When Thai Movies Trickle Abroad; From Pop-Action to Poetic Animal Love
by Anthony Kaufman
Want some high-powered, heart-thumping action sequences or some lyrical avant-garde tours de force -- all from one native land? Sound like Hong Kong, you say? Or mainland China, perhaps? Try Thailand. Over the next few months, more films from the Southeast Asian nation will be released in U.S. theaters than perhaps anytime -- ever -- filling both bills to the hilt.
The two poles of Thailand's meager, but mounting film industry hit U.S. coasts last Friday: New York saw Palm Pictures' release of Penek Ratanaruang's dreamy art-house romance "Last Life in the Universe," while Los Angeles (appropriately) received Magnolia Pictures' more commercial, rural-bound 18th-century war epic "Bang Rajan," directed by Thanit Jitnukul and "presented by Oliver Stone" (coming to New York later this month.) In late November, Magnolia will provide a follow-up punch with "Ong Bak: Thai Warrior," the Jackie Chan-inspired martial arts crowd pleaser, and Strand Releasing will soon after distribute Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Tropical Malady," the Cannes Special Prize winner about a mystical love affair between a soldier and a country boy (who transforms into a tiger). How's that for eclectic?
(The Chicago Art Institute-trained Weerasethakul's previous critical favorite "Blissfully Yours" will also run at New York's Anthology Film Archives for one week from Sept. 24-30 and the filmmakers are seeking additional U.S. venues. A previously announced DVD release of "Blissfully Yours" via Plexifilm fell through.)
But most watchers of Thai cinema see this "new wave" as largely accidental -- not the coming to fruition of a thriving film scene, but a grouping of disparate movies made over the last few years that just happen to be coming to the U.S. right now. "Bang Rajan" was released in Thailand way back at the end of 2000.
"It often happens that an individual country's film scene will seem to emerge all at once," says Magnolia Pictures' Eamonn Bowles, "like the spate of films from Iran, China in the early '90s, the German '70s-early '80s era. Quite often a success will inspire [people who are] in the same situation that it can be done, and others [will] follow suit." But Bowles says the film's origins had little to do with where the films originated. "They're just terrifically exciting," he adds.
There's no question there's more films coming out of Thailand than ever before, but the infrastructure is anything but steady. "I don't think there's any concerted business effort from the Thai film industry behind this sudden flurry of Thai films on U.S. screens," explains Chuck Stephens, a Bangkok-based film critic who has recently provided English-language subtitles for a variety of new Thai films. "Frankly, I doubt there's a single Thai film company who'd have a clue as to where to begin to engineer such a feat. What it is, I think, is a mixture of coincidental timing." After all, it was almost two years ago that Oliver Stone stumped for "Bang Rajan" while passing through Bangkok.
Despite his extensive credits, Film Bangkok partner and producer-director "Uncle" Adirek Watleela (known for his involvement in recent Thai breakouts such as "Happy Go Lucky," "Tears of the Black Tiger," "Bangkok Dangerous," "Bang Rajan" and "Saving Private Tootsie") is only a shred more optimistic. "We used to have six to seven films made each year and now there are 50 Thai films, one literally, opening every week," he recently told indieWIRE, through a translator. "But of those 50 movies that come out every year, only two will make a profit."
Though "Uncle" admits that it was a lot worse 10 years ago and the Thais have since gotten better at marketing their projects, funding remains extremely scarce ("there's not a cent," he says) and they still can't compete with Hollywood's domination of local screens.
The international success of "Bang Rajan," however, did help the company funded a number of smaller films. And the director of "Ong Bak," Prachya Pinkaew, used the proceeds from that film to bankroll his production company Baa-Ram-Ewe, which is designed to finance works by first-time directors.
These two strands of current Thai cinema -- broad-appealing comedy or action pics and international art-house sensations -- is an appropriate model for a burgeoning Asian cinema. Just look at the Korean film boom. But in Thailand, blockbusters such as "Bang Rajan" and "Ong Bak" are few and far between.
In the U.S. and internationally, by contrast, it is festival favorites that are likely fueling interest in the action films. "I don't think the art films are getting a boost from the action films," says Chuck Stephens. "If anything, it's probably the other way round. The time is just right for releasing 'Tropical' and 'Last Life' -- based on the various critical masses involved: prominent festival placements and prizes."
Locally, however, Thai art films do very little business. While lyrical gems like "Last Life in the Universe" and "Tropical Malady" get praised at festivals the world over and sweep Thailand's version of the Oscars each year, Thai exhibitors treat these movies like second-class citizens, often restricted to one screening per day, and sometimes banished altogether during busy weekends.
According to "Uncle" Watleela, the country's filmmakers suffer at the hands of an exhibition monopoly, where one company controls 70% of the cinemas in Thailand. "The theaters get a 50/50 revenue share," he adds, "which makes it almost impossible for filmmakers to get anything out of it."
In an email last week, Chuck Stephens relayed news of a handful of projects, struggling to get made and hold a grip on the marketplace. Veteran director Nonzee Nimibutr's "Baytong" recently opened in Thai theaters, while the melodrama "The Letter" fared better last month.
"Thai filmmaking is still coping with the loss of one of its major figures, Nonzee's production partner at Cinemasia, Duangkamol 'Aom' Limcharoen, who died last December," notes Stephens. "She was a real visionary in terms of understanding what it takes to make Thai films accessible to the rest of the world. Losing her will continue to have an impact of the sorts of Thai films that get made for the forseeable future."
Stephens is pinning his hopes on another producer to fill Limcharoen's shoes, Mingmongkol Sonakul ("Mysterious Object at Noon"). She is slated to produce "Last Life in the Universe" director Penek Ratanaruang's next film, on which legendary D.P. Christopher Doyle will again serve as cinematographer, and is working with Additya Assarat, who won multiple international awards for his 2000 short "Motorcycle."
Wisit Sasanatieng, famous for his garish pop-western and Cannes sensation "Tears of the Black Tiger" -- buried and never released by Miramax -- is also currently editing his second feature, "a cartoonishly-stylized romantic comedy called 'Citizen Dog,'" according to Stephens. Now that Miramax's chances of releasing "Tears of the Black Tiger" are next to nothing, fans should campaign for Magnolia -- the new U.S. home for Thai pics -- to wrest the film from the Weinstein's vaults and pull out another Fellowship Adventure Group release.
If there's ever been a time to bring out "Tears of the Black Tiger," now's it, riding on a Thai tide that needs whatever momentum it can get to keep from floating back to sea.