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
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?
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.