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Filming Locally, Thinking Globally

Filming Locally, Thinking Globally

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Published by: rememberese on May 14, 2012
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I
t was an odyssey, a long, seafaring voyagethrough international oceans, islands of worries, local uncertainty, the lure of sirens, nostalgic soul-searching, Technicol-ored dreams, infernal nationalism, fists andelbows—through fears and doubts andhopes and optimism. In the opening decadeof the twenty-first century, Thai cinematraveled the Earth in search of itself. It hasfound, in a sense, what it once lost, and yet,with the wobbly march of a rural ingénue setfree in the global show-ground, the search bliss-fully continues.When ApichatpongWeerasethakul defied theCroisette odds, thankedall the ghosts, and teasedTim Burton on that May night he rose like the darkest horse to winthe Palme d’Or, the decade of insecurity seemed vindicated. The history of cinemanow embraced Thailand. Welcome to theclub, says the world, or at least the Westernworld. Fittingly, it was on the same stage,Cannes, nine years prior, at the dawn of thenew millennium, that a barnyard Siamesecowboy, half-drunk on eighty-proof moon-shine and manic possibilities, surged fromobscurity to grab the world by its balls. In2001,
Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger)
announced the arrival of contempo-rary Thai cinema and ambushed unsuspect-ing observers with itsmad cocktail of nos-talgia and anachro-nism. That film by Wisit Sasanatieng setup one half of theparentheses that wascompleted by Apich-atpong’s
Loong Boon-mee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives)
in 2010. A lothappened betweenthose two films, andthen beyond.On the surface, thetwo films hardly sharea trait, let alone a cin-ematic ideology—oneis a gleefully luridpastiche, the other ametaphysical ponder-ing in sober hues. Ona closer look, howev-er, both films aregrounded in something shared by a numberof Thai filmmakers of the past decade: a col-lective subconscious, which attempted toretrieve and redefine the identity of Siamesecinema through both the lenses of local filmhistory and newfound influences of theglobalized epoch, through the legacy of ourhazy past and the pressing, tangible present.Shot to fame at an international arena likeCannes, both films were actually an attemptto find and bring Thai cinema home.Take a recent exhibit. The film series“Blissfully Thai,” put together by the AsiaSociety in New York this past May-June,
1
inwhich eight films made after 2000 werescreened, including
Uncle Boonmee 
and
Tears of the Black Tiger,
captured that spiritand hinted at the running threads shared by directors who are seemingly disparate inpurpose and temperament. Also showing inthat program were Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s
Monrak Transistor 
(2001) and
Ploy 
(2007),Mingmongkol Sonakul’s
Isan Special 
(2002),Yongyoot Thongkongtoon’s
The Iron Ladies 
(2000), Aditya Assarat’s
Hi-so 
(2010), andApicahtpong’s 2002 film
Blissfully Yours.
Not that these titles by mavericks and young
auteurs 
represent the vast ovum of contem-porary Thai cinema that has also spawnedtrashy horror flicks, arm-flapping transsexu-al curios, repetitive action sagas, and chest-thumping nationalist epics—we’ll get tothem later. But for those eight films (andmany more) that began traveling the worldsince the last year of the 1990s, they putforth the image of “Thai cinema” as interna-tional observers perceiveus. In the process, they also represent the effortto locate Thai cinema aspart of a shifting globalesthetic, as part of Asianfilm culture, and, mostimportantly, as a fixturein the domestic consciousness that has beengroomed to regard movies as mere amuse-ment that merits no cultural scrutiny.
Rerooting
Before directing
Tears of the Black Tiger,
Wisit Sasanatieng wrote the scripts for twofilms that resuscitated the near flatline of hishomegrown cinema. For his friend NonzeeNimibutr, in 1997 Wisit wrote the retro-fit-ted
Daeng Bireley and Young Gangsters,
ahoodlum escapade set in 1956; then in 1999he rerooted the oldest Thai ghost yarn fromthe mid-century and gave
Nang Nak 
a nos-talgic push that en-deared contemporary viewers. It workedbeyond their expecta-tions—
Daeng Bireley 
was a major hit, and
Nang Nak 
shot to all-time-high box-officeearnings (to be bro-ken later) and spent years touring the fes-tival circuit. The twofilms succeeded inreconnecting theaudience—amongthem the new middleclass who had for awhile displayed adeep-seated mistrustfor inane local pro-ductions—to thevisual adaptation of familiar narrativesand made cinemamatter again amongThais.
16CINEASTE, Fall 2011
Filming Locally, Thinking Globally:
The Search for Roots in Contemporary Thai Cinema
by Kong Rithdee
Since the late Nineties, the ever-changingcinema of Thailand has been undergoinga cultural identity crisis, which may verywell be its greatest strength.
Wisit Sasanatieng’s
Tears of the Black Tiger,
“a mad cocktail of nostalgia and anachronism,”introduced world audiences to Thai cinema with a resounding bang in 2001.
16 THAI FILMS2 8/12/11 10:55 AM Page 16
 
But while Nonzee’s image of vintageThailand is a straightforward re-creation of lulling canals, lovelorn banshees, and theelegantly lost past, Wisit’s own plan of rerooting went far beyond postcard realismand into metacinematic exploits. Channel-ing his fetishistic passion for old Technicol-ored films, he went prepop and postevery-thing in his directorial debut that rockedCannes yet tanked disastrously at home.
Tears of the Black Tiger 
reaches back into thetreasure trove of Siamese-cinema antics andflaunts its artificiality like a badge of honor.It’s not an exhibition of nostalgia; it is a cos-mology of Thai film history rebooted andretooled with a good mix of love, care, andlunacy. When that dementedly colorful filmflopped at home yet thrilled (or bewildered)critics worldwide, earning selective releasesin many territories—this was the early 2000swhen Asian films were making an onslaughton the world stage—the long and giddy search for the identity, or identities, of con-temporary Thai cinema, kick-started by thetwo Nonzee films Wisit previously wrote,became the silent discourse among upcom-ing Thai directors at the turn of the century.Apichatpong made his
Mysterious Object At Noon 
in 2000, followed by 
Blissfully Yours 
in 2002. Both movies, especially the first,drew on the reservoir of old-fashioned sto-rytelling tradition unique to Thai melodra-ma—radio plays, rural performances, oraltales—as well as the formalism of Westernexperimental filmmaking. The filmmaker’sfusion of Third-World surrealism, Siamesecandor, and sci-fi/spiritual contemplationwould later launch an ongoing debate on themeaning of “Thainess” in the globalizedperiod when those themes reincarnated indifferent forms in his subsequent
Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century,
and
Uncle Boonmee.
At around the same time,Pen-ek Ratanaruang surveyed the wreckageof Thai genre films left smoldering after thegloom of the 1990s, and cooked up thecheerfully cynical
Fun Bar Karaoke 
(1997)and
6ixtynin9 
(1999). But it was
Monrak Transistor,
which was screened at the Direc-tors’ Fortnight in 2002 and partly inspiredby an old Thai musical film from the 1960s,that contributed to the collective search forour lost Eden.The New York-educated Pen-ek half- joked on several occasions that with
Monrak Transistor 
he was remaking Woody Allen’s
Radio Days 
in upcountry Thailand. Sure, wegot the joke: here’s a very Thai narrative toldwith Thai wit (and beautiful Thai songs), yetit has this dash of style that’s not quite cul-ture-specific. The most startling thing aboutthe film, which recounts the misfortune of apoor country singer, is that we can’t pin-point in which period the story is set; itlooks like now, but it might just as well betwenty or fifty years ago. This timelessness,this casual defiance of being detained by theexactness of history and moment, makes thefilm a precious memento of the past—likethe transistor radio in the title—and also ashining relic of the present. Later on, Pen-ek would take his local wit and Thai in-jokeson an international expedition in
Last Life In the Universe 
(2004) and
Invisible Waves 
(2006), both starring Japanese characterslost in the Thai labyrinths, before the film-maker found the home-court advantageagain in
Ploy 
(2007) and
Nymph 
(2009). Hehad branched out, but it’s the root that hehas always been looking for.This search for roots is not a consciouslabor to return to the established, or “offi-cial,” culture—such effort belongs to theThai Culture Ministry, a reliable source of laughter and bewilderment. Rather, it’s anexpedition of young men and womenwho’ve rummaged through the old boxes inthe corner of the attic to find what’s stilluseful for their new ventures. And theseboxes have yielded a disparate content.Aditya Assarat, a Thai who grew up in theU.S., is well known for his post-tsunami ode
Wonderful Town 
(and his new, semiautobio-graphical
Hi-So),
but it was his two shortfilms in the early 2000s that represented hishomecoming rite.
Motorcycle 
(2000) is set in
CINEASTE,Fall 2011 17
Apinya Sakuljaroensuk portrays the title character in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s
Ploy 
(2007), a Thai take on
The Seven Year Itch.
16 THAI FILMS2 8/12/11 10:55 AM Page 17
 
a poor rural village—anenvironment very remotefrom the director’s city life—and the mournful nar-rative involves a farmer whoreceives the news of thedeath of his son. In
Waiting 
(2003), Aditya tells the story of a country man who trav-els to the village of his oldlover. This near-literalattempt to reconnect with“Thailand”—and not just“Bangkok”—is also manifestin
Isan Special,
a 2002 filmabout an eventful bus trip tothe poor Northeast by Mingmongkol Sonakul, whoalso spent years studyingfilmmaking in the U.S.Yet some filmmakershave never left home. With-out having to make a detouracross the continents,Uruphong Raksasat seemsto have carried his rootsaround in his pocket, andhis brand of pastoral cinema is a synthesis of family history and neoclassical penchant.Uruphong’s series of short films in the mid-2000s all took place in the bucolic farmlandof his northern hometown, culminating inthe startling
Agrarian Utopia 
(2009), a non-fiction feature that distills the fifty years of our failed economic development into twohours of the bliss and agony of the farmingexistence. Told through two families of ricegrowers—rice, Uruphong reminds us, is theancient monument of Southeast Asian glory much taken for granted by Southeast Asiansthemselves—thefilm is bracketed by noisy political pro-tests that offer a bit-ter critique of thesociety without ap-pearing supercilious.Movies about farm-ers basically disap-peared from Thaiscreens around thelate 1970s; whatUruphong did, andis still doing, is fight-ing for a fair share of screen time for thecountry’s most im-portant profession.His farmers aren’tthe stuff of nostalgia,and he dusted themoff from the atticnot because they’reold, but because it’salmost a crime forcontemporary Thaicinema to have for-gotten them for solong.
Love Thy Nation
While the films mentioned above wentaround the world, the narrative at home car-ried the whiff of a parallel universe. With theinternational acknowledgement of Thaifilmmakers such as Apichatpong, Pen-ek,Wisit, and Uruphong came another dis-course, one that continues not so silently today. Following the flop of 
Tears of the Black Tiger 
and other
auteur 
films of thatperiod, the complaint was that new Thaifilmmakers were making movies for foreignaudiences and bypassing the taste and pref-erences of the locals. If welook at the eight filmsshown at the Asia Society,for instance, only 
The Iron Ladies 
made serious money.Even Pen-ek’s
Monrak Transistor,
which carried acommercial flavor, was adisappointment at theBangkok box office. Uru-phong’s
Agrarian Utopia,
despite support from thelocal cultural agency, had towait over a year to get arelease on one screen. Like-wise with Aditya’s
Wonder- ful Town 
and
Hi-So,
all of Apitchatpong’s films, as wellas Anocha Suwichakorn-pong’s multiple award-win-ning
Mundane History 
they exist on the periphery of the mainstream money-making machine.Trying to find the longroad home, those filmsfound the home padlocked(granted, the decade-long ignorance wasslightly improved after Apichatpong’s bigwin at Cannes last year). In general, themainstream Thai film scene was enlivenedby the popularity of Nonzee’s
Nang Nak,
which proved that a Thai film could stillcourt Thai audiences, and also by Yongy-oot’s
The Iron Ladies,
which proved that ablatantly commercial endeavor could pay off handsomely. While the mavericks were busy rerooting, the skillful workmen of the multi-plex venues found their own way to bringThai films into the local consciousness andto spin the wheel of the industry. In thepast decade, Thaimovies have exploit-ed recurring formu-las in slapstick com-edy starring TVcomedians, ghoststories that rode onthe wave of Asianhorror, and, withthe arrival of 
Ong-Bak 
and Tony Jaa in2001, a series of fist-and-elbow actionshowcases that rely on the sweaty exoti-cism of Third-World hard men. Of the more notablenames, directorssuch as Yuthlert Sip-papak wired thoseelements with atouch of cynicism;Pakpoom Wong-poom and BanjongPisanthanakul madeThai horror films
18CINEASTE,Fall 2011
Yongyoot Thongkongtoon’s
The Iron Ladies,
which portrays a volleyball team made up of gayand transvestite men, is an example of Thai filmmakers’ penchant for gender-bending movies.Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s
Monrak Transistor 
(2001) is a peculiarblend of contemporary sensibility and stylized nostalgia.
16 THAI FILMS2 8/12/11 10:55 AM Page 18

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