charlie Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo
Charlie Hebdo
This year, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. It marked the occasion with a book—Charlie Hebdo: 50 ans de liberté d’expression (‘fifty years of freedom of expression’)—and a special issue published on 30th September. Both publications include reprints of the magazine’s first Mohammed cover, from 2006.

Although Charlie Hebdo has become notorious for its Mohammed cartoons (published in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015), the magazine is an equal-opportunities offender, satirising all religions and state institutions. Its current issue led to a lawsuit from the President of Turkey. In 2016, it was criticised for a cartoon depicting the victims of an Italian earthquake. It was sued for blasphemy in 2014.