New Thai Cinema Hits the Road


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.

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.

“This is the house the Iron Ladies built,” someone quips upon entering a mid-June condo-warming party for Fortissimo Films Sales executive Wouter Barendrecht’s new crib, some 30 stories above the Chao Phrya river on another hot Bangkok night. Based in Amsterdam and Hong Kong, Fortissimo has been a crucial component of the Asian cinema explosion of the late 1990s. Their top clients include filmmakers like Tsai Ming-liang and Wong Kar-wai, and the Hong Kong box office success of Nang Nak and Iron Ladies was largely by Fortissimo’s design; they also brokered Miramax’s purchase of Tears of the Black Tiger at Cannes.

Barendrecht’s permanent address is still in Hong Kong, but his new way station in Bangkok already seems the eye of a brand-new, pan-Asian filmmaking storm. Hunky bikini-clad waiters serve Thai snacks from silver trays while cinematographer Chris Doyle—just stopping over on his way back to Beijing and the set of Zhang Yimou’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon knockoff, Hero—huddles in conversation with Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang (creator of the comic-violent festival favorite 6ixtynin9) about a potential collaboration, to be financed and photographed in Japan. Possibly the hippest mainstream filmmaker in Bangkok, Ratanaruang is currently in the middle of production on Mon Rak Transistor, an ill-fated love story about the rise and fall of a wannabe singing sensation. Like Jan Dara, Mon Rak Transistor—”You can translate it as Radio Days,” giggles the gabby Ratanaruang—is being financed by Applause Pictures, the brainchild of Hong Kong director-producer Peter Chan (Comrades: A Love Story).

Chan’s popular and critical successes in Hong Kong first led him to an alliance with DreamWorks (where he made the insubstantial Love Letter), but during the last couple of years, he’s used Applause to foster new alliances between Asian filmmakers, particularly in Bangkok, where he was educated as a child and learned to speak fluent Thai. In partnership with Nimibutr and his producer Duangkamol Limcharoen, Chan sees Jan Dara as a potential template for future successes, and the team’s decision to cast Hong Kong actress Christy Chung as Jan Dara‘s hottest totsie was a major part of their crossover marketing design. “If Chinese filmmakers can make movies in Hollywood,” Chan asked the Far Eastern Economic Review earlier this year, “why can’t Asians jump out of their local markets and make movies for each other?”

For many Bangkok cineastes, a more pertinent question might be, “When can we start making films for ourselves?” Most film-savvy Thais aren’t so much anticipating the version of Jan Dara that will debut at the local multiplex later this year as wondering—given the censor’s inevitable snipping or smudging of the film’s steamiest episodes—when they’ll get a chance to see the film’s “international cut.”

Of course, not all of the major players in the Thai film renaissance were in attendance at that high-in-the-sky Fortissimo soiree. Some of them were still right down where they started: in the burgeoning Thai film underground. Halfway across town, in the editing room that doubles as the office of his production company, Kick the Machine, the chief exponent of all that’s expansive and experimental in Bangkok moviemaking—Mysterious Object at Noon director Weerasethakul, who prefers to go by the nickname Joe—is busy struggling with his first fiction feature, Blissfully Yours.

In some ways, the as yet unfinished Blissfully Yours seems to merge certain themes and backstories from Suriyothai and Jan Dara: Shot in gorgeous 35mm, the film opens with a reiteration of a doctor’s office visit from Mysterious, then branches out into a three-hour meditation on science, superstition, sexuality, and the deleterious effects of Thai-Burmese border crossings. It all culminates in a long idyll in a forest glade where two couples engage in explicit intercourse, intimate dialogue, and complicated reveries and self-doubts. The influence of Tsai Ming-liang (one of Joe’s favorite directors) is heavy upon it, but the philosophical and physical attitudes involved seem purely Thai, at least until Joe starts telling you that his major inspirations were “Warhol’s sense of ‘nothingness’ ” and the ways that American experimental-film forefather Bruce Baillie “records pleasure, and the sun.”

Even if Blissfully Yours could pass the Thai film censors, which it can’t, who in Thailand would even know it exists? Though a far richer provocation for world cinema than Jan Dara could ever hope to be, Blissfully Yours‘s willingness to ask tough questions about what a censorship-free and internationally minded Thai cinema could potentially be is the very thing that will probably doom it to official nonexistence. The few Thai film insiders who’ve even heard of it often titter, “Can you believe that Joe’s making a three-hour porno film?” A former student of Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, Joe’s all too well aware that his films have only limited possibilities for art gallery screenings in Bangkok, and a far better chance of success in Brooklyn—where Mysterious enjoyed a brief, well-attended run at BAM in June—than it ever will at home.

Postscript: Suriyothai opened in Bangkok on August 17. In its first three days of release, it took in 110 million baht. It’s expected to become the highest-grossing Thai film ever, and a windfall for Singha Beer, which has put 15 Suriyothai designs on a new series of collectible cans. Miramax has yet to make an offer for the film.

In the meantime, Blissfully Yours has been shorn of an hour’s worth of footage. “I’m happier with it now,” Joe writes via e-mail from Bangkok. “I didn’t want it to have too many long takes where nothing happens, like so many Asian films today. Nothing really happens in Blissfully either, but at least it happens with a purpose.”