Friday, June 10, 2011

A conversation with Pen-ek and Apichatpong in NYC

Films by directors Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and works by other Thai filmmakers have been featured in the Blissfully Thai series at the Asia Society in New York City. Both filmmakers were on hand to talk about their films and together they took part in a "conversation" that encompassed the current state of Thai cinema.

Separately, the Thai Artists Alliance sponsored an event with Pen-ek as well. And Apichatpong has his Primitive exhibition at the New Museum on the Bowery, and has been the artist-in-residence for the past month, giving talks and introducing his shorts and features.

New York-based writer William Owens was able to attend some of these events and has prepared a guest post. He's an independent scholar specializing in Southeast Asian/Thai cinema and the public sphere and is currently working on an essay for publication with Wimal Dissanayake, Ph.D at the University of Hawaii, about the relationship between the public sphere and cinema in Thailand. He's involved with the Thai Artists Alliance in NYC, helping with their upcoming exhibition Siamese Connection. And he's working on an essay on Apichatpong's Mysterious Object at Noon, which will be presented this summer in Bangkok at the Thai Studies Conference.

Story by William Owens

For Thai cinema enthusiasts in New York City this past few weeks, there have been unprecedented opportunities to see the work of Pek-ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul thanks to the Asia Society, the New Museum and the Thai Artists Alliance. The Blissfully Thai film series opened on May 13 at the Asia Society in New York City with a screening of Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy. This series of Thai films, under the direction of the Asia Society’s La Frances Hui, is a remarkable program that brings together some of the most interesting films of the last 15 years to emerge from Thailand.

After the screening of the first film of the series, Ploy (2007), Pen-ek Ratanaruang was on hand to respond to questions and to mingle with the audience afterwards. It was an extraordinary opportunity for Thai film fans in New York.

Ploy circulated on the international film festival circuit in 2007, and generally did not receive as much of the critical acclaim as 2003's Last Life in the Universe or 2009's Nymph. This is unfortunate. As the screening here showed, the hypnotic Ploy rewards multiple viewings, and its dreamy narrative evokes the kind of anonymous and jet-lagged sensations of the modern traveler. The print screened here in New York was the director’s uncut version, also difficult to view in Thailand. Authorities there deemed many of its sexually explicit scenes too steamy for Thai cinema-goers.

After Ploy was shown, Pen-ek responded to questions from the moderator, Ms. Hui, whose questions were both apt and well-informed, and helped to shape the evening’s conversation. Pen-ek also took questions from the audience, which was an eclectic mix of Thais, Asian cinema enthusiasts and film students. He spoke at length of his interest, both in Ploy and Nymph in exploring sound as a part of atmosphere. For example, there is ambient noise from an airport on much of Ploy’s soundtrack. This sense of “hearing things” is a condition of the sensations of jet lag as he explained in his own experience as a traveler.

“Sometimes [when] you ask me a question, it takes a minute to respond,” he added. This kind of sensorial delay, aggravated by international travel’s alterations in time perception, helps to “create this kind of dream, a blurry feeling with sound.”

According to Pen-ek, Ploy was a kind of experiment for Nymph in which sound design was very much a conscious part of the overall film. But while sound is one element of the picture that helps create the atmospheric tension of his work, at the heart of them remains the story itself. Pen-ek clarified here that he is very much motivated by the stories themselves, and setting, while an important part of the stories he chooses to tell, is ultimately subordinate to the plot. He does not set out to show ready-made images of Thailand, or to confound western expectations of an exoticized Thailand, but to explore the ways that mood and atmosphere interplay with dramatic tension.

Ploy is a comedy about a couple who quarrels about nonsense,” he said. Both characters (Wit and Dang) are playing games, exploring jealousy for the sake of jealousy. In a discussion about the erotic subplot involving the maid and the barman, Pen-ek humorously noted his own attraction to various hotel maids and receptionists he has encountered in his travels. He noted the beauty of the hotel maids found in Buenos Aires, for example, and the attractive qualities of receptionists in Vietnam.

He also explained the scene in which the maid, in post-coital bliss, sings a Thai love song directly to the camera. He received mixed responses to this scene, and at one point in the conversation, stated playfully, “I have to apologize for this scene.” While Pen-ek said that some filmgoers and critics saw the scene as a rude interruption, others have had a more positive response to the scene. It represents the kind of cinematic risk-taking that is so sorely missing from most commercial films today, and has even been absent from much of what is considered “experimental.”

At the heart of Pen-ek’s vision is a humanistic impulse toward universality. In his stories he tries to explore universal themes about relationships, but also, ultimately, the stories that are more internal and that represent a kind of “inward journey.” Asked about his cinematic influences, Pen-ek noted that he likes “sad films”, but did not name any filmmaker specifically. He admitted, for example, that he was influenced more by funerals than weddings. At funerals, he noted, people dress in a more elegant way and become more modest in demeanor and behavior. “I’ve fallen in love many times at funerals.”

A Conversation with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pen-ek Ratanaruang at the Asia Society, Saturday, May 14, 2011

As if a visit from an influential Thai filmmaker Pen-ek were not enough to satisfy the Thai film enthusiasts in New York City, a rare appearance by Pen-ek along with Apichatpong Weerasethakul for a conversation on cinema further set the stage for a frank discussion on some of the challenges within the filmmaking community.

Flying in just for the occasion was Dr. Sorajak Kasemsuvan, the secretary-general of the National Federation of Film Associations of Thailand.

In prefacing the discussion with Pen-ek and Apichatpong, Dr. Sorajak gave a brief overview of Thai cinema and discussed some challenges within the industry, including copyright protection, pirated DVDs and recording in theaters, which all remain problematic. Copyright protection weakness in Thailand also has a direct impact on Thai filmmaking, as it reduces incentive to become a filmmaker. That said, Dr. Sorajak also stated that the independent film movement is a growing trend in Thailand, led by the likes of Pen-ek and Apichatpong. Dr. Sorajak also talked at length about changes to the Censorship Act of 1932 having implemented a new rating system in 2008 based on age restrictions and according to content.

He specifically mentioned the challenges that filmmakers face within the new rating system, which has a total of six separate ratings, and there was a general tone that suggested that it is more onerous than the act that it replaced. However, the new rating system does achieve one semantic victory: it moves censorship decisions away from the police department and into the purview of the Ministry of Culture directly. He also cited filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit's banned film Insects in the Backyard, noting that it would not have become so sought after had it not been banned entirely from exhibition in Thailand.

Dr. Sorajak further reported that 62 films were made in the Thai domestic market last year, roughly only half of which turned a profit. The others posted losses. Together, the films comprised approximately 140 million baht. Location shooting for Hollywood films also accounted for a significant part of the industry, with the American comedy The Hangover Part II bringing much hype and publicity. With that, Dr. Sorajak turned it over to Ms. Hui and the filmmakers.

One of the overall impressions of the discussion conversation between Pen-ek and Apichatpong was how genuine and passionate they are about their art. The role of the independent filmmaker in Thailand was the starting point for this comprehensive conversation. Both describe filmmaking as “like taking drugs”, or as a “virus”, with Pen-ek pointing out that he was always looking to “increase the dose” as though filmmaking were a potent narcotic. As a mainstream commercial artist, Pen-ek saw his films as a way of extending the thirty second timeframe typical of a commercial to the longer narrative of the art films he made. His background in New York City at Pratt Institute informed, to a certain extent, his narrative vision. Apichatpong’s training in Chicago also certainly affected his filmmaking, and his knowledge of experimental films is brought into sharper focus by his work at the New Museum, where his Primitive exhibition is being shown.

One of the more interesting conversations (out of many) emerged from the question posed by Ms. Hui, “Why is Thai cinema so wild?”

Whereas Pen-ek likened the variability in Thai cinema as akin to the blending of styles in Thai cuisine, Apichatpong pointed out that given restrictions imposed by censorship, politics, in a way, has had to find alternative ways of expression. It is okay, for example, to make a film about a gay volleyball team, but not okay to produce something that is politically provocative in Thailand.

Pen-ek also lamented how commercial films in Thailand now seem “manufactured” and not “made” in the artistic sense. He feels that “strangeness” has been eliminated by commercial Hollywood concerns.

For both filmmakers, it is clear that Thailand inflects their art. They are rooted in Thai culture, but whereas Pen-ek is less likely to be bound to indebtedness to Thai visual traditions in favor of the demands of the particular story he wishes to tell, Apichatpong pointed out how deeply Thailand informs his vision. He gave a brief example of how a student assignment at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that required the filmmaker to make a short film about Lake Michigan. For Apichatpong, the exercise illustrated that he still viewed Lake Michigan through a uniquely Thai lens.

For Pen-ek, his own experience with cinema in New York City also informed his art. He related the incomprehensibility of Fellini’s 8 ½ that he watched on Bleecker Street, but that he was compelled to see the film again even though it was difficult to understand.

“Attraction can come in many ways,” he added. “You don’t have to understand everything.”

While the conversation at the Asia Society invariably turned toward censorship and the doubtful effectiveness of the new ratings system, responding to it as a reality in Thailand for a filmmaker is an experience characterized by struggles with bureaucracy, red tape, and artistic integrity. Pen-ek, for example, recounted the story of his first feature Fun Bar Karaoke and how he illegally carried the film print to be shown at the Berlin Film Festival. As the print circulated among international film festivals, it was ultimately (and mistakenly) sent to Pen-ek’s personal address in Thailand where it was subject to an added customs duty that was prohibitively expensive. By not claiming the print at customs, Pen-ek effectively forfeited it to the Thai government and after three years it was brought to the Thai Film Archive where it now resides. This helps to explain one of the reasons why obtaining a copy of the film today in VCD or DVD form is quite challenging.

A clip of one of Apichatpong’s Syndromes and a Century, which showed a Thai Buddhist monk playing an acoustic guitar (which Thai censors deemed offensive) was played for the audience to highlight what seems to be the relative ambiguity of censorship’s far-reaching effects. While censorship certainly motivates self-censorship for Thai filmmakers, one of the unintended effects is that a banned film tends to become more popular than it might have otherwise. A case in point that was raised was the Insects in the Backyard film that was singled out by the Thai Ministry of Culture for its objectionable content. Regarding the differences between a multi-point, aged-based rating scale that has been enacted in Thailand, and the use of an outright ban, Pen-ek playfully remarked on the ambiguity of an age-based sliding scale.

Pen-ek said, “If you are 19 years old, you are really frustrated.”

On May 15 the Thai Artists Alliance held a reception for Pen-ek at the Roger Smith Hotel. He reiterated some of the ideas that were discussed at the Asia Society. The TAA, a group of New York-based Thai and Thai-American artists, which co-sponsored the Blissfully Thai film series with the Asia Society, invited Pen-ek to speak to a mostly Thai audience about his work and to answer questions. The reception was well-attended and the Royal Thai Consulate was represented as well. Dr. Sorajak Kasemsuvan, the secretary-general of the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand, appeared to introduce Pen-ek and to discuss the Cultural Ministry’s involvement in Thai cinema and the new ratings scheme.

(Photos by c. bay milin)


  1. Thank you for the excellent coverage. Will transcripts be available, I wonder? How I wish I could have attended. I have to rewatch Ploy with a careful ear...


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