Thai cinema: sustainable development or imminent decline?
(By: Robert Williamson)
Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, the Thai film industry suffered a major decline. A sudden trend for anodyne teen flicks drove large sections of the filmgoing audience away from cinemas, and by the mid-1990s the industry was producing barely ten films annually, compared with almost one hundred per year during the 1980s. Then in 1997 two advertising directors shook up the industry with startling debut films. Nonzee Nimibutr's Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters earned a record box office take of over 75 million baht, while Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Fun Bar Karaoke was selected to play at the Berlin Film Festival - the first time for twenty years that Thai cinema had had any kind of an international presence. Nonzee followed up with an even bigger hit, ghost story Nang Nak (1998), then used his industry status to move in other directions, making the sensual period drama Jan Dara (2001) and the contemporary Baytong (2003). Pen-ek honed an off-beat style through two further films, comic crime thriller 6ixtynin9 (1999) and musical comedy Monrak Transistor (2001), before delivering his greatest triumph, Last Life in the Universe (2003). Nonzee's films can be seen to have revitalised the industry by drawing large numbers of adult viewers back to theatres, while Pen-ek's films, though relatively unsuccessful at the box office, offered inspiration to young film students and aspiring directors who saw that space was opening up for the production of innovative, stylish films in an otherwise conservative film industry.
As Thai cinema built up some momentum, film studios tried to copy Nonzee's formula of addressing a broader demographic. Often the studios didn't stray too far from the established formulae of traditional ghost stories and action comedies, though production values improved steadily as films became more ambitious. This was especially true of the wave of epic historical dramas produced - The Legend of Suriothai (2000), Bang Rajan (2000), and so many others. These films accessed a wider demographic by tapping into a sense of patriotism and national heritage which appealed both to the conservative mindset of the older population and to the fears of the younger generation in the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis.
With audiences and profits growing rapidly and studios suddenly anxious to increase production, opportunities for young filmmakers sprung up everywhere. Notably, former industry heavyweight GMM Grammy reopened its film division and, because it had to depend on largely untested directors to fill out its production slate, found itself with a compelling range of interesting and offbeat titles by talented breakthrough filmmakers such as Jira Malikul (Mehkong Full Moon Party, 2002), Yuthlert Sippapak (February, 2003) and Pimpaka Towira (One Night Husband, 2003). These filmmakers were fortunate to get a break with a major studio; elsewhere it remained difficult to find money for independent and experimental films, though Apichatpong Weerasethakul has gained overseas recognition for his three innovative films, Mysterious Object At Noon (2000), Blissfully Yours (2002) and the Cannes prize-winning Tropical Malady (2004). A growing film culture grounded in University film courses and local film festivals fostered an upsurge in creativity which saw young Thai directors learning how to blend Thai stories with techniques borrowed from world cinema to create locally-relevant films that could appeal to overseas audiences. Thus, Monrak Transistor and Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) took aspects of Thai culture - popular music and cinema - and gave them a playful postmodern spin which found an appreciative audience across Europe and America.
In addition to this, Thai filmmakers have been unusually successful in banding together to support one another. Directorial teams continue to be much more common in Thailand than elsewhere. The vibrant short film scene has offered opportunity and encouragement to novice filmmakers, and a strong sense of community has developed with filmmakers helping each other out and using their production bases and contacts to provide openings to others. This has been especially true at GMM (now GMM-Tai-Hub), Film Bangkok, and Baa-Ram-Ewe. It should be noted that each of these companies are (or was, in the case of the now sadly defunct Film Bangkok) run by experienced film directors, who are more sensitive to the creative side of filmmaking than are the money men in charge of many of the other production houses. This trend continues with the establishment of TIFA (Thai Independent Filmmakers Association) by former-GMM executive and noted filmmaker Pantham Thongsang and Anya Animation by writer-director Sutape Tunnirut, but it remains true that few of the country’s more ambitious producers have the experience required to uncover and exploit new sources of finance and distribution which would reduce their dependence on the major production houses.
Interestingly, Nonzee and Pen-ek have remained relatively unchallenged as the creative leaders of Thai cinema, though Prachya Pinkaew and Tony Jaa - director and star of kickboxing drama Ong Bak (2003) and Tom-Yum-Goong (2005) - are increasingly well-known to overseas film fans. On a global level, Pen-ek continues (along with Apichatpong) to outperform Nonzee as Thailand's most high-profile director, though his films continue to owe a debt to Nonzee who has produced Monrak Transistor and Last Life in the Universe under the auspices of his independent production company, Cinemasia. The importance of Cinemasia cannot be understated. Many of the best recent Thai films have been produced there, and it has been a driving force in establishing international co-productions to take advantage of foreign money and talent: Jan Dara used Hong Kong money plus the acting talents of Christy Chung in a supporting role, while Last Life in the Universe was a collaboration between four different countries, starring Japanese actor Asano Tadonobu and shot by Wong Kar-wai collaborator Chris Doyle. Sadly, the death of Nonzee's production partner Duangkamol Limcharoen in 2003 dealt a huge blow to the company and to Thai cinema as a whole. Other co-production channels exist, however. Hong Kong-born brothers Danny & Oxide Pang have also bridged the gap between Thailand and Hong Kong – their partnership with producer Peter Chan Ho-Sun has produced the globally-recognised hits Bangkok Dangerous (2000), The Eye (2002) and The Eye 2 (2004) – and Five Star and Matching Media have recently announced that they will switch their production strategies to focus increasingly on international co-productions.
2003 proved an interesting year for Thai cinema. Production levels rose to over fifty features, though the vast majority struggled to break even at the box office; the major story of the year was the huge box office success of My Girl, an endearing family comedy whose six-strong creative team had started out on the short film scene. Despite a strong Thai presence at the Berlin and Cannes film festivals, 2004 saw a similar story. Horror film The Shutter created a buzz and earned substantial box office returns – the only film to break 100 million baht that year – and has the potential to achieve international success (the re-make rights have already been sold to Hollywood company New Regency for a record sum), while the international prospects of Wisit's Citizen Dog received a boost when Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp announced in June 2005 that it would conduct the film’s foreign sales. But few other films impressed, especially the mainstream studio output. Visual and technical ingenuity is not lacking but there is a dearth of creative producers and scriptwriters. Although 2005 has been a more financially successful year thus far, creatively the films are getting worse, not better. Most studios remain reluctant to take risks, instead rehashing established genres in an attempt to second-guess what can be a rather fickle domestic audience. Thailand's young filmmakers continue to show potential, but few have seriously shown the initiative or inclination to break away from the established industry structures which have yet to offer them the long-term support they deserve.
A previous version of this article appeared at www.firecracker-magazine.com