Monday, December 24, 2007

Thoughts and questions on the politics of Thai cinema

Samak Sundaravej has declared his People Power Party the winner in the Thai general election, though it appears his party does not have a majority in the National Assembly. Samak is the conservative former governor of Bangkok. He's a blustery, blabbermouthed sort who yells at female journalists. He also used to have a cooking show on television. If anything, having him as prime minister might be entertaining, but I'm too horrified at the moment laugh very much. Samak's party is the ideological successor to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, which was unseated from power in a military coup last year, and the party was subsequently outlawed.

Will the military sit idly by and let Samak run the government? Thaksin and his quick-fix policies were divisive and did more harm than good in the long run, but the military's taking the government by force was wrong, too.

Was the US trying to influence the vote? Freedom Against Censorship Thailand seems to think so, saying that the bribery scandal tied to the Bangkok International Film Festival was obviously timed to influence the Thai election. How? Because the arrest by the FBI of the US-based film festival promoter and his wife, who had close ties to former Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Juthamas Siriwan caused the Thai official to hastily resign from her party, just days before the election. As much as I love a good conspiracy theory, though, I don't think the plot by the Americans, if there was one, had much effect. Juthamas was a member of the Peua Pandin party, a group of political moderates that neither favored nor opposed Thaksin. So even though Juthamas ran a festival that very much smacked of the type of big-spending prestige projects the Thaksin administration loved, I'm not sure there was enough of a connection for her resignation to do much damage to the populist juggernaut that is Samak and Thaksin.

Meanwhile, I'm still pondering over the coming horror that is the 2007 Film Act, which includes a film-ratings system. How will that system fare under a government run by a guy who asks whether a reporter had "sinful sex last night?"

For years, Thai filmmakers and fans have been clamoring for a ratings system to replace the antiquated 1930 Film Act, which just censored films. I was clamoring for ratings myself, until I saw This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which, ironically, I viewed at this year's Bangkok International Film Festival (which was not run by Festival Management). After that, I shut up about how great ratings are. If you want to see how NOT to do ratings, then watch that documentary. But in theory, a ratings system is a helpful thing. Filmmakers who want to target a mature audience can now do so, unless, of course, their film is deemed against "good morals, national pride or state security". Whatever that means. Then it will be banned and no one can see it.

As approved by the military's National Legislative Assembly in a frenzied flurry of questionable lawmaking in the final days before the general election, the ratings system has two general audience tiers, "P", as in "promote", for films that are deemed educational (read nationalistic) and should promoted for all Thai citizens to view, and G, for run-of-the-mill films for general audiences. There are then four age tiers: Under 13, Under 15, Under 18 and Under 20. If you're younger than the stated ages, you can't watch this film.

Like the Motion Picture Association of America's PG-13 rating, I imagine most Thai studio films will aim for the Under 13 category, in order to maximize their audience share while still providing something entertaining enough that viewers 13 and over will want to see. It will take awhile for directors and production companies to get used to this new system, but once they figure it out, they will self-censor themselves in order to appeal to the broadest demographic.

Under the American system, I think the majority of Hollywood films are rated PG-13. It's rare anymore for the big studio films to have the R rating, which is similiar to the new Under 18 (or possibly the Under 15) category for Thai films. Some people may like the midway Under 15 category, but I'm not sure how much difference it will make. What will be the criteria that determines an Under 13 film vs an Under 15 film? Can you say the F-word (or whatever the Thai equivalent is) more than once in an Under 15 film? How many times can you say the F-word in an Under 15 film, or an Under 18 film? What's the difference between Under 18 and Under 20? Will language even be a consideration when it comes to rating films? It generally hasn't been under the censorship system. Especially in comedy films, characters will curse up a blue streak, even if there are impressionable kids in the audience.

Indeed, it's going to take another law to put the system into operation, so it's going to awhile yet before we start to see films with the ratings assigned.

Which leads to many, many more questions.

What will the criteria be? Will the criteria be transparent? Or, will things be done in secret, with filmmakers kept in the dark about why their films are being banned or given a high age restriction? Will there be an appeal system, if the filmmaker doesn't agree with the rating? Will studio films and independent films be treated equally, or will independent filmmakers have to work harder to get their films released under the system? Will the system be similar to the MPAA system in the US, in which promotional items such as posters and preview trailers are also scrutinized? Under the US system, the rating has a big effect on how much the film can be marketed, which is another reason the studios try to aim for PG-13, because it can be marketed more heavily.

As I say, many questions. But not many answers at this point.

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