06 May 2021

Reside

Reside
Following The Unseeable (เปนชู้กับผี) and Senior (รุ่นพี่), Reside (สิงสู่) makes three ghost films in a row for director Wisit Sasanatieng. It also sees Wisit reunited with Ananda Everingham, who previously starred in The Red Eagle (อินทรีแดง). (Reside was released in 2018, and its international title is The Summoning. This month’s planned Wisit retrospective at the Thai Film Archive has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

Reside begins with an archetypal horror scenario: a small group stuck in an isolated house. Ananda’s character spells out the inevitable: “The road downhill has been cut by flash floods. We’ll be stranded here for a while.” This Old Dark House cliché is acknowledged self-referentially by another member of the group, who complains that “the lights go out every time it rains. Like in a horror film.”

For most of the running time, the characters are possessed one-by-one by spirits summonsed during a seance (one of whom transforms into a malevolent tree!). This leads to other intentional horror references, including several inevitable nods to The Exorcist, with possession resulting in spider-walking and projectile vomiting. The spirits seem relatively easy to exorcise, though, and they’re not particularly scary. The twist ending isn’t especially surprising, either.

07 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.

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.”

09 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’.”

30 October 2020

October Rumbles

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest short film, October Rumbles (เสียงฟ้าเดือนตุลา), was released on the Polygon Gallery’s website yesterday. The film captures a rainstorm near Apichatpong’s home in Chiang Mai, and features several of the director’s recurring motifs: light, tropical foliage, and the ambient sounds of nature.

The film’s title has a double meaning. It’s now monsoon season in Thailand, and the rumbles of thunder on the soundtrack are a daily occurrence. But there have also been rumblings of a different kind this month: protests calling for a democratic government and reform of the monarchy. Riot police used water canon to disperse a peaceful protest in central Bangkok on 16th October, and more rallies have since been held around the capital. (The latest, at Silom Road yesterday, featured a red catwalk and a satirical fashion show.)

In his director’s statement (edited from an interview on the Polygon podcast), Apichatpong directly addresses the political situation: “I was initially more aware of my own suffering, in terms of my inability to express my freedom in my own country and the role of the military or the monarchy or whatever in creating these feelings. But then you realize there are others suffering much more in the Covid time and you see these really huge gaps in equality and the power of this struggle both in this time and the struggle that has been going on for decades.”

October Rumbles will be available online until 12th November. Apichatpong’s other online short films include Prosperity for 2008, Mobile Men, Phantoms of Nabua, For Alexis, 2013, Cactus River (โขงแล้งน้ำ), and For Monkeys Only (ทำให้ลิงดูเท่านั้น).

20 September 2020

Fatherland

Fatherland
Yuthlert Sippapak’s controversial film Fatherland (ปิตุภูมิ) received rare public screenings late last night and early this morning at the 14 October 73 Memorial in Bangkok. The film, a drama about the insurgency in southern Thailand, was commissioned by the military, though they withdrew their backing when it became clear that it wasn’t the propaganda vehicle they were expecting. When I interviewed Yuthlert for my forthcoming book, Thai Cinema Uncensored, he told me that Prayut Chan-o-cha asked him a lot of “stupid questions” after watching the film. He also said that the military warned him it could be a dangerous film (“If you show this movie, somebody burns the theatre.”)

In that interview, Yuthlert explained the reason for the controversy: “The [part] that’s so sensitive is ‘เหตุการณ์สงบงบไม่มา’—‘if no war, no money’. 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.” The film addresses this point directly, when a Muslim cleric says: “The violence that is happening is benefiting almost every side. There’s a lot of money. But what we can do is, we can make Thai people understand that what is happening here now is not a religion conflict.”

The film has been in limbo since its completion in 2012. At one stage, Yuthlert even considered building his own cinema in order to show it, though that plan never came to fruition. He has also retitled and repeatedly recut it, though no distributor has agreed to release it. It was screened (free of charge) last night, and shortly after midnight this morning, under the new title Rachida (ราชิดา). (Several early scenes highlight the soldiers’ lack of understanding of local Muslim culture, and the eponymous Rachida—a professor of Islamic studies—is brought in to teach the military about Islam.) Post-production is not yet finished: some shots have a “CG incomplete” caption, and there are no end credits.

08 September 2020

Tenet

Tenet
“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

That advice, part of a briefing given to a CIA agent known only as the Protagonist, is well worth following. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is—at least, on first viewing—very confusing indeed, and the sometimes inaudible expository dialogue adds to the confusion. Nolan is rightly praised for making smart blockbusters requiring audience concentration, and I’m sure that Tenet’s plot is watertight on paper (unlike, for example, The Big Sleep), but in this case the narrative feels too convoluted.

As in Nolan’s greatest films, Memento and Inception, time itself is a key element in Tenet’s non-linear plot. The central conceit here is ‘inversion’, a single-word concept like ‘inception’, and a motif from Memento’s opening sequence—a gun being fired in reverse—reappears in Tenet. (The ending borrows a time-travel plot device from The Terminator and a classic quote from Casablanca.)

Tenet is a James Bond movie in all but name, with sharp suits, exotic locations, and a cartoonish villain (“How would you like to die?”). The film features a series of inconsequential MacGuffins, including a nine-part algorithm with unfortunate echoes of the infinity stones from The Avengers. As always, Nolan uses practical special effects, though Tenet lacks the spectacle of Inception or Dunkirk: yes, he bought a 747, but the real plane crashes into a fake building.

Tenet (like several of Nolan’s previous films) was partially shot with IMAX cameras. It’s on theatrical release in multiple formats: IMAX 70mm and IMAX digital laser screenings are projected in the full 1.43:1 IMAX ratio, while IMAX xenon digital screenings are framed at 1.9:1. Non-IMAX 70mm and digital prints are 2.2:1, and 35mm prints are in the standard 2.39:1 widescreen format. The Paragon Cineplex IMAX cinema showed Tenet in IMAX 70mm for the first two days of its release, though the projector broke on the third day (29th August), and subsequent screenings have been digital.

16 August 2020

Radflection

Thesis Exhibition 2020
Radflection
Radflection, a short documentary about Rap Against Dictatorship, was shown yesterday at Lido Connect in Bangkok, as part of Silpakorn University’s Faculty of Information and Communication Technology Thesis Exhibition 2020. The event, titled สุดขอบคุณ (‘thank you’), continues today.

Rap Against Dictatorship’s anthemic single and music video My Country Has (ประเทศกูมี) perfectly encapsulated the frustrations of anti-military protesters. Radflection, directed by Patchamon Khemthong, also includes an interview with Neti Wichiansaen, director of the controversial documentary Democracy After Death (ประชาธิปไตยหลังความตาย).

21 April 2020

Kubrick by Kubrick

Kubrick by Kubrick
Grégory Monro’s documentary Kubrick by Kubrick (Kubrick par Kubrick) premiered on the French Arte channel on 12th April. The film is largely comprised of audio clips from Kubrick interviews recorded by Michel Ciment in 1975, 1980, and 1987, and begins with Kubrick’s admission that “I’ve never found it meaningful, or even possible, to talk about film aesthetics in terms of my own films. I also don’t particularly enjoy the interviews.” Most of his thirteen films are covered, with three exceptions (Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, and Lolita).

Much more extensive extracts from Ciment’s recordings were broadcast on French radio in 2011, though the material in the documentary has improved sound quality (thanks to noise reduction). Some extracts also appeared in Making Barry Lyndon. Extended interviews with Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut) and Orson Welles (The Lost Tapes of Orson Welles; This Is Orson Welles) have also been released in audio format.

If your main source material is an audio tape, how can you make a visually appealing documentary film? Monro follows the pattern previously adopted by other documentaries built around audio recordings: as in Marlene and Listen to Me Marlon, a tape recorder plays while the camera prowls around a set. In this case, the set is a recreation of the bedroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the audio is supplemented with vintage talking-head clips, shown on an old CRT television (just like the TV playing Summer of ’42 in The Shining).

Other Kubrick interview recordings have also been released in recent years. The collector’s edition of The Stanley Kubrick Archives included a CD featuring a 1966 Kubrick interview by Jeremy Bernstein for The New Yorker. A 1987 Kubrick interview by Tim Cahill for Rolling Stone was issued as an episode of The Kubrick Series podcast. Japanese TV producer Jun’ichi Yaoi interviewed Kubrick by telephone in 1980, and VHS video footage of the interview was released online in 2018.

20 April 2020

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth
In 1933, Cary Grant appeared in supporting roles alongside Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, but it was The Awful Truth, released four years later, that made him a star. Grant and Irene Dunne (who received top billing) play a mutually distrustful—and mutually unfaithful—married couple who decide to divorce, yet are unable to stop themselves from sabotaging each other’s new romances.

The Awful Truth established the suave persona that would become synonymous with Grant for the remainder of his career. It’s one of the greatest screwball comedies, a subgenre that emphasised farcical action, fast-paced delivery, witty repartee, and battle-of-the-sexes humour.

Leo McCarey’s direction is a notch below that of Howard Hawks, who made the screwball classics Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday (both also starring Grant), though The Awful Truth is a more satisfying film. In Bringing Up Baby, Grant’s character is absent-minded and ineffectual, and the havoc wreaked on him is rather exasperating. His Girl Friday’s frenetic pace is impressive though exhausting. In contrast, The Awful Truth feels more sophisticated, and its satirical swipes at the institution of marriage are as sharp as ever.

The film ends with a touching scene clearly modelled on the Walls of Jericho sequence from the popular romantic comedy It Happened One Night (which is sometimes—incorrectly, I would argue—described as the first screwball comedy). In turn, The Awful Truth’s essential premise—Cary Grant jeopardising his (ex) wife’s engagement to a rube played by Ralph Bellamy—was repeated in His Girl Friday.

05 December 2019

30th Singapore
International Film Festival

30th Singapore International Film Festival
Birth of Golden Snail
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.

04 December 2019

The Irishman

The Irishman
Martin Scorsese has directed twenty-five feature films, only a handful of which are gangster movies. But, perhaps due to the tremendous influence of GoodFellas and his long-overdue Oscar for The Departed, he’s indelibly associated with the gangster genre. Also (notwithstanding his recent work with Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese’s collaborations with Robert De Niro represent one of the greatest director-and-actor partnerships in cinema history. So when a new Scorsese film returned to the world of organised crime, and reunited the director with De Niro after two decades, expectations were set very high indeed.

The Irishman is a late-career masterpiece from Scorsese, made for Netflix after the major Hollywood studios baulked at its $150m budget. Scorsese has previously made documentaries (and a faux documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue) for Netflix, and directed the Boardwalk Empire pilot for HBO. The Netflix deal meant that The Irishman’s theatrical window was limited to just a few weeks, and there are no plans for a blu-ray or DVD release in the near future, though it’s streaming on Netflix (in its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio) indefinitely.

The epic film spans almost fifty years, though its complex back-and-forth structure is never jarring or confusing, thanks to incredibly seamless editing by long-term Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. CGI was used to remove facial wrinkles in the flashback scenes, though the effect isn’t entirely convincing: while it does smooth the actors’ faces, it can’t compensate for their older bodies and slower movements. The film itself has a slower, more elegiac pace than Scorsese’s earlier gangster classics, and Joe Pesci’s performance is especially restrained (in contrast to his hot-tempered roles in Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and Casino).

The Irishman was adapted from I Heard You Paint Houses, based on the recollections of Frank Sheeran, a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa. (Sheeran, played by De Niro, is the eponymous Irishman. The film uses I Heard You Paint Houses as a subtitle, ‘painting houses’ being a metaphor for gangland killings.) Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, disappeared in 1975, and the circumstances of his death have never been revealed. Sheeran claimed responsibility, and The Irishman takes him at his word.

24 November 2019

“The Prime Minister.
Show a bit of respect...”

The Cave
Death Wave
The Cave (นางนอน), based on the true story of last year’s miraculous cave rescue, opened in cinemas this week. The film sticks solidly to the facts, with several key participants playing themselves. It’s tense and dramatic, and begins in medias res: the very first line of dialogue is “Let’s go to the cave.” There’s a moment of Ace in the Hole-style social commentary—a vendor selling lottery tickets at the cave entrance—though one scene stands out as comic relief: the arrival of the Prime Minister.

Before the PM appears, he’s formally announced: “The Prime Minister. Show a bit of respect, guys.” Though while he was on-screen, there were chuckles from the cinema audience. The character has a close physical likeness to Prayut Chan-o-cha, and he serves no purpose other than to give gift baskets to the divers. He also uses broken English (like Prayut himself), telling one diver: “Oh! You marry her, visa no problem.”

The Cave is one of only a handful of films to feature Thai Prime Ministers, due to censorship of political content and public apathy towards politics. A biopic of Plaek Phibunsongkhram was abandoned in 1988 due to a lawsuit from his estate. Similarly, a Sarit Thanarat biopic—provisionally titled จอมพล (‘marshal’)—was vetoed by the censors in 2002. Sarit did feature briefly in the horror movie Zee Oui: The Man-Eater (ซี-อุย), ordering the swift execution of Zee Oui for political expediency.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s documentary Paradoxocracy (ประชาธิป’ไทย) discusses Thaksin Shinawatra, and the film’s distributor asked the director incredulously: “How can you put a film with Thaksin in the cinema?” Sulak Sivaraksa makes a similar point in the documentary itself, saying: “Your movie shouldn’t waste too much time on Thaksin.” (That line received applause at cinema screenings.)

In Ing Kanjanavanit’s banned Shakespeare Must Die (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย), Macbeth is reimagined as a Thaksin-like figure, and the similarity is noted self-referentially when a policeman says: “Your actor looks like our Dear Leader. Is this intentional?” Wisit Sasanatieng’s The Red Eagle (อินทรีแดง) features a Prime Minister who abandons his principles once he assumes office, reneging on a pre-election pledge to ban nuclear power. Wisit claims that he “didn’t set out to criticise any particular prime minister... I only want to mock those who began as good guys fighting for the poor, then, like Darth Vader, they become villains once they have power.” That sounds awfully like a description of Thaksin.

The disaster movie Death Wave (13-04-2022 วันโลกสังหาร) features Thailand’s most ludicrous cinematic Prime Minister, portrayed as a holier-than-thou figure who selflessly sacrifices his career for the greater good: “the lives and safety of my people are more valuable than my assumed position... I’m willing to lose everything in exchange for the lives of my people.” He even becomes an action hero, rescuing a busload of drowning children while a news reporter praises “our Prime Minister’s fearless courage.” Needless to say, that PM was entirely fictional.

03 October 2019

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is, as its poster proclaims, the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino. It’s also, apparently, his penultimate work. (Tarantino’s previous films are Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill I and II, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight.)

The title is both a tribute to Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West) and a signal that this version of 1960s Hollywood is ultimately a fairy tale. Inglourious Basterds began with the caption “Once upon a time... in Nazi-occupied France”, and the new film features a similar form of revisionist history. It’s also unashamedly nostalgic, recreating the Hollywood of Tarantino’s childhood.

All of Tarantino’s films have superb soundtracks, and Once Upon a Time... is no exception. In this case, the music is all from the period, a great early example being the lip trill from Billy Stewart’s Summertime matched to a sputtering car engine. (It’s a reversal of the moment when the music slows as the car runs out of gas in The Graduate.) In fact, the best scenes all feature Brad Pitt driving around LA listening to his car radio. However, that also hints at one of the film’s flaws: for long stretches, we simply watch the characters hanging out. This may be fun, but it’s not particularly ambitious on Tarantino’s part, especially given the epic running time.

20 September 2019

Transmissions of Unwanted Pasts

Transmissions of Unwanted Pasts
In Prabda Yoon’s short film Transmissions of Unwanted Pasts (วงโคจรของความทรงจำ), the THEOS satellite malfunctions and begins transmitting images that seem inexplicable until Pang, a young engineer, discovers that they represent “many important historical events in Thailand.” The mysterious images are never shown, though Pang lists the dates that they refer to: “2014, 2010, 2008, 1992, 1976, 1973, 1932..."

Of course, those are precisely the years that Thailand’s military would like us all to forget: the 2014 coup, the 2010 red-shirt crackdown, the 2008 police violence against yellow-shirt protesters, ‘Black May’ 1992, the 6th October 1976 and 14th October 1973 massacres, and the 1932 abolition of absolute monarchy. Pang excitedly suggests that historians could use the satellite data to study these events: “They might discover many new things, things that they were previously unaware of, or things that were never documented.” But her boss has other ideas, and three soldiers destroy all the material she’s gathered.

The science-fiction dystopia of Transmissions of Unwanted Pasts is, like the portmanteau film Ten Years Thailand and Thunska Pansittivorakul’s Supernatural (เหนือธรรมชาติ), also a comment on present-day Thailand. Like the soldiers erasing satellite images of ‘unwanted pasts’, Thailand’s successive military governments have sought to suppress discussion of these events. School history courses emphasise royalist-nationalist legends, while the secret history cited in the film is excluded from the curriculum. A plaque commemorating the 1932 revolution was removed without explanation. Bhandit Rittakol’s The Moonhunter (14 ตุลา สงครามประชาชน) describes 14th October as an event “that many would like to erase from history”.

The result of this whitewashing is a cycle of nascent democratic reforms repeatedly reset by military coups, as forgotten history is destined to repeat itself. In Prabda Yoon’s previous film, Someone from Nowhere (มา ณ ที่นี้), this cycle is symbolised by a violent argument between a condo owner and an interloper. The two figures represent military and civilian governments jostling for power, though their roles are later reversed, and they have no memory of their previous confrontation.

25 April 2019

Santikhiri Sonata

Santikhiri Sonata
Thunska Pansittivorakul's Santikhiri Sonata (สันติคีรี โซนาตา) was filmed in Thailand's northernmost province, Chiang Rai, in the villages of Mae Salong and Hin Taek, whose names were changed by the government to draw a line under their sinister legacies. Mae Salong was renamed Santikhiri ('hill of peace'), and Hin Taek became Thoet Thai ('honour Thailand'), though they were sites of anti-Communist violence during the Cold War. Santikhiri Sonata examines this violent heritage - "A lot of people were killed, including villagers" - demonstrating that, despite their new names, they remain silent witnesses to their traumatic past. They are, to use Dutch artist Armando's term, 'guilty landscapes'.

Similarly, Apichatpong Weerasethakul made several films in and around the village of Nabua, a location with an equally loaded history to that of Santikhiri, as its inhabitants were among the first victims of the anti-Communist purge. In his short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (จดหมายถงลงบญม), a narrator recalls the area's past: "Soldiers once occupied this place. They killed and tortured the villagers and forced them to flee to the jungle."

Thailand's suppression of Communist insurgents was a guerrilla war lasting almost two decades. Anocha Suwichakornpong's film By the Time It Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง) describes how suspected Communists were "thrown out of helicopters or set on fire in oil barrels." Thunska alludes to these 'red barrel killings' in Santikhiri Sonata with a caption describing the elimination of subversives by "pushing them into a 'CXII Red Suitcase'". The Roman numerals refer to Thailand's notorious lèse-majesté law, article 112 of the criminal code, which Thunska addressed in Homogeneous, Empty Time (สุญกาล).

Santikhiri Sonata also comments on more recent cases of state violence. Military cadet Phakhapong Tanyakan died during a training exercise in 2017, and his internal organs were removed to prevent an autopsy determining his cause of death. The central characters in Santikhiri Sonata discuss a cadet "whose insides, heart, and brain were all taken out of his body". Similarly, a young human-rights activist, Chaiyaphum Pasae, was killed at a military checkpoint in 2017, and the film describes the circumstances of his death: "eyewitnesses say he was unarmed, and was beaten before being shot." More provocatively, a song composed by King Rama IX, Echo (แว่ว), is repurposed as an ode to Chaiyaphum's memory.

The director's trademark sexual content is also present. In fact, Santikhiri Sonata is his most explicit film since Reincarnate (จุติ). It includes a montage of clips from gay porn videos, progressing from 'solo' scenes to hardcore material, accompanied by Jaran Manopet's folk song บ้านบนดอย ('home on the hillside'). (The song ends with the words "overflowing kindness" as a porn star reaches his climax.) This combination of homoerotic imagery and political critique is a consistent feature of Thunska's films, including This Area Is Under Quarantine (บริเวณนี้อยู่ภายใต้การกักกัน), The Terrorists (ผู้ก่อการร้าย), and Supernatural (เหนือธรรมชาติ).

Another trait in Thunska's work is the blurring of boundaries between documentary, drama, and autobiography. His films are densely layered, their fictional narratives juxtaposed with archive footage, historical captions, and on-camera interventions by the director. Santikhiri Sonata, with its metatextual behind-the-scenes sequences, is his most structurally complex film to date.

05 April 2019

Bangkok Joyride IV

Bangkok Joyride IV
Ing Kanjananvanit's epic documentary Bangkok Joyride (บางกอกจอยไรด์) continues with its fourth instalment, Becoming One (เป็นหนึ่งเดียว), playing now at Cinema Oasis in Bangkok. The series, shot on Ing's iPhone, is an exhaustive record of the PDRC campaign against Yingluck Shinawatra. In part four, a protester claims that Yingluck's brother, Thaksin, is "worse than Hitler", echoing an equally hyperbolic quote from Ing's earlier documentary, Citizen Juling (พลเมืองจูหลิง): "We talk of Hitler... But villagers, all citizens nowadays fear PM Thaksin 10 times more."

Bangkok Joyride covered the early stages of the PDRC's campaign in parts one and two, How We Became Superheroes (เมื่อเราเป็นยอดมนุษย์) and Shutdown Bangkok (ชัตดาวน์ประเทศไทย). Part three, Singing at Funerals (เพลงแห่ศพ), covered the buildup to the 2014 election. Part four covers the protests from 26th January to 8th February 2014, including the 2nd February election.

The PDRC sabotaged the election, blockading polling stations to prevent voting. (It was ultimately invalidated, and the military launched a coup before another poll could take place.) Despite this, Bangkok Joyride celebrates the protesters, and in parts three and four Ing herself appears on stage at PDRC rallies. She can also be heard from behind the camera, wishing the protesters luck; in part four, she tells a demonstrator: "We fight the exact same battle."

In part three, Ing accused the mainstream Western media of pro-Thaksin bias, and this conspiracy theory is expanded in part four when she harangues the BBC's Bangkok correspondent, Jonathan Head: "How do you sleep at night, Mr Head?" Bangkok Joyride's fetishisation of national symbols also continues in part four: protesters are filmed while standing for the national anthem, not once but five times.

Part five, Dancing with Death (รำวงพญายม), will be released later this year. Meanwhile, Neti Wichiansaen's documentary Democracy after Death (ประชาธิปไตยหลังความตาย), which highlights the PDRC's anti-democratic agenda, provides an effective counterpoint to Bangkok Joyride. The short films This Film Has Been Invalid [sic], Auntie Has Never Had a Passport (ดาวอินดี้), Shut Sound, Myth of Modernity, and Here Comes the Democrat Party (ประชาธิปัตย์มาแล้ว) also include footage of PDRC demonstrations.

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.

12 December 2018

Ten Years Thailand

Scala
Scala
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.

23 September 2018

Democracy after Death

Democracy after Death
Democracy after Death
Neti Wichiansaen's documentary Democracy after Death: The Tragedy of Uncle Nuamthong Praiwan (ประชาธิปไตยหลังความตาย เรื่องเศร้าของลุงนวมทอง) is an account of Thailand's recent political history, bookended by the coups of 2006 and 2014. These events are narrated in a voiceover addressed to Nuamthong Praiwan, a pro-democracy protester who committed suicide in 2006. Nuamthong was also the subject of Prap Boonpan's short film Letter from the Silence (จดหมายจากความเงียบ).

The film covers Thailand's polarisation between the PAD and UDD protesters, culminating in the military crackdown of 2010, "the most brutal political massacre in Thai history." As in Thunska Pansittivorakul's The Terrorists (ผู้ก่อการร้าย), former prime minister Abhisit is blamed for the massacre: "Directly responsible, Abhisit Vejjajiva holds Thailand's new record of the number of people shot by the military."

Democracy after Death is significant for its inclusion of sensitive political events excluded from Pen-ek Ratanaruang's documentary Paradoxocracy (ประชาธิป'ไทย). It's also a refreshing counterpoint to Ing Kanjanavanit's Bangkok Joyride (บางกอกจอยไรด์), as it highlights the underhand tactics of the PDRC movement (extorting money and sabotaging the 2014 election). Whereas Bangkok Joyride is pro-PDRC, Democracy after Death is biased in favour of Thaksin Shinawatra, noting sympathetically that he "was forced to leave and has had to remain outside Thailand" though ignoring his corruption conviction.

The film's director is also living in exile, due to a previous lèse-majesté prosecution, and Democracy after Death has been self-censored to avoid further charges. A photograph of the junta and Rama IX on the night of the 2006 coup has been pixelated, and a soldier's pledge of loyalty to the king has been bleeped out. Like the short film Narayana's Arrow Spaceship: Between the Orbits of Mars and Jupiter (ยานศรนารายณ์ ระหว่างวงโคจรดาวอังคารและดาวพฤหัสฯ), the credits are also self-censored.