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Filming Locally, Thinking Globally:
The Search for Roots in Contemporary Thai Cinema
by Kong Rithdee
t was an odyssey, a long, seafaring voyage grounded in something shared by a number Apicahtpong’s 2002 film Blissfully Yours. through international oceans, islands of of Thai filmmakers of the past decade: a col- Not that these titles by mavericks and young worries, local uncertainty, the lure of lective subconscious, which attempted to auteurs represent the vast ovum of contemsirens, nostalgic soul-searching, Technicol- retrieve and redefine the identity of Siamese porary Thai cinema that has also spawned ored dreams, infernal nationalism, fists and cinema through both the lenses of local film trashy horror flicks, arm-flapping transsexuelbows—through fears and doubts and history and newfound influences of the al curios, repetitive action sagas, and chesthopes and optimism. In the opening decade globalized epoch, through the legacy of our thumping nationalist epics—we’ll get to of the twenty-first century, Thai cinema hazy past and the pressing, tangible present. them later. But for those eight films (and traveled the Earth in search of itself. It has Shot to fame at an international arena like many more) that began traveling the world found, in a sense, what it once lost, and yet, Cannes, both films were actually an attempt since the last year of the 1990s, they put forth the image of “Thai cinema” as internawith the wobbly march of a rural ingénue set to find and bring Thai cinema home. tional observers perceive free in the global showus. In the process, they ground, the search blissSince the late Nineties, the ever-changing also represent the effort fully continues. cinema of Thailand has been undergoing to locate Thai cinema as When Apichatpong part of a shifting global Weerasethakul defied the a cultural identity crisis, which may very esthetic, as part of Asian Croisette odds, thanked well be its greatest strength. film culture, and, most all the ghosts, and teased importantly, as a fixture Tim Burton on that May Take a recent exhibit. The film series in the domestic consciousness that has been night he rose like the darkest horse to win the Palme d’Or, the decade of insecurity “Blissfully Thai,” put together by the Asia groomed to regard movies as mere amuseseemed vindicated. The history of cinema Society in New York this past May-June,1 in ment that merits no cultural scrutiny. now embraced Thailand. Welcome to the which eight films made after 2000 were club, says the world, or at least the Western screened, including Uncle Boonmee and Rerooting world. Fittingly, it was on the same stage, Tears of the Black Tiger, captured that spirit Before directing Tears of the Black Tiger, Cannes, nine years prior, at the dawn of the and hinted at the running threads shared by Wisit Sasanatieng wrote the scripts for two new millennium, that a barnyard Siamese directors who are seemingly disparate in films that resuscitated the near flatline of his cowboy, half-drunk on eighty-proof moon- purpose and temperament. Also showing in homegrown cinema. For his friend Nonzee shine and manic possibilities, surged from that program were Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Nimibutr, in 1997 Wisit wrote the retro-fitobscurity to grab the world by its balls. In Monrak Transistor (2001) and Ploy (2007), ted Daeng Bireley and Young Gangsters, a 2001, Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Mingmongkol Sonakul’s Isan Special (2002), hoodlum escapade set in 1956; then in 1999 Tiger) announced the arrival of contempo- Yongyoot Thongkongtoon’s The Iron Ladies he rerooted the oldest Thai ghost yarn from rary Thai cinema and ambushed unsuspect- (2000), Aditya Assarat’s Hi-so (2010), and the mid-century and gave Nang Nak a nosing observers with its talgic push that enmad cocktail of nosdeared contemporary talgia and anachroviewers. It worked nism. That film by beyond their expectaWisit Sasanatieng set tions—Daeng Bireley up one half of the was a major hit, and parentheses that was Nang Nak shot to allcompleted by Apichtime-high box-office atpong’s Loong Boonearnings (to be bromee Raluek Chat ken later) and spent (Uncle Boonmee Who years touring the fesCan Recall His Past tival circuit. The two Lives) in 2010. A lot films succeeded in happened between reconnecting the those two films, and audience—among then beyond. them the new middle On the surface, the class who had for a two films hardly share while displayed a a trait, let alone a cindeep-seated mistrust ematic ideology—one for inane local prois a gleefully lurid ductions—to the pastiche, the other a visual adaptation of metaphysical ponderfamiliar narratives ing in sober hues. On and made cinema a closer look, howev- Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger, “a mad cocktail of nostalgia and anachronism,” matter again among er, both films are introduced world audiences to Thai cinema with a resounding bang in 2001. Thais.


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and sci-fi/spiritual contemplation would later launch an ongoing debate on the meaning of “Thainess” in the globalized period when those themes reincarnated in different forms in his subsequent Tropical Malady. a Thai take on The Seven Year Itch. it looks like now. but it’s the root that he has always been looking for. and lunacy.S. which recounts the misfortune of a poor country singer. drew on the reservoir of old-fashioned storytelling tradition unique to Thai melodra- ma—radio plays. this casual defiance of being detained by the exactness of history and moment. Pen-ek would take his local wit and Thai in-jokes on an international expedition in Last Life In the Universe (2004) and Invisible Waves (2006).” culture—such effort belongs to the Thai Culture Ministry. Apichatpong made his Mysterious Object At Noon in 2000. followed by Blissfully Yours in 2002. but it was his two short films in the early 2000s that represented his homecoming rite. Sure. or identities. both starring Japanese characters lost in the Thai labyrinths. Syndromes and a Century. Siamese candor. Both movies. This timelessness. lovelorn banshees. especially the first. he went prepop and posteverything in his directorial debut that rocked Cannes yet tanked disastrously at home.. But while Nonzee’s image of vintage Thailand is a straightforward re-creation of lulling canals. we got the joke: here’s a very Thai narrative told with Thai wit (and beautiful Thai songs). Channeling his fetishistic passion for old Technicolored films. care. Aditya Assarat. Fall 2011 17 . Rather. and the elegantly lost past. Motorcycle (2000) is set in CINEASTE. This search for roots is not a conscious labor to return to the established. yet it has this dash of style that’s not quite culture-specific. or “official. it is a cosmology of Thai film history rebooted and retooled with a good mix of love. is well known for his post-tsunami ode Wonderful Town (and his new. and cooked up the cheerfully cynical Fun Bar Karaoke (1997) and 6ixtynin9 (1999). it’s an expedition of young men and women who’ve rummaged through the old boxes in the corner of the attic to find what’s still useful for their new ventures. but it might just as well be twenty or fifty years ago. At around the same time. Tears of the Black Tiger reaches back into the treasure trove of Siamese-cinema antics and flaunts its artificiality like a badge of honor. The filmmaker’s fusion of Third-World surrealism. earning selective releases in many territories—this was the early 2000s when Asian films were making an onslaught on the world stage—the long and giddy search for the identity. He had branched out. rural performances. It’s not an exhibition of nostalgia. Later on. kick-started by the two Nonzee films Wisit previously wrote. The most startling thing about the film.16 THAI FILMS2 8/12/11 10:55 AM Page 17 Apinya Sakuljaroensuk portrays the title character in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy (2007). that contributed to the collective search for our lost Eden. oral tales—as well as the formalism of Western experimental filmmaking. a reliable source of laughter and bewilderment. a Thai who grew up in the U. semiautobiographical Hi-So). But it was Monrak Transistor. before the filmmaker found the home-court advantage again in Ploy (2007) and Nymph (2009). Wisit’s own plan of rerooting went far beyond postcard realism and into metacinematic exploits. which was screened at the Directors’ Fortnight in 2002 and partly inspired by an old Thai musical film from the 1960s. Pen-ek Ratanaruang surveyed the wreckage of Thai genre films left smoldering after the gloom of the 1990s. and Uncle Boonmee. became the silent discourse among upcoming Thai directors at the turn of the century. The New York-educated Pen-ek halfjoked on several occasions that with Monrak Transistor he was remaking Woody Allen’s Radio Days in upcountry Thailand. is that we can’t pinpoint in which period the story is set. When that dementedly colorful film flopped at home yet thrilled (or bewildered) critics worldwide. And these boxes have yielded a disparate content. makes the film a precious memento of the past—like the transistor radio in the title—and also a shining relic of the present. of contemporary Thai cinema.

Fall 2011 . Uruels to the village of his old phong’s Agrarian Utopia. as well Mingmongkol Sonakul. lover. Thai noisy political promovies have exploittests that offer a bited recurring formuter critique of the las in slapstick comsociety without apedy starring TV pearing supercilious. and (granted.S. rative involves a farmer who Even Pen-ek’s Monrak receives the news of the Transistor. names. comedians. Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Monrak Transistor (2001) is a peculiar Trying to find the long Uruphong Raksasat seems blend of contemporary sensibility and stylized nostalgia. but because it’s touch of cynicism. While the mavericks were busy growers—rice. which proved that a Thai film could still fiction feature that distills the fifty years of Wisit. Told through two families of rice Black Tiger and other auteur films of that handsomely. and 2001.court Thai audiences. which proved that a hours of the bliss and agony of the farming today. is an example of Thai filmmakers’ penchant for gender-bending movies. the 2000s all took place in the bucolic farmland ried the whiff of a parallel universe. is fightand-elbow action ing for a fair share of showcases that rely screen time for the on the sweaty exoticountry’s most imcism of Thirdportant profession. In the film is bracketed by past decade. and also by Yongyour failed economic development into two course. the startling Agrarian Utopia (2009). Withof the mainstream moneyout having to make a detour making machine. This near-literal despite support from the attempt to reconnect with local cultural agency. Following the flop of Tears of the blatantly commercial endeavor could pay off existence. the complaint was that new Thai rerooting. from the director’s city for instance. In general. and. all of the poor Northeast by Apitchatpong’s films. with screens around the the arrival of Onglate 1970s. the skillful workmen of the multiancient monument of Southeast Asian glory filmmakers were making movies for foreign plex venues found their own way to bring much taken for granted by Southeast Asians audiences and bypassing the taste and pref. and Uruphong came another dis. those films to have carried his roots found the home padlocked around in his pocket. While the films mentioned above went slightly improved after Apichatpong’s big Uruphong’s series of short films in the mid. Of His farmers aren’t the more notable the stuff of nostalgia. Aditya tells the story disappointment at the of a country man who travBangkok box office. the decade-long ignorance was his brand of pastoral cinema is a synthesis of Love Thy Nation family history and neoclassical penchant.win at Cannes last year). In Waiting commercial flavor. a non. almost a crime for Pakpoom Wongcontemporary Thai poom and Banjong cinema to have forPisanthanakul made gotten them for so Yongyoot Thongkongtoon’s The Iron Ladies. had to “Thailand”—and not just wait over a year to get a “Bangkok”—is also manifest release on one screen. road home.filmmakers such as Apichatpong. ning Mundane History— Yet some filmmakers they exist on the periphery have never left home. what Bak and Tony Jaa in Uruphong did. is the period.around the world. If we a poor rural village—an look at the eight films environment very remote shown at the Asia Society. directors and he dusted them such as Yuthlert Sipoff from the attic papak wired those not because they’re elements with a old. only The Iron life—and the mournful narLadies made serious money. Thai horror films long. culminating in international acknowledgement of Thai by the popularity of Nonzee’s Nang Nak. which portrays a volleyball team made up of gay and transvestite men. which carried a death of his son. a 2002 film wise with Aditya’s Wonderabout an eventful bus trip to ful Town and Hi-So.Thai films into the local consciousness and to spin the wheel of themselves—the the industry. was a (2003). With the mainstream Thai film scene was enlivened of his northern hometown. who as Anocha Suwichakornalso spent years studying pong’s multiple award-winfilmmaking in the U. a series of fistis still doing. Uruphong reminds us.16 THAI FILMS2 8/12/11 10:55 AM Page 18 erences of the locals. one that continues not so silently oot’s The Iron Ladies. the narrative at home car. 18 CINEASTE. Pen-ek. ghost Movies about farmstories that rode on ers basically disapthe wave of Asian peared from Thai horror. across the continents. Likein Isan Special. World hard men.

Still. has built a cultlike following around his brand of gay comedy. Legend of King Naresuan Part 1 and Part 2 in 2007. the political climate in Thailand during the past decade.org/blissfullythai. Suriyothai was a phenomenon unseen before by Thai cinemagoers: it was huge in every respect. its record $17-million gross is unlikely to be broken in my lifetime. came to Bangkok and reedited Suriyothai for a U. because more Naresuan movies are coming out. we can glimpse the inner dialog that courses through contemporary Siamese cinema. As of last year. Fall 2011 19 . however. Upon its release. the topography of Thailand and its cinematic representation—esthetically. funded largely by tax money. a respected figure. after a long delay. Part 3. and a year after Mysterious Object at Noon. mobilized a troop of war elephants around it. The rerooting took on a literal approach and the reconnection with the (imagined?) glorious past received a nationalistic treatment in a series of historical epics. The question of “Thainess” is as intriguing as it is futile. especially when filmmakers like Apichatpong. the royal director erected a monument of official history populated by a kingly presence and dashing court warriors. when they’re not making films just for Thai people. Prince Chatrichalerm. including videos of talks with Apichatpong Weerasethakul. while there was a clear attempt by the authorities to promote this image of Thai cinema at the international level. and Pen-ek Ratanaruang. but for anybody who still cares about the possibility of cinema. Interestingly. Is the rerooting finished? Maybe. CINEASTE. and gay/ghost camp hybridity that’s as uniquely Thai as Apichatpong’s reincarnated monkey ghost. the three highestgrossing Thai films of all time are historical epics made by Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol—Suriyothai in 2001. and as tempting as it is unnecessary. Pairing Suriyothai with Monrak Transistor. anthropologically. Pen-ek. to an extent. 1 For further information on the Asia Society “Blissful- ly Thai” film series. our perennial cinematic villain. release. seriously. And while Pen-ek. Suriyothai came out the same year as Monrak Transistor and Tears of the Black Tiger. Wisit. and Poj Anont. and plastered it with the gold leaves of sixteenth-century palaces while the Burmese army. Sitting above all of this merry-go-round is something else entirely. despite the fact that these expensivelymade quasipropaganda and “official” cultural artifacts occupy a prominent place in the local consciousness and reflect. they were like national projects. In 2001. trashy ghost yarns.S. While Uruphong sang the song of rice in Agrarian Utopia. after the film was released.” this traditional interpretation easily won. and politically—doesn’t yield a neatly-wrapped conclusion. unheard of elsewhere. and. an old friend of Prince Chatricharlerm from their college years. or King Naresuan 1 and 2 with Agrarian Utopia or Ong-Bak. Mingmongkol Sonakul. and because Tony Jaa is shooting a new asskicking blockbuster with the aim to conquer the world. which was released this April (Part 4 and 5 are coming soon!). Like the study of other national cinemas. At times they seemed more than just movies.16 THAI FILMS2 8/12/11 10:55 AM Page 19 like Shutter that became global hits. probably the same way that Tears of the Black Tiger and Uncle Boonmee constituted the parentheses and outlined the scope of Thai movies of the past ten years. and Uruphong are testing so many real and imaginary borders of cinema that transcend nationality. Francis Ford Coppola. Maybe it never will be. these historical monuments seem understudied by critics in their discussion of New Thai Cinema. maybe not. stood watching (or smirking). Uncle Boonmee didn’t mark the end of the odyssey. visit the Asia Society Website at http://asiasociety. because the sirens are still calling. Suriyothai and the King Naresuan films were hardly seen outside the country. In the covert contest to define “Thainess. and. straightened that idea out. and Apichatpong seemed to be searching for the home of Thai cinema at a metaphysical or contextual level. Prachaya Pinkaew transformed cheap kickboxing flicks into lucrative exports.

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