By Kong Rithdee
It's no longer prophetic, and probably superfluous, to repeat that Thai cinema has come of age through the thick and thin of the past 10 years. In terms of GDP, this 80-year-old industry has matured into a sector that generated an average domestic revenue of one billion baht each year during the later part of the decade, plus a handsome windfall of a couple of hundred million baht from the international market; Tony Jaa, if no one else, is better known in LA, Cape Town and Tokyo than our successively short-lived prime ministers.
In terms of artistic contribution, a handful of independent Thai filmmakers have toured film festivals around the globe haloed with the aura of respected, if not revered, artists, despite the fact that their films do not curry hearty favour with Thai audiences - and conservative-leaning Thai cultural agencies.
As the government is pushing for the cool-sounding "creative economy" with a five-billion-baht budget, the time is ripe for reviewing a list of factors, positive and negative, that have influenced the local filmmaking practice of the past 10 years. If anything, the experience of the recent decade demonstrated that Thai movies have developed many personalities, some commercial and others not, and that for the policy-makers to encourage the rush of homegrown creativity a lot of understanding and open-mindedness are urgently required.
Earlier this week, the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, in cooperation with Thai Film Foundation, presented a paper titled "The Future of Thai Cinema", prepared by Sanchai Chotiroseranee. Some data from the research is quoted here, along with our own analysis.
Mainstream cinema: Nationalism and droll ghosts
Take a look at the highest-grossing Thai films of all time (table 1). The top three - Suriyothai (2001), and the two Legend of King Naresuan movies (2007) - were mainstream productions that, however, existed outside the regular playing fields of struggling filmmakers. The government admittedly bankrolled those movies and mounted large-scale, nationwide promotional campaigns based on historical nationalism that resulted in their phenomenal revenues unlikely to be surpassed by any picture in the near future (if not forever).
Ranked at No. 5 is Bang Rajan (2000), a historical epic based on the same theme of ancient rivalry and ferocious patriotism. And though not on the Top Ten list, the animation Khan Kluay, about the cerulean elephant of King Naresuan and his battles with a demonic Burmese tusker, was the top-grosser in 2006 with 98 million baht.
Such a chivalrous mood, judging from the contemporary political climate, is still pervasive. At the moment, King Naresuan 3 and 4 are being filmed, again with government coins. The Ministry of Culture, in its recent statement upon being allotted 500 million baht to drive the creative economy, made clear that it would likely prioritise its financial support to films that deal with promoting loyalty to the pillars of nation, religion and monarchy.
Throughout the decade, another pattern has heralded its dominance to the delight of many and ridicule of others. Horror and comedy (or even better, comedy horror) starring TV comedians represent sound business decisions for producers during the time of a shaky economy.
Remember that the new dawn of the Thai film industry began in 1997, right at the epicentre of the global economic crisis. Now in 2009, the industry has weathered enough storms to realise that in troubled times, the surefire strategy is to give the audience just what they want instead of guiding them down an unknown path; thus light comedy and fatuous ghost films are the safest bets. Roughly they made up the rest of the Top Ten list - with two of them, Phobia 2 and the romantic comedy Bangkok Traffic Love Story, released recently this year.
Since 2005, around 45 to 50 Thai films have been made each year. About half of them are either ghost or comedy flicks, followed by another emerging winner: action movie featuring martial arts. It was the three Tony Jaa vehicles, Ong-Bak (2003), Tom-Yum-Goong (2006) and Ong-Bak 2 (2008), each of them raking in over 100 million baht at home and the same amount, sometimes more, abroad, that spearheaded the movement.
Yet what's lacking in mainstream Thai cinema in the past 10 years is variety and the sense of urgency to bring contemporary issues into focus. No political films despite the liveliest politics, for example, and hardly films that represent regional issues and interests - Thai films, unlike 30 years ago, have become strictly middle-class, Bangkok-centric affairs. As political scientist Sirote Klampaiboon said in this month's research by Thai Film Foundation: "When you watch foreign films, you feel that the world is so wide and open. When you watch Thai films, you feel the world is so narrow."
Without a doubt, creativity has thrived more intensely among independent filmmakers since the floodgates opened 10 years ago with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon, which showed that there are alternative, inexpensive ways to make movies besides acquiescing to the studios. Paradoxically, these non-mainstream moviemakers struggle to make films by relying on foreign grants and private connection, and their films are often screened at special functions without reaching a wider public.
When indie movie Wonderful Town staged a coup by winning Best Picture at last year's Supannahongsa Award, a glittering industry event that traditionally ignored non-studio productions, the profile of small, self-made Thai films was slightly uplifted. To general viewers, however, these "arty" films (an unfair and usually inaccurate label) remain at best a cultural curiosity.
At both local and international levels, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is the icon of the indie spirit who has pursued his unique cinematic vision that has its roots in his personal memories, rural lore, and a discipline of refined formalism. His films Blissfully Yours (2001) and Tropical Malady (2004) both won awards at Cannes Film Festival, though the former suffered a nasty cut by the Thai distributor who agreed to release it before actually seeing the film, while the latter was screened at limited venues in Bangkok. Apichatpong's 2008 film Syndromes and a Century sowed heated debates when the censorship board ordered four scenes to be cut, prompting massive protests from media NGOs as well as industry professionals.
The incident, a real as well as symbolic clash between the fortified conservatism and the liberal demand for artistic freedom, played a role in speeding up the long-delayed Film Act and the ratings system (see below). Apichatpong is now shooting his new film in Isan; it is financed solely by foreign producers.
Digital filmmaking is the most consequential factor that engendered the fresh profusion of storytelling of the 2000s. Thai filmmakers like Ing K, Manit Sriwanichpoom, Pimpaka Towira, Thunska Pansittivorakul, Uruphong Raksasat, Anocha Suwichakornpong and others, have in the past 10 years made digital films, both short and long, that deal with social, contemporary and regional issues, increasingly with frank political expression.
Some of them got support from the Ministry of Culture, though not always enough. The problem with distribution persists to this day, since multiplex chains didn't deign to screen films with little commercial prospects, yet with the advent of alternative cinemas like House and Lido, non-studio films have, to an extent, found refuge in the past five years.
Throughout the decade, the event that staunchly promotes budding creative minds has been the Thai Short Film and Video Festival. Every year, especially in the past six, seven editions, the festival has established itself as a bubbling nucleus of youthful energy and an important gathering of independent filmmakers from around the country.
Sadly, the festival usually received paltry support from the Culture Ministry despite its ever-growing influence and non-profit purposes. Many filmmakers who went on to make successful feature-length films (including the directors of Shutter, Fan Chan, Wonderful Town, Mysterious Object at Noon, and more) presented their films at this festival back in early 2000s. If creativity begins with young minds, this is where it all begins.
The search for contemporary culture
Does Thai culture have room - or rather, a stomach - for contemporary representation? To rephrase: Is contemporary Thai culture an alien concept? When the Culture Ministry was founded in 2002, with Uraiwan Thienthong as the first minister, it quickly set about erecting the traditional art forms on a nostalgic, nationalistic pedestal and virtually isolated "new", non-conformist expressions to the wasteland of non-culture. Eight years later, it seems like the ministry, through its well-meaning yet sometimes baffling Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, is still struggling to define the image of "contemporary Thai culture".
Thai movies, over the past decade, are at the forefront of this soul-searching. Should a film that doesn't promote "Thainess" in a narrow-minded sense be officially championed? In the world of globalised influences and cross-border inspirations, does the attempt to stick a nationalistic label through simple means and closed-in outlook still work? These questions have haunted the infrastructure of our cultural promotion during the past decade - and will continue to do so in the next one.
The scourge of censorship
Should we repeat this? Censorship was - and is - the devil that undermines free-thinking - creativity. After many complaints and protests against double standards, whimsical arbitrariness and generally perplexing decisions, the new Film Act was approved in June 2008 to replace the one that had been used since 1930. Yet the new law, in practice, doesn't do away with censorship.
In August this year, the ratings system was introduced (over a decade later than, say, Malaysia or the Philippines). Intended to work as a guideline for parents, the system stipulates seven ratings: General, 13-plus, 15-plus, 18-plus, 20-plus (which requires ID check), a ban, and the "P" rating for films deserving to be promoted by the state.
After five months, confusion arose. At least three Thai films were instructed by the seven-man committee to cut scenes or risked being banned (including a scene about southern unrest and an allusion to the Oct 6, 1976 massacre). Another film was banned from showing at the World Film Festival of Bangkok for its inclusion of a clip of the Tak Bai incident. And yet another film, due to hit the screen soon, has been instructed to include warning captions throughout - this is in the cinema, not DVD - regarding its depictions of certain dubious behaviours of Buddhist monks.
Under this quaint new law, films made by film students as assignments for their lecturers will have to go through the censorship board, likewise all the 600 short films usually screened (to very limited audiences) at a short film festival. Also, Thai films to be sent to international film festivals will have to be sanctioned first by the committee (which wasn't the case with the old law).
To filmmakers, these rules are picky, impractical, and they find it hard to believe that the law and its enforcers are truly sincere about promoting Thai creative products. Without clearing up all the misunderstandings, the new law will create more headaches and obstacles in the years to come, an obstruction on the path of the government's own plan for our creative force.
Screen savers: The multiplex factor
According to the report by Sanchai Chotiroseranee, there are now 136 multiplexes in Bangkok, offering altogether 616 screens. This is, by a modest estimate, over a 50 percent increase from year 2000. Excluding "second-class" cinemas specialising in soft-core flicks, there are now only two stand-alone theatres left, Siam and Scala.
Despite a large number of screens and hiking ticket prices, these theatre chains, ruled by Major Cineplex and SF Cinema, do not serve up a rich variety of films. More screens don't translate into more diverse kinds of movies.
Small Thai films that deserve a wider audience find it hard, if not impossible, to penetrate the lucrative slots occupied by big Hollywood releases. Sometimes SF and Major struck deals with independent filmmakers for limited release of their films (like Wonderful Town), but the short shelf-life usually didn't allow word of mouth to travel. Even Thai studio films sometimes find it exhausting to compete with new American blockbusters - hence the glut of Thai comedy and ghost films to snatch back multiplex screens.
Multiplexes are thus increasingly influential in shaping the taste of Thai audiences. Alternative cinemas such as House, established in 2005, and the veteran Lido, indeed offer choices, yet they represent less than 0.5 percent of the number of total screens in Bangkok. If creativity comes with diversity, this is another area that the government must look into as we step into the new, more competitive decade.