Seeking Artist Expression: and the Reinvention of Contemporary Thai Cinema
It may not come as a surprise to learn that Thailand’s independent film scene was created during the midst of mainstream cinema boom or the so-called “Thai New Wave” of the late 90’s and early 2000’s as a response to newly commercialized studio system and a stance for artistic endeavors. This particular movement in film gave birth to some of the most important auteur filmmakers of Thailand including the only Thai Palme d’Or prize winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Tropical Malady), and Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe, Invisible Waves). These auteur filmmakers gave Thai independent cinema an international recognition without really having found one within their home country at the time.
Photo: 2010 Palme d’Or prize winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul). Kick the Machine.
Despite critical success of these films, most of them failed to do so commercially. This largely due to the fact that Thai independent films are considered to be “too artsy for the general audience” – however true that may be. It also doesn’t help that independent films are usually forced to have a limited release partly because a lot of them deal with political, religious and among many sensitive subjects in Thailand. With these limitations and censorship, productions of Thai independent cinema eventually declined in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s despite several international hits. In place, studio-produced films became massively popular across the nation, and the biggest success with one studio notably GMM Tai Hub also known as GTH Films (Bangkok Traffic Love Story, SuckSeed), later rebranded to GDH 559.
Times went on and the audiences, especially the younger generations, were seeking for something different – an alternative to the mainstream films. That’s where the sleeper hits came in and with them, two of the most important voices for this generation Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit (36; Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy) and Kongdej Jaturanrasamee (Tang Wong, Snap) – both of whom are seemingly able to walk between the line of accessibility and niche perfectly. While not massively, they found their passionate audiences within the studio system. Notably, films by the latter of whom are filled with subtle political undertones and considered the ongoing situations they were made in, it’s really quite impressive. For example, Snap (2015) tells a story of childhood friends (Theerachai Wimolchaireuk, Waruntorn Paonil) reuniting after being separated during Thailand’s 2008 political crisis, and in Where We Belong (2019) follows the everyday lives of two girls (Jennis Oprasert, Praewa Suthamphong) under the regime of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
Photo: Waruntorn Paonil and Theerachai Wimolchaireuk in Snap (2015, Kongdej Jaturanrasamee). TrueVisions Original Pictures.
The amount of critically-acclaimed and independently-produced Thai films has significantly increased during the mid-2010’s with upwards of 5-10 per year considering that Thailand only produces around 50-70 films in the same time frame. During that period, studio films suffered from a massive lose possibly due to the fact that the average moviegoers chose to consume the medium in the comfort of their homes. Ironically, low budget independent films actually were the ones that able to make profit. It also helped that theaters (mind you, only have a limited run) are the only place where you can be sure these films will play, and that might potentially increase ticket admissions since no one knows where the films will be after they are gone from the big screen. But what really drove people to the theaters for indie films is due to the fact that’s a lot of them is really controversial.
Most of the times, independent films with political subjects often end up being axed, put on a shelf, or the very least censored. Many agree that it’s one of the biggest threat to the return of Thai indie film scene, but political films are in high demand due to rapidly growing political frustration from the public. So, when making a film that deal with political issues, most filmmakers really needed to go out of their ways to ensure that their films can pass censorship – like, REALLY out of their ways. Unlike Kongdej’s filmography which is accessible because the stories themselves have nothing to do with politics, and generally are very much universal – albeit with divisive political subtexts, these new era of political-themed films are anything but. The most well-known out of all is probably Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Suphannahong best picture winner By the Time It Gets Dark (2016). It’s a non-chronological, avant-garde and metanarrative drama about the preparing, making a film about, and the actual events/aftermath of 1976 Thammasat University massacre while questioning the medium of film and filmmaking themselves with the reality and fiction parts all blended inextinguishable. It would be best described as something akin to Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) or Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990). The complexity of the narrative should save the film from censorship because it can be used by the filmmaker to dismiss any interpretations from the censorship board to be unintended. You can’t really censor it, if you don’t know what’s going on. However, By the Times It Gets Dark got pulled from theaters mid screening anyway possibly due to its unexpected popularity at that time.
Photo: By the Times It Gets Dark (2016, Anocha Suwichakornpong). Electric Eel Films.
Another recent example of independent filmmakers that utilized the techniques of avant-garde cinema to tell a story about politics is writer-turned-director Prabda Yoon with his 2017 psychological drama Someone from Nowhere. The film is an allegory for Thailand’s democratic government and its instabilities; set in a single-location in which an injured stranger (Peerapol Kijreunpiromsuk) shows up at a woman’s (Chayanit Chansangavej) luxury apartment claiming he has the rightful ownership of the place. Even though the setup sounds simple, how the story is told is quite unorthodox with things in-and-out of continuity, repeated scenes, and dialogues throughout the film for instance. As obvious as the plot sounds, the film screenings surprisingly went on with no problem from the authority. It may be because the film doesn’t overtly say anything, or even used political terms (with one exception; the use of the national anthem in a crucial moment of the film), and yet the political allegory of the film cannot be missed.
Photo: Peerapol Kijreunpiromsuk and Chayanit Chansangavej in Someone from Nowhere (2017, Prabda Yoon). TrueVisions Original Pictures.
However, the demand for films with heavy subjects didn’t just stop at fiction films, the documentary scene also saw a rise as well. Thailand is no stranger to documentary films even if the community is a little quiet. There have been some breakout hits over the years, but almost exclusively about musicians. Although, there were some that dealt with social issues like GTH’s Final Score (2007) that follows the lives of six students during the university entrance season (noted that many reviews criticized the film for leaving the 2006 O-NET/A-NET scandal concerning the misreport of the tests which effected 300,000 students at that time including the protagonists of the film, and trying to make the film fit into the brand’s feel-good films formula). Not until the past couple of the years where documentaries about social issues came back into the eyes of the public.
Wattanapume Laisuwanchai’s School Town King (2020) follows a 3-years journey of two teenagers living Bangkok’s slums with the dreams of becoming rappers and escape the environment filled with drugs, violence, and disdains from other people. Along with Nottapon Boonprakob’s New York School of Visual Arts thesis Come and See (2021) documents the events leading up to the military siege of the controversial Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple. Both of them were at the risks from the censor board at one point, but with the public’s preemptive backlashes against the agency, nothing has happened. The films eventually met with critical and moderate commercial success despite being in the theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo: School Town King (2020, Wattanapume Laisuwanchai). Eyedropper Fill.
This kind of artistic expressions that challenges the authority has became really apparent lately, and it’s only getting bolder and weirder. There are two similar films gaining traction in film festivals aboard right now; both coincidentally were in black and white. One was the return of By the Time It Gets Dark director Anocha Suwichakornpong in her latest film Come Here (TBD, pictured at the top of the page) which premiered at 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. The plot of Come Here is said to about a group of friends on a trip visiting Kanchanaburi’s “Death Railway” and strange things later happens. The director has said that the film questions love in a country where love is valued less than patriotism. Another film was competed for 2021 Rotterdam International Film Festival grand prize (although didn’t made it), Taiki Sakpisit’s feature film debut The Edge of Daybreak (TBD) has been vaguely described as a story about a family’s post traumatic distress from Thailand’s political unrest that spans across 40 years – more specifically the events of 1973 students uprising and 2006 Thai coup d’état. Based on the teaser, the film might be presented in a surrealistic Lynchian horror manners, even shot in black and white, but the most terrifying about it is whether or not it will be released in the country with the original vision kept intact.
Photo: Manatsanun Panlertwongskul in The Edge of Daybreak (TBD, Taiki Sakpisit) 185 Films.
Whatever it may be, the future of Thai cinema looks certainly bright. The decline of domestic mainstream cinema of the past ten years forced the industry to reinvent themselves, and not just within the independent scene either. A lot of mainstream Thai films are in production with either foreign companies, or filmmakers. Arguably, the biggest collaboration happened in 2016 with the creation of CJ Major Entertainment; a joint film production company shared between Thailand’s Major Cineplex theater chain/film studios and South Korean media powerhouse CJ Entertainment & Media with the sole purpose of adapting South Korean films for Thai audiences such as remaking 2001 South Korean romantic drama Bungee Jumping of Their Own into Dew the Movie (2019), and The Classic (2014) to Classic Again (2020), etc. Although, this is not the only international joint of CJ Entertainment as they also done similar things in Vietnam, China, and other places.
Photo: Ranchrawee Uakoolwarawat in Thai remake Classic Again (2020, Thatchaphong Suphasri) CJ Major Entertainment.
The movement towards international collaboration can also be seen with GDH films. Perhaps one of the most anticipated Thai film of year, director Nattawut Poonpiriya’s follow up to the international mega hit Bad Genius (2017) – One for the Road (2021). The film fully embraces the spirit of American indie road trip cinema which it also appropriately premiered at the biggest American independent film festival – Sundance. The film did very well with American and international audiences in the festival despite being only one of the few foreign films shown there. One thing worth mentioning about the film is that the acclaimed Hong Kong auteur filmmaker Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express) was on board as the producer of the film. Similarly, renowned Thai horror film director Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter, Pee-mak) teams up with South Korea’s Na Hong-jin (The Wailing, The Chaser) for the Thai director’s return to straight horror (with little or no comedic elements) in The Medium (TBD). The film centers around shamanism in the Northeastern region of Thailand. There also have been rumors about the film being a remake of Na Hong-jin’s critically-acclaimed 2016 film, The Wailing since the plot loosely mirrors each other; but nothing has been confirmed at this point. Both of these productions closely resemble Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s pan-Asian model in Last Life in the Universe (2003) and Invisible Waves (2006) where he brought on board actors and filmmakers from Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea to expand the films into international markets.
Photo: The Medium (TBD, Banjong Pisanthanakun) GDH 599.
Lastly, internationally recognized auteur director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his production company Kick the Machine is making their first English-language film set in Columbia starring Tilda Swinton titled “Memoria” (TBD). So, it may not count as a Thai film, but it still technically is. The film was announced in 2018 with principle photography shot in the following year. The plot is unknown at the moment. There have been high hopes for the film since the last few times Thai filmmakers made English-speaking films, they had not exactly been great with Elephant White (2011) by Prachya Pinkaew (Ong-bak, the Protector) and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002) by Wych Kaosayananda (Fah). The latter of which is considered one of the worst films of all time with 0% on Rotten Tomatoes from over a hundred critics.
Photo: Memoria (TBD, Apichatpong Weerasethakul) NEON.
The reason why this article was written is to show that – no, the future of Thai films is not bleak. In fact, it probably one of the most exciting times for Thai cinema ever. There are way too many people losing faith in the industry, but never really making an effort to see what’s out there. Thai filmmakers are taking risks such as challenging censorship and expanding out of their comfort zone – even from the big studios and that is more than one could say for Hollywood right now. The Thailand’s film industry provides over a hundred thousand people working and their families. So, it’s a good idea to support them, not for the sake of it, but rather for the love of it. Finally, if you seek artistic expression and filmmaking is your passion, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t pursuit it. Everyone is waiting to see what you can do.