Monday, February 25, 2008

Frequently asked questions about Thai films on DVD


There's a film playing in Thailand right now that I want to see, but I don't live there. When will it be released on DVD?

Thai films are usually released on DVD within a few months after their theatrical run in Thailand, but even though the films in the cinemas are subtitled, the DVDs of Thai films released in Thailand usually do not include English subtitles.

What? No subtitles? Since when?

Never assume a Thai film is going to be released on DVD with English subtitles. Around 2002 or 2003, it became common practice for the Thai DVD publishers to omit the English subtitles. The movie that heralded this trend to the world was Ong-Bak, the wildly popular martial arts film starring Tony Jaa. There were some fan-subbed pirated versions, and a pretty poor subtitled Chinese VCD, but fans who wanted a legal, English subtitled version had to wait a couple of years for it to be released.

Why don't the DVDs of Thai films have English subtitles?

I've heard various reasons. One is because the studios and DVD distributors don't want to pay royalties to the subtitle writers.

Another reason, probably the main reason, is that leaving the subtitles off gives the studios control over foreign sales and distribution. They have effectively shut down the grey market of mail-order sales of Thai DVDs to English-speaking countries. This exclusivity is a selling point when the Thai studios are promoting their films to overseas sales agents and distributors.

But wouldn't the Thai studios stand to make a lot of money by offering subtitled DVDs of their films?

Apparently not. At some point, the major players in the industry did some accounting and decided they could maximize profits by leaving off the English subs. First and foremost, the Thai studios are marketing their DVDs for sale in Thailand, to Thai people. It is apparently not worth their effort to include English subtitles for the relative handful of non-Thais in Thailand who are Thai film fans and haven't bothered to learn the Thai language. The studios stand to make more money through lucrative sales deals with foreign distributors.

So I can get a Thai film on DVD with English subtitles, if it has been distributed outside Thailand?

Yes, but not all Thai films. The problem is that not all Thai films are picked up or promoted for overseas distribution. This is where the entertaining "extremes" of Thai cinema can come back and bite the film. If it's not "extreme" enough, namely not martial arts or horror, it likely won't be picked up for overseas distribution.

This situation means that many meaningful dramas, genuinely funny romantic comedies and sharply satiric films won't ever been seen by overseas audiences outside of film festivals. And this is a lamentable situation.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Most of the feature films by acclaimed arthouse director Apichatpong Weerasethakul have been picked up for release on DVD outside Thailand, as have films by other well-known, well-regarded directors, like Wisit Sasanatieng, Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Nonzee Nimibutr.

But mainly, the Thai films that end up being released on DVD outside Thailand are limited to the martial arts and horror genres. If you're waiting for a Thai romantic drama to be released on DVD with English subtitles, you'd better be prepared for a long, futile wait, or start learning to speak Thai -- you'll have mastered the language before your favorite Thai romantic drama ever comes out on DVD with English subs.

What about censorship of Thai DVDs?

Some DVDs are censored, and some are not. There is no consistency. But, one company that seems to be pretty consistent about censorship is Mono Film the distributor Rose Media, which is notable for the fact that they are about the only Thai company still including English subtitles on their DVDs. But the censorship is atrocious! They do this "foggy blurring" pixellation of guns, drugs and smoking. On Mono Film's 2005 action film, The Tiger Blade, which had a lot of guns, drugs and smoking, there was so much pixellation censorship, it was difficult watch the DVD.

Some releases of foreign films in Thailand by Thai DVD distributors are censored, too. So approach those releases with caution, even if they seem like bargains.

Where can I find Thai film DVDs with English subtitles?

In Thailand, the Mangpong (Scorpion) shops and other DVD retailers in shopping malls have back-stock of some of the older, Thailand-released titles that had subtitles. These include the older films by M.C. Chatrichalerm Yukol, which are all worth picking up. They are generally along the bottom shelf in the Thai section at the back of the store. Five Star released a bunch of classics in its Legends series but really missed an opportunity by not including English subs. What a waste. The Triple X company released a lot of 1960s and '70s Thai action cinema on DVD, some with subtitles, some without. The quality of the DVDs depends on the original prints, and many from that era are in horrible shape. A lot of the old Thai DVDs with English subs are making their way into the discount bins and are going out of print.

The mail-order website eThaiCD as a full catalog of whatever DVDs, VCDs and music CDs are being sold in Thailand. Yesasia is a good place to look. Often, the first places a Thai film will be released on English-friendly DVD will be in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore or Malaysia, though increasingly those are without English subs as well.

Beyond that, there are a few specialty labels in the U.S. and U.K. that release Thai films. Tartan released a few Thai titles under their Asia Extreme line. Magnolia (and its Magnet label), Palm Pictures, Kino International and Strand Releasing have a variety of Thai titles, including arthouse, action, suspense and drama. The Weinstein Company's Dragon Dynasty line has several Thai martial arts titles, and their Dimension Extreme label is getting in on the Thai horror and suspense action. You can find these by browsing the Thai Film Journal Store at Amazon.

Also, check the foreign films section of your local library, DVD rental shop or mail-rental house. You'd be surprised at the number of Thai films you'll find.

Do you know where I can download a film?
No.

Well okay then. How about fan subs?
I don't have any experience dealing with fan subs, though I am curious to try. I'm aware that they exist, but I don't know yet where they come from or how they work. However, I understand there are programs that allow fan-created subtitles to be imported into a movie while the DVD of that movie is playing.

See also:

20 comments:

  1. The point about the overseas sales agents is certainly true, and is reasonable enough in the case of Tony Jaa films, Wisit films, and things like "Shutter" which will tend to be fairly hot property in overseas markets. But I've never been convinced it's justifiable for things like the Nong & Teng movies, for example. Surely those films don't get sold anywhere else? And surely the companies understand the saleability of their products well enough by now? That said, in terms of horror I guess there is a decent-sized market even for crappy horror films like "Scared" and "Colic" in places like Malaysia and the Philippines (and even in Brazil, I once heard, though I have no idea if that's true). But a lot of mid-rank comedies and melodramas won't get sold anywhere and could be subbed. I guess the assumption is that if no distributors want to buy the film, no foreign viewers will be interested. Which is maybe a little short-sighted. (Or maybe studios adopt a blanket policy in order to avoid the potentially tricky situation of having to label their stars into two tiers: those who have international appeal and those who only appeal domestically.)

    I remain unsure about the subtitlers' royalties factor. You may be right, but it seems such a minor factor. How much extra could it really cost? I feel like I should be able to find this out, but you know how difficult it is to talk to Thai people about money ...

    Either way, there is a third point which definitely holds: piracy in the SEA region. Five Star (and maybe GTH) now expect to release pretty much all of their films in Singapore and KL, and they need to keep their films out of the pirates' hands. If I remember rightly, for films like "Art of the Devil 2" Five Star pretty much operates a synchronised release in the region - a scaled-down version of the way Hollywood releases its summer blockbusters in every part of the world on the same day to minimise piracy. But in the case of regional releases being staggered after the domestic ones, DVD subs are probably a big factor.

    In the end this third point defeats the whole stategy because the films come out on DVD in Singapore with subs. I would be interested to know whether the studios consider that this hurts their bottom line any more than it would if the domestic releases were subbed - and the same goes for Hong Kong. I recall Ong Bak being restricted to Chinese subs only on its HK DVD, but I think that was an isolated case. So is it really much of a factor? Maybe there is a sense that by the time a Sg DVD comes out other overseas deals will already be done. I dunno. It's kinda baffling ...

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  2. Great points, Rob. The studios pretty well know which films they will sell overseas and which ones they won't.

    Piracy is definitely a concern - thanks for bringing it up. Multiplexes in Thailand now have metal detectors and security checks for video cameras. All screenings of Chocolate had an extra layer of black-shirted security right at the cinema door.

    Another thing comes to mind: As the Thai studios become increasingly formula driven, it soon won't matter - everything's going to be horror (which all get sold overseas, no matter how bad) or really dumb comedies (which only Thai people will want to see), with maybe a smattering of action and films by good directors like Wisit and Pen-ek.

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  3. Hello WiseKwai.

    I stumbled upon your Film Journal at Rotten Tomatoes last year after doing a google search for Thai Film Reviews.

    I am from Utah. My wife Nok, is from Thailand. We met at a University here in Utah. We both ended up working at a company that my mother owns, which is great, because its a seasonal business, which allows us to have 5 months off in the Winter, which we spend in Thailand.

    On one of our trips to Thailand, I bought a VCD of a movie called 6ixtynin9. It was the first Thai movie I had ever seen. I loved it. That movie is what got me turned on to Thai Movies. So after that I bought 30 or more VCDS and I was so disappointed in everything I bought. The acting was horrible, the special effects sucked, the dialogue was atrocious and I was pissed that I had wasted so much money on all those movies. So I started searching for Thai Movie reviews and that’s how I came across your Journal at Rotten Tomatoes.

    After reading all your reviews, I started ordering a lot of movies you reviewed and liked and I just want to say Thanks Man. Your reviews have kept me from wasting money on shitty movies and also giving me a chance to see some great Thai Movies that I would have never known about, without your journal/blog.

    It sucks that the vast majority of Thai Movies don’t have English subtitles. All the Thai DVDs that I buy in the states are Region 1 and they have English subtitles but the ones I buy in Thailand don’t, and it sucks that my friends and family cant watch them. I can speak Thai, so for me its no problem that they don’t have subtitles, but I would love for my friends to be able to watch some of the Thai Movies I’ve loved.

    There are still several Thai Movies, I'd love to see but I no matter how hard I try, I cant seem to find anywhere, one of them is Puen Pang.

    Anyway, just wanted to thank you for the Film Journal and Blog, which keeps me informed about which movies are good, which are bad, and whats coming out soon.

    Shawn

    Here is a list of My Favorite Thai Movies So Far:

    Tears of the Black Tiger, Tropical Malady, Fan Chan, Blissfully Yours, Monrak Transistor, Ai-Fak (I still laugh at the name) Last Life in the Universe., Invisible Waves, Citizen Dog, Ploy, Muay Thai Chaiya, 13 Beloved. The Unseeable, Midnight My Love, The Sperm, Syndromes and a Century, Love of Siam, Alone, Shutter, Nang Nak, Beautiful Boxer, OK Baytong

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  4. Thanks for your kind comments, Shawn. Pen-ek's 6ixtynin9 is a great introduction to Thai cinema.

    Sadly, Puen Pang is not yet available on DVD. Director Cherd Songsri's family still has control of the prints, though, so there's still hope that one day they will give the films the high-quality international DVD release that Cherd's films deserve.

    You mentioned a few others that are near and dear to my heart, yet don't have English-friendly DVD releases that I'm aware of: Ai-Fak (or The Judgement), OK Baytong, Midnight My Love, The Sperm (Asujak). Monrak Transistor needs a better release.

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  5. Hello WiseKwai,
    First of all, a big "merci" for your website, so useful.
    I'm always amazed at the number of "old" Thai movies which apparently are lost. Or, if they are avaibale, they are in awful condition. Recently for instance, I ordered the legal VCD of the 1959 version of "Mae Nak Prakhanong", considered (apparently) as a "classic". The transfer was almost unwatchable, visibly made from an old, used VHS tape or something, with image jumping in place, etc.
    If you think that 1959 was, for instance, the year of production of British movies like Terence Fisher's THE MUMMY which exists on DVD in pristine condition, I really don't understand how a Thai movie of the same vintage (and it's the same thing in the Philippines, apparently) can be in so poor condition.
    Moreover, it seems than, for most of Thai moviegoers, a 1995 movie is an OLD movie. It's rather amusing, when you live in a country like France, where it's not at all unusual to have 1930's black & white movies both in theaters or on television, even at prime time. This explains perhaps why so many "old" Thai movies are now "lost"...
    Being interested in fantasy, horror and science fiction movies from every country on this planet, and from 1895 to now, I don't have critical selection - I'm interested for both good and bad movies as well. So, I'm constantly frustrated in my search of Thai movies (excepted for the recent ones).

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  6. Tod, thanks for your comments.

    Thailand has a National Film Archive, headed by the esteemed Dome Sukwong. I mean to write more about him sometime soon. He and his staff receive a pittance for their work, and the National Film Archive remains a sorely unfunded afterthought.

    Combine that situation with Thailand's unforgiving climate, and you can see why the films are in such bad shape.

    Culturally, there isn't much respect for old bits of pop culture in Thailand. But I think this is more the fault of marketing. Only new things are promoted -- to the point of saturation with 10-storey high billboards, 10-meter-long banners, loud audio-visual displays and so on, where people are being made to believe they "must see" this movie. Once the movie is gone from cinemas and off the top shelves in the video stores, they tend to be forgotten, and are viewed as "nam nao" (stinky or stagnant water) no matter how good or popular they were when they were released.

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  7. Thank you for the quick answer...
    It seems that some producers, in Indonesia for instance, have solved the climate problem, as the original negatives and positives of their films are kept in professional laboratories in Japan or Hong Kong.
    This explains why the people of Mondo Macabro, for instance, were able to get pristine prints of movies like "Mystic in Bali". They simply gave enough money to Rapi Films for a brand new print. And the resulting DVD is simply stunning! Until that, the only available sources were awful VCDs, made in Malaysia, with cropped image and - I think - some cuts.

    Another thing I often noticed (no offence intended) is the apparent disinterest of Thai and Cambodian people for cinema history. Sure, they watch movies, but even on their websites you just get a mention of the title of a movie, rarely its date of production, sometimes one or two actors are listed, and the director is practically NEVER mentioned. It's the same thing in the video catalogues on line. Try to order a Cambodian movie, on websites like Mietophoum for instance. Absolutely no mention of the director, and rarely of the stars...
    If you add the incredible variations in transcribtions of the names and titles, nothing is made to help us to locate these movies. Incidentally, did you ever heard of a book, or a series of books, being a complete catalogue of Thai cinema since the origins, with for each title the year, cast and crew credits, and a synopsis ??? you can find this kind of books in countries like Indonesia, HK or Japan - but apparently nothing for Cambodia, Thailand, and probably a lot of other Asian countries. Really sad !

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  8. I've heard of one director - maybe Chatrichalerm - who keeps copies of his films in a freezer.

    I've never heard of any books that substansively document Thai cinema, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. I'd be surprised if they did, though. Most of the records of films are ephemera like movie magazines and old posters

    Cambodia's contemporary cultural heritage was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. By the time the country got built back up enough to start thinking about making movies it was too late - everybody was watching Thai soap operas. I'm thankful just to have a glimpse of a DVD box of Cambodian karaoke videos.

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  9. so basically 9 times out of 10, if you want to watch a Thai movie with English subs, you'll have to go and see it when it's still in the cinema.

    (presuming you live in Thailand).

    However, I have found quite a few torrents of Thai movies with Eng subs.

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  10. Any torrent with English subtitles comes from a DVD that also has English subtitles. Some DVDs do have them, but it's a decreasing trend.

    The films that get released on BitTorrent for general consumption are virtually always going to be the ones that do have English subtitles. But it's still a rather small portion of total Thai film titles.

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  11. I don't do torrents, so I have no first-hand experience, but from what I understand, some of the Thai films on the torrents have possibly been fan-subbed, or are possibly a video capture from a theatrical screening.

    Chocolate is a recent example that has come up. The longer the film distributors dither on releasing an English-friendly DVD, the more irrelevant it is going to become as more and more people turn to the torrents to get their fix of Thai martial arts.

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  12. Unfortunately, the very existence of torrents and downloads are defeating the Thai strategy of omitting subtitles to increase the foreign market demand.

    If no DVD subtitle is released, then the subtitles become available from fansubbing efforts, much as they did for Japanese anime and get distributed through ordinary downloads independent of a film torrent. That happens ridiculously fast....within hours sometimes. Chocolate is a good example of this trend.

    The thing is.... most real fans (myself included)would rather buy the actual Thai release and see the complete film, even with poor subs, then wait for a version with significant "editing" or poorly done dubbing in a foolish effort to make it more palatable to a foreign audience.

    Chocolate threw an interesting twist into this, as HK licensees (and now it appears, Singapore as well) have been pressured to omit the english subtitles needed by a good portion of their populations who speak neither Thai or read Chinese, to appease North American rights holders in an effort to stop DVD imports to that region.

    But wait a moment.... both those discs were released as Region 3 encodes.... isn't that supposed to prevent that and protect the distribution areas? If it doesn't do that, why bother with Region coding at all.....

    I suppose the loser here is the Thai film industry itself.... without easy access to the films, they stand little or no chance of reaching the level of global awareness with fans the way that Chinese films or Japanese films currently have. They should pay attention to the Koreans... who are making real inroads to becoming a dominant film culture by subtitling practically every film made there into english for DVD release. Has it hurt their marketing? Apparently not at all, given the number of Korean films available in the North American market on Region 1 discs....

    As for piracy... the lack of subs only INCREASES the chances of such activity not decrease it. When a DVD costs only 7-10$US directly from Thailand through legitement sources, very few people will pay pirates for substandard product. (Those people aren't going to buy the film anyway...no matter how inexpensive it might be.)

    As for downloads... I don't understand why a film isn't marketed to foreign rights holders during the same lengthy pre-production period that domestic rights are managed in. That would allow for a single world wide initial synchronized release for the DVD in all regions. The current system of film marketing doesn't work to stem piracy, plain and simple, because it isn't willing to change to meet the needs and desires of what is now a global market, not a series of isolated areas with little or no communication between them.

    All I know is, this lil' girl would watch more Thai films... maybe learn some of the language....maybe even pick up a bit more of that culture that I hear they are soooo interested in promoting if only they would start being more friendly to those of us spending our hard earned time and money seeking them out on our own. I'm doing my part.... is it wrong of me to want them to meet me halfway?

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  13. My impression of the demand for Thai films, and particularly the demand for English subtitles of Thai films, is still relatively small. Maybe there are fan subs, but that would probably be quite rare.

    I think Chocolate was one case, though, where English subtitles surfaced, translated from Chinese. They were probably atrocious, but maybe good enough to get by on (since that film wasn't exactly heavy on plot).

    I have yet to hear of a camcorded Thai film being released on BitTorrent--can anyone say they have? I'm no expert. However, the quality of camcorded films is is so unbearably terrible, plus the turnaround time for legit Thai DVDs is so quick it makes it all the more unlikely.

    But take, for example, a site like thaisubtitle.com, though. Its point is to crowdsource the subtitle translation for foreign TV and movies into Thai, for use with BitTorrent downloads. It's easy to imagine this working in both directions, and I suspect that this is exactly the case for languages with higher demand.

    As people get more and more tech savvy, artificial limitations like leaving subtitles off of DVDs make less and less sense.

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  14. Whoops, I just realized that I posted my last comment without having seen Nekoneko's comment preceding it.

    I didn't realize how much fan subbing went on with anime, that's very interesting, and a good example of the power of demand to create supply.

    Very nice comments, Nekoneko. I agree completely.

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  15. Hello Wise Kwai, Have you heard any news on whether Somtum will be released on DVD in the U.S.? I know they do have an english title, Pattaya Papaya, so I'm hoping this is a good sign it will be! I'm really anxious for this one, finally Nathan has a lead role in a film!!

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  16. @Sharon Record: I haven't heard anything about international sales of Som Tum. It's just been released on DVD in Thailand, with no subs of course, though a good deal of the film is actually in English. It's a fun movie, a great vehicle for Nathan Jones, and I think it would do well on the overseas market.

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  17. Thai movie enthusiasts, who need their movies with English subtitles, a new website just 2 months old arrived on the Net in June 2009.

    Basically the site tracks down the availability of Thai movies with English subtitles, profiles them, provides links to better reviews, such as Wise Kwai's.

    Visitors can then check out the rest of Wise Kwai's, or other's sites and return.

    They can compare vendors' prices and directly cross to vendors order pages and order the cheapest, if they wish.

    Quite often optional zoned releases are shown for the same movie.

    "Best Thai Movies" is a non commercial private website, hopefully making the enjoyment of Thai movies easier for non Thai speaking enthusiasts.

    best-thai-movies.com

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  18. Not having English subtitles in Thailand is the stupidest thing ever. I've lived here for years and about 3 years ago, stopped buying Thai movies completely as I'd spend hours trying to find any with English subtitles.

    Now I buy Korean or Japanese movies on DVD as they all have English subtitles, which is probably one reason why both Korea and Japan have such fabulous movie businesses and Thailand's is crap.

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  19. I have read your blog and the comments here... what i am concerned is about fan-made subtitles... you said "There were some fan-subbed pirated versions, and a pretty poor subtitled Chinese VCD, but fans who wanted a legal, English subtitled version had to wait a couple of years for it to be released." does that mean that fan-made subtitles are not legal? hope you could help me...

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  20. No, I don't think fansubs are legal in the strictest sense. Copyright laws have made criminals of us all.

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Please, no questions about where to download movies or subtitle files.

Please read the FAQ about Thai films on DVD before asking about where to find a Thai movie on DVD with English subtitles.

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