FESTIVALS: 2nd Bangkok Offers Censorship and Indies Thai-Style
by Daniel Pereira
At 2:30pm in Bangkok, Thailand, the movie projectors at the very posh Emporium Shopping Mall ground to a screaming halt. A torrential rain had begun moments earlier, submerging this six-story mega-mall into an all too familiar rainy season blackout. People waited patiently, lit only by emergency lights and the dramatic sounds of thunder and a punishing rainfall outside.
Upstairs, the United Artists theater complex (one of three theater sites of the 2nd Annual Bangkok Film Festival) was filled with Thai and ‘farang’ (the Thai word for ‘foreigner’) film buffs, who were well into their fifth day of hardcore festival film viewing. One gentleman, a doctor who for the second year in a row took vacation time off from work for the entire 10-day period of the festival, waited patiently for the screening of his fourth film of the day to resume.
Based on the censorship events in the week prior to the festival kickoff on September 17th, you would have thought that the film projectors were shutdown for reasons political rather than climatic. According to its organizers, many things are different about this second outing of the festival, except for the censorship issues that are fast becoming a festival tradition. Last year, the censorship wing of the local police received an anonymous fax, pointing out four films that contained ‘pornographic content.’ A full-fledged controversy ensued, which by some accounts healthily renewed a public debate over Thailand’s lack of a rating system.
This year, a single Dutch film (“Jesus is a Palestinian“) was fingered, for reasons again of pornographic as well as religious content. The police arbitrarily deemed the film in violation of this country’s 1930 Film Censorship Laws, which are the basis of any censorship decision. At first, festival organizers and sponsors decided to cancel the screenings of the film instead of agreeing to any modification of the film’s form or content. A strange loophole eventually presented itself however, allowing the festival sponsors to pay for the screening seats of the Dutch film which is about one man’s Y2K quest for spirituality.
In so doing, the organizers are able to claim a non-commercial status for the screening of the film, which excludes it from the censorship laws and their subsequent violation. “It is a strange clause in the laws and a strange solution, I agree,” commented Festival Director Brian Bennett, “but it is a solution agreeable to all. In reality, the police would rather not call attention to these issues, but have to because the call from the public has to be reacted to in a 911 fashion.”
In between sorting out censorship issues, Bennett and the festival team have put together a diverse program of 120 films from 25 countries, in all formats: 35mm, 16mm, feature length and short. Notable American independent films included Tony Bui‘s “Three Seasons” and Larry Clark‘s “Another Day in Paradise.” Unique to this festival was ‘Animation Night’: the premiere of Disney‘s “Tarzan,” along with the Taiwanese animated feature “Grandma and Her Ghosts.” Closing night festivities on Sunday included the awarding of the Golden Elephant Awards (see below) and the screening of the one American live action studio film at the festival, “Mystery Men.”
“It is a 20% increase in the amount of films from last year, plus we added some venues, so it has been an expansion year. Last year went so well, we have had some ‘laws of gravity’ issues this year,” commented Bennett, minutes after the lights went back on in the UA Theaters, “but the filmmakers are having a great time and we are getting as strong a turn out as last year, if not stronger.” Hard to believe, considering the festival saw a remarkable 20,000 person audience last year.
One of three feature films which received World Premiere screenings to these sell out festival crowds was “One Step on a Mine, It’s All Over,” a dramatic film depicting the intense life of combat photographer, Taizo Ichinose. Although a Japanese production, the film was shot entirely in Thailand with an all Thai crew.
The two other world premiere films, both produced in Thailand, offer a peak into the complex themes of and modes of production of independent film in this country. The opening night gala film, “6ixtynin9,” was directed and produced by Bangkok native Pen-ek Ratanaruang. The film, inspired by the stories which populate the front pages of leading local newspapers, is set in one day in the life of a recently laid off 25-year-old secretary. Director Ratanaruang notes that while his feature film debut, “Fun Bar Karaoke,” was set in a more festive, prosperous time in the life of the city, “‘6ixtynin9’ is a film about loneliness and the current situation in Bangkok, now that we are fucked by the Asian economic crash.”
Five major studios, all of which are family owned, control “studio” film production in Thailand. By most accounts, the traditional studio film produced in Thailand is devoid of thematic or structural risks, leaning towards a product that fills seats in the most mediocre fashion. “‘6ixtynin9’ was produced with money from one of these major studios, and luckily it was a small amount in their eyes so I was left unsupervised to do what I want,” comments the director.
Furthermore, festival organizer Bennett notes proudly that the financial backers of the film might not have even taken the time to look at the finished product, were it not for the buzz generated by those who saw the film at the festival’s opening night event. “The festival has become an alternative venue for filmmakers to get their films seen. Word of mouth and festival buzz make it a viable product for the big companies. The Thai studio will now take a look at the film and it will probably get distribution here in Thailand,” offers Bennett.
This year’s festival also includes a benchmark that is thoroughly illustrative of the state of the Thai independent film scene. The Thai produced and directed film “Kon Jorn,” which world premiered on the first Sunday of the festival, is the first feature film produced outside of the studio system. In essence, the first Thai independent film.
The film, directed by Attaporn Thihirun, depicts family life, police indifference and present day Thai society. Asked if the health and growing influence of the American independent film market had anything to do with the production of the film, Bennett points to the self illuminating one sheet of the Bruce Willis thriller “Sixth Sense” in the theater lobby and comments: “As you can see, the influence of the States is everywhere. American film is hip, it’s fashionable, yes. But, in the end, film is simply a great way of expressing yourself and more and more people will get that opportunity here in Thailand.”
It is inevitable that the Bangkok Film Festival, barring the occasional rainy season electrical failure, will continue to evolve into a sophisticated launching point for these future visions of Thai society.
The complete list of the Golden Elephant Awards follows:
The Golden Elephant Award, presented to the most outstanding film in the competition section went to Nonzee Nimibutr‘s “Nang Nak” (Thailand), an exceptionally cinematic treatment of an often-told story. A contemporary telling of a traditional story that captures historical detail. Director Nonzee cleverly marries a story of great human passion and supernatural powers.
The Jade Elephant Award, presented to a film for its independent and innovative filmmaking, went to Lodewijk Crijns‘ “Jesus is a Palestinian” (Netherlands), a film with a serious message about religious chicanery, but delivered with great and refreshing humor.
The Golden Elephant Award for Best Documentary went to Mark Littman and Marshall Dostal‘s “Red, White, and Yellow” (USA), which explores racism, patriotism, friendship and the American psyche through a humorous account of people stuffing their faces with hotdogs.
The Golden Elephant Award for Best Short Film (35mm), went to “Mutual Love Life,” directed by Robert Peters. The JBL award for best use of sound in a Thai Film went to Attaporn Thaihiran’s “Kon Jorn,” the JBL Award for Best Script in a Thai Film went to Pen-ek Ratanareung’s “6ixtynin9,” which uses a great cast and script to weave a story of coincidences, bad luck and comedy. Using the current economic disaster as the foundation, Pen-ek catches the current feelings and climate in Bangkok right now. Witty dialogue mixed with clever plot twists makes this a highly entertaining film for the audience.
Golden Elephant Award Thai Short films
Best Thai Short Film: “Pramane Ground” by Passaree Laichuthai
Best Director: “I’m F” by Boonsong Nakpoo
Best Screenplay: “Bunzai Chaiyo II: The Adventure of Iron Pussy” by
Best Cinematography: “Beyond” by Arunrat Sawatayanon
Best Animation: “The Way-Tarn Story” by Pittipong Netkew
The Rachot-Smoe Vision of Light Award: “A Dead/Best Friend” by Suwatida
Trongdee, Wassinee Luengsuree, Paninthorn Chuen-im, Genwi Thongdeenok
[Daniel Pereira lives and works in Los Angeles. He is an occasional contributor to indieWIRE.]