Sunday, December 30, 2007

Top 5 Thai films of 2007

2007 was a strong, eventful year for Thai cinema, with many great films, but also some troublesome developments in terms of the way the government treats films, with more heavy handed censorship, and now a forthcoming ratings system that still includes censorship and banning as part of the mix. Narrowing down the choices to single out the best film has been difficult. But time is running out, so let's get to it.

Syndromes and a Century

Although Apichatpong Weerasethakul's drama was screened worldwide to great acclaim throughout 2006, it finally came home to Thailand this year. It was screened once for the press and then pulled from release. Why? Because censors objected to four scenes: A Buddhist monk playing guitar, two monks playing with a flying machine, some doctors drinking whisky in a hospital break room and a doctor kissing his girlfriend and getting an erection in his trousers. Meanwhile, far more lurid and violent films got a pass. Thai authorities had no good reason to pick on this gentle ode to the director's parents. But, the censorship of the film galvanised the Free Thai Cinema Movement, which formed to call for a change in the way films are treated by the government. The movement has been ignored, however, by conservatives at the top of the Culture Ministry, who were successful in having a new film ratings system passed by the National Legislative Assembly in the body's final hours during the week before the recent general election. The new act, to replace the 1930 Film Act, still contains provisions for authorities to censor and ban films, which filmmakers had fought against.


After making a couple of abstract pan-Asian, multi-national productions, auteur Pen-Ek Ratanaruang made a return of sorts to his Thai roots with Ploy, which premiered during the Directors' Fortnight event at the Cannes Film Festival. This drama about a jet-lagged Thai couple holed up in a Bangkok hotel, rehashing their dysfunctional marriage, was still pretty weird. But it was good kind of weird, with some strong performances by an ensemble cast led by Lalita Panyopas, Coca-Cola executive Pornwut Sarasin and newcomer Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, supported by (censored) steamy scenes with Porntip Papanai and Ananda Everingham.

The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong

Not enough documentaries are made in Thailand, and even fewer dare to take on the contentious topic of politics. But The Truth Be Told dared to dance with the 800-pound gorilla, surveying the tumultuous Thai political events of the past four years, from the Thaksin era to the post-coup military regime. Directed by Pimpaka Towira, and covering the lawsuits against media activist Supinya Klangnarong by the Shin Corporation, The Truth Be Told is a sometimes discomfiting mix of political documentary and art-film aesthetics. But the fact that it was made at all makes this one of the best films of the year.

Muay Thai Chaiya

Director-screenwriter Kongkiat Khomsiri made his solo directorial debut with this hard-hitting, nostalgic crime drama, centred on the underworld of Thai boxing in the 1970s. It featured some great-looking period settings and punches brutal enough to leave blood in your stool, yet was also unabashedly full of misty-eyed romanticism.

The Love of Siam

It's rare that a drama film is made with Thai mainstream audiences in mind. Even more notable is that this one has a controversial, yet sugary sweet romance between two teen boys at its centre, making for a stunning surprise toward the end of the year. Director Chukiat Sakweerakul's film was actually one of two films that dared to confront prejudices and present romance between straight-acting gay male characters, the other being Poj Arnon's rain-drenched crime drama, Bangkok Love Story, about a hitman and his intended target falling in love.

Honorable mentions

The presence of a couple of "important" films edged out a few favourites. Among them is The Legend of King Naresuan Part II: Reclamation of Sovereignty, a tightly paced, action-packed historical epic that is part of MC Chatrichalerm Yukol's Naresuan trilogy. Parts I and II were released this year, with Part III due to start production next year. As King of Fire, Part II is Thailand's submission for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Unlikely to win any awards or receive very much attention is The Sperm, an insane, sharply satirical sci-fi comedy directed by Taweewat Wantha. But The Sperm does have some pretty pertinent things to say about contemporary Thai society. And to that end, there was also Phone Mood, an independent digital drama about women and their phones. Along with The Truth Be Told, Phone Mood was among the works shown at this year's inaugural Digital Forum, an outgrowth of the Thai Short Film and Video Festival - a welcome development on the cinema scene.

Cherd Songsri Retrospective

I was absolutely blown away by Puen Pang, a period countryside drama by Cherd Songsri. The Thai Film Foundation screened five of the late director's films in a special retrospective in September. I was drawn to the retrospective by Cherd's most renowned film, Plae Kao (The Scar), but came away most impressed by Puen Pang, a tightly focused, neatly arcing story of a man (Sorapong Chatree) caught between the love of two sisters. I really wish these films would get a broader release on DVD. Somebody, please call the Criterion Collection and get them working on releasing the works of Cherd Songsri, one of Thailand's true cinematic treasures.

The soundtracks

Soundtrack albums are not routinely released with Thai films, but those few that do hit store shelves are usually worth picking up. I really enjoyed the soundtrack to Final Score, a documentary about schoolboys in their final year of high school, struggling to pass their tests and choose a college. The Thai indie rock from the likes of Modern Dog and Pru lent a nice edge to the film and made it authentic. It was surprising. The big hit for movie soundtracks this year was The Love of Siam, which flew out of the stores. I feel lucky to have obtained a copy. The music - some sugary Thai pop - isn't really the kind of stuff I enjoy listening to, but after a couple of listens, for, uh, research purposes, I find that it has grown on me.

At the box office

Unsurprisingly, the top films at the Thai box office tell a different story. The quiet, artful dramas that are the favorite of critics are nowhere in sight. In their place are obnoxious comedies, with the few exceptions being the Naresuan historical epics, and the decently put-together horror film, Alone. Here's The Nation's rundown of the top Thai films at the box office in 2007:

  1. Tamnan Somdej Phra Naresuan Part II: Prakad Issara Phab (The Legend of King Naresuan: Reclaiming Sovereignty), 256 million baht
  2. Tamnan Somdej Phra Naresuan Part I: Ong Prakan Hongsa (The Legend of King Naresuan: Pegu's Hostage), 254 million baht
  3. Bodyguard Na Liam 2 (The Bodyguard 2), 98 million baht
  4. Teng Nong Khon Ma Ha Hia (Teng and Nong: The Movie), 91 million baht
  5. May Narok Muay Yok Lor (Bus Lane), 85 million baht
  6. Ponglang Sading Lumsing Sai Na (Ponglang Amazing Theater), 71 million baht
  7. Tud Soo Fud (Kungfu Tootsie), 70 million baht
  8. Sailab Jab Baan Lek (The Bedside Detective), 70 million baht
  9. Faed (Alone), 65 million baht
  10. Ma Mah See Kha Krub (Mid Road Gang), 58 million baht

Worth mentioning out of this batch is Mid Road Gang, the Thai talk dog film, which I saw and enjoyed, and Bus Lane, a comedy starring Thep Po-ngam and Note Udom about a hijacked bus, which I missed out on due to travels earlier in the year.

More information:

  • Lights, camera ... CONFLICT (Parinyaporn Pajee, The Nation)
  • The Year that Was ... At the Movies (Kong Rithdee, Bangkok Post)

  • (Cross-posted at Rotten Tomatoes)

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