New Thai Cinema Hits the Road

Mysterious Objects and Black Tigers

A goat loiters in a shady corner of its rough-hewn pen, dodging wayward chickens and the persistent late-July sun. Crops planted in rows fan out from the family house and down toward the two-lane blacktop beyond the rise of the hill. Beneath the trees that skirt the yellow, three-story barn in the clearing, slow-motion bees mill and flirt. From a door at the top of a steep flight of stairs, a medium-sized Thai man of about 60 emerges and descends into the yard. For the first time in several seasons, he has nothing to do but wait. Inside the yellow building, the man's wife, his daughter, and a half dozen dedicated workers are finishing up final chores on the family's long-awaited harvest: splicing in shots of computer-generated warriors in 16th-century Burmese battle-garb and adjusting the final sound mix on Suriyothai—the most expensive Thai movie ever made.

Some 40 months and 400 million baht (U.S. $20 million) in the making, Suriyothai is an epic tale of romantic devotion and royal intrigue set during the mid 1500s; it takes its title from a much fabled queen who died in battle protecting her husband during an escalating series of border skirmishes between Burma and Ayuthaya, the ancient capital of Siam. The man in the yard waiting for it all to be through is Suriyothai's director, Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol.

An affable black sheep in the Thai royal family, Prince Chatri—great-grandson of King Rama V, the monarch considered by many present-day Thais to have been their kingdom's first truly modern ruler—is probably the most famous filmmaker Thailand has ever produced. Not that world-famousness is a term much associated with Thai cinema: As recently as two years ago, you'd have been hard-pressed to find someone in North America who'd actually seen a Thai film, unless Emmanuelle in Bangkok could be said to count. But much has changed since Prince Chatri began preproduction on Suriyothai, his 23rd film, nearly four years ago. For one thing, homegrown blockbusters have become big business, in large part due to the successes of director Nonzee Nimibutr, a former advertising expert whose slicked-up 1999 rendition of a time-honored ghost story, Nang Nak, became the highest-grossing Thai film ever made. And for another, there's the Miramax Effect.

All things Thai, spicy, and nude: from Jan Dara
Photo courtesy of Fortissimo Film Sales
All things Thai, spicy, and nude: from Jan Dara

When Miramax pounced on director Wisit Sasanatieng's candy-colored Thai "western," Tears of the Black Tiger, at Cannes earlier this year, Bangkok suddenly found itself being touted as one of the creative and commercial epicenters of new Asian filmmaking. Never mind that Tears of the Black Tiger, an eccentric art-house homage to '50s Thai cinema, was a box office disaster when it opened in Bangkok last year. The Miramax acquisition—despite the disregard they've shown the film since Cannes (by, for example, refusing the Telluride Film Festival's request to screen the film for possible inclusion)—hit Thai media pundits full in the face and turned Sasanatieng's movie (which most Thai moviegoers still haven't seen) into a kind of national treasure. More importantly still, it woke Thai film producers up to the notion that "international appeal" has the potential to become the greatest boon to business since the invention of the air-conditioned movie house.

Nimibutr's new film, Jan Dara (which world-premiered at Toronto last week) may be the cagiest exploitation of this new marketing trend yet to come. Based on a highly regarded erotic novel of the 1960s, Jan Dara's loaded with sumptuous set design, modernist anomie, and a lesbian sex scene calculated to provoke Thai film censors, generate media clamor, and entice foreign audiences hungry for all things Thai, spicy, and nude. With Iron Ladies—director Yongyoot Thongkongtoon's smart-mouthed hit comedy about a real-life team of gay and transvestite volleyball champions, now the first Thai film to open commercially in a U.S. theater—and the Anthology Film Archives set to give Apichatpong Weerasethakul's disarming documentary Mysterious Object at Noon a weeklong run in November, the Thai film renaissance is well under way.

Not that any of this is news to Prince Chatri. A film student at the University of Southern California in the 1970s, Chatri comes from a long line of internationally inclined filmmakers: His grandfather assisted American directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack with the first Thai-Hollywood coproduction, Chang, back in 1927, five years before they completed the original King Kong. Despite his continuing anonymity in most North American film circles, the prince's films have been playing at festivals and in theaters throughout Europe and Asia since the beginning of his 30-year career. If international audiences don't embrace Suriyothai's three-hour avalanche of stampeding elephants, Portuguese mercenaries, Thai pop singers and screen stars, and microscopically detailed period fashions and historical intrigue, no one can blame the director for not making every effort to reach out to the rest of the world.

After all, that mixing studio masquerading as a rustic barn where Prince Chatri, his wife (Kamala Setthee, the film's producer), and his daughter (editor Pattamanadda Yukol) are finishing up the Suriyothai sound mix isn't even in Thailand. It's in Napa Valley, California, just up the private dirt road from the sign that reads "Francis Ford Coppola welcomes your visit to Neibaum-Coppola"—the vineyard behind which American Zoetrope's high-tech audio production facility sits quietly nestled amid chickens, goats, and bees. Tonight, upstairs in that barn, Suriyothai will have its first screening anywhere, and just before it does, precisely on cue, a top acquisitions exec from Miramax will be parking her car in the yard.

Next Page »

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!