Monday, June 9, 2008

Thailand and Laos: Let the healing the begin

Thailand and Laos share similar cultures. For some Thai people, the Lao language is simply an interchangeable dialect, though Bangkokian Thais and southern Thai people do need the Thai subtitles on Sabaidee Luang Prabang.

But relations between the Mekong River neighbors have been prickly over the years. During the Vietnam War, U.S. bombing missions and raids on Laos were coordinated out of airbases in Thailand as part of the CIA's Secret War, the legacy of which makes Laos the most heavily bombed country on earth. Dangerous ordnance still litters the countryside in places, which is something Sabaidee Luang Prabang was careful to avoid mentioning.

Border skirmishes were fought in 1987-88. Laos has accused Thailand of harboring anti-communists insurgents. And the repatriation of Hmong refugees from Thailand to Laos is a contentitious issue.

Culturally, Laotian-Thai ties have been on the rocky side because of depictions of Laotians in Thai films and on television. In 2006, the GMM Tai Hub comedy Mak Teh (Lucky Losers), about the Laotian national football team, was shelved over diplomatic complaints that it belittled Laotians. The film was re-edited to remove instances of the Lao flag and other recognizable symbols, and the dialogue was looped to change the country's name from Laos to the fictional Arvee.

Last year, a Thai soap opera, Mekong Love Song was pulled from the air on complaints from Laotian authorities, who objected to the story of a Thai man in love with a Laotian woman, which included scenes of a Thai actor dropping the Laotian national flower, the frangipani, into the river.

So the makers of Sabaidee Luang Prabang, Thai director Sakchai Deenan and Laotian filmmaker Anousone Sirisackda, were extra careful to avoid anything that might get the project in trouble, according to Agence France-Presse.

"We aim at presenting Laotian culture, our beautiful scenery and cities," Anousone said. "Although Thailand and Laos have similar cultures, their differences are the charms that would draw people to see this movie."

Sakchai said the story was inspired by his experiences when he first visited Laos and fell instantly in love with a Laotian woman. He says the story is based on his imaginings of having her as his tour guide.

"We wanted a soft storyline so it would not be too hard to get approval from the Lao government," he said.

Lao authorities needed some convincing to grant permission for the film.


Anousone edited the Thai script himself before submitting it to the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture.

At least one ministry official was present on set every day of shooting, to make sure that Laos culture was depicted accurately, Sakchai said.

Despite their efforts, the filmmakers cut some scenes -- including references to communism -- from the version dubbed into Lao.

Even though Laos has no theatres outside the capital, Sakchai said he hopes more Laotians will get to see the movie.

"We plan to bring it to Laotian audiences by starting open-air screenings," he said, adding that he plans to submit the film to international film festivals to bring it to larger audience.

Actor Ananda Everingham, who stars and is credited as an executive producer, explained more about the production in a recent interview with Hollywood Reporter:

HR: How did Sabaidee Luang Prabang come about?

Everingham: I did the film because it felt like we could make history with it. After I read the script, I fell for it. I thought it was a good idea; it’s something like [Richard Linklater’s] Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It’s a very talky film. But it wasn’t like you can find a script, go to Laos and shoot a film. Many people have been trying to shoot films in Laos. You have to go through the system, you have to send the script to the government, it has to be approved by the Ministry of Information and Culture and everything has to be correct according to the Laos government.

THR: What changes did the Laos government make?

Everingham: The film became a lot more ambiguous, which is actually good. At first, it was an all-out love story between a Thai guy and a Lao girl. They requested that they change the Thai to a Lao character, which sort of fucked up the film at first because it was supposed to be a love story between two different countries, and each character is supposed to be representing the country. So then we had to think up a way to tell the same story so that we could still have the same impact as the Laos-Thailand love story. And so what we did was make the character basically be me. I’m Lao, I grew up in Thailand, and I’m not Thai at all. So there were certain things we had to change in the script, and ultimately it became me, a Lao-Australian kid who grew up in Thailand, and goes back to Laos for the first time, falls in love, and it became a road movie.

THR: So you decided to go along with the officials?

Everingham: We didn’t give in like, ‘Oh let’s just get this thing done.’ We respected the guidelines; we rewrote certain parts of the script. I don’t want to put them down or anything like that. It’s their first film in 33 years, they want to get the right presentation and be seen in the right light, which I understand. They’re a communist country. They wanted it to be a bit more commercial, so they wanted more scenery, and they wanted us to feature certain things, which is fine. It didn’t really mess with the content of the film so much, as much as it was a logistic thing, since we had to really move around and with 13 days to shoot, which made it a bit tough.
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