What does contemporary Thai cinema tell us about contemporary Thai cultural concerns and anxieties?

Looking through the archives, I came across this old essay that I wrote on contemporary Thai cinema and thought that I would share it as I get myself mentally amped to begin delving into Vietnamese and American films on the Vietnam war.


To answer this question, I will touch upon a number of contemporary films; February, Monrak Transistor, Rahtree: Flower of the Night and Sydnromes and a Century, in order to discuss key sources of fear as portrayed by Thai Cinema. I will then conclude that contemporary Thai cinema acts as a window into Thai realities, whilst the most interesting cinematic comment seems to be one of reflection; reminiscing in order to inspire how best to proceed in an environment influenced by Westernism, crisis and ‘others’.

I will begin by touching upon the economic crisis, before looking at Western encounters and then dystopias, the perceived result of the aforementioned Westernism. I will then look at forms of nostalgia that have risen out of contemporary anxieties, before arguing that perhaps this nostalgia is not about a return to the past, but ‘rerooting’ – taking influence from the past. I will finish by discussing the concerns surrounding the fracturing of society and state censorship.

Economic Crisis

Firstly, it is important to set the scene for contemporary Thai cinema by acknowledging the Thai economic crisis of 1997-1998. Tejapira describes it as “the worst economic crisis in Thailand since 1929” (2001, 221), and Knee goes on to acknowledge the subsequent “turn-of-the-millenium cultural and economic upheavals” (2003, 102). Post 1997, Thailand bore a number of reactionary films, loaded with different perceptions and responses to the societal instability.

Western Encounters

February, by Yuthlert Sippapak and Monrak Transistor, by Pen-ek Ratanaruang are two example of films that bring to life contemporary concerns and anxieties  revolving around encounters with the West. Harrison describes this exposure to Western environments as having a “destabilising and emotionally debilitating impact” (2010, 11).

This literal and metaphorical debilitation is most visible in February, which becomes the visual site where concepts of the national (Thai) and the Foreign (‘Other’) dramatically collide. This collision is not only a cultural one, but a dramatic reality when Thailand and New York meet for the first time through a taxi driver’s abduction of Kaewta. Kaewta comes to represent the Thai geo-body, a body that is nearly destroyed by being hit by a car, and hit by Westernisation.

Yuthlert plays with space and light to portray the danger of the two protagonist’s situations. Night time shots, dark lighting and repressive, claustrophobic spaces transform the metaphorical darkness and danger of the West into a literal darkness.

February does not only present the issue of the home and the foreign to the viewer, but invites them to actively engage with the protagonist’s desperate questioning of home, identity and the self, so that the two might find their way home, to Thailand, together.

Dystopia

In February, Kaewta may have made it home to Thailand, but in My Girl, Killer Tattoo, 6ixty 9ine and Monrak Transistor cinematic pictures are painted of what happens when ‘home’ (Thailand) becomes tainted by modernising forces. The dystopia that these films portray is a comment on the contemporary fear of both westernisation and globalisation. The idea of the urban dystopia warns its audience away from such a vapid existence and towards the vastly different, (imagined) utopia of the countryside.

At the beginning of My Girl, the main character, Jaeb, is in Bangkok. His city life is portrayed as a lonely, dystopian existence, with little human contact. His urban life lacks intimacy. This stilted existence is starkly contrasted by his childhood memories which come gushing forth upon a wave of catchy pop songs.

Whilst My Girl carries us from the city to the countryside, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Monrak Transistor begins with Pan and Sadao leading an idyllic, if not clichéd, life in the countryside.

The couple’s combined and individual trials present the audience with important comments on the gradual degradation of traditional Thainess. Pan’s character warns us away from the urban dangers of Bangkok, whilst Sadaw, his literal (wife) and metaphorical (countryside) counterpart, reminds us of ‘Thai’ morality.

As the film progresses, Pan is carried further away from his rural beginnings. The further away from the countryside, the more things begin to degrade. Pen-ek plays with this concept of space; Pan’s location becomes representative of the void growing between his true Thai values, and urban corruption.

In a poignant shot, we watch as Pan, who has been relegated to backstage garland making, sings to his reflection in the mirror. The mirror however, is cracked and broken, just like Pan’s city dreams. The film teaches us that city life is not the dream existence that so many aspire to, but instead, is a strange bubble where nothing is as it seems: Pan is a cleaner; the choreographer is a transvestite; and Dao, the folk singer, slept her way to a ‘stardom’ that is far from starry.

It is safe to say that the film presents such bleak disillusionment that it is near comical: Pan came to the city to be a singer, yet ends up a cleaner, a murderer and narrowly escapes becoming a victim of homosexual rape. Pen-ek’s dark sense of humour comes into play once more when Pan and his friend find themselves at a city party thrown to raise money for the poor. The rich Bangkokians have all come out to partake in the worthy cause, which involves a wonderfully satirised competition for who can dress in the most convincingly impoverished outfit. Pan and his friend are the bedraggled belles of the ball until it is realised that they are genuinely poor, at which point they are assaulted and thrown to the gutter. The comedy of this scene is an important comment on the distortion of society and class structures at play.

Through Pan’s tumultuous journey back to the countryside, and the lessons that he learns along the way, Pen-ek simultaneously maps out lessons that Thailand too needs to learn in the face of modernisation, Westernisation and internationalisation. We see Pan develop from a buffalo-horned country bumpkin sitting in Daddy, the dubious luk-toong manager’s office, to a man that returns to the countryside to uphold his familial duties.

The character of Sadaw also carries with her an important comment on the emotional state of society. Knee argues that she represents “a concern for basic human needs and emotions that are, by implication, under threat in modern Bangkok and modern Thailand” (Knee, 2003, 119).

Nostalgia and State Nostalgia

Nostalgic films are contemporary Thai cinema’s most common response to the the country’s cultural concerns and anxieties. Through the popularity of nostalgic films, and of course the state’s exploitation of this sentiment to create ‘state nostalgia’, Thai cinema demonstrates that post 1997, contemporary society was eager to escape social realities.

My Girl, was a huge success at the Thai box office. So successful in fact, that it was the ninth top grossing Thai film of 2000-2010. This popularity reflects that in the wake of the economic crisis, and an influx of post-modern films such as Tears of the Black Tiger and 6ixty 9ine, Thai audiences welcomed an easy-to-digest film.

My Girl created a nostalgic space that was a safe distance from Thailand’s crisis. In essence, the film’s six directors invited Thais to step out of their adult lives and enjoy nostalgic reflection through the vehicle of childhood.

Whilst Tears of the Black Tiger is a nostalgic film, its lack of national success demonstrates that it was not accessible to the Thai masses. My Girl, however, is safely located in childhood. As Kong Rithdee writes, film is an “effective tool in helping us remember, and the cute kid flick Fan Chan is a romantic feast of remembering.” (2003)

Whilst the film is located in Jaeb’s memory, the ending pulls the audience back to the present. We, along with Jaeb, witness how much of his rural town has been changed by time. The family run corner shop has been taken over by 7/11, dusty lanes have become busy roads, and Noi Nah is getting married. It is safe to say that we are no longer within the realms of childhood Narnia. As the film draws to a close, Jaeb says that “the trip back home made me realise how much things had changed”. Despite these physical changes, Jaeb’s memories remain unweathered by time, just like his frozen image of Noi Nah, just like the perceived idea of what it is to be Thai. Both are preserved within the audience’s memory, ready to be carried into the uncertain future.

State Nostalgia

State Nostalgia tugs upon similar heart strings, however in a way which is more calculated and finds it roots in propaganda.

The Legend of Suriyothai and The Legend of King Naresuan, both by Chatrichalerm Yukol, present us with a different type of nostalgia, and a different bundle of cultural concerns and anxieties. These two films exemplify the commoditisation of nostalgia, and the creation of state nostalgia. McCormick describes “nostalgia’s political potential” (as quoted in Sprengler, 2009, 22), something that was very much exploited by these two national blockbusters.

Such extensive exploitation of nostalgia seems to demonstrate that the Thai government would like the audience to forget that they have the capacity to forge out a new future, one that takes influence from both the past and present. Through epic battle scenes, warriors, and admirable royal saviours, they foster (create) a national pride in an effort to quash the perceived threat of the foreign.

This ‘national nostalgia’ suggests an increase of Western influence in Thailand and the state’s subsequent reaction to it. It could be argued that the dedication of so much money and air time to the monarchy in fact implicates the monarchy’s declining influence, and subsequently, a rather desperate attempt to reignite some semblance of royal pride and nationalism.

Rerooting

McCormick (as quoted in Sprengler, 2009, 22), argues that nostalgia “calls to mind a past, utopian time to which the present should aspire and which it should make efforts to recreate”. I would instead argue that rather than recreating the past, nostalgic Thai films such as Tears of the Black Tiger call for contemporary life to be inspired by, rather than based upon, a fondly remembered past.

Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger is a fantastic illustration of nostalgic rerooting; taking nostalgia and blowing it up into a technicolor dream-coat.

In the wake of the 1997 economic crash and the influx of nostalgic film making, the film creates a new and important type of nostalgia. The fake set, brilliant overacting, and loud colours powerfully suggest that Wisit is not being nostalgic because he wishes the audience to step back in time, but that he does so in order to pay homage to a passed time, in the hope that we can take inspiration from the past and the foreign, in order to transform the present. This is strongly conveyed by the fact that Wisit has taken the classic cowboy genre and turned a Western into a Thai.

Wisit uses prominent Thai actors from the seventies, taking the old and making it new again. Another example of this is Wisit drawing inspiration from Thai film, director Rattana Pestonji.

Fractured society

In considering what contemporary Thai cinema tells us about contemporary Thai cultural concerns and anxieties, it is interesting to look at Thai horror, and the way that this genre manipulates ideas of death, abandonment and deceit to represent fractured Thai society. I will use the examples of Nonzee Nimibutr’s Nang Nak, and Yuthlert Sippapak’s Rahtree: Flower of the Night to demonstrate this.

In Nang Nak, there is the fleeting possibility that the dead Nak and her husband Mak can live in some sort of harmony together. Similarly, in Rahtree: Flower of the Night, Buppha begins a similar post-mortem relationship with Ake. That is before we realise that Ake too is dead, and what we have seen is the relationship of two ghosts, alive, yet dead. This strange crossroads between life and death reflects the social conflicts within Thai society. Kong Rithdee writes that “the possibility of harmonious existence between people of different learnings and nature is precisely at the heart of our current social conflict. The ‘ghosts’ are among us” (Rithdee, 2013).

Rahtree: Flower of the Night, is classified as a horror, with the most obvious source of horror being Buppha: a girl who bleeds to death after an abortion. However, I would argue that the real horror resides within society and their treatment of this young girl, who is raped, lied to, impregnated, forced to abort, abandoned, and murdered by society’s apathy.

The film is also an unflinching and comical comment on ‘Others’. At first, it seems Buppha is the ‘Other’, the deathly monstrous feminine that must be banished. Indeed, all of the characters in the film are desperate to evict her not only from the apartment block, but from the face of the earth. However, the characters that so fear Buppha because she is different (ok, dead) are a group of misfits themselves: corrupted, questionable, foreign, or all of the above. They are the living ghosts of the urban world. Perhaps then, we can understand their absolute fear of Buppha as symbolic of a fear of their own ‘otherness’.

We have two fat, transgender hairdressers who never have customers, a lazy and inept shopkeeper and his disabled assistant; the corrupt, unfeminine, unloving wife who is the apartment landlord, and her husband who does nothing but pray; the landlord’s main employee who is also disabled; Buppha’s sexually abusive and paedophillic father-in-law; and finally Ake, a rich Bangkokian youth who destroys Buppha’s life in order to win a bottle of liquor, not to mention a parade of inept exorcists. It does not look too promising for Thai society.

Censorship

Films such as Syndromes and a Century powerfully convey the political and social realities of contemporary Thailand. Being bound and gagged by Thai censorship laws is perhaps what makes these films such important comments on contemporary Thai cultural concerns and anxieties. The imposed gag order forces directors to find new means of expression and therefore opens the door to a different type of storytelling.

I would argue that Apichatpong’s work is the most accurate and truthful portrayal of contemporary Thai life and all of its concerns and anxieties, in that he does not ascribe to a Thai ideal and throws off the chains of ‘Thainess’. In an interview, Apichatpong said of Sydnromes, “my film will look back at the past in order to see into the future. Just people living life, inhaling and exhaling, meeting each other—these are already miracles.” (Pansittivorakul, 2006)

Apichatpong’s works are often hard to grasp, but it is this transience that is so integral to his work, that transforms his films into an experience. Rather than explicitly rampaging against a social and political straightjacket, Apichatpong deftly creates a feeling that conveys Thai realities. In Syndromes and a Century, the majority of the film takes place within the walls of a hospital. A place of healing, sickness, birth, life and death, and all of it restricted within the hospital walls. Not to mention doctors who hide alcoholic spirits in artificial legs, folk singing dentists and tea offering monks.

A particularly striking scene sees us in the bowel of the hospital, watching a metal tube extract smoke. I interpret this as Apichatpong’s visual representation of the vapidity of life, having lost its spirituality and concrete uniformity.

Schager (2006) writes that Syndromes is “not only a loving tribute to the past, but [an] attempt at experiential preservation”. I disagree with this and argue that despite having a past and present aspect to the film, one of Syndromes key features is that the past merges with the present, memories mix with reality, and time becomes timeless. Rather than understanding Apichatpong’s work of art as an ode to the past, I understand it as an unflinching ode to reality, where all of the fragmented pieces of life and fractured society come together to form what we perceive to be our own reality.

Whilst Monrak Transistor, 6ixty 9ine, Killer Tattoo, Hotel Angel, February (and the list goes on) all explicitly comment on the fear of Westernisation, and portray individual battles against the urban evil, Syndromes accepts, embodies and consumes the nostalgia, the dystopia, the fear, and produces a drugged yet lucid, clear yet confusing, concise yet intricate depiction of Thai life. All of the contradictions and confusions act as building blocks which convey an important message about Thai identity: that there is not one. The fact that the film is hard to understand is perhaps Apichatpong’s most important comment on contemporary Thai cultural concerns and anxieties. Rather than constantly trying to understand the inexplicable social, political and economic ups and downs of Thai society, perhaps it is better to accept the political transience and proceed with the sentiment that we are left with after watching one of Apichatpong’s films.

Rithdee writes that

“The Thai word for nature…is dharma-chart, whose linguistic root is based on the word dharma. In the Buddhist dharma teachings we’re told that everything is impermanent. It’s just illusion, or dream, or memory. [Apichatpong’s] is the cinema of dharma-chart—the cinema of impermanence. As he himself is learning how to let things go, to not feel attached, perhaps we should do the same when watching his films.” (Rithdee, 2007)

Conclusion

To conclude, the multitudinous diversity of contemporary Thai film portrays a whole host of Thai cultural concerns and anxieties.

Particularly in post 1997 cinema, as well as in more contemporary films such as Apichatpong’s, there is a clear discomfort surrounding the acknowledgement of the changing times, and a subsequent search for how to proceed. The prevalent search and return to Thainess through nostalgia is the most common answer. In spite of this, the overarching message from contemporary Thai cinema seems to be that there is no singular Thai identity or Thainess to return to, and that instead, Thai society should take inspiration from the past in order to inform their present.

Bibliography

Harrison, Rachel & Jackson, Peter (2010) The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand

Knee, Adam (2003) Gendering the Thai Economic Crisis: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Asian Cinema, 14:2

Pansittivorakul, Thunska (2006), A Conversation with Kong Rithdee http://criticine.com/interview_article.php?id=25

Phongpaichit, Pasuk (2005) Walking Backwards into a Khlong, in: Thailand Beyond the Crisis, Peter Warr

Rithdee, Kong (2007) Syndromes and a Century http://criticine.com/review_article.php?id=24

Rithdee, Kong (2011) Filming Globally, Thinking Locally: The Search for Roots in contemporary Thai Cinema, XXXVI:4, http://www.cineaste.com/articles/filming-locally-thinking-globally-the-search-for-roots-in-contemporary-thai-cinema

Rithdee, Kong & Chaiwaraporn, Anchalee (2012) Letters: The Politics of Thai Film, Cineaste, XXXVII:2, http://www.cineaste.com/articles/letter-the-politics-of-thai-film

Rithdee, Kong (2013), Films Write History Always and Forever, http://www.bangkokpost.com/print/344179/

Römers, Holger (2005) Creating his own cinematic language: an interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Cineaste

Schager, Nick (2006) Syndromes and a Century Film Review, Slant

Scott, A. O. (2011) A Farewell to This Life, and All Its Ghosts, The New York Times

Sprengler, Christine (2009) Screening Nostalgia: Populuxe props and Technicolour aesthetics in Contemporary American film

Tejapira, Kasian (2001) The Postmodernisation of Thainess, in House of Glass: Culture, Modernity, and the State in Southeast Asia, edited by Souchou, Yao

The, David (2011) Itinerant Cinema; The Social Surrealism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Third Text, 25:5

Thunska Pansittivorakul, Thunska (2006) A Conversation with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, http://criticine.com/interview_article.php?id=24

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