2005 was another dreary year for mainstream Thai movies, but indie filmmakers offered a glimmer of hope


Bangkok Post

To look for the accomplished Thai films of 2005, we need to turn our backs on the vapid multiplex releases and scour the fringes. As pictures made by major studios nosedived into a dreary zone during the past 12 months, small movies made through unconventional means _ and modestly shown to small public gatherings _ have increasingly become a lush playground for veterans and newcomers driven by ideas. More than ever when the term "Thai movies" is mentioned, one needs to think beyond the gaudy carnival of expensively promoted yet ineptly made studio flicks, to see the fertile turf of short and independent works outside "the system".

Clearer than ever, too, is it that we can draw a frightening comparison between the country's political climate and the state of the local movie business. As the motto of self-sufficiency is ruthlessly trampled by the powers-that-be _ as the national economic engine encourages excess rather than adequacy, form rather than content, texture rather than quality _ Thai movie companies have gleefully served up the equivalent of the ruling party's populist policies: they treat us to movies that look good on their advertising posters (and how much they spend on those posters!), but contain near-zero substance and paltry entertainment value.

In the mid-1990s, critics bemoaned the fact that the local industry was capable of producing a mere dozen titles each year. But within that small trove, the average picture quality was higher than in the first half of the 2000s when investors, worked up by rampant capitalism, have made more and more movies that were pure junk. Observers now lament that it'd probably be better if we could go back to producing a dozen movies each year _ and wish that along with such self-sufficiency will come a great cultural virtue.

Mainstream Thai movies of 2005

Thirty-nine Thai movies opened in the theatres last year, but not a single one of them turned out to be a gem _ either as an aesthetic specimen or prize entertainment. To put it bluntly, there was no "best Thai film of 2005", not in the theatres at least.

Paradoxically though, 2005 was an exceptionally lucrative year for the local film industry. Three films made it past the 100-million-baht mark, and the combined revenue of the 39 films exceed one billion baht (last year there were 45 movies, with total receipts of 850 million baht). This invites several interpretations. Firstly, the hefty sum means there's more money circulating in the system, which ensures even more film productions in 2006. Secondly, since 90 percent of the mainstream films last year were of mediocre quality, it doesn't lift our hearts to think how many dreadful duds we'll see over the next 12 months. The increasing revenue, moreover, has to be regarded in relation to the increasing production _ and promotion _ cost of each title.

An elephantine factor that boosted the receipts of the industry was the release of Sahamongkol Film's Tom Yum Goong in August. The film reigned as the box office's champion when it grossed 200 million baht (second in history after Suriyothai), though it severely suffered from critical barbs over its appalling quality. But what Tom Yum Goong showed was how an advertising blitz _ and Jaa Panom's individual brilliance _ could overcome the effects of bad word-of-mouth. If the formula is to be repeated, we're sure to see the talented Jaa in many more bad movies in the years to come.

Two other flicks that coasted through the 100-million-baht milestone were both slapsticks targeted at suburban viewers. A true dark horse, Luang Pee Teng (The Holy Man) racked up 141 million baht thanks largely to the routine tomfoolery of its star, TV funnyman Teng Terdterng. Meanwhile, another television buffoon, Mum Jokmok, who co-starred in Tom Yum Goong, took a provincial farce called Yaem Yasothorn to join the century club despite its shabby quality.

Both comedies proved that comedians are the only reliable superstars of Thai showbiz. For studio chiefs, it doesn't matter if Teng's and Mum's movies are simply a longer (and dirtier) version of their weekly television gigs as long as their droll faces on the posters continue to draw the crowds _ especially during the first weekend. So, again, the formula will definitely be repeated, and we'll be sure to see more coarse-textured, subpar comedies featuring prominent jesters this year.

The most diligent company was obviously Sahamongkol Film, with a dozen movies released, way ahead of other major studios like R.S. Film, which had five, GTH, with three, and Five Star Production, with just one movie launched. The rest were pictures produced by minor studios like Phranakorn Film, which celebrated its jackpot with The Holy Man, CM Film, Mangpong and Mono Film.

When 2005 began, all hope was heaped upon Jira Malikool's Muang Rae (The Tin Mine) for his meticulously made movie, an adaptation of a popular memoir by national artist Archin Panchapan, promised to raise the artistic standards of local cinema. The finished film, however, was insipid to say the least, whereas its box office performance was even more depressing. Muang Rae's flop was a shocking blow to the young-blooded studio GTH, and the consolation only came with its October release of Puen Sanit (Dear Dakanda), a cute, saccharine-coated teen romance that earned 80 million baht to shore up the studio's reserves.

Two Thai documentaries supplied meaty stuff to the multiplexes usually swamped with feature films. Both of them _ Santi Taepanic's Sua Rong Hai and Nisa Kongsri and Areeya Jumsai's Dek Toh _ at least helped pry open the door for the release of alternative cinema and refreshed the audience's perception that documentaries do deserve a space on the big screen.

But in retrospect, if there was a movie worth remembering, though we'd be hard pushed to proclaim it the best film of the year, it was Kongdej Jaturanrasamee's poignant, contemporary, overlong and quite unoriginal Cherm (Midnight My Love). Comedian Mum Jokmok (him again!) stars as a stoic, wounded, night-shift cab driver who falls for a massage parlour girl. Kongdej's talent and confidence have significantly grown in his second movie, and he represented a small glimmer of brightness in the rather dim year of mainstream Thai films.

Gems on the fringe

Let's cut to the chase: the best Thai films of 2005 include Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Worldly Desires, Thunska Pansittiworakul's Vous Vous Souviens de Moi? and Pramote Sangsorn's Tsu.

Don't wince if you haven't seen, or even heard of, these titles. Most people haven't either. But isn't it necessary _ when the big money spent by studios has resulted in soul-depleting cine-trash _ for us to search for passion and restore our faith in cinema elsewhere?

The three films I mentioned are examples of a hundred more home-made pictures, mostly shorts, that shake loose the industry's straightjacket to practice a form of self-sufficiency by producing small movies that feed the minds of their makers and viewers.

The monopoly of the mainstream financing scheme _ which avoids taking any artistic risks _ has produced a reaction among independent filmmakers. Hence it's likely that as long as the Thai studios continue to supply the theatres with junk, the non-mainstream scene's reactionary creativity will acquire great strength to make even more interesting pictures.

Apichatpong is definitely one of the greatest thinkers of cinema alive today. His Worldly Desires is a playful, oddball video diary of his affection for the jungle, the preferred location in his feature-length movies Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady. Like all his films, this 40-minute work is a refraction unto itself _ and to what came before it. The concept of the movie is a Chinese Box high-jinx: Apichatpong invited his filmmaker friend, Pimpaka Towira, to shoot a movie, which tells the story of two lovers who've fled into the jungle, and Apichatpong himself video-ed his friend while she and her crew were shooting that film-within-a-film. The light feeling of the movie is nurtured by the relaxed virtuosity of this shrewd structuralist in control of his medium. (The film was shown at the Bangkok Short Film and Video Festival in August).

Darker in temperament, and more eager to belch fire all over taboo subjects, Thunska Pansittiworakul is an enfant terrible who admits his obsession with penises. His prolific video works sometimes have the rash quality of a movie made after a scandalously drunken night in somebody's garage, but in Vous Vous Souviens de Moi?, he manages to structure a melancholic tale of a robot boy who wants to feel love inside a hallucinatory shell of his fragmented storytelling. The seven-minute movie (which of course contains a shot of an erect penis) was shown at First Frame Festival in January 2005, and recently at the 4th Bangkok Experimental Film Festival.

Pramote Sangsorn's Tsu, meanwhile, is a short made to commemorate the tsunami disaster. It is part of a 13-film package, and to me its elusive nature, which centres around a boy who goes around changing the warning flags on a wind-swept beach, makes it the most luminous among the bunch. Pramote's film was premiered at the World Film Festival of Bangkok in October.

Flame-haired Pramote is a former child star who shows such exciting promise as a movie director, but his struggle to get his feature-length script made into a movie has hit so many bumps since the investors deemed it as having limited commercial appeal. If that remains the fate of a young, committed, talented director in this country, we'll have to continue to look for hidden gems in the wild territory of the independent scene, while keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that the situation in the mainstream circuit won't get any worse than it already has.