Fragments from the Phenomenon Called Thailand Cinema (Culture-aesthetic Interactions, Names and Stylistic Environment) By Andronika Martonova

in 4th Bangkok Film Festival

by Andronika Martonova

Cinema in Thailand and Southeast Asia is definitely an uncharted territory both for the international and Bulgarian audiences. I find delineating a place for the South-eastern filmmaking quite complicated. First and foremost Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, The Philippines and Cambodia form a geographic part of Southeast Asia. In a cultural aspect (what I take this definition to be is the unity of traditional art forms and the specific philosophical and religious heritage) the region is undivided from the Indian mother culture.

Let us be reminded that some authors (like Tatyana Georgieva) [1] define world culture as divided into three models with individual beginnings:

The European Model — based on the Logos (word and meaning); [2]
The Indian Model — based on the sound “Om” and at the same time it is the culture of silence because, “the words of the Buddha are wordless”; [3]
The Chinese Model — based on the image (the cultural model of the Chinese characters).

Using the profoundly precise theory of the Oriental studies specialist Vladimir Braginski about the zone-forming cultures and the typology of the Eastern literature (as the written word is the basis of filmmaking), The East as a whole is divided into three large areas, not necessarily coinciding with the geographical boundaries:

Arab-Muslim — Arab, Persian, Turkic, Urdu, Muslim cultures of India, Malayan and the Muslim cultures of Indonesia;
Indian-South-eastern — Hindu of India, Hindu and Buddhist literature and culture; as a subdivision one finds those of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Tibet and Mongolia;
Chinese-East Asian — Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, though Vietnam geographically belongs to Southeast Asia.

This complex is characterized with the unity of the ideological concepts: religious-philosophical, ethical, aesthetic ideas, sustainable and systematic internal links.

A mother-culture (e.g. Chinese) together with the integrated cultures (Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.) produce a specific image of concentric circles, the centre being taken by the essential one. Around the canon the integrated cultures succeed in creating their own cultural identity. The relationships of the integrated cultures and the mother-culture are quite complex.

The Chinese culture is the spiritual centre of the tradition not only in the period of conception, stabilisation and flourishing of the numbers of essentially regional culture and literature. Its gravitational force is strong and it exerts influence on the appearance and development of each new art, even on cinema. That is why in the above-mentioned Chinese-East Asian area it is only logical to place and name the cinema of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam; and even that of Thailand along with the countries of South Asia (an example of the development of a cinema phenomenon, an exception of the rule of a cultural entity in the Indian-South-eastern zone.)

The cinema of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia is influenced in a really phenomenal way not by Bollywood but by the style of the East-Asia films. This results in a number of co-productions between authors from Thailand with companies from Hong Kong, Korea and Japan (but not from India). In fact Thailand is a kind of intersection border zone of India and China. Consequently the cinema of this country should combine elements of both of those national schools. In the South East Asia zone, Thailand is an unrivalled leader in film production quality.

The question of the phenomenal relation of the South Asian cinema to the Far East cinema is quite complex. It is not a whim that the historian Nguen The Ang states: “The identity of Southeast Asia as a regional community is, may be, in the greatest degree a consequence of the process of decolonization and in the least of fact of being a transitional zone between India and China.” But we should necessarily specify — Thailand has never been colonised. If you see contemporary Thai films without prior knowledge which country they belong to, you would classify them in one of the worldwide established film producing nations — Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea or Japan. The imagery, the directorial approach, the structure of the film, the editing pace, the actors’ behaviourisms — none of these components will take you back to the melodramatic neo-realism of India and the familiar musical melodramatic patterns of Bollywood. This is where the great exceptional aesthetic phenomenon of Thailand cinema lies. And it is proved by all other audio-visual products. The traditional Thai art forms are strongly linked to the Indian civilisation. The Thai (or Siam) culture together with the Lao, Khmer (or Cambodian) and Myanmar cultures form a subdivision of the South-East region.

The main cultural influence in the region belongs to India. So, the religious and cultural teachings coming from there, the specifics of Buddhism, the literature in Sanskrit and Pali, the miracles inhabiting the Jataka stories, the lives and times of the mythology characters and the folklore motifs, the plots from the epic Mahabharata and Ramayana (the Thai version is called Ramakian) have found their place and variations in Thailand. The Chinese influence on the region is exceptionally strong over the period of the 14th to 17th centuries. At that time many of the arts also absorbed from the traditions of East Asia but not as much as to get uprooted from Mother India.

The flexible ride between the aesthetic systems of India and China lays the grounds for the success of the Thai cinema abroad. Quite naturally the greatest interest is shown on the part of Hong Kong. In an interview the producer and director Peter Chan says that the future of the cinema of the East lies in the Pan-Asian co-productions, especially after the invasion of Korean and Thai cinema in the promised land of Hong Kong: “I am especially attracted to the young and vigorous cinema of these two countries which, unlike us in Hong Kong, are not restricted by norms and regulations. Everything our neighbours release is fresh and does not fall under the pattern of “this is how films should be made.” Hong Kong audiences are open to other types of films and willingly attend experiments by new film cultures. That is why the Thai and Korean films have such big success in our theatres. Now the question is how these two countries should evade a Hong Kong film market vacuum. The first country we export films to is Taiwan — our biggest market in Asia. We cannot survive if they turn their backs to us. When we started Applause Pictures we wanted to show that the films we were to produce jointly with Korea and Thailand were not meant for Hong Kong only, but for Asia at large. And we started with a couple of titles. We gave our support as executive producers to the Korean My Wife is a Gangster (2001, dir. Jin-Gyuy Cho) and the Thai Iron Ladies I and II (2002, 2003, dir. Youngyooth Thongkonthun). And no matter what film we are producing — Thai, Korean, Japanese or Hong Kong, we would spare no efforts for its best release and distribution. We want to establish a network of directors and distributors.” [4]

The Pan-Asian productions with the participation of production companies from South-East Asia is one of the reasons to pay more attention to the Thai cinema, although it does not belong to the cultural domain of East Asia.

As we already stated, the question of the place and style of Thai film production is complex and important today for the overall cultural picture of the East. In the middle of August 2005 Thailand hosted The Second International Conference dedicated to the cinema of the region. The event was sponsored by the Singapore Asian Research Institute and aimed at gathering filmmakers and students from all over the world to shed light and define the characteristics of the national (South Asian) imagination, creativity, perceptions, concepts and attitudes in connection with filmmaking. Alas not only the Thai but the South Asian cinema is absolutely unknown in Bulgaria — my country. In recent years at one edition of the International Sofia FilmFest two films were screened: a western parody in the style of the old Thai films The Tears of the Black Tiger (2002, dir. Wisit Sasanatieng) and Bangkok Dangerous (1999, dir. Pang Brothers). Now, in 2006, we saw the Vietnamese The Bride of Silence (dirs. Doan Mun Fuong and Doan Than Ngha).

At present, the way it happened years ago with the cinema of South Korea, the Thai cinema is gathering momentum. Even a New Thai Film Wave is talked and written about. Ignorance of the development of this national cinema would be defined as an oversight. The Pang Brothers (Danny and Oxide) are among the most famous film directors especially after the release of their film The Eye (2002) — a masterful mix of drama, fantasy and horror, following the best examples of Hong Kong and Japanese films in this genre. The Pang Brothers even made two sequels of the title. On top of that the American actor Tom Cruise bought the rights to a remake of The Eye III. Another very interesting director is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won an award at the Cannes Festival for his film Blissfully Yours; 2004 saw the premiere of his Tropical Malady — a mystic thriller sprinkled with surrealist allegory, which was duly noticed by the critics. The Thai film was given the 2004 Cannes Jury Prize. Quite recently his latest work Iron Pussy was released on video and DVD on the Bangkok market — a film defined as a scandal for Thai society because of the fact that it takes as its subject the issue of transsexual practices. Jira Maligul is a director popular with both Thai and European critics. His films Mekhong Full Moon Party (2003) and The Tin Mine (2005) are marked by a perfect cinematography, a sense of humour freely transcending the traditional national sense for the comic and especially by a refined reverence to the classical samples of Asian cinema (the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi).

The undisputable directorial peak of the Thai cinema at the moment, though, is reserved for Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. From his debut in 1997 with Fun Bar Karaoke the director conquers the screen with each following work. Sixty-Nine (1999) marked the beginning of his active work with Japanese actors. It attracted the attention of the Dutch distribution company Fortissimo Film Sales, one of the European champions of Asian film distribution. One of his most discussed titles was The Last Life in the Universe (2003) which won the FIPRESCI award at the Bangkok Festival and the Contracorrente prize at the Venice Film Festival. The Last Life in the Universe assembled a magnificent acting team – the lead given to the young Japanese star Tadanobu Asano. He was joined, in his hat as an actor, by the film director Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) and the camera is entrusted to Christopher Doyle a long time cinematographer for Wong Kar-wai, then in Hero for Zhang Ymou. Invisible Waves (2005) is the new title of the Doyle and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang team, the film which opened the Bangkok Film Festival earlier this year (2006). One of the prominent names among the successful producers is Nonzee Nimibutr with his signature under the already mentioned The Tears of the Black Tiger, The Last Life in the Universe and Bangkok Dangerous. And also under the erotic-outrageous Jan Dara (2001, he is also director and scriptwriter) — a co-production of Thailand and Hong Kong. Executive producer of the film is Peter Chan and his Applause Pictures.

“This is an exclusively Thai picture with a very Thai subject matter and it was of great importance that we invested in it. Jan Dara was a project of a different genre, disputing the literary source and the mass produced Thai cinema. We convinced the director Nonzee Nimbutr to take for the lead one of Hong Kong’s top actresses — Christy Chung. Her participation facilitated the sales and the distribution of the film. In this way Jan Dara received ten times the attention it would have had without Christy. Surely this is not necessarily a winning formula. Not always the introduction of a Chinese actress into a Thai film could guarantee the best creative mix.” [5]

Two of the other projects of Applause Pictures and Peter Chan are being realised as successfully as they were began. Three (2000) is conceived as a heavyweight thriller putting together three film miniatures by three directors Kim Ji-Un from Korea, Nonzee Nimibutr from Thailand and Peter Chan himself, representing Hong Kong. In 2004 another triptych followed. This time the Thai spot is taken by Japan. The title Three… Extremes includes the stories Dumplings by Frut Chan from Hong Kong (a sinister mini-version of the French film Shock Treatment); Small Box by Takeshi Miike from Japan; Cut by Park Chan-wook from Korea. [6] Producer Nimibutr worked with Peter Chan on other films after Yan Dara and Three. Jointly they give support to Eye II by the Brothers Pang, Chan being the executive producer of the film.

The producer and director Chatrichalerm Yukol is specially revered as master of the epic trend of Thai cinema with The Legend of Suriyothai famous beyond the boundaries of Thailand. At the moment the screens of Bangkok are showing the incredible trailer of the last film of the historic trilogy — King Neresuan.

“What is the true style of Thai films?” asks Anchalee Chaiworaporn of the Thai Film Foundation in her article Desperately Seeking the True Thai Style. [7] Some foreign critics, as the author notes, launch the idea that contemporary Thai cinema is a reflection of life in modern Bangkok and its westernisation. This in fact severs the ties with the traditional style. But most of the directors, Pen-ek Ratanaruang among them, vehemently deny this. Pen-ek Ratanaruang even adds “Thai cinema today is becoming interesting again. Sadly, not for the Thai audience who always like anything foreign. Thai films in Thailand are becoming art films.” [8]

Chalida Uabamrugdjit, coordinator at the Thai Film Foundation has an aesthetic approach to the issue. She notes with precision that there is a noticeable approach of contemporary Thai cinema to non-realism: “Thai movies often attempt realism but don’t succeed. Many scenes simply make no sense. It vaguely resembles surrealism, but in fact it is not.” [9] This is the definition of Chalida Uabamrugdjit. Her words are substantiated by The Eye. As a genre the film belongs to the type of horror film more typical of the Japanese cinema, and the aesthetic of the imagery tends in parts towards surrealism. It is more intriguing when we find the hidden cores of non-realism in the criminal irony drama Sixty-Nine or in The Last Life in the Universe. The specialists who monitor the development of this South-Asian cinema along with the film critics believe that the specific way of expressing emotions makes Thai cinema style unique. But sometimes it is confronted with difficulties to picture situations which do not happen in real life. Chalida Uabamrugdjit states, “They have the pattern of anger, love, and other emotions in mind and express it in a way that most people would never do in real life. For example, most Thais don’t say ‘I love you’ directly like in the movies. They just look into each other’s eyes, and know it. “If I had to give Thai film style a name, I would call it ‘neo-unrealist’.” [10]

The Brothers Pan’s Bangkok Dangerous is a perfect illustration of the words of the coordinator. The love story between the girl from the pharmacy — Fon (Premsinee Ratanosopha) and the hired killer — Kong (Pawalit Mongkolpisit) takes, seemingly on purpose, a background status but in fact it is the essence of the whole story. The communication of the couple has another obstacle added to the apparent social inequality: Kong is deaf. In spite of this fact the two of them get along better than most of the dialogue-active couples and partners in the film. And this understanding is clear to the audience. The unuttered word permeates in the sparing but excellent acting. The faces of the actors express more than what could be contained in intentionally hot lines written into the script. All this without any overacting on the part of the actors, without the assistance of melodramatic music, without the lighting tricks of filters and colours or props. The result is a magnificent aesthetic effect of active contemplation which as a rule is characteristic of the East-Asian cinema. The non-realism in this case is seemingly constructed from intuitive film beginnings, a hint or two of mysticism stirred with some fairy-tale molecules. The result is a super-sensory sensitivity attack on the part of the film bringing the audience to a catharsis. This reminds vividly of Valeri Todorovski’s Russian film The Country of the Deaf which, compared to the work of The Brothers Pan, stands out as quite realistic. If Bangkok Dangerous was an Indian film, Fon undoubtedly would have spun wavy dances and songs in the loneliness of the night, glorifying her strange love with the enigmatic Kong, and he would surely have heard her — in his heart. This would also have been non-realism but of the most syrupy Bollywood scale.

The concept of the film critics Sananjit Bangsaphan and Suphab Harimthepathip is that Thai cinema has its root in Li-Kay [11] – a kind of traditional theatre where the actors sing, talk and dance telling entertaining stories. If this root is absent, the cinema is deprived of its ethnic specifics. In a purely nationalistic attitude the critics take everything to the common denominator of pure popular (even folkloristic) entertainment (with no bearing whatsoever to where it comes from) films, as in a Li-Kay or Khon production. [12] Certain motifs of the comic characters of Talug [13] — the Thai national puppet theatre of shadows, are also used. The film-critics Bangsaphan and Harimthepathip are of the opinion that the national identity of contemporary Thai cinema is coming to an end. This extreme viewpoint makes us think in the following direction — if directors like Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Oxide and Dani Pang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul start making their imaginative screen versions of the national theatre in one form or another, wouldn’t the image of Thai cinema suffer? A close keeping to tradition and its overexploitation — the present state of mass Indian cinema of Bollywood — would become an obstacle for Thai cinema to reach an international status. Its films would stay in the locked field of national interest and understanding. That is why a moderate balance should be viewed as the approach to the preservation of national identity — neither lose native, nor stop gaining foreign audiences. The universal golden mean should be aimed for. (If perforce we have to give an example from the Indian cinema, then it would necessarily be Mira Nair, who succeeded in finding this very golden mean with her films Kamasutra, Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair.) For the time being the contemporary Thai film directors are successfully coping with this task.

Karl Baumgartner, a German film producer, asked if he sees any prospects for saturating the European market with films from countries like Thailand along with the leaders in the field — Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, gave this reply: “The market in the West will always be functional in respect to certain countries. But consider that the films are made by certain directors. China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, even Nepal boast a sum total of a dozen directors whose films would always be shown in any western country. New names, though, appear all the time, with good hopes of becoming quite good. But only their second film could show if they could keep up what they promised with their debuts.” [14]

But let’s not forget one other fact — most of the Thai filmmakers have studied or openly apply the experience of Hong Kong, Japan and even the USA. This fact, though, does not make their films less Thai (an anxiety that is distinctly felt in the words of Sananjit Bangsaphan and Suphab Harimthepathip).