Kaiju Shakedown: ThaiWorld
What’s up with Thailand? Politically, the country’s a mess. A coup kicked Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra out of office in 2006, and an offer of amnesty to him earlier this year sparked massive protests and unrest. But while Thailand’s politics are full of turmoil, its film industry has entered a sleepy state of stasis. Big-budget action, historical, and fantasy films have been replaced by cheaper horror movies, romances, and comedies aimed at the local audience, and independent cinema keeps getting hobbled by restrictive censorship. Even reading Wise Kwai’s list of the best Thai films of 2013 feels like you’re hearing the echo of an echo. No matter how good some of these films might be, it’s a far cry from that crashing wave of Thai movies unleashed upon the world back in the early 2000’s like Nang Nak (99), Tears of the Black Tiger (00), Last Life in the Universe (03), Ong-Bak (03), Tropical Malady (03), Beautiful Boxer (03), Born to Fight (04), Shutter (04), Bangkok Loco (04), Art of the Devil 2 (05), Tom Yum Goong (05), Invisible Waves (06), and Syndromes and a Century (06), to name a few.
But why dwell on the past? Let’s catch up with what the big names of Thai cinema are doing today!
After a huge falling-out with the studio powerhouse Sahamongkol, who seemed to treat their contract with Jaa as equivalent to owning his soul, the star retreated to the forests of Thailand, toyed with becoming a monk, freaked out, disappeared, reappeared, and made Ong-Bak 3 for Sahamongkol. Now, with his old contract expired, he signed a new 10-year contract with Sahamongkol but only for movies he makes in Thailand, which meant that he immediately started making movies overseas. His biggest part is in the upcoming Fast and Furious 7, which he didn’t even inform Sahamongkol about—they had to learn about it online. He’s also in Skin Trade, with Dolph Lundgren and Michael Jai White. Jaa recently posted some fight clips from the film on his Facebook page and this action flick, about Lundgren and Jaa breaking up a human trafficking ring, looks terrific. However, some people are reporting that there’s a crisis in Thailand’s film bureaucracy about whether it’s a foreign or a domestic production, and it may never even screen in Thailand for unknown reasons.
After rocketing to fame with Beautiful Boxer (04), a fantastic biopic about Thailand’s Nong Thoom, a transsexual muay thai champion, Ekachai made Pleasure Factory (07)—a Cannes selection—and then the horror movie The Coffin (08) a Thailand-Singapore-Hong Kong co-production. After that, he went back to directing theater. He’d previously directed several popular musicals in Singapore and Thailand, like Chang & Eng about the original Siamese twins and he’s been seeking funding for years to turn Chang & Eng into a film, but without success. His run of bad luck continued as several of his recent stage productions based on muay thai have flopped. However, he recently shot back to success with Muay Thai Live a wildly popular stage show about the history of muay thai and he’s also directing Tony Jaa, Ron Perlman, and Dolph Lundgren in Skin Trade (watch the trailer).
Nonzee’s wildly popular Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangsters (97) was a Fifties-set gangster flick that kicked Thai cinema out of a rut and launched the country’s New Wave movement. His follow-up movie, Nang Nak (99), was a sensitive ghost romance based on the popular folktale “Mae Nak Phra Khanong” and became a huge box-office smash. Nonzee followed up with the inexplicably neglected comedy, OK Baytong (03), in which a Buddhist monk leaves his monastery to raise his niece after his sister is killed in a terrorist attack. An instructional manual on how to live with other people, set in the mostly Muslim south of Thailand, it’s a warm, human story that seems to grow more profound and necessary with each passing year. But after his massively budgeted fantasy film, Queens of Langkasuka (08), flopped, he’s been relatively quiet. In 2012, he directed the poorly reviewed horror movie, Distortion (watch the trailer). Then, in February of this year he released the melodrama Timeline, which got much better reviews (watch the trailer). Currently, he’s trying to raise financing for a long-in-the-works project called Toyol about a wicked stepmother tormenting a Hong Kong Chinese family who have recently moved to Bangkok. You can read a longer profile and interview with Nonzee here.
Shooting to fame as the director of Shutter (04), a relatively forgettable horror movie with some excellently engineered scares which did huge box office and was remade by both Hollywood and Indian studios, Banjong has gone on to find his groove. He directed another popular horror flick, Alone (07) before turning in segments in three horror anthologies, including a segment in the 2012 American film festival favorite, The ABCs of Death (“N is for Nuptials”). He directed a well-received romantic comedy, Hello Stranger (10) before rocketing back to massive success with his comedy-horror flick Pee-Mak. Based on the same Thai folktale as Nonzee Nimibutr’s Nang Nak but taking a more comedic approach, it was released in March 2013 and quickly became the highest-grossing Thai movie of all time (watch the trailer).
The man behind art-house films like Last Life in the Universe (03), Invisible Waves (06), Ploy (07), and Headshot (11), Pen-ek has been a constant presence on the festival scene. Now he’s announced that he’ll be continuing in the more genre-oriented direction he explored with the underseen and underappreciated Headshot, a riff on the hit-man movie. The new flick is called Samui Song, and it’s produced by Headshot producer Raymond Phathanavirangoon. It stars Ploy (star of the Buppah Rahtree film series) as a wife trying to free her husband from a cult run by a charismatic guru, played by Vithaya “Pu” Pansringarm (the guy who kicks Ryan Gosling’s butt in Only God Forgives). It sounds like it’s going to be a thriller/head-exploder, as Pen-ek has cited everything from Hitchcock and Shinya Tsukamoto to Sixties Thai cinema as influences.
There’s no need to ask “Where’s Apichatpong?” The art-house hero is the most famous director currently working out of Thailand. Constantly running afoul of government censorship, he’s turned out a string of movies that have premiered at the Cannes and Venice film festivals, winning Un Certain Regard, the Jury Prize, and the Palme d’Or at Cannes for, respectively, Blissfully Yours (02), Tropical Malady (04), and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (10). His latest movie was announced back in March 2013 at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and by the end of the festival, half of its $1 million budget was secured. Titled Cemetery of Kings, it’s the story of a small village where soldiers suffer from sleeping sickness; there’s a river monster, ghosts and…well, you can just read the financing proposal for yourself. Shooting hasn’t begun yet, and by all accounts Apitchatpong is taking it easy before diving headfirst back into a new movie.
Not nearly as well-known as the other names on this list, Chookiat directed the thriller 13 Beloved (06) which was an award-winning sleeper hit in Thailand, and deservedly so. Like the recent American film, Cheap Thrills, it’s about a guy hit hard by the economic crisis who winds up performing dangerous and degrading stunts to earn cash. Remake rights were sold quickly (though the resulting movie, 13 Sins, was pretty much being declared dead on arrival). After 13 Beloved, Chookiat went on to make The Love of Siam (07), which turned model Mario Maurer into a huge star. A movie about the romance between two high-school boys, Love of Siam became a word-of-mouth hit and a bona fide cult classic in Thailand, winning “Best Picture” and “Best Director” at pretty much all the Thai film awards that year. Since then, Chookiat has made Grean Fictions (13) which did so-so business at the box office.
Probably one of my favorite Thai directors, Wisit burst onto the scene with his eye-melting 2000 tribute to Thai Westerns, Tears of the Black Tiger. He followed it up with his visually gorgeous Citizen Dog (04), and then a retro horror movie, The Unseeable (06). In 2010 he spent untold time and energy shooting a massive superhero film, Red Eagle, which bombed at the box office. Since then, he’s found himself in a kind of limbo as he looks for funding in a market where the money just isn’t there for ambitious projects. He’s been shopping around an independently produced muay thai project called Suriya and rumor has it that he’s currently shooting a horror movie.
So what’s going to happen in Thai cinema in 2014? I hate to sound pessimistic, but my guess is:
* Tony Jaa is going to star in a lot of international action movies.
* Romances and romantic comedies will continue to clean up with local audiences.
* Someone will make a horror movie.
Thailand, you had an amazing decade…It’s okay to take a rest!
We miss you! Feel better soon!