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cinemas of the south

New Thai Cinema
By Anchalee Chaiworaporn

Thai cinema had long been demeaned as a low-grade cultural product by educated, urban audiences in Thai society. Bad plots, nonsensical scripts, exaggerated performance and poor production were appreciated only by rural, low-class audiences. Storylines often revolve around four generic formulae of comedy, horror, drama, and action in order to be prevented from box office failure. It is no surprise that the target of movie going culture in Thailand has distinctly been classified into two groups. While in Bangkok and very few major cities, there have been a steady investment in the building of modern multiplex cinemas, and audiences were offered a variety of films reflecting new tastes and quality films, in upcountry Thailand most theatres are still run-down stand alone cinemas, where audiences are offered movies only as mass entertainment. Besides, the Thai film industry is a society that has many times been involved with dark power, in comparison to other kinds of mass media - print or broadcasting - so young, energetic people preferred not to waste their time with it.

Fun Bar Karaoke (Fan ba karaoke, 1997).
Fun Bar Karaoke (Fan ba karaoke, 1997)

There have, however, been two sparkling times in the eighty-three-year history of Thai cinema (since the first filmmaking Suvarna of Siam in 1923) when the industry enjoyed some major changes. Coincidentally, both periods were joined by young, emerging filmmakers who were able to attract educated, urban groups to go to the cinema. The first wave came in the 1970s when the intellectuals entered the film industry and made the so-called 'socially critical cinema'. This emergence needs to be understood in parallel to the change of the country's politics and culture, triggered by two major political upheavals: the student uprisings of October 14th 1973 and the attack on demonstrating students on October 6th 1976. In the same way as the youth counterculture spreading in the West in the 1960s, Thai students used pop culture as a medium to present their own ideology and standpoints. The movie was one of them, and social issues were taken as the key contents by those emerging filmmakers whose backgrounds transcended from university, political movements, journalism, as well as some from the advertising field. Some noted directors in this period included Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol, Vichit Kunavuthi, Euthana Mukdasanit, Manob Udomdej, and Permpol Choei-arun.

A decade after that, the industry went down into the gloom with the flood of poor-quality teen flicks until 1997 when three television advertising men were coincidentally marching to make their first features. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang startled the Thai film world when his directorial debut, the quirky contemporary drama Fun Bar Karaoke (Fan ba karaoke, 1997) premiered in Berlin - and he thus became an overnight success. While Fun Bar Karaoke was waiting for local release, the industry also welcomed fellow newcomer Nonzee Nimibutr, whose nostalgic directorial debut Dang Bailey and the Young Gangsters (1997) was a huge hit with Thai audiences across generations and not surprisingly broke all-time Thai box office records. And near the year's end, yet another new director from the Thai advertising industry, Hong Kong-born Oxide Pang, entered the field with Who Is Running? (1997)

The second new-wave however represents some distinct features far from those the first new wave had. While the earlier tackles the social and political contents, the latter freely goes into different directions, from the commercial-ridden genres to the highly-valued experimental. This in fact creates the merits of diversities in the present Thai film scenarios, better known as New Thai Cinema.

Tears of the Black Tiger (2000).
Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)

The Starters: Television Advertising Directors

TV commercial directors are still at the forefront in the development of New Thai Cinema. In fact they were the main triggers who boosted the international fame of Thai films more than ever in their history, after the emergence of those three musketeers, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Nonzee Nimibutr, and Oxide Pang (later joined by his twin brother Danny).

Wisit Sasanatieng, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's colleague at the advertising studio The Film Factory, put his color-splashing auteur style in Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) to pay homage to the old Thai B-grade action film, and was the first Thai film to go to Cannes. His exaggerated use of color was repeated in detailing the lives of two country people trying to struggle in a big city of Bangkok in Citizen Dog (2004). He has now been listed as one of the most talented Asian directors, with his next two projects Namprix and Armful to be co-produced by France's EuropaCorp and Singapore's One Ton Cinema respectively.

Yongyoot Thongkongtoon's directorial debut Iron Ladies (2000), expanded the border of Thai cinema, from festival circuits to commercial markets. The story of real-life transvestite volleyball-players, achieved the sales slot almost everywhere it went, from Asia to Europe, the US , and South America . Yongyoot makes it clear for his directing vision to give a preference on mainstream moviemaking. After Iron Ladies, he made Iron Ladies 2, sequel-plus-prequel of Iron Ladies 1, and M.A.I.D (2004), the story of four maids tapped by ex-police to spy their high-class bosses. His comic plots and good acting by famous stars often urged local audiences to rush to see his works. It is no surprise that Yongyoot, as well as his shareholder-cum-director Jira Maligul (Mekhong Full Moon Party (2002), The Tin Mine (2005) in the noted advertising studio Hub Ho Hin, to become executive members for one of the country's best studio GTH.

Iron Ladies (2000).
Iron Ladies (2000)

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, one of the 1997 legend's pioneers, always opened new records of Thai cinema overseas. After his directorial debut Fun Bar Karaoke, he made Sixtynine (1999), Monrak Transistor (2002), Last Life in the Universe (2003), and Invisible Wave (2006). Monrak Transistor opened as the Thai debut in Cannes' Directors Fortnight, Last Life in the Universe in Venice, and Invisible Waves (2006) in Berlin's competition. Monrak Transisor repeats the colour-splashed use of images, partly influenced by Wisit Sassanathieng's Tears of the Black Tiger, in telling a dramatic life of a country-boy who wants to be a singer. Last Life in the Universe becomes a slow-pace, detailed attention, and inner-feel-good atmosphere in detailing the loss of lonely people, this time a Japanese man in Bangkok . His recent film Invisible Waves , a film noir of a sushi chef whose destiny is changed by his murder and guilt, provides off-scene violence and counter-film-noir paradoxes. So no blood, almost none of fighting scenes, can be seen throughout. Today Pen-Ek is more to be known as an international director, after his last two works were shot by Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle and starring by Japanese hot throb Asano Tadanobu.

Nonzee Nimibutr is currently slung back from his visual-ridden spectacles in his earlier works Dang Bailey and Young Gangsters and Nang Nak (1999) to unclear visions. In the beginning, he seemed to go in the direction of visual heavyweight, few dialogues, genre structure, gangster and horror respectively. He pertained to make big changes in his third work Jan Dara (2001), by using a dramatic plot of a man being grown up in a house reek of sex, and the fourth film Baytong (2003) employing an anti-climatic narrative of a monk trying to spend an ordinary life. Today, he is doing both directing and producing jobs for his own production company Cinemasia.

The Main Course: Horror, Action and Comedy

Unfortunately, despite the emergence of challenging directors and films in the last decade, the majority of annual releases (around 30- 40 titles) are still occupied with old popular genres like action, slapstick and horror. During the decline of Thai cinema between mid-1980 and 1996 when teen flicks became the main products, these old genres were made into B-grade 16mm films to be targeted only at rural audiences. The recent boom of Thai cinema does not help much in developing these stereotypes. Instead, the majority of filmmakers only expand these generic elements into bigger screens. Weak plotting, scripting and acting problems continue, while only production has improved.

Therefore, the Thai film culture today look like this. Horror - all kinds of ghosts - were made and stormed into more than half of the annual releases. Above all, these flicks are also sold well overseas. Truly speaking, besides the art houses works made by a few established directors, the Thai films that are made the waves outside Thailand all fall into horror and action.

Last Life in the Universe (2003).
Last Life in the Universe (2003)

Thai action has been registered at the world market only in the past recent years, through the kickboxing arts in Ong Bak: the Muay thai Warrior (2003). It helped boost Thai film at the world level, even more than Yongyoot Thongkongthun's Iron Ladies, especially after being distributed in North America, Europe and Australia through Luc Besson's EuropaCorp trademark. New action star Tony Jaa becomes an action icon, following the footsteps of Hong Kong's action stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li. He goes into an international spotlight with his authentic Thai kickboxing arts and, most importantly, younger ages. His tight muscles and embracing actions inevitably force into the making of the sequel Tom Yam Goong (2005).

Indeed Ong Bak and Tom Yam Goong only transcended from the prototype of B-grade Thai action into bigger, well-made pictures. They used the same crews in those B-grade Thai action products that used to be made and screened in small theatres in rural areas. Tony Jaa once worked as a stuntman while the choreographer Panna Ritthikrai was former action stars and directors.

Last but not least is comedy. Each year some comedies can hit the box office jackpots, especially those starring the country's famous comedians. In fact, while the star popularity is getting decline today, comedians are still the hits. Comedians are priced by producers, and have become the most expensive actors. Many of them directed movies themselves. However, comedy can sell well, only at the local market due to indigenous gags that can attract only Thais.

The Side Dish: Alternative/Independents and New Generations

Along with the mainstream movement, 1997 was also an active year for an alternative film culture. Several other activities were organized (see box). These activities provided spaces for the Thai alternative filmmaking, which also expanded from film students to unlimited, wider groups. Today, even young children are also making shorts.

Tropical Malady.
Tropical Malady (2004)

The independent idol Aphichatpong Weerasethakul first appeared to the Thai public with these small festivals in 1997, while he was studying filmmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2004, he made a legend by bringing the first Thai film Tropical Malady to enter the official competition in Cannes and won Special Jury Prize. About the same time, two commercial films by new directors The Shutter and My Girl also ushered in the brighter road for young filmmakers whose experiences are involved only shorts or alternative filmmaking. In 2003, My Girl, made by the first film of six directors, Adisorn Trisirikasem, Komgrit Treewimol, Nithiwat Tharathorn Songyos Sukmakanan, Wicha Kojew, and Witthaya Thongyooyong, became a surprise hit with the taking of US$3.3 million. In 2004, The Shutter features many characteristics that My Girl used to have in 2003.

Today, young generations have two options to make their films: by going to the mainstreams or independents. In the mainstream circle, they can start make their directorial debut right away instead of spending a number of years starting from the lowest jobs before climbing to directing like in the past. However, their first opportunities are still limited only to some popular genres, again horror.

Many others young filmmakers then decide to follow their hero Aphichatpong to go independent. Realistically enough, the Thai independent groups still suffer from either on financial support and cinematic creativity. Only Aphichatpong can ignore domestic investment by requesting for foreign funds. Other independents still spend their own pockets or only make movies under special corporate projects such as short films by a mobile phone company Nokia. Ironically, a lot of these so-called independents do not really make their works with the best cinematic creativity. In fact, many of them turn into "the indie" because their projects are rejected by studios. Thus it is really hard to say that Thai independent filmmakers bring out alternative approach to develop Thai cinema as a whole.

One Night Husband (2003).
One Night Husband (2003)

The rise of Thai cinema also elaborates in the works of veteran and women directors. Some of them have returned to the film industry, and made some noted films. The first New Waver Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol came back and changed his socially-critical to an epic approach in Legend of Suriyothai (2001), telling the life of a Thai queen who engaged in politics and battles for the throne in 16th century. The movie became the legend itself as, funded by the Queen of Thailand, the most expensive and the top of all-time grossers. Another veteran Thanit Jitnukul also made a remarkable epic Bang Rajan (2000), detailing the solidarity of Siamese villagers who fight against the Burmese occupation of 1765.

Women also share the pie in this emergence. While there was not even one single record about women directors in the previous decades, there have been more than a dozen of them entering the film industry today. They come from different backgrounds and create a variety of styles, from film genres to experimental. Unfortunately most of them joined the circle only at a temporary state - having one work with a few going to direct a second film. Some of these women were given directorial opportunities only due to the ability in acting directing, leaving technical jobs to male producers.

However, there are only two women who are still active in the circle today. Mingmongkol Sonakul silently made her first independent project I-san Special (2002) with a budget of US$75,000, and co-directed a documentary 3 Friends. She has also been involved with big producing jobs like Pen-Ek Rattanarueng's Invisible Waves and Jira Maligul's The Tin Mine.

Experimental shorts queen Pimpaka Tohveera made a compromise with the studio GMM Pictures in her directorial debut One Night Husband (2003), a story about a young woman who just gets to know her husband's secret after his absence in the wedding night. However, she decides to go back to her independent route for her second project - a documentary about a Thai female activist.

Some critics say that the number of good Thai directors is very limited. But there has never been any such time in the Thai film history that Thai cinema would reach such a peak of diversities and production quality. This current entity however makes the Thai film industry one to be closely watched.

Anchalee Chaiworaporn






Adventures and    Misadventures
North African Cinema
   Tendencies, Perspectives

Western Africa
   Perpetual Renewal

Ousmane Sembene
   The Elder of Elders

Souleymane Cissé
   The Right of Expression

   South America

Brazilian cinema
   Writing the speech

Diegues on Rocha
   A Dream That Came True

Nelson Pereira dos Santos
   Making Films with People

The Re-birth
   of Brazilian Cinema

Fernando Solanas
   A Profile

The Aesthetics of the    New Argentinean Cinema
Pablo Trapero
   Family Pictures

   Southern Asia

A Short History
   of Pakistani Films

A Brief History
   of Cinema in Thailand

New Thai Cinema
Lester James Peries
   A Pioneer of a Tradition