Thailand's New Wave

by Noy Thrupkaew

Transgender camp, Buddhist ghost stories, tales of nationalist
struggle, a dip into Thailand's porntastic underworld: Filmgoers at
the second ThaiTakes film festival in New York watched a wild,
puzzling brew of Thailand's latest cinema over the course of four days
in April. As speakers at the festival noted, Thai film has entered a
coltish adolescence -- the promise of greatness wobbling atop spindly
legs. Put on by a nonprofit U.S. organization dedicated to furthering
understanding of Thailand and its diasporic communities, ThaiTakes
reflected both Thai cinema's enticing potential and its struggles with
a rigid studio system, lack of funding, and an onslaught of Hollywood
movies.

"For a long, long time, film in Thailand was only business,
merchandise," said Chalida Uambumrungjit, the founder of the Thai Film
Foundation, an organization centered on expanding Thailand's cinematic
culture through screenings, film festivals, and publications.

Thai cinema's awkward growth spurt out of commercialism began in
2001, when Wisit Sansanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger became an
unlikely hit at Cannes. A Technicolor homage to 1950s-era Thai film,
traditional likay drama, and the works of Sergio Leone, Sasanatieng's
pad-Thai western helped pave the way for other Thai directors,
including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose second Cannes-award-winning
film will open in the States this summer.

The harbingers of the Thai new wave, the darlings of international
critics, these experimental films were labeled the country's greatest
cinematic successes -- and became commercial bombs at home. Controlled
by an artistically conservative studio system, Thai mainstream cinema
has largely consisted of showy epics like The Legend of Suriyothai,
wildly melodramatic love stories, or horror films that are little but
showcases for the acting talents of the country's blowflies, maggots,
and carrion-eating vermin. Unaccustomed to the distinctly nonlinear
charms of the so-called new wave, production companies had no idea how
to market the movies, and despite their international acclaim, the
films tanked in Thailand.

Thai films face external challenges as well -- audiences have
become more attuned to Hollywood rhythms and story arcs than
experimental ones, and cinemas often push even mainstream Thai films
out of the way to make room for the latest Tinseltown Twinkie.

"Today's films have no creative signature," Weerasethakul told
Asian cinema magazine Firecracker. "Thais tolerate so much that we
absorb a lot of foreign styles: roman architecture, TV soap opera. So
Thailand is increasingly a 'mixing bowl' and consequently I don't
think Thai film has a clear identity."

Not surprisingly, the Thai cinema industry has yielded films that
are inordinately interested in figuring out just what they are -- and
often look backward to do it, drawing on old legends, history, and a
pastiche of other media to create new narratives. ThaiTakes closer
Nang Nak, for example, uses an oft-filmed ghost story to create a dark
meditation on attachment, perception, and the destructive sadness of
undying love. The Adventure of Iron Pussy, a more commercial venture
by Weerasethakul, is a deliciously odd musical that features monstrous
ruffled shirts, go-go boots, and a dynamite transgendered superwoman.
Weerasethakul plays his heroine relatively straight, however, choosing
to spoof old Thai films and tacky public-service announcements rather
than the gender identity of Ms. Pussy. In one hilarious scene, Iron
Pussy confronts a man literally foaming at the mouth and holding a
woman hostage on a pier. "Don't do drugs!" Iron Pussy proclaims --
Nancy Reagan gone Thai drag queen.

Siam Renaissance takes a more serious look into the past, focusing
on a turbulent time in Thai history, when colonial powers seemed to be
closing in on the country. Thailand became the only country in
Southeast Asia to escape colonization through dint of diplomatic
maneuvering, sharp elbows, ceded land, and its convenient location as
a buffer zone between the English and French empires in the region.
Siam's heroine is a modern-day Thai woman who went to school in
France; somehow, she has gained the ability to move back in time, to
when Siam's leaders were busy furrowing their brows over how to
maintain their independence. The film is a clumsy sprawl marred by
shudderingly bad acting, but it provides a fascinating declamation on
one brand of Thai nationalism today.

"We prefer anything the Westerners want," the heroine explains to
her aghast ancestors. "We want to be them and refuse to accept
ourselves . we accept all but ourselves." She herself is conflicted, a
confused child of Thailand and the West (the actor herself is Thai and
Caucasian, a tellingly popular combination for movie stars in
Thailand), and ultimately finds refuge from Thailand's modern-day
metaphoric colonization in its besieged past. Her flight from the
present is a somewhat troubling and myopic prescriptive, only
alleviated by the fact that she has used her Western education on
things Thai to aid her ancestors.

The shorts that emerged out of the October Youth Film Project -- a
collaboration between Thai and Thai-American historians and film
activists -- focus on a more recent piece of history: the two rounds
of student protests and the police crackdowns in October 1973 and
October 1976. Rebelling against Thailand's harsh military government,
the country's students faced brutal retaliation for their political
beliefs, and some were gunned down in the streets. The project tapped
Thai high-school and college students to make short films about the
protests. Perhaps the most provocative is The Wall, in which passersby
comment on the protests by spraying graffiti on a concrete edifice
while a running voice-over provides some historical context on the
October events. "If they weren't there then, you wouldn't be here
now," writes one pedestrian. Another scrawls, "I don't care because
I'm starving," before a monk writes, "Land of forgiveness."

Several of the films play on familiar genres, including Fan Chan, a
charming, if slightly overlong, commercial coming-of-age story
directed by a handful of young directors who are recent graduates of
Chulalongkorn University. One-Night Husband is an intriguing neo-noir
with a feminist slant; the film is more about the relationship between
two women of different socioeconomic backgrounds than an investigation
into the disappearance of the titular spouse.

But perhaps the most fascinating film at the festival was Sayew, an
impossible-to-categorize and often quite funny offering focused on the
trials and tribulations of Tao, a tomboyish virgin who writes smut for
her uncle's dirty magazine. Sayew's characters include the nice older
man who writes the sexy-lady-doctor column for the mag, the slimy
young rogue who pens far more explicit stories than Tao could ever
dream of, and a Buddhist monk who asks to be removed from his room
next to a prostitute's love nest -- how can he finish his sutras with
all the ruckus? The creation of sensual fantasy, the wallowing in it,
the renunciation of it -- Sayew plays all these strategies out while
undercutting them with radio and TV voice-overs announcing rising
tensions between democracy activists and the Thai government in the
early 1990s. In this tantalizingly elliptical fashion, the film seems
to critique the ways in which we divorce ourselves from political
events, need to create parallel realms that keep us from acting in our
truly disturbing reality.

The film's end betrays its prior complexity somewhat, with Tao
seeming to settle for a picture-perfect, unruffled life, before
sticking us with a final quirk: What if even this conclusion is a
comforting fabrication? The film hasn't laid quite enough groundwork
for that final subversive moment to have lasting, retroactive
resonance. But, in all, Sayew is one of the more intriguing films I've
seen this year, the sort of genre-bending movie that is both
entertaining and experimental. As Thai cinema finds its legs,
hopefully this is the kind of work that will find support in
Thailand's indigenous film culture -- a movie that flirts with
commercial tropes and experimental inconclusiveness, that entertains
multiple narratives of "Thai-ness" even as it transcends the local,
that balances subtle social critique with ass jokes. Like the other
Thai films at the festival, Sayew may not have a clear cinematic
identity -- but it scarcely needs it, either.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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