Thai cinema is dominated by slapstick, ghosts and teen romance, reflecting an audience demographic overwhelmingly dominated by students.
Hollywood blockbusters (nang farang) do get shown, but the majority of screenings feature homegrown fare. The country has had an active film industry for the best part of a century, after dabblings in celluloid by the royal family provoked a wide interest in the medium.
Just like in Thai TV and pop music, the lead characters in contemporary Thai films are always, but always, young. Principals are chosen as much for their youth and beauty as for their acting skills.
The roster of female leading actors changes rapidly since they’re discarded for a newer model once they reach their doddery mid-twenties. Leading men have a little more staying power – long enough for it to be worth listing some of the current male stars. Older actors get to play supporting roles as parents, grandparents, senior monks and comic relief.
I’ve seen hundreds of Thai movies and it’s hard to think of one that didn’t feature ghosts or some supernatural element. Thai cinema was dominated by horror a few years back, although production-line comedies and romances seem to be to the fore at present.
Thai ghost movies – nang pii – are often beautifully filmed, usually in muted tones or with clever use of chiaroscuro – notably in Dek Hor (เด็กหอ, 2006). They tend to be much slower paced than their western equivalents. Both the ghosts and the lead characters are very often female. Themes from Thai folklore and precepts from Therevada Buddhism are prominent.
A ground-breaking Thai film with all of these elements is Nang Nak (นางนาก, 1999), directed by the hugely influential Nonzee Nimibutr (นนทรีย์ นิมิบุต). Nang Nak is based on the traditional ghost story of Mae Nak.
Karma plays an important role, in an interesting but not always predictable parallel to the “everyone gets their just deserts” principle that plays out in Hollywood horror flicks.
Hollywood’s habit of remaking Asian horror movies extends to Thailand. The excellent Shutter (ชัตเตอร์, 2004) was remade with the same title in 2008.
The Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ, 2010), by Thailand’s premier independent filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล), features themes commonly found in Thai ghost stories, e.g. ghosts of family-members, past lives, and mistaking ghosts for real people and vice versa. Unfortunately, films as intelligent as Apichatpong’s rarely get much time in Thai cinemas. If shown at all at multiplexes, they quickly have to make way for the latest production-line comedy …
Go to any cinema in Thailand this year and the roster will be dominated by comedies. Look at the posters and you’ll see that these films generally feature the same actors (although the role of Pretty Girl changes frequently, as noted above). Many of these comics are the same (mostly Isaan-born) entertainers you’ll see on the TV gameshow Ching Roi Ching Laan (ชิงร้อยชิงล้าน) that runs after the mid-evening lakorn slot. (Incidentally, lakorn have an even more fixed cast than the studio films.)
I’ve provided a quick guide to Thailand’s principal comic actors here.
The same studios and cast crank out a new comedy every month, with inevitable effects on quality. These low-budget slapsticks are usually pretty awful, consisting of no more 10 gags and 80 minutes of filler. Even the trailers look stretched for content.
They’re not all bad. Hello Yasothon (แหยม ยโสธร) and Hello Yasothon 2 (แหยม ยโสธร 2) use lurid colours, brown teeth and Thai subtitles (the dialogue is in coarse Isaan) to good effect to fashion a charming pair of homages to Thai movies of the 1960s and 70s. Tukkie the Frog Princess (ตุ๊กกี้ เจ้าหญิงขายกบ, 2010) shows off the charismatic talents of a remarkable comic actress.
Just as ghosts are ubiquitous in Thailand’s cinematic oeuvre, the key elements of its comedic films – innuendo, slapstick and khatoey camp – crop up in just about every other film genre. An obvious match made in heaven is combining the scary and funny: dozens of situation comedies are based around the cast running away from liver-eating female undead.
For clever exercises in comedy about horror movies, you’d be well advised to watch the slots directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun in the fright packages 4bia (See Phrang or 4แพร่ง) and Phobia 2 (Haa Phrang or 5แพร่ง, 2009). In both, the talented ensemble Wiwat Kongrasri, Pongsatorn Jongwilas, Nattapong Chartpong and Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasuk trade cliches about ghost stories and gradually become convinced they’re in one. Two brilliant sketches.
Thai cinema is almost entirely aimed at teenagers, and there’s regular output of films that put the audience’s peers onscreen. They’re pretty formulaic, with a staple of plot elements. Like comedies, teen movies can often be subdivided by location: city-based movies usually involve school, playing in a band, and other concerns of the urban middle class. “Up country films” involve pretentious citydwellers showing up in villages full of warm-hearted country folk, plus themes related to the monkhood, and superstition.
Music is often big aspect of these films. Musical performances may feature as part of the plot, such as in Panya Raenu (ปัญญา เรณู, 2011), which is notable only for its realistic scenes of Isaan village life. Or songs could be included to show off the talents of musician-actors, such as in the otherwise inexplicably successful Sudket Salatped (สุดเขต สเลดเป็ด, 2011). Or the soundtrack alone may be a big selling point for the film, such as in the hugely popular coming-of-age romance Fan Chan or My Girl (แฟนฉัน, 2003).
The weepier teen movies and romances generally feature one of the protagonists acquiring some terminal disease or going into a coma at some stage. Panya Raenu scores on this count, but the most obvious example is Happy Birthday (แฮปปี้เบิร์ธเดย์, 2009), which starts off as a cute romantic road movie but changes gear in startling fashion halfway through.
Another road movie romance, the biggest grossing film in Thailand last year was Guan Muen Ho (กวน มึน โฮ, 2010), or “Hello Stranger”. It’s a pleasant romantic comedy set in South Korea, and features good performances from the two young protagonists. The setting is a reference to the popularity of Korean dramas on daytime TV in Thailand. If you’re interested in typography you’ll enjoy the “Korean-style” Thai script used in the promotional materials. And if, like me, the first Korean film you ever saw was Oldboy, you’ll guffaw at the octopus-eating scene in Guan Muen Ho.
Modern action films in Thailand owe much to the popularity of muay thai and the international success of two films in particular, Tom Yum Goong (ต้มยำกุ้ง, 2005) and the first Ong-Bak (องค์บาก, 2003). Both were made by martial arts superstar Tony Jaa (real name ทัชชกร ยีรัมย์), director Prachya Pinkaew (ปรัชญา ปิ่นแก้ว) and action choreographer Panna Rittikrai (พันนา ฤทธิไก). These two films are almost unique in receiving critical acclaim abroad and mainstream success at home.
Prachya and Panna have since made a new star of teenage martial artist Yanin Vismistananda (ญาณิน วิสมิตะนันทน์), better known as Jeeja (จีจ้า), in her breakthrough film of 2008, Chocolate (ช็อคโกแลต, 2008), which melds wire fu and autistic spectrum disorder as only Thai film-makers could.
Not all action films are martial arts vehicles. The Red Eagle (อินทรีแดง, 2010) is a homage to the 1960s crime-fighting superhero series of the same name, with an injection of wry references to Hollywood blockbusters. Ananda Everingham reprises the role of Thai legend Mitr Chaibancha (มิตร ชัยบัญชา), who died on the last day of shooting the first big screen version of the original series. Infamously, the stunt in which Mitr was killed was included in the 1970 movie.
A popular genre. These are usually send-ups – e.g. of Thailand’s production-line action films of the 1960s and 70s, or of Hollywood actioners.
Notable examples of the former are Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s spoof The Adventure of Iron Pussy (หัวใจทรนง, 2003), which, like many of Apichatpong’s films, never saw wide distribution in Thailand.
Of the Hollywood ripoffs, Chai Lai (ไฉไล, 2006) or Dangerous Flowers leches its way through every Charlie’s Angels cliche.
The two sources for pastiche often combine in the knowing references to the way old Thai actioners were themselves heavily derivative.
Other action comedies use more authentically Thai storylines and comedic themes. An example starring several members of Mum Jokmok’s posse, Mue Puen/Lok/Phra/Chan (มือปืน/โลก/พระ/จัน, 2001), or Killer Tattoo, features an Elvis impersonator hitman, so was bound to be a success.
Every year there seem to be a couple of epics based on stories of Siam’s conflicts with Myanmar. These fiercely patriotic films follow the themes of all historical melodramas worldwide: heroic peasants teaming up with righteous princes to take arms against impossible odds; treacherous functionaries who meet sticky ends; and pale-skinned heroines in anachronistic makeup.
The mother of all historical war films in Thailand is Mom Chao Chatrichalerm Yukol’s Suriyothai (2001), which was released in various different edits (including one by Francis Ford Coppola) having initially been made to run for an epic eight hours. A pair of sequels, King Naresuan 1&2 (ตำนานสมเด็จพระนเรศวรมหาราช), came out in 2007, and followed the cast-of-thousands template. Parts 3&4 are due this year. They’re all based on celebrated stories about Thai royals battling the Burmese.
In a similar historical vein, but this time focusing not on kings and queens but on good honest villagers (who just happen to be supreme warriors), are the gloriously-filmed Bang Rajan (บางระจัน, 2000) and Bang Rajan 2 (บางระจัน 2, 2010). There’s something of a 300 feel to the latter, with its posterised colors and small band of spectacularly well-toned fighters slaughtering thousands of faceless enemies.
Thailand puts out a good-quality period drama once in a while. An interesting example was The Overture (โหมโรง, 2004), which initially closed quickly after poor showings but then was re-released after it built up a buzz online. Its strongly patriotic and royalist sentiments probably helped convert that buzz into actual screentime.
Last year’s Eternity/Chua Fah Din Salai (ชั่วฟ้าดินสลาย, 2010) was a big success both at the box office and in terms of awards, despite featuring unusually steamy scenes — which got the green light from the Board of Censors at the same time they were banning Insects in the Backyard (see below). This left me feeling a bit uncomfortable at the film’s success, especially given its stereotypical treatment of the female characters as temptresses and victims. But it is a lavish piece of cinema nonetheless.
The Thai films that win awards and accolades overseas are often either unknown or heavily censored in the country they were made. The most interesting and innovative films just aren’t successful in the box office. There’s nothing unique about that: the “World Cinema” section in western DVD stores never really reflects what people are watching in the countries where those standout films were made.
But Thailand does have a particular problem with censorship. Worst affected are independent films and serious dramas, which tend to be more challenging. Several excellent films have been banned at home, and many others are heavily cut compared with the versions seen by critics outside the country.
The cuts required for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s award-winning Syndromes and a Century (แสงศตวรรษ, 2006), were so ruinous that the director withdrew the film from release in Thailand. And in November Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s Insects in the Backyard was banned for being “against public morals”. Some Thai directors, such as Thunska Pansittivorakul, have given up trying to get their films released in their home country.
Serious filmmakers complain that the system of censorship is both obscure and inconsistent. All manner of violence and gore gets through untouched, but nudity and even mild sexual contact end up on the cutting room floor – especially if it is homosexual in nature. As with TV, blur effects are applied when people smoke, drink, or point guns at other people’s faces. (Shooting them is fine.)
Similar principals are applied in the film classification system: sex is bad, violence is fine.
The result is an atmosphere in which distributors and cinema chains are unwilling to take risks, and so even those films that do make it past the censors have trouble getting shown. Meanwhile theatres cater to a young teen audience that favours laughs, frights and action. Serious dramas barely get a chance.
After a three-year hiatus, Nak Prok (นาคปรก, 2010), or Shadow of the Naga, managed to make it through with an 18+ rating and a couple of overlaid warnings that the scenes being depicted are “contrary to Buddhist practice”. It’s a thriller about a crime gang disguised as monks. It’s violent, provocative, and deeply moral. A very interesting film that is still generating controversy a year after its release.