Friday, March 14, 2008

Apichatpong exhausted; 'officially approved version' of Syndromes prepared for screening in Thailand

Filmmaker Magazine has the newest chapter in the saga of Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest feature, which was censored and banned in Thailand after it had been screened to universal acclaim at film festivals and commercial runs around the world.

The film was originally set to be released nearly a year ago in a limited run in Bangkok, but the screenings were canceled by the director after the Censorship Board ordered that four scenes be cut: Doctors drinking whiskey in a hospital conference room, a doctor kissing his girlfriend, and then having to adjust his erect penis inside his trousers, a Buddhist monk playing a guitar and a pair of monks playing with a remote-control flying saucer.

Apichatpong has continued to appeal against the cuts, and the results of the exhausting process have been made public. Here is an excerpt from Filmmaker, as related by producer Keith Griffiths:

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has resisted cutting these scenes, and both he and his producer have argued forcefully that far more violent and degrading films are approved every week for wide general release. Now their second appeal has been rejected after a ten-person committee screened the film in order to re-evaluate it. After the screening the filmmakers were permitted to defend their creative efforts, explain the background to the project as a whole and its inspiration. The committee comprised of representatives from the police, the Thai Film Federation, a film scholar, the journalist’s association, a consumer watch group, the Sankha (Buddhism) council, the Medical Council, and a “film expert”. Regretfully their “considered” reactions were not positive and summarised read like scenes from a play of the Theatre of the Absurd.

It was alleged that the film not only depicted Thai society in a bad light, but that it should not be shown to “outsiders” as it had no artistic merit. The filmmaker’s parents (the film was partly made as a tribute to them) should feel ashamed that their son exposed them in such a bad, distasteful and un-artful manner. However, a monk seen playing a guitar was acceptable, because foreign viewers might conclude that the monk was not from Thailand, but from Laos or Burma.

The previous censorship committee originally asked Apichatpong Weerasethakul to cut the four noted scenes from his film. But, after this fresh “appeal”, two more were added. Exhausted, depressed and humiliated by the whole experience, they finally agreed to accept the verdict and followed the print to an editing room, in the same building, where they were able to observe the objectionable scenes being removed. They documented this “cleansing” of the film with photos taken on their mobile phones.

But there is always the possibility of a final twist to this tortured tale, as what they now plan to do is to replace the censored scenes with silent scratched black leader. In total this will now amount to about 15 minutes. This print will then be released in Thai theatres, as the “officially approved version”. Apichatpong Weerasethakul now also intends to present the committee’s comments at the start of the film. Twelve months after the film's world premiere in the Official Selection of the Venice Film Festival, Thai audiences will be able to finally see this locally produced and acclaimed masterpiece of cinema, interspersed with intermittent silent black scratched leader. The longest scene of silence will run for seven minutes. It is proposed that this “new approved version” of Syndromes and a Century should be released in a cinema for a week’s run. The director also intends to donate this special print to the National Film Archive, which one can only presume is what preserving National Heritage is all about.

If this latest development is indeed allowed to play out, the inimitable Joe will have turned adversity into something positive, artfully documenting the tortured process he had to go through to have this loving, gentle and moving tribute to his parents and his country screened commercially in his native land. Normally, I probably wouldn't go see a censored version of a film, except for research purposes, and this will definitely be research. But this is also a completely different film. It'll be interesting to see what audiences make of it.

More information:

(Via DIY Filmmaker Sujewa; photos from Filmmaker, showing the "cleansing" of the film)


  1. This is my first time commenting here. Great site! I've been reading it for a long time now.

    I really don't get why they are so hard on this film, maybe because I don't know enough about Thailand, but it still seems weird to me. It would be interesting to know what the other two scenes he had to cut were.

  2. Hej, Koala. The additional two scenes are a portrait(?) of the Prince of Songkhla, who is the father of His Majesty the King and is regarded as the Father of Thai Medicine, and a scene of a statue of the Princess Mother, the King's mother.

    They were cut because the censors thought Apichatpong was being disrespectful to the monarchy.

    He wasn't. Just like he wasn't saying anything bad about his parents, or his country.

    The censors are the ones being disrespectful.

    The reasons the Thai cultural authorities are being so hard on this film are complicated. I'm not sure I really understand myself.

    What is clear is they are sending a message to Apichatpong. He has achieved much success worldwide (two prize-winning films at Cannes, etc), but is outside the "system" in Thailand and makes films that are nothing like anything else produced in the narrative and cultural context of commercial Thai films -- the kinds of films the authorities would rather see getting worldwide attention.

    The message to Apichatpong from the authorities is this: We don't like you because you are openly gay, and we don't like your films because we can't admit we don't fully understand them. We want you to stop and go away because you are embarrassing us.

    The more they keep at him, though, the more they will embarrass themselves.

  3. Yeah, Syndromes wasn't a film that I really enjoyed that much but as a tribute to his parents I think it's a really beautiful movie and looked at in that light, it's easy to find good things in it. It just makes all of this more bizzare.

    Thank you for the link on your site, I really hope more people will find my blog since there really isn't alot of people writing about asian films in swedish. Especially not thai cinema. I hope it's okay that I use your site as a news and information site, I've been reading it from the beginning at rotten tomatoes and of course I won't copy anything and I'll always include links.


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