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The rippling waves of new cinema

By Boonrak Boonyaketmala 23 January 2006 15:21
Burdened by several decades of dependency, occasioned by unequal competition with imported films, especially those from Hollywood, during the rather short period since the burst of the bubble economy in July 1997, the country’s film industry has suddenly conquered a lot of new ground in the first years of the twenty-first century.

In less than a decade, at least three major waves have emerged to set Thai cinema onto an unprecedented course, including the art-oriented “nouveau cine” of directors like Pen-ek Ratanarueng, the Hollywoodized “global cinema” of people like Pruchya Pinkaew, and the mass-led “indigenous cinema” of folks like Mum Jokmok.

While casual observers of contemporary Thai cinema could easily fall into the trap of concluding that the films they see just pop up miraculously from our culture, this phenomenon might be more fully understood through the lens of history. Remember that for more than a century Thailand’s film industry had always been largely transnational, in the sense that practically everything about cinema was imported, both the hardware and the software.

Made by royalty, nobility and members of the bureaucracy in the first half of the twentieth century and by the middle classes after World War II, Thai films were seen almost entirely by urbanized Thais, a situation that prevailed during much of the twentieth century.

However, signs of a departure from this history of passive dependency began to be visible the 1970s when the infamous American war in Vietnam was coming to an end.

During the first half of that decade, Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol single-handedly engineered a kind of “new cinema” for Thailand’s new middle-class audiences when he spun a score of films on the struggle of “little people” against the system, that is, the emerging bureaucratic capitalist state. In a way, such films prepared the spirits of Thais for the totally unexpected political violence of October 1973 and October 1976.

That the Motion Picture Export Association of America had to stage a sustained boycott of the Thai market following the long-delayed increase in import taxes on films in December 1976 was evidence that a kind of “nationalism” was in the making after the departure of American troops from Thai soil. By the early 1990s, the upsurge following the Black May incident with the military’s violence against civilians in broad daylight had produced at least three films, all made in a documentary style by directors from the other arts, and all of which could be considered a brand of “new cinema” as well. Top Boots on My Head (Vasan Sitthikhet), Land of Laughs (Manit Sriwanichaphoom), and Just Games (Kamron Kunadilok), were apparently intended to guard against further intrusions of the military dictatorship of General Suchinda Kraprayoon and his associates.

Interestingly, Kamron’s Just Games was financed by the British Channel 4, and is arguably Thailand’s first pro-democracy film supported by a foreign power, a symptom of a new stage in Thailand’s evolving status in the capitalist world economy. Although the anti-military spirit set the tone for a new political culture in Thailand, its development in the realm of commercial cinema was stunted, first by the prolonged confusions of the Cold War years of the early 1980s and then by the arrival of an era of globalization symbolized, in the Thai case, by a key financial deregulation occasioned by the General Chatchai Choonhawan government’s recognition of Article 8 of the International Monetary Fund’s guidelines.

As is well-known, this “quiet revolution” was followed by a double-digit economic boom, a big jump in land prices, an over-development of the real estate sector, an expansion of the middle classes, the birth of non-government organizations, an emergence of a proactive press in favor of a more open political system and, of course, the financial meltdown of July 1997.

When the exchange rate of the Thai baht against the American dollar swung wildly from 25 to 54, the size of the film industry was reduced for many years to come. While in 1996 355 films were screened by the Film Censorship Committee, of which 307 were imported and 48 locally made, during 1997-2001 the numbers were in drastic decline; in 2000 they totaled 188 imports and nine local projects. This can doubtless be attributed to the economic slowdown occasioned by fluctuations in the exchange rate.

The general slump of the film industry in the 1980s, triggered by the rise of the video age and the expansion of free television and the concomitant decline of the film exhibition and distribution sectors, along with the burst of the bubble economy and its aftermath in the 1990s, seemed to have led to some serious reflection on the part of film producers.

Amid the sense of hopelessness that dominated the film industry in the second half of the 1990s, Nonzee Nimitbutr suddenly made his entrance as a director in full force with a series of remarkably fresh films like Dang Bireley and the Gangster, Nang Nak and Jan Dara. In an unusually harmonious combination of artistic inclination and mainstream taste, each of his films of this period was a triumph in its own way.

Dang Bireley and the Gangster arguably gave birth a new genre of period cinema in Thailand, characterized by an amiable reinterpretation of certain aspects of Thai history in an almost surreal form; Nang Nak, an exceptionally original remake of a popular horror story about a romance that transcends into the other world, became an instant box office hit, grossing more than 150 million baht, despite its mere 12-million-baht budget; and Jan Dara, with its focus on highly sensual promiscuity and explicit sex scenes, became a pioneer of R-rated cinema here, subversively succeeding in breaking the new borders of censorship. Spearheaded by such breakthrough films, Thailand seemed ready for a new age of filmmaking.

With the arrival of the 21st century, aside from transforming into an export-oriented industry that generated about a billion baht from sales to foreign markets in 2005, another new kind of cinema, a sort of “nouveau cine” à la Paris of the late 1950s and early 1960s, emerged and struck the world like a tsunami. In fact, such cinema has become a component of the trendy culture of world-class cineastes to an extent that the core segment, the Thai intellectual class, whose members are largely in their 40s and 50s and have been alienated by its culture of “foreignness,” manifestations of which have in some cases originated in obscure film cultures other than ours. Put another way, products of a new cinema like Tears of the Black Tiger, Last Life in the Universe, Fun Bar and Karaoke, Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, and Iron Pussy require some reflection and are not readily accessible to a majority of the Thai audiences, a new phenomenon in itself.

Needless to say, this is a radical departure from the situation that prevailed in the 1970s when Bangkok’s leading intellectuals indulged themselves by making fun of Thai films, calling them nam nao (polluted water) to convey their state of rotten stillness. During the period of heightened American influence, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the members of this class simply assumed that Thai films were meant to be enjoyed by the maids on their days off and old women who had nothing better to do.

Thai filmmakers had to absorb such cutting insults into their stomachs during the whole era before the end of the Vietnam war, while boasting aloud whenever they could that if they had more production funds at their disposal they too would be able to turn out great films like those imported from Hollywood.

By contrast, while many of the art-oriented directors of Thailand’s “nouveau cine” can proudly parade their wares in and out of countless international film festivals, collecting respectable awards for their artistic achievement, other more commercial directors like Pruchya Pinkaew (Tom Yum Goong) have reportedly been busy spinning big-budget, action-filled, Hollywood-style films to ambush the world’s cinemas. The most notable characteristic of what might be termed “global cinema” is that these films are produced primarily for the average international audience, which falls in love more readily with physical movements than culture. As such films have the potential to make big money in foreign markets, more financial and human resources will be devoted to their production, with unknown repercussions on not only the local but the international film culture as well.

Along with the artistically leaning new cinema and the commercialized global cinema, Thai cinema has also successfully developed a series of new genres that might be lumped under a heading like “indigenous cinema,” including comedies about the travails of the lower classes trying to adjust to the modern world like Laungpee Theng and Yam Yasothorn; period films with nationalistic themes like Bang Rajun, Srisuriyothai, and Naresuan the Great; and specific-group culture films like Fan Chan and Kao Neow and Moo Ping. It is worth noting that such films are box office hits here to the extent that importers of highly commercial foreign films admit that they are up against some serious competition, a phenomenon unheard of in earlier periods.

As Thailand’s new cinema is now not only a part of a four-billon-baht-a-year local industry but also represents a slice of a number of international industries whose net values are much higher, its status and future are a subject worthy of attention.

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