16 February 2020

The Amazing Thai-Land III

The Amazing Thai-Land III
Buddha Man
The Statesman
The third issue of Chalermpol Junrayab’s The Amazing Thai-Land comic was published last month, in a limited edition of 100 copies. Chalermpol creates parodies of Marvel and DC comic-book covers on his iPad; The Amazing Thai-Land is an ironic reappropriation of the Tourist Authority of Thailand’s slogan ‘Amazing Thailand’.

The book includes material from Chalermpol’s debut solo exhibition, and each work is a parody of contemporary Thai politics. Targets include the late Prem Tinsulanonda—portrayed as a Mafia godfather, representing his position in the so-called ‘network monarchy’ patronage system—and the public shaming of a student who painted the Buddha as Ultraman.

12 February 2020


Thanathorn Suppakijjumnong’s exhibition of typewriter art, Fulfill (เติมเต็ม), opened on 6th February at BACC. The show is dominated by portraits—the Family (ครอบครัว) and Secret of Love (ความลับของความรัก) series—and What’s in Hide [sic] (มีอะไรซ่อนอยู่), a series of abstract compositions. Another picture, Mother’s Love (ความรักของแม่), shows the artist’s mother guiding his hand onto a typewriter keyboard.

Each work was meticulously typed onto paper using a manual typewriter (two of which are on display at the exhibition), and Thanathorn achieves an almost photorealistic level of detail in the Family portraits. The other pictures incorporate folded paper, resembling the childrens’ fortune-telling origami game. The history of typewriter art is covered in the books Typewriter Art and The Art of Typewriting, and the exhibition runs until 1st March.

30 January 2020

Spirited Away

Spirited Away
Tomorrow evening, the Baan Dusit Thani hotel in Bangkok will be showing Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し). The open-air screening is free of charge.

28 January 2020

A Very Stable Genius

A Very Stable Genius
Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (its title taken from a typically braggadocious Trump quote) provides “a chronological account of Trump’s vainglorious pursuit of power in his first term,” based on more than 200 interviews with current and former senior administration officials. Sources are quoted ‘on background’, though they can frequently be identified from phrases such as “[Steve] Bannon thought to himself” and “Putin confided to [Rex] Tillerson”.

As is often the case, sources’ recollections tend to be self-serving. Chris Christie, for example, warns Trump with remarkable foresight that Michael Flynn is “going to get you in trouble... Take my word for it.” Then, after Trump fires Flynn and declares that “the whole Russia thing is over,” Christie’s crystal ball reappears: he apparently told Trump, “we’re going to be sitting here a year from now talking about Russia”.

This is the third major account of Trump’s presidency, after Michael Wolff’s gossipy Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s authoritative Fear. All three books feature reconstructed quotes from private meetings and conversations, though only A Very Stable Genius acknowledges that such quotations are not verbatim: “Dialogue cannot always be exact but is based here on multiple people’s memories of events,” a clarification missing from Wolff and Woodward.

Trump initially agreed to be interviewed for the book, as the authors explain: “In a phone call, Trump told Rucker he would like to sit for an interview.” In the same call, the president said: “I’ll do it. I’d like to have a proper book done. You’re a serious person.” But he subsequently changed his mind, and dismissed the book on Twitter as a “Fake Book from two third rate Washington Post reporters”. (In contrast, Trump has cooperated with various hagiographic books on his presidency, such as Trump’s Enemies, The Trump White House, Inside Trump’s White House, and The United States of Trump.)

Fear recounted an especially acrimonious 2017 meeting between Trump and his military leaders, an event also covered in A Very Stable Genius. In Fear, Woodward writes: “Just before 10 a.m. on July 20, a stifling, cloudless summer Thursday six months into his presidency, Donald Trump crossed the Potomac River to the Pentagon.” A Very Stable Genius has a very similar description—“On July 20, just before 10:00 a.m. on a scorching summer Thursday, Trump arrived at the Pentagon”—though it also includes additional material, notably Trump mocking the assembled top brass as “a bunch of dopes and babies.”

Similarly, Fear included the first account of negotiations between Trump’s legal team and Robert Mueller, though A Very Stable Genius builds on this with quotes from an awkward phone call between Mueller and William Barr. The book also provides more details on the firing of Rex Tillerson, with a meticulous two-page account expanding on Fear’s two-paragraph summary. On the other hand, whereas Fear devoted six pages to Trump’s disgraceful comments on neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, the episode (“one of the lowest points of his presidency”) is covered in less than a page in A Very Stable Genius.

24 January 2020

Neo Thaiism

Neo Thaiism
Siam 2020
After Carnivalism, Gagasmicism, and Roboticlism, Thai art has a new ‘ism’: Neo Thaiism. A new exhibition brings together three young Thai artists—Subannakrit Krikum, Terdtanwa Kanama, and Teerapon Sisung—positioning them as the vanguard of a new artistic wave.

Subannakrit’s exquisite paintings resemble miniature temple murals, though on closer inspection they reveal unexpected elements: Siam 2020, for example, features modern artworks placed incongruously among traditional décor. Terdtanwa’s large canvases depict apocalyptic imagery with a dystopian environmental message. Teerapon creates delicate sculptures from woven copper thread.

The Neo Thaiism exhibition opened at Bangkok’s Joyman Gallery on 7th January, and runs until 29th February. The exhibition booklet by curator Witchakorn Tangklangkunlachorn features impressive photography though fairly superficial text.

19 January 2020

Almost Fiction

Almost Fiction
Almost Fiction
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s photography exhibition Almost Fiction opened on 21st December 2019. The exhibition is divided into two halves: in one room are works from Apichatpong’s Insomnia series, with larger images from his Soldier series in an adjacent room.

The Insomnia series includes several shots taken on the set of Apichatpong’s short video Blue (ตะวันดับ). The most startling work is a diptych titled Bullet, showing a bullet emerging from an elderly woman’s mouth. (The woman in question is Jenjira Pongpas, who has appeared in many of Apichatpong’s films and videos.)

For the Soldier series, Apichatpong photographed young soldiers and obscured their faces with white light. Soldiers have featured as characters in several of Apichatpong’s films, perhaps indicating the military’s persistent influence over Thai society and politics. The Soldier series includes three large photographs (Group Portrait, A Young Man at Twilight, and Embrace) and a smaller image displayed in a lightbox (Mirage Boy).

Almost Fiction runs until 21st February at Gallery Seescape in Chiang Mai. The popular café next door, SS1254372, is also highly recommended.

18 January 2020

Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik
The current Nam June Paik exhibition at Tate Modern in London features more than 200 artworks, making it arguably as significant as the Paik retrospective held twenty years ago at the Guggenheim in New York. The Tate’s exhibition catalogue was edited by curators Sook-Kyung Lee and Rudolf Frieling.

The catalogue includes fascinating essays on key Paik works, such as TV Buddha. There are also chapters on the roles of music and television in Paik’s work. However, the Guggenheim exhibition catalogue, The Worlds of Nam June Paik, remains the most comprehensive book on Paik, with a detailed bibliography and exhibition history.

The Film Photonovel

The Film Photonovel
The Film Photonovel, by Jan Baetens, is the first English-language book on the film photonovel and, indeed, on the photonovel itself. As the author explains, and as the book’s subtitle (A Cultural History of Forgotten Adaptations) suggests, the photonovel is a somewhat neglected medium, and—unlike other ‘lowbrow’ media, such as comics and pulp fiction—has yet to be rediscovered by critics or academics. (Baetens is a notable exception, and his journal articles on the subject are invaluable.)

Photonovels (fotoromanzo in Italian) were first published in Italian and French women’s magazines after World War II. (The closest contemporary equivalent is probably Deidre’s Photo Casebook, a photographic agony-aunt column in the UK tabloid The Sun.) Baetens traces the format back to the Italian magazine Grand Hôtel, whose photorealistic drawings he defines as the “drawn novel” genre. Grand Hôtel soon switched from photorealistic drawings to photographs, giving birth to the photonovel.

Like the photonovel itself, the film photonovel (cineromanzo) subgenre also has antecedents. Baetens cites the Italian film magazine Cinevita, which reproduced film stills accompanied by captions providing each film’s complete dialogue. (In the 1970s, Richard J. Anobile edited a series of books with a similar format, including Psycho; and Stanley Kubrick published his A Clockwork Orange screenplay illustrated with hundreds of frame enlargements.)

The first film photonovels appeared in Italy in the 1950s, and they enjoyed significant popularity until their eventual decline in the 1960s. The most successful title, an adaptation of the 1954 film Ulysses, sold half a million copies at the height of Italy’s ‘peplum’ craze. Baetens provides a history of the film photonovel and a detailed analysis of the format’s layout, imagery, and captions.

17 January 2020

World Class Cinema

Annie Hall
Annie Hall
After The Wizard of Oz, the second film in this year’s World Class Cinema (ทึ่ง! หนังโลก) season is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Arguably the greatest comedy ever made, it’s hilarious and stylistically inventive, though it’s also a realistic and bittersweet portrait of romance and relationships. Annie Hall will be screened at Bangkok’s Scala cinema on 16th February.

12 January 2020

Propaganda Children’s Day

Propaganda Children's Day
Propaganda Children's Day
Uncle Red Panda
The Sound of Elite
Yesterday was Children’s Day in Thailand. This annual event sees various institutions organise fun activities for children and families. One of those institutions, the military, allows toddlers to sit in tanks and pose with guns on Children’s Day, instilling positive feelings towards the armed forces from a very young age. To highlight the military’s disturbing grooming of kids, Headache Stencil held an alternative Children’s Day event this weekend at the Jam Factory in Bangkok.

His subversive Propaganda Children’s Day (วันเด็กชั่งชาติ), which took place yesterday and today, featured a life-sized tank decorated with anti-military graffiti. Inside the tank was a mini gallery with paintings such as Uncle Red Panda, depicting Prayut Chan-o-cha’s face with footprints over it (also available on t-shirts and stickers). Other paintings on display included The Sound of Elite, a collage featuring the background from Neal Ulevich’s famous photograph of the 6th October 1976 massacre and a publicity still from The Sound of Music.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s documentary 100 Times Reproduction of Democracy (การผลิตซ้ำประชาธิปไตยให้กลายเป็นของแท้) also highlights the military’s exploitation of Children’s Day. Headache Stencil organised a similar exhibition of political art, Uncensored, at the same venue last year, and his Thailand Casino exhibition was equally satirical.

09 January 2020

Insects in the Backyard

Insects in the Backyard
Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s Insects in the Backyard (อินเซค อินเดอะ แบ็คยาร์ด) will have two screenings this month at the Thai Film Archive in Salaya. It will be shown tomorrow and on 28th January, and both screenings are free.

The film was banned in 2010 and finally released—with a three-second cut—in 2017. Tanwarin was elected to parliament in last year’s election, and serves as Thailand’s first transgender MP.

02 January 2020

World Class Cinema

The annual World Class Cinema (ทึ่ง! หนังโลก) season, organised by the Thai Film Archive, continues in 2020. The classic Hollywood musical The Wizard of Oz will be shown at Bangkok’s Scala cinema on 19th January. The first World Class Cinema screenings took place in 2017, with a second round in 2018. Last year’s event concluded only a few days ago.

The United States of Trump

The United States of Trump
“If you despise Donald Trump, this book may frustrate you.” This warning, in the foreword to The United States of Trump: How the President Really Sees America, is pretty accurate. The book, by disgraced former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly—fired after multiple sexual-harassment allegations—is a Trump biography whose only sources are Trump himself (from an interview aboard Air Force One) and his eldest son, Don Jnr.

The first paragraph of chapter one is worth quoting in full: “The president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, is not happy. Sitting behind a large wooden desk in his spacious airborne office, he asks that his wife, Melania, be brought into the room immediately. In less than a minute, she appears, immaculately groomed and flashing her bright smile.” In just a couple of sentences, that’s a pretty revealing portrait of a marriage.

O’Reilly spends most of the book burnishing Trump’s image and defending him against his critics. Thus, the racist ‘birther’ conspiracy theory was, apparently, about “divisive politics, not skin color.” And, although President Trump has lied more than 10,000 times (according to The Washington Post), O’Reilly describes him euphemistically as “not a precise orator”. O’Reilly repeatedly returns to these two accusations, racism and dishonesty, giving the same defence several times. The author doth protest too much, methinks.

The book is also an opportunity for O’Reilly to attempt a rehabilitation of his own reputation. He humblebrags about his glory days in cable news: “Putting together a mega-hit television program is an arduous task. I know; I’ve experienced it—twice.” He also takes credit for Trump’s planned 2020 election campaign slogan, quoting himself telling Trump: “I’d say “keep.” You should move it forward.” Trump replies: ”My new phrase would be “Keep America Great”? You like that better?” That exchange, however, took place two years after Trump began using ‘Keep America Great’.

Amidst the pro-Trump spin, The United States of Trump also includes some surprisingly embarrassing trivia. O’Reilly notes that Trump “has gained a considerable amount of weight. However, he does not diet or exercise much,” and the book even reprints side-by-side photographs of the Obama and Trump inauguration crowds: “it appears that President Obama’s First Inaugural Address had more in-person attendees than President Trump had.”

The account of Trump’s daily routine is also quite revealing. He spends his mornings “turning on the television set and watching news in his private residence on the second floor of the White House. He is usually by himself at this point.” He doesn’t start work until late in the morning: “At eleven, President Trump strolls into the West Wing of the White House to begin his official day,” and there is frequent down time: he likes to “watch the news when he is not otherwise occupied.” In the evenings—surprise, surprise—it’s TV time again: “After dinner, Mr Trump often watches the cable news opinion shows.”

Prince Theatre

Triumph of the Will
Lawrence of Arabia
The General
The Magnificent Ambersons
Bicycle Thieves
This month, Bangkok’s Prince Theatre hotel will be screening an eclectic mix of classic films. A different movie will be shown almost every evening, free of charge, in the hotel bar. Highlights include: the propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) on 4th January, the epic Lawrence of Arabia on 8th January, the silent comedy The General on 13th January, the Soviet silent drama Earth (Земля) on 20th January, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons on 27th January, and the Neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) on 29th January.

27 December 2019

Inside Trump's White House

Inside Trump's White House
Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House began life as an authorised record of Donald Trump’s presidency. After initially giving the book his tacit approval, Trump later tried to sue the publisher for libel. Now, almost two years later, comes another author with his own offically sanctioned account. “I was being given the nod to write an official history of a presidency,” boasts Doug Wead, writer of Inside Trump’s White House. (The US subtitle is The Real Story of His Presidency, while in the UK it’s The Authorized Story.)

The book is a response to Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s equally critical Fear, both of which depended on well-placed though unidentified sources. Wead disparages this “secondhand testimony, which was usually anonymous” though he later admits that he also relied on “a long list of anonymous sources inside the Trump White House and the government”.

His sources were apparently selected for him by Trump’s team: “White House staffers sent me names and phone numbers of people to contact.” These contacts include Dan Scavino and Keith Schiller—recognisable to anyone familiar with Trump’s background—who Wead admits are “names that I had never heard before”. In another example of Wead’s naivety, he boasts that Trump showed him a top-secret letter from Kim Jong-un—“My people don’t want me to give these to you”—though Trump had tweeted the entire text months earlier.

Two previous (and similarly hagiographic) books have claimed unique access to Trump. Corey R. Lewandowski and David N. Bossie wrote that Trump’s Enemies contained "the only formal book interview President Trump has sat for since being elected to office," and Ronald Kessler maintained that The Trump White House featured “the only interview for a book Trump said he has given or will give as president”. Presumably, Trump co-operated with Inside Trump’s White House because of Wead’s equally dependable loyalty: Trump tells him, “Doug, I think you and I have good chemistry. That’s going to be a good thing for this book.”

The result is a flattering portrait of the Trump administration, not quite as fawning as Trump’s Enemies though devoid of any brickbats. Whereas The Trump White House was surprisingly critical of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Wead lavishes praise on both of them, and refers to Kushner as ”the president’s brilliant son-in-law”. In fact, Wead devotes a chapter to each of Trump’s adult children, making this essentially a Trump vanity project.

24 December 2019

Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik
TV Buddha
TV Buddha
TV Buddha
A major Nam June Paik retrospective is currently on show at Tate Modern in London. The exhibition features more than 200 works, including Button Happening, Paik’s earliest extant video piece and, therefore, arguably the first example of video art. (Paik purchased a video camera in 1965. Legend has it that he filmed Pope Paul VI’s visit to New York on 4th October of that year, though the footage no longer exists. Button Happening was shot at around the same time.) The show also features numerous artefacts from Paik’s Fluxus period, including Zen for Film, a projection of unexposed 16mm film.

The exhibition opens with Paik’s masterpiece, TV Buddha. This installation—in which a Buddha statue contemplates its own image via CCTV—exists in numerous variations, though the Tate retrospective has the original 1974 version (with an 18th-century Buddha and JVC Videosphere TV), on loan from Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. The exhibition runs from 17th October until 9th February next year.

22 December 2019

2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke

2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke
2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke: The Genesis, Making and Authorship of a Masterpiece, by Filippo Ulivieri and Simone Odino, now sits alongside eleven other books about 2001: A Space Odyssey on my bookshelves. (The others are 2001: Filming The Future, The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2001 Memories, Moonwatcher’s Memoir, Are We Alone?, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2001: The Lost Science, The 2001 File, The Making Of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Space Odyssey.)

Despite being the latest of at least a dozen books on the subject, 2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke offers a surprisingly original analysis of the making of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece and his collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke. It provides “for the first time a complete account of the creative odyssey undertaken by Kubrick and Clarke,” including previously-unseen material from both the Kubrick Archive and, especially, Clarke’s papers at the Smithsonian.

Most accounts of the production of 2001 are largely anecdotal, relying on decades-old recollections, though 2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke takes a reassuringly systematic approach, verifying every fact via contemporaneous press reports and production documents. The book’s most substantial section offers a unique chronology of 2001’s production, meticulously researched and thoroughly detailed. There is also an in-depth examination of the often-overlooked period following Dr Strangelove, when Kubrick was formulating his plans for 2001.

2001 Between Kubrick and Clarke was first published in Italian, as 2001 tra Kubrick e Clarke: Genesi, realizzazione e paternità di un capolavoro. Co-author Filippo Ulivieri also wrote the excellent Stanley Kubrick and Me, the memoir of Kubrick’s personal assistant.

The Fabulists

The Fabulists
Michael Peel, formerly based in the Financial Times’ Bangkok bureau, is now an FT Brussels correspondent. Once free of the tacit censorship familiar to all Bangkok-based journalists, he wrote of his “sense of alarm about the stifling atmosphere” surrounding discussion of the monarchy, in a cathartic FT Weekend Magazine feature (published on 14th October 2017).

In The Fabulists: The World’s New Rulers, Their Myths and the Struggle Against Them, Peel analyses the rise of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. In a chapter on post-coup Thailand, he reflects on the paradox of the country’s adulation for the monarchy and its severe lèse-majesté law: “The longer I spent in Thailand, the harder I found it to reconcile this”.

Peel interviewed an imprisoned lèse-majesté suspect, and an ultra-royalist who snitches on anti-monarchists to the police. Peel describes his meeting with the shackled prisoner as “one of the more bizarre interviews I have conducted.” Tentative cracks appeared in the royalist’s over-zealous attitude, as he was faced with a moral dilemma: “He had fallen out with his son over his alleged disrespect for the monarchy. I asked gently about this. He replied elliptically.”

Peel also spoke to Sulak Sivaraksa, who has faced numerous lèse-majesté charges, all of which—thanks to behind-the-scenes interventions—resulted in acquittal. Sulak’s latest narrow escape came in 2014, when he challenged a national myth, questioning the historical accuracy of King Naresuan’s legendary elephant duel: “even this semi-licensed gadfly found he could not avoid the official swat.” Like the recent Sulak biography Roar, The Fabulists is on sale in Thailand only because it has somehow slipped under the government’s radar.

12 December 2019

Spectrosynthesis II

Spectrosynthesis II
Spectrosynthesis II
Portrait of a Man in Habits
Gay Mixed II / Gay Mixed IV
Spectrosynthesis II - Exposure of Tolerance: LGBTQ in Southeast Asia (สนทนาสัปตสนธิ ๒: ไตร่ถาม ความหลากหลายในอุษาคเนย์) opened at Bangkok’s BACC on 23rd November. This major group exhibition features more than fifty artists, and is on show until 1st March next year. The substantial catalogue includes an essay by curator Chatvichai Promadhattavedi.

Highlights include Michael Shaowanasai’s Portrait of a Man in Habits, in which the artist poses as a monk wearing female make-up. When it was first shown, at the Chulalongkorn Art Center’s Alien {Gener}ation exhibition in 2000, it was condemned by the Thai Rath (ไทยรัฐ) newspaper. This led to complaints from Buddhist groups, and the photograph was withdrawn from display.

Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê’s collages Gay Mixed II and Gay Mixed IV are also included. They are constructed from photographic strips woven together like traditional Vietnamese mats, though they include images from gay pornography censored in Vietnam.

Ohm Phanphiroj’s short video Underage, in which he interviews young boys forced into prostitution in Bangkok, was removed from the exhibition less than a month after it opened, following a high-level complaint. Thus, although Thailand is becoming increasingly accepting of gay culture, it remains hypersensitive to any material that exposes the country’s extreme social inequality. Rather than addressing the underlying problem, the official policy seems to be: shoot the messenger.

05 December 2019

23rd Short Film and Video Festival

23rd Short Film and Video Festival
Birth of Golden Snail
Syndromes and a Century
The 23rd Short Film and Video Festival, Thailand’s longest-running annual film festival, begins on 14th December. This year’s event includes two films that were previously censored in Thailand: Birth of Golden Snail (กำเนิดหอยทากทอง) and Syndromes and a Century (แสงศตวรรษ).

The seemingly arbitrary censorship of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century was the catalyst for the Free Thai Cinema Movement’s campaign for film classification. The campaign was successful, as the Film and Video Act introduced a rating system, though it was a rather Pyrrhic victory, as films continued to be cut and banned.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s Birth of Golden Snail was banned under the Film and Video Act, though the ban was legally questionable. The film was rejected by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC), though the Act specifies that responsibility for censorship lies with the Film and Video Censorship Committee (which had not viewed the film) rather than the OCAC. Birth of Golden Snail received its premiere in Singapore last month.

Birth of Golden Snail will be shown as part of the Short Film and Video Festival’s opening programme on 14th December, and Syndromes and a Century will be screened on 16th December. Both screenings will be in 35mm, at the Thai Film Archive in Salaya.

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. In a Bangkok Post interview, Wisit claimed 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.” But 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.

23 November 2019

Epic December

North by Northwest
Children of Paradise
Die Hard
Following this month’s Judy Garland Focus, next month will be Epic December at Bangkok Screening Room. The season begins with Cleopatra, the last gasp of the Hollywood studio system and one of the most expensive films in cinema history. Another highlight is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, winner of a record eleven Oscars. And no epic season would be complete without the ultimate Hollywood classic, Gone with the Wind.

Cleopatra is showing on 1st and 28th December. Ben-Hur will be screened on 21st and 29th December. Gone with the Wind is playing on 7th and 15th December. Back in 2010, Gone with the Wind was the last film ever screened at Siam Theater; it was also shown at Scala in 2017, and at Lido (with Ben-Hur) in 2007.

Aside from the Epic December season, Bangkok Screening Room will also be showing a few other classics next month. Marcel Carné’s poetic realist Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis) will be screened on 8th and 14th December. Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller North by Northwest is showing on 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th, and 15th December. The action movie Die Hard is on 20th December, as part of a short season of Christmas films.