Filming Locally, Thinking Globally: The Search for Roots in Contemporary Thai Cinema
by Kong Rithdee
It was an odyssey, a long, seafaring voyage through international oceans, islands of worries, local uncertainty, the lure of sirens, nostalgic soul-searching, Technicolored dreams, infernal nationalism, fists and elbows—through fears and doubts and hopes and optimism. In the opening decade of the twenty-first century, Thai cinema traveled the Earth in search of itself. It has found, in a sense, what it once lost, and yet, with the wobbly march of a rural ingénue set free in the global showground, the search blissfully continues.
When Apichatpong Weerasethakul defied the Croisette odds, thanked all the ghosts, and teased Tim Burton on that May night he rose like the darkest horse to win the Palme d’Or, the decade of insecurity seemed vindicated. The history of cinema now embraced Thailand. Welcome to the club, says the world, or at least the Western world. Fittingly, it was on the same stage, Cannes, nine years prior, at the dawn of the new millennium, that a barnyard Siamese cowboy, half-drunk on eighty-proof moonshine and manic possibilities, surged from obscurity to grab the world by its balls. In 2001, Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger) announced the arrival of contemporary Thai cinema and ambushed unsuspecting observers with its mad cocktail of nostalgia and anachronism. That film by Wisit Sasanatieng set up one half of the parentheses that was completed by Apichatpong’s Loong Boonmee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) in 2010. A lot happened between them, and then beyond.
On the surface, the two films hardly share a trait, let alone a cinematic ideology—one is a gleefully lurid pastiche, the other a metaphysical pondering in sober hues. On a closer look, however, both films are grounded in something shared by a number of Thai filmmakers of the past decade: a collective subconscious, which attempted to retrieve and redefine the identity of Siamese cinema through both the lenses of local film history and newfound influences of the globalized epoch, through the legacy of our hazy past and the pressing, tangible present. Shot to fame at an international arena like Cannes, both films were actually an attempt to find and bring Thai cinema home.
Take a recent exhibit. The film series “Blissfully Thai,”1 put together by the Asia Society in New York this past May-June, in which eight films made after 2000 were screened, including Uncle Boonmee and Tears of the Black Tiger, captured that spirit and hinted at the running threads shared by directors who are seemingly disparate in purpose and temperament. Also showing in that program were Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Monrak Transistor (2001) and Ploy (2007), Mingmongkol Sonakul’s Isan Special (2002), Yongyoot Thongkongtoon’s The Iron Ladies (2000), Aditya Assarat’s Hi-so (2010), and Apichatpong’s 2002 film Blissfully Yours. Not that these titles by mavericks and young auteurs represent the vast ovum of contemporary Thai cinema that has also spawned trashy horror flicks, arm-flapping transsexual curios, repetitive action sagas, and chest-thumping nationalist epics—we’ll get to them later. But for those eight films (and many more) that began traveling the world since the last year of the 1990s, they put forth the image of “Thai cinema” as international observers perceive us. In the process, they also represent the effort to locate Thai cinema as part of a shifting global esthetic, as part of Asian film culture, and, most importantly, as a fixture in the domestic consciousness that has been groomed to regard movies as mere amusement that merits no cultural scrutiny.
Before directing Tears of the Black Tiger, Wisit Sasanatieng wrote the scripts for two films that resuscitated the near flatline of his homegrown cinema. For his friend Nonzee Nimibutr, in 1997 Wisit wrote the retro-fitted Daeng Bireley and Young Gangsters, a hoodlum escapade set in 1956; then in 1999 he rerooted the oldest Thai ghost yarn from the mid-century and gave Nang Nak a nostalgic push that endeared contemporary viewers. It worked beyond their expectations—Daeng Bireley was a major hit, and Nang Nak shot to all-time-high box-office earnings (to be broken later) and spent years touring the festival circuit. The two films succeeded in reconnecting the audience—among them the new middle class who had for a while displayed a deep-seated mistrust for inane local productions—to the visual adaptation of familiar narratives and made cinema matter again among Thais.
But while Nonzee’s image of vintage Thailand is a straightforward re-creation of lulling canals, lovelorn banshees, and the elegantly lost past, Wisit’s own plan of rerooting went far beyond postcard realism and into metacinematic exploits. Channeling his fetishistic passion for old Technicolored films, he went prepop and posteverything in his directorial debut that rocked Cannes yet tanked disastrously at home. Tears of the Black Tiger reaches back into the treasure trove of Siamese-cinema antics and flaunts its artificiality like a badge of honor. It’s not an exhibition of nostalgia; it is a cosmology of Thai film history rebooted and retooled with a good mix of love, care, and lunacy. When that dementedly colorful film flopped at home yet thrilled (or bewildered) critics worldwide, earning selective releases in many territories—this was the early 2000s when Asian films were making an onslaught on the world stage—the long and giddy search for the identity, or identities, of contemporary Thai cinema, kick-started by the two Nonzee films Wisit previously wrote, became the silent discourse among upcoming Thai directors at the turn of the century.
Apichatpong made his Mysterious Object At Noon in 2000, followed by Blissfully Yours in 2002. Both movies, especially the first, drew on the reservoir of old-fashioned storytelling tradition unique to Thai melodrama—radio plays, rural performances, oral tales—as well as the formalism of Western experimental filmmaking. The filmmaker’s fusion of Third-World surrealism, Siamese candor, and sci-fi/spiritual contemplation would later launch an ongoing debate on the meaning of “Thainess” in the globalized period when those themes reincarnated in different forms in his subsequent Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century, and Uncle Boonmee. At around the same time, Pen-ek Ratanaruang surveyed the wreckage of Thai genre films left smoldering after the gloom of the 1990s, and cooked up the cheerfully cynical Fun Bar Karaoke (1997) and 6ixtynin9 (1999). But it was Monrak Transistor, which was screened at the Directors’ Fortnight in 2002 and partly inspired by an old Thai musical film from the 1960s, that contributed to the collective search for our lost Eden.
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