Film Comment recently posted an interesting article, "Kaiju Shakedown" by Grady Hendrix that has some significant implications for Lao and Lao and Lao American film makers as well.
Hendrix suggests that the Thai film industry appears to have entered "a sleepy state of stasis" since the "crashing wave of Thai movies unleashed upon the world back in the early 2000’s." It's easy to see where he's coming from comparing the recent output from Thai cinema compared to classics such as Nang Nak, Tears of the Black Tiger, Ong Bak, Shutter, and many others.
We might well ask where the ambition and innovation has gone. Hendrix suggests "Big-budget action, historical, and fantasy films have been replaced by cheaper horror movies, romances, and comedies aimed at the local audience, and independent cinema keeps getting hobbled by restrictive censorship."
One film that serves as an example of that censorship is Ing K.'s Shakespeare Must Die, an adaptation of Macbeth which the Thai government believed would cause societal disunity.
Thailand is a country that still has lèse majesté laws, so it's easy to see how a Thai interpretation of Shakespeare's works might ruffle feathers. Anti-monarchy overtones, in addition to references to Thai history such as the 1976 student protests in Bangkok were enough to get it blocked by the censorship committee.
The director Ing K. said in one interview "The committee questioned why we wanted to bring back violent pain from the past to make people angry." How far can regional art advance in the world if it cannot take risks to speak not of the past and the future, but what might have been?
When we see a film like Shakespeare Must Die censored, it raises questions about democracy and the true ability of the people to voice and critique constructively. How might democracy move forward and reach its fullest potential?
Ing K. noted that while the board agreed the "film is exempted from the censorship process "because it has been made from events that really happened," the censors have threatened to sue any theatre that releases the film to the public." He also noted that his films were victims of smear campaigns by "international lobbyists who strive to paint them as "royalist propaganda" and even "Ku Klux Klan hate speech"!
This raises fundamental challenges for film-makers and artists across Southeast Asia. How could such censorship not have a chilling effect on the risk and innovation emerging directors might take? What forms of self-censorship will we see emerge, made all of the more tragic because history shows that even with rigorous self-censorship, ultimately an artist can become blacklisted for wholly arbitrary violations, even just using the word "mother" or "sunset," as we saw in Burma.
Looking through Hendrix's list, I feel bad for Nonzee Nimibutr, who's made several interesting Thai films including Nang Nak and Queen of Langkasuka, which, while a flop was at least ambitious. He ran into a tough streak.
I'm not a big fan of Apichatpong Weerasethakul who inflicted Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives on us, but now he's raising the last funds he needs for Cemetery of Kings which threatens to be another slow-burner where we'll be watching paint dry as it tells the story of "a lonesome middle-age housewife who tends a soldier with sleeping sickness and falls into a hallucination that triggers strange dreams, phantoms, and romance. " As with his Mekong Hotel and his other works, the concepts are promising, but I'm always left cold by his final execution.
Hendrix does a great job catching us up on who to keep an eye out for. Check out the full list at Film Comment.