Monday, August 17, 2009

Will the Naresuan sequels bankroll a Thai film fund?

When I heard awhile back that Thailand's Ministry of Culture was planning to give 480 million baht to MC Chatrichalerm Yukol so the prince-director could make the third and fourth Naresuan movies, I was more than a little dismayed at the amount of money being thrown around.

Why would a well-established industry veteran like Than Mui, whose recent historical epics have been box-office bonanzas, need money from the government?

For that amount, around 30 independent films like Wonderful Town could be made.

And while no one can disagree with the government's plan to fund patriotic films like Naresuan 3 and 4, there is more than a little concern from independent filmmakers about the precedent being set.

After all, beyond the relatively small handouts from the Culture Ministry's Office of Contemporary Arts and Culture (OCAC), there is no film-funding body.

And when the money has run out, Thai independent filmmakers are left to go begging, with projects such as Aditya Assarat's Wonderful Town -- lauded by critics worldwide, shown at perhaps dozens of film festivals and winner of most of Thailand's major film awards last year -- having to rely on a patchwork of overseas help, such as the Pusan International Film Festival's Asian Cinema Fund, Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund, the Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum and France's Fonds Sud Cinema.

Anyway, in articles on Friday and in his Saturday column, the Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee looks at all this.

Here's a key excerpt from the Friday article:

Many details remain murky. Still, in normal circumstances, 480 million baht could fund 50 commercial films _ and 100 low-budget independent films.

[Culture] Minister Teera Slukpetch, however, said: ''The money generated by the King Naresuan movies upon their release will be returned to the ministry and into the funding body that will be set up to support other filmmakers.''

That's a theory that would be subjected to further debate. At this point, the ministry has just set up a sub-committee, headed by Deputy Permanent Secretary Prof Dr Apinan Poshyananda [former director of the OCAC], charged with drafting the guidelines and rules for considering filmmakers' requests for grants; this is a task stipulated in the new Film Act 2008. These guidelines will work on the differentiation between ''commercial films'', made with the aim of earning a profit, and ''non-commercial films'' made for artistic reasons (that's another issue that looks to be contentious). What's not certain now is where the designated budget for this planned funding body will come from, and how big it will be.

It's an informative article, with Kong quoting Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose upcoming feature Mundane History is backed by the Asian Cinema Fund; Panu Aree, who got ACF help to make his new documentary Baby Arabia; Pimpaka Towira, who produced Uruphong Raksasad's Agrarian Utopia, which did get funding from Thailand's Ministry of Culture but also the Hubert Bals Fund; and Aditya, whose Wonderful Town got support from the Ministry but also a plethora of other overseas funds, and whose upcoming High Society is being put together with another patchwork quilt of money.

A sidebar article further details all those projects and their various funding sources, plus Jakrawal Nilthamron's feature Vanishing Points and Pramoj Saengsorn's Tam Rasrisalai, "a surreal drama set in an Isaan village about to be flooded by the building of a dam."

Kong has more thoughts about the Naresuan movies in his Saturday column. Go read it.

I'm probably echoing his thoughts, but here's what I think: Independent projects like Wonderful Town and Agrarian Utopia have gained more exposure overseas than the local blockbuster Naresuan movies. In their own quiet way, the indies are giving audiences something they can relate to -- that have resonance beyond the exoticism of being Asian or Thai -- while at the same time promoting a contemporary vision of Thai culture.

The argument can extend to an indie vs. industry approach. What version of Thai culture do you want to see or believe in? A film that's unique and artful, which might have you mulling over in the days and weeks after you watch it? Like Wonderful Town or Syndromes and a Century or Stories from the North. Or something wacky -- though undeniably fun -- like the gory, bloody horror of the Art of the Devil movies or Phobia or the bone-crunching, death-defying stunts of Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak and Jija Yanin in Chocolate? When it's over, what do you take away, besides maybe wanting to see more of it, and see it again?

I like it all. But I like to have choices. The independent films give me those choices, and I think they are worth supporting.

Perhaps by promoting the Naresuan movies, the Culture Ministry and the government are making an effort to control those visions of Thai culture -- make it a costumed museum piece with clanging swords, elaborate costumes, extravagant sets, war elephants and the sacrifice of lives? But how will people outside Thailand view all that, and what will they think of the modern Thailand?

(Nation photo by Wanchai Kraisornkhajit)

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