Monday, June 9, 2008

20 years since the last Laotian film

In their stories about Sabaidee Luang Prabang, the mainstream media like Hollywood Reporter, Agence France-Presse and the Daily Xpress, 33 years have passed since the last commercial film was released in Laos.

I don't understand the need for the "commercial" distinction, other than to point back to 1975 and make people forget that Laos is run by a communist government. In fact, the last film made in Laos was 20 years ago.

This was Red Lotus (Bua Daeng), directed by Czech-trained filmmaker Som Ock Southiponh and featuring members of the Central Spoken Drama Troupe.

Supalak's Nation Weblog, All About Mekong Basin, has the entire movie embedded as three flash files. They are Windows media, so if you're not among the 80% of Internet users browsing with Explorer, you'll have to fire the thing up to watch them. Also, there are no subtitles.

Filmed in 1988 on 35mm black-and-white and set in 1972, the drama tells the story of a young woman, Bua Daeng, and her star-crossed romance with a young man who is a fighter for the communists. Political intrigue and soap-opera drama mix as Bua Daeng's stepfather -- the moustache guy -- is a royalist spy who tries to have Bua Daeng married off to another man. But Bua Daeng holds firm in her love for her communist fighter and his cause.

It's a fairly action-packed tale, is easy to follow and is worth a look if think you can focus on the tiny screen for around 90 minutes.

Since then, the Laotian "film" industry has been geared for video, making documentaries and other programs for the state's television stations.

Before 1975, the Laotian film industry wasn't much to speak of either. There were some films made by the French during colonial period. After independence in 1953, the Royal Lao Government shot some propaganda newsreels and documentaries.

According to Visiting Arts' Laos Cultural Profile, feature-film production didn't really get going until 1960. The first films, Khukhak Pheunkhaen (The Untrue and True Friend) and Phaenedin Khong Hao (Our Land), were produced in the early 1960s by the Propaganda Department of the Royal Lao Army. Here's more:

Thereafter an embryonic commercial film industry emerged in Vientiane; having no studios or equipment of their own, local filmmakers were obliged to rent these for each new production; all post production was carried out in neighbouring Thailand. One leading Lao filmmaker of this period was Khamking Bandasak, who is best known for the film Samkhing (Three Wheels, c. 1965-1970).

According to surviving documents, no fewer than nine other Lao feature films were screened at local cinemas during the period 1960-1975, though their content and the names of their directors remains a mystery. The films in question were Sata Nang (The Fate of the Girl), Muaxin Khuanmok (When the Fog Dissappears), Tai Dam Lamphanh (The Black Tai of Lamphanh), Namchay Sao Saravane (Heart of the Saravane Girl), Sua Chomdoi (Tiger of the Mountain Top), Namta Sao Ophayob (Tears of the Refugee Girl), Song Fangkhong (Two Banks of the Mekong) and the dramas Kalaket and Khunlu Nang Ua.

It was propaganda before the communists. So I'm not sure why all the mainstream media are hung up on this "33 years" number, when they can't even point to the exact name and date of the last "commercial" film made in 1975. I suppose it's just part of the spin being put on Sabaidee Luang Prabang, which, pleasant as it is, is really just propaganda travelogue promoting tourism in Laos. If it were anything otherwise, the government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic would not have allowed it to be made.

(Hat tip to Bkkdreamer)


  1. Since they're wmv files, you can download them directly for later viewing or non-browser viewing. They don't look particularly good full-screen, but the embedded size is terribly small. Anyhow, from the HTML for that page we get these three links:

    Part 1

    Part 2

    Part 3

    Then you can right-click save as in any browser, or use a plug-in like DownThemAll in Firefox to grab them.

  2. I should have known there was a trick to getting those downloaded.

    Thanks Rikker!

  3. "Privately funded" are the key words being used in an Independent article, which makes the 33 years seem significant.


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