Saturday, December 26, 2009
Top 10 Thai films of the 2000s
Thai cinema in the first decade of the 21st century continued building on its resurgent commercial strength and the increased international recognition and critical acclaim that had begun in the late 1990s. For many movie buffs around the world, this was the decade they discovered Thai cinema. Here are 10 Thai films that were worth watching or were important in some way to the Thai film industry.
Studio GMM Tai Hub (GTH) was built on the hit 2003 childhood drama Fan Chan, but its international reputation was cinched with this taut and spooky 2004 thriller about a photographer, played by Ananda Everingham, who starts seeing frightening images in his pictures. Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, Shutter gave Thailand a place in the Asian horror pantheon alongside Japan, and just like Ju-on and Ringu, Shutter was remade by Hollywood – the first Thai movie to get that treatment.
9. Khan Kluay
Until 2006’s Khan Kluay – about King Naresuan the Great’s war elephant – the only Thai animated feature had been 1979’s The Adventure of Sudsakorn by Payut Ngaokrachang.
Khan Kluay, directed by Disney and Blue Sky Studios animator Kompin Kemgumnird, was not only the first Thai animated feature in more than 30 years, it was also Thailand’s first computer-animated feature. A sequel was released this year and improved on the techniques of the original. Khan Kluay II won an award at the recent Asia-Pacific Film Festival.
8. Love of Siam
Actually, two dramas were commercially released in 2007 by Sahamongkol Film International that treated gays as something other than the shrieking, mincing butt of jokes – Poj Arnon’s Bangkok Love Story and Chookiat Sakveerakul’s Rak Haeng Siam (Love of Siam).
But it was the family drama Love of Siam and its tender, sprawling story of teenage boys in puppy love that met with greater critical acclaim and became a worldwide cult favorite.
7. Yam Yasothon
Naysayers scoffed when comedian Phettai Wongkumlao, aka Mum Jokmok, made his directorial debut in 2004 with The Bodyguard, in which he played a stoic gunman. But it was Mum who had the last laugh when the action comedy topped the box office and gave him the clout to direct more movies. His 2005 follow-up Yam Yasothon was a colorful country comedy that paid homage to the musicals of the 1960s. It was also the first commercially released Thai movie to have an Isaan-language soundtrack. To get the jokes, Bangkokians had to read subtitles.
A sequel was released earlier this month, and brought more box-office success to Mum.
6. Wonderful Town
Aditya Assarat’s quiet and haunting romantic drama achieved the mainstream critical acclaim that had so far eluded other indie filmmakers. After winning the New Currents Prize at the 2007 Pusan International Film Festival and playing to acclaim around the world, Wonderful Town came home to Thailand for a limited theatrical release in 2008. It was the biggest winner at this year’s Subhanahongsa Awards – the Thai movie industry’s main kudos fest. Watch for Aditya’s next feature, High Society, starring Ananda Everingham.
Stuntman Tatchakorn “Tony Jaa” Yeerum and director-choreographer Panna Rittikrai had been making low-budget action flicks since the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until they showed a sample reel to producer Prachya Pinkaew that they broke out of the direct-to-video circuit and hit the big time with 2003’s Ong-Bak. It put all of Jaa’s acrobatic “no CGI, no stunt doubles, no wires” Muay Thai moves on display. The movie was a sensation, with martial-arts fans hailing Jaa as the next Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. It was followed by 2005’s Tom Yum Goong and last year’s Ong-Bak 2, and Ong-Bak 3 is due next year. An entire industry has sprung from Ong-Bak, with Prachya’s Baa Ram Ewe studio backing other hard-hitting actioners, including Panna's Kerd Ma Lui (Born to Fight) with Dan Chupong and Chocolate with action actress Jija Yanin.
4. Last Life in the Universe
Director Nonzee Nimibutr and his Cinemasia producing partner Duangkamol Limcharoen, who died in 2003, sought to make Thailand a destination for the region’s film industry by cultivating pan-Asian productions with funding and talent from Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. Results of that partnership included Nonzee’s pan-Asian horror anthology Three and his erotic drama Jan Dara. But it was Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe (Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan) that became an arthouse darling. Co-scripted by writer Prabda Yoon, it was a potent and weird mix that included Japanese leading man Tadanobu Asano as a suicide-obsessed yakuza hiding out in Thailand, dreamily lensed by Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle and a surprise cameo from cult Japanese director Takeshi Miike.
3. Citizen Juling
Relatively few people in Thailand attempt to make documentaries, and even fewer will bother to see them. So it was remarkable when filmmakers Ing K, Manit Sriwanichpoom and Democrat MP Kraisak Choonhavan took a long look at southern Thailand and the 2006 mob beating of schoolteacher Juling Pongkunmul in Narathiwat. And even more remarkable was that, after Citizen Juling premiered at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, it was actually shown in Thailand, without cuts from censors, who are ordinarily squeamish about political content. It was screened last year at the Bangkok International Film Festival, and this year at the Berlin festival and then had a limited run at Bangkok’s House cinema. It’s an exhaustive effort. “We had to show everything and tell nothing, explain nothing,” says Ing K, when asked about the movie’s four-hour running time.
2. Syndromes and a Century
Apichatpong Weerasethakul could potentially have four movies on this list. His 2000 debut feature Dokfa Nai Meuman (Mysterious Object at Noon), 2003’s Cannes Un Certain Regard winner Sud Sanaeha (Blissfully Yours) and 2004’s Cannes jury prize winner Sud Pralad (Tropical Malady) were all groundbreaking efforts. But 2006’s Sang Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century) was the toast of film critics almost everywhere in 2007, except in Thailand, where the film had yet to be released. Censors objected to scenes that included a Buddhist monk playing a guitar and doctors drinking whisky in the hospital. Apichatpong made two attempts to have the movie passed without cuts, but eventually released Thailand’s Edition in 2008, with black, scratched frames in place of the scenes deemed objectionable. Thailand may have a film-ratings system enacted this year, but the Culture Ministry’s censors still have the prerogative to cut or ban new releases if they wish.
1. Tears of the Black Tiger
This is a personal choice. Wisit Sasanatieng’s 2000 debut was the first Thai film I saw. The idea of cowboys in Thailand and the jaw-dropping colours captured my imagination. I wanted to find out more about Thai films. Now almost a decade later, I feel like I know even less. I keep watching Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger) and other Thai films, looking for answers. Maybe they’ll come in the next 10 years.
(Cross published in The Nation xp, page B1, December 25, 2009)