Coming of Age of New Thai Cinema
01/01/04 (By: Chalida Uabumrungjit)

All the sudden; the world is open up for Thai films. Not only in the film festivals, for the first time, Thai film has some commercial value in the international market. At this point, the notion of “New Thai Cinema” has been widely used. Personally, I think it is too soon to stick this label on the package. However, I cannot deny that the local film industry has changed. After many years in the dark, finally there is some light of hope.

In the late 80s until mid 90s, people kept saying that Thai film industry was dying. It may be just the right time or merely coincidence that many things did changed in 1997. It was the year to celebrate the centenary of cinema history in Thailand. In fact only 17 films were produced that year, but there were a few new filmmakers entering the film industry. Among them, Penek Rattanaruang, Nonzee Nimibutr and Oxide Pang launched their first film at the same year.

Early that year, I heard of a Fun Bar Karaoke would be screened in Berlin International Film Festival. I knew only Penek Rattanaruang was a commercial filmmaker. But I was excited because it had been a long time since the last Thai film showing in Berlin. After the festival, local audiences had to wait for another six months before having a chance to see it. Although the film did not made an huge box office success, Penek soon became new generation’s inspiration.

Then, Nonzee Nimibutr’s Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangster exploded the box office and the people’s sensation all over. Its popularity came from the spectacle of the film which was far from what Thai film used to be defined as “old fashioned”. In other words, the technique has been developed closer to the kind of film which mass Thai audiences adore, Hollywood film. This film has set up some standard, which changed the attitude of the audience towards Thai film and brought back the faith in the ‘national cinema.’

For Oxide Pang, his film Who is running? rather came quietly. But this well-craft film was easily defined as a ‘quality film.’ He also brought the words “short film” on stage since this film was a combination of his several short films he made before. Although it was not a big hit, Oxide Pang was soon included in the group of quality filmmakers.

In fact the change in Thai film production did not just started in 1997. It gradually changed when music companies like RS and Grammy started making films. Many filmmakers who had background in music video put their effort on making more refining images than Thai film in the past. Production design became one of the most important elements of recent Thai cinema.

Many new films set in the past like all Nonzee’s films, Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangster in 1960s, Nang Nak in 19th century and Jan Dara in 1930s. Since there were not many visual references survived so it is important for the filmmaker to fill the gap with his imagination. It allowed him to fully make use of the production design to reconstruct the past. One on hand, the design was served the period in the film. But on the other hand, it is purely the past from the present point of view. This is the counter point for not only Nonzee, but also his contemporaries.

In case of Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tear of the Black Tiger, he intentionally used production design to elaborate the concept of old Thai films. It was rather impression of old Thai films rather than imitation. However, these reconstructed images soon became the reference of the past for the present audience, since most of Thai films in the past have been lost.

For Bang Rajan, Tanit Jitnukul, who has been in the film industry for a long time, also shared the same reference with new filmmakers. He used the past to create the nationalism for present, so the characters had more idealistic appearances rather than realistic set up.

So did Suriyothai, the long awaited epic of Thailand. Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol accepted that this is an imagery version of history although he had done research for many years. This film can be considered as cinema of the nation because of both text and context of this film. The huge budget, the royal support, the cooperation from the film industry; I do believe that it will not easily repeat itself again.

Beside reconstructing the past, there were films focusing on exploring the notion of ‘Thainess’ in the contemporary society. The Iron Ladies projected the images of small Thai community through the issue of homosexuality. What caught the Thai audiences was the local sensibility, which has always been popular as Bhandit Ritthakol’s Boonchu Phunarak .

In 2001, there were more new film directors and more variety. Kittikol Liewsirikul’s Goal Club depicted teenagers involving with football gambling while Yuthlert Sippapak’s Killer Tattoo projected the future fantasy with a lot of sense of humor.

Film industry had also welcome film critics. Sutthakorn Santhithawat was is the first in the role with Kwan- Riam. A few more critics will follow the path, Girlfriends (Monkolchai Chaiwisut) and Kang Pad ( Sananjit Bangsapan) . Even Kwan Riam did neither make really successful box office nor the critic, it show the other aspect of coming New Thai cinema. After many big production, it is time to focus on the small scale.

There was another lever of progress ; co-production. Jan Dara was the first to co-produced by Thai and Hong Kong companies. It was the first time that Thai film released the same time over Asia. I think in term of international level, now it starts to kick off . However, the booming of film industry attract many people to join and hope to share the profit. There definitely would be some low quality quickies, which aim just to catch up with the tide.

Alongside with the mainstream, after all, alternative films exist. There came two alternative film events in 1997; the first Bangkok International Art Film Festival and the first Thai short film and Video Festival were set out. It boost up the alternative film scene which never been active before. Although there have been several film school which established since the 1970s, short films never exist to the broad audience. When Thai Short Film and Video Festival started , people did not aware of how to define these films. The first year, there were only 30 entries but the number rapidly increased more than twice in the second year. Within five years, there are a number of young filmmakers who are continuous making short films and build up new film culture of their own.

From 1999, Thai short films were well received in many international festival. Aditya Assarat’s Motorcycle has been to over twenty festivals and won numerous awards. Lee Chatametikool’s Miami Strip, Hollywood Dream was selected in the competition of Oberhausen Short Film Festival. And a lot more that I believe in their potential to become feature filmmakers, but we still have to wait for the door to open.

While independent film was quite active in other places, there were only two feature-length independent films were made recently; Attaporn Thaihiran’s Konjorn and Apichartpong Werasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon.

Konjorn had some better luck that it had been released in the commercial cinema even a very short time. The text was exclusive to Thai people (about how people have been oppressed by the police). While the multi-layer visual style had turn off normal Thai audience, this is a rare example of avant-garde Thai film.

Mysterious Object at Noon had been shown exclusively in Thailand, but it was so well-received internationally that Apichatpong Weerasethakul could continuously make his second film, Blissfully Yours.

Nevertheless, a few more independent films are on the way. Mingmonkol Sonakul, producer of Mysterious Object at Noon, is finishing her first feature, I-san Special. Another female filmmaker, Pimpaka Towira will launch her first feature, One Night husband next year.

Maybe it is too soon to conclude anything about Thai films now. But I can make some observations that in the past five years, what new Thai films have done was, to draw back the faith of the audience in Thai films. They prove that Thai films also have potential to stand in the same line with Hollywood films. Meanwhile, there were many culture diversities, create the active atmosphere in the film scene. It is not only about the new filmmakers and new films. But it is the time that there are varieties in the Thai film industry.

So rather name it as “The New Thai cinema”, I would put it in the state of Coming of Age . Because Thai film industry is growing up and it will take time to see that how much it can grow.

Time will tell that it is just a slightly change in time or this is the real revolution?

Overview for "Coming of Age of New Thai Cinema,"January 18- Febuary 3, 2002 at Hong Kong Arts Center.

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