|The movie poster's slogan reads "The thing Thais should know the most but know the least."|
- Directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Pasakorn Pramoolwong
- With Sulak Sivaraksa, Sombat Boonnarmanong, Somchai Pakapaswiwat, Saranyoo Thepsongkroh, Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thamrongsak Petchlertanan, Chaiywan Chaiyaporn, Nakharin Mektrairat, Worajet Pakeerat, Parinya Thaewanarumitkul, Jiranan Pitpreecha, Sombat Thamrongtanyawong,
- Thongchai Winichakun, Ammar Siamwalla
- Limited release in Bangkok cinemas from June 24-July 3, 2013; rated G
- Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5
Thai politics are confusing, and the new documentary Prachatiptai (ประชาธิป'ไทย), a.k.a. Paradoxocracy, doesn't really make anything clearer, except to affirm that fact.
But it's all made palatable, thanks to the stylish direction of Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who with co-director Pasakorn Pramoolwong, rounded up 14 academics and experts to calmly explain that yes indeed, Thai politics are confusing and complex.
The talking-head interviews are interspersed with voice-over narration, old photos and archival newsreel footage. The commentary is broken up into segments, covering the 1932 coup that established the constitutional monarchy, the World War II era, the 1970s and the early years of telecoms tycoon and populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra. With the push of "buttons", he was able to mobilize support from the rural poor.
A soundtrack of slide guitar and blues harmonica accompany establishing shots taken aboard a boat in a rural canal, giving the documentary a low-down-and-dirty feeling. At another point Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is invoked.
The beginning is an eyebrow-raising statement about how the people were displeased by the corrupt and uncaring monarchy, but pretty soon you can figure out that the comments were made in the 1930s, about the absolute monarchy – a different regime than what exists now. The documentary then settles into a conversational tone that serves as a history primer.
Inescapable paradox has been intertwined with Thai democracy since the beginning of the modern political era, when members of a Paris-schooled intelligentsia led by Pridi Banonmyong teamed up with military leaders to oust King Rama VII from absolute rule.
As history professor Thongchai Winichakun, a student activist in the 1970s, points out, it was the birth of both Thai democracy and Thai military dictatorship. The uneasy alliance led to a cycle of coups and counter-coups over the decades, with military strongmen taking over after periods of democratic civilian rule.
The interviews are for the most part frank and sometimes funny, with the men and one woman speaking their minds. However, when it came time for censors to weigh in, some of what's said was deemed inappropriate. Pen-ek and Pasakorn opted to let the footage keep rolling but mute out the audio and blank over the subtitles. Unsurprisingly, it's the most-outspoken of the interviewees who get censored – acid-tongued social critic Sulak Sivaraksa is muted the most, followed by law professor Worajet Pakeerat, whose so-called Nitirat Group has been critical of Article 112, the lese majeste law.
But if you know anything about the historical context of the subject being talked about, you can more or less guess what's being said – the usual stuff that's said in the privacy of homes or murmured between barstool companions.
Notably missing from Pachatipathai is talk of the 1992 Black May crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations. Nor are more recent developments covered, like the 2006 coup that tossed out Thaksin Shinawatra and the red-shirt demonstrations of 2010 that led to Thaksin's sister Yingluck taking office
"Your movie shouldn't waste too much time on Thaksin," said Sulak, in one of the better-received lines of the film.
"To be continued ..." reads a title card at the end.
Let's hope so.