40 years at the movies

Veteran film critic Kittisak Suwanapokin has devoted his life to showing that movies are more than entertainment

Kong Rithdee

Cinema Paradiso: Kittisak Suwanapokin has turned 60, but retirement is not in his script.

The birthday bash of Kittisak Suwanapokin was a modest affair attended by his friends and proteges, art critics and movie directors, with Marlon Brando, dead on this side but still very much alive in On the Waterfront, swaggering about on a projector screen.

Guests were invited to speak, and there were teases and tales and in-jokes and anecdotes, as hot food was served along with sweet nostalgia.

Kittisak recently turned 60 years old, and he's spent 40 of those writing about movies, and 30 teaching students and would-be filmmakers to unlock that classic mystery as to why movies - great movies - can exert such a gravitational pull on us. He's lost count, but at least a few thousand movie reviews of his have been published, and retirement is yet to be found in his script. In a country where cinema journalism is largely trivialised and severely misunderstood, Kittisak has testified to the merit of his love for the movies, and to his disbelief in that popular fib that films are merely entertainment.

"For a lot of people, they are not," Kittisak says in his characteristic trembling voice. "When I started writing in the 1960s, there were audiences who were eager to seek meanings in movies, and though movies today may not be as meaningful as they used to be, there are audiences with the same passion to see through the surface of things. Of course there's still a point in writing about movies."

Amiably known as Acharn Dang ("Prof Dang"), Kittisak has cultivated the good taste for cinema through his columns and his classes. Today, in a time when everyone is a critic, when just about anybody can put up a weblog in which he/she spews out movie analysis - more shallow than profound, more disposable than memorable - Kittisak reminds us that it's one thing to dabble in film criticism out of caprice or coolness, but it's another story to perform a genuine cultural service and devote one's life to the discussion of movies with professionalism.

But Kittisak, a frail-looking man who goes around with a backpack, earns respect not just because of his long service years, but largely because of his honesty, his truthful yet gentle style of writing that manages to say things frankly without being confrontational. It's difficult to locate his original influence; his approach to film analysis is a mix of all the "isms" - Symbolism, Structuralism, etc - the auteur theory and a layman's curiosity about the secret of human life and behaviour. What comes out of that mix is not a hardcore academic dissection of a film, but a mature, thoughtful, conversation-like composition accessible to all.

Not surprisingly, Kittisak didn't study film in college. How could he? In those days there was no such thing as film study in this country.

"But film reviewing did exist since the postwar years," says Kittisak. "I read film reviews by this man with the pen name of 'Mor Jiew' since I was 10, and they were really reviews, which mean they were published in the paper after the film had opened in the theatre, not before and not simply as a preview or advertisement.

"I started writing when I was at Chulalongkorn's Faculty of Political Science. The seniors were producing a faculty journal, and knowing of my interest in art and movies, they asked me to write a column for them. So I just did. Don't ask me what the first film I wrote about was, it doesn't really matter any more."

Self-study led him to discover film theories of different schools, from Andre Bazin to Pauline Kael; he delved into the analyses of Hitchcock's and Bunuel's art and saw how their movies worked, technically and psychologically. But Kittisak credits a criticism piece on the film The Graduate by Prof Sodsai Pantumkomol as the one that convinced him how writing about movies could be a truly scholastic activity. "I began by writing from my feelings," he says. "But when I read that piece on The Graduate, in which the writer talked at length about symbolism and how it affected the portrayal of the characters, I realised I could do more with my own pieces."

American films were the staple of movie-going experience in the 1970s, and luminous works from the likes of Arthur Penn, Hal Ashby and Martin Scorsese formed a solid idea of great movies for the young critic. Thai audiences in those days also enjoyed a chance to see European art movies from Antonioni, Fellini and Godard. Meanwhile the concept of a film society - where cinephiles gathered to watch films unreleased in the theatre at cultural centres - also excited the budding feeling of the film community in Bangkok.

"In the '60s and '70s, people searched for meanings in everything," says Kittisak. "We did not watch movies simply for entertainment, and critical opinions were very important. There were many serious critics working in Thailand at that time, like Satien Jantimatorn and Siripong Janhom. The hippie movement, the Vietnam war, then the uprising of October 14, 1973 - all these seemed to affect the way viewers perceived the movies back in those days."

Little known to most people, after his graduation Kittisak worked for a period as a civil servant at the Corrections Department (his office was at the infamous Bang Kwang Prison), before he began writing weekly columns for newspapers, Pim Thai and Siam Rath. His longest stint, and one that established him as a distinctive voice, was when he wrote for Starpics under the pen name "Tulip" in the 1970s. Besides reviews, Kittisak answered readers' questions sent to him ("before October 14 they asked me about films, after October 14 they began asking me about politics!") and that was when his characteristic blend of knowledge and gentleness, of being informative without being instructive, earned him much respect and a wide readership.

In 1979, Kittisak started teaching film analysis at Chulalongkorn University, a part-time position he keeps today. He's also holding another job at an advertising agency he formed with a friend a decade ago. Is it because, in this country, one can't make ends meet simply writing about movies?

"It's tough, but not impossible," Kittisak laughs. "There are so many people who write about movies these days, but for me it remains important to understand what duty a critic is performing to his readers. I don't want to say that we're working towards a real 'critical culture' - that sounds too grandiose.

"I think a critic should, firstly, represent a member of the audience by reflecting his feeling towards a movie, and secondly - and this is more important to me - we should facilitate the understanding of ideas presented by the film. I do not try to teach people how to watch movies, and I do not wish them to believe everything I say. What I do is guide them to see something worth seeing, or something worth thinking about.

"The job of a critic, I think, doesn't end when he hands down a verdict that a movie is good or bad; it's not that simple. Especially in Thai society, criticising things or people is a sensitive activity. But that doesn't mean I'm not being honest with my feelings. It depends on how you express your critical opinions in a way that your subject wouldn't feel offended. I wrote negative reviews on many Thai movies - I even voiced my opinion personally to the filmmakers - but they knew that I was being sincere in my comments, and they could accept that."

Such attitude has proved its worth after 40 years, and how lucky he is that Kittisak still enjoys going to the movies. "Movies today may not be as good as when I started out, but I still have fun watching them. Even the investors back in the 1960s seemed to be more committed to the art of filmmaking than investors today, who think only about making money, but I guess that's inevitable.

"And perhaps that makes film criticism even more important to the viewers."

Now Kittisak is writing irregularly for the popular weekly magazine Flicks, and has a monthly column in Young At Heart. "In this profession, turning 60 doesn't mean I have to retire, right?"

No. And it'd be a great disservice to the film community if one day Kittisak Suwanapokin decides to do so.

05Cinema Paradiso: Kittisak Suwanapokin has turned 60, but retirement is not in his script.




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