The Island Funeral (2016), d. Pimpaka Towira
FINDING AN AUDIENCE
THAI INDEPENDENT FILMS ARE WINNING OVER CRITICS AT INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVALS AROUND THE WORLD, BUT AUDIENCES BACK HOME ARE PROVING HARDER TO CRACK.
Last September, downtown Bangkok finally got the independent cinema it deserves. Sitting behind an inauspicious door on an equally inauspicious street just off Silom Road, Bangkok Screening Room seats up to 50 in multiplex-worthy comfort. Yet on opening night, there were only seven people in attendance for the evening’s second screening of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 Cannes Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The story of a man contemplating mortality surrounded by family members both dead and living, Uncle Boonmee has become the torchbearer for Thailand’s independent cinema scene, having won auteur cinema’s highest award. It’s a fitting film to open a new independent cinema in Bangkok, but it also highlights the deep divide between Thai indie cinema’s reception at home and its glowing reputation abroad.
Even when first released in Thailand, Uncle Boonmee only managed to gross around 1.1 million baht, according to IMDB’s Box Office Mojo*. By comparison, 2014’s I Fine Thank You Love You, GTH’s record-breaking rom-com blockbuster, made almost 30 times that amount in its first day. The GTH film got a couple nods at the Osaka Asian Film Festival while sweeping the Thailand National Film Association Awards. Uncle Boonmee got top honors in Cannes, Toronto and Dubai. Back home, it won Best Sound.
It’s not just Apichatpong, either. Thai directors are winning accolades at some of the top international film festivals. Dao Kanong by Anocha Suwichakornpong examines history’s reaction to the October 6, 1976 Thammasat Massacre and was recently featured in Switzerland’s Locarno International Film Festival, where Slant magazine described it as “intuitively unfolding with rhythmic finesse.” Pimpaka Towira’s The Island Funeral, co-written with Bangkok Post cultural critic Kong Rithdee was praised by Hollywood Reporter as “a beautiful genre bender” after its appearance at Film Festival Rotterdam early in 2016. S.E.A. Write-winning author Prabda Yoon’s directorial debut, Motel Mist, about which Dutch producer Bero Beyer gushed eulogies following its first screening, also this year in Rotterdam.To cap it off, Apichatpong also had three films featured in the BBC’s recent film critic-only poll of the 21st century’s greatest films—the most any director in the list achieved.
It all stands in contrast with Thailand’s support for such films. A 2007 quote from the former director of the Ministry of Culture's Cultural Surveillance Department, Ladda Tangsupachai, has become the local movie scene’s ironic rallying call. Downplaying the censorship of Syndromes and a Century, she told Time Magazine, “Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong. Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh.”
Bangkok Post film critic Kong Rithdee believes that attitudes have moved on since then, albeit only slightly. “Yes, people are still cautious about ‘arthouse’ films, but there are more adventurous viewers now,” he says. “This isn’t just a Thai thing: even in France or Germany or the US, independent or arthouse films have far less audience than mainstream pictures. The globalization of multiplex culture limits the variety of film and dictates the laws of taste.”
The issue though is not just that independent cinema lives in the margins of mainstream cinema, it is the asymmetry between the Thai market and the international one. “A film that does well internationally will not do well here,” says novelist and filmmaker Prabda Yoon. The author of 2002’s S.E.A. Write Award-winning Kwam Na Ja Pen recently moved into filmmaking after an original screenplay he wrote received funding from TrueVision. The movie, called Motel Mist, came out in Bangkok on Nov 17.
For all practical purposes, the only thing separating an “independent” filmmaker from any other type of director is the fact that he or she seeks financing independently, rather than with the assistance of a big studio. Of course, the term has come to mean a lot more than that. Label something “indie” and the assumption has come to be that it will be tackling a subject with greater depth; exploring a theme ignored by studio productions; produced in a way that deviates from conventional filmmaking; or all of the above.
“The filmmaker isn’t restricted by the conditions and expectations of the market, and thus he or she can pursue the subject of their interest as well as the choice of aesthetics,” says Kong. “In most cases, Thai independent films are more socially relevant and politically engaged than mainstream studio movies, which seem to exist in a bubble. The point of making independent films is to be able to express your personal ideas and personal approach to cinema.”
Kong isn’t just a critic. He recently made his screenwriting debut for seasoned Thai filmmaker Pimpaka Towira’s The Island Funeral, which follows a Muslim sister and brother traveling with their friend to a small Southern village in search of their estranged aunt, during the time of 2010’s CentralWorld red shirt rally. Shot entirely on 16mm film, it’s a slow-moving, meditative story strung together by a backdrop of unseen social turmoil, both in Bangkok and the far Southern provinces.
“Independent movies allow filmmakers to express more personal ideas and feelings,” says its director, Pimpaka. “They depict issues which commercial film studios have no interest in. The studios are interested in genre films. That’s quite obvious.”
Apichatpong highlights another benefit of the independent filmmaking process: when he makes a film, he’s making it to please himself, not an audience. “I think of myself as the audience,” says the director. “I need to be honest with myself that I love this kind of movie… I don’t believe in making movies for society. I believe that filmmakers need to make films for themselves; make films that they truly believe in, then they will have historical value because the director has not had to filter it.”
For someone responsible for producing big box office numbers, such artistic ambition is a challenge.
“When they see a film, Thai people want answers by the end,” says Suvannee Chinchiewchan, the chief marketing officer for SF Group, Thailand’s second largest chain of cinemas with more than 200 screens across the country. “They don’t want to be left with questions. And that’s what these kind of films do.”
Suvannee says that it’s very rare that an independently made Thai film will ever become a box office success, pointing to Pen-Ek’s Headshot from 2011 as the most successful Thai indie film she can think of. It took in approximately 10 million baht after screening in 10 locations.
She also uses the example of GTH studio’s Heart Attack, directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit and released in 2014. In some ways Thailand’s answer to the Indiewood studios of America like Miramix and Lionsgate, which commercialized the idea of independent filmmaking on much bigger budgets, GTH was considered by many as the one studio capable of producing blockbusters with any degree of depth. The studio made the voluntary decision to close down late in 2015 after Tai Entertainment, which owned a 30-percent stake in the company, wanted to list it on the stock market. GTH’s founding production company, Hub Ho Hin, refused to comply, citing how the decision might affect its creativity and standards, and the company collapsed, to be reborn as GDH 559, which released its first film, One Day, last October.
Despite the lack of financial gain in screening independent cinema, SF Group has been marginally supportive of the work of local directors, often reserving a screen at its flagship cinema, SF World at CentralWorld, to host their movies. “Luckily at SF World we have quite a number of screens so we can share space with indie films,” explains Suwannee. “We don’t have to hesitate in helping these films achieve screening.”
Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s Vanishing Point, which won the top three prizes at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2015, is one such film which received screening at SF World. But this, he says, does come with its own drawbacks.
“SF can be more encouraging than some but we only have two big cinema chains—SF and Major,” he says. “If you go to one you can’t go to the other. They want the movie to be exclusive to them and to show it at their screen only. This is a shame, and a problem I found with Vanishing Point. SF wouldn’t allow me even to screen it at House RCA. House was really pissed off at this, because they don’t want to be viewed as a grade-B cinema.”
Until Bangkok Screening Room opened, smaller films could only be seen at Scala or House, the only space truly dedicated to independent films in Bangkok, mixing its output between international breakthrough films, local projects and the odd blockbuster.
“House RCA has been doing a great job,” says Sarinya Manamuti, co-founder of Bangkok Screening Room. “But there just hasn’t been enough space for indie cinema in Bangkok. We’re another addition; a platform supporting young filmmakers. The system we’ve introduced is a 50/50 box office split and open film program, so any young filmmakers can submit their films to be screened and get their share at the box office.”
To help young filmmakers reach a local audience, Sarinya also guides them through the process of having their films accredited by the censors. “We have to do that with everything we screen,” she says. “I’m basically learning the ropes of how to go through the censorship board as we go, so this is good information to pass on to young filmmakers. Going through the film classification system is just like any other paperwork.”
One director who’s reluctantly turning his back on local audiences is Apichatpong, who with his latest film, Cemetery of Splendour, made the controversial decision not to submit it for classification in Thailand. The film, which follows a group of hospitalized soldiers who fall into a collective coma when they disturb an ancient cemetery of kings, cannot therefore legally be screened here.
“I’m sorry that I had to make this decision,” he says. “As a filmmaker, I want to share my movie on a giant screen. But we have limited freedom here; it’s not 100 percent. Ten years ago, the situation wasn’t like this. It has driven me to not want to participate at all with the Thai film board. It would take too long to deal with everything that might concern them, the censorship, the scene cutting. I just don’t want to go through this process any more.”
He is speaking from experience. Censors demanded that he cut four scenes from one of his past films, 2006’s Syndromes of a Century, if he wanted to screen it in Thailand. He refused, and personally withdrew the film from domestic release, though subsequently it has received limited screenings with the offending scenes blacked out in order to highlight the issue of censorship. During the censored scenes, audiences were met with a black screen and silence for the scene’s duration.
Kong is equally critical of the Thai classification system. “The state can still ban films,” he says. “And even though it doesn’t happen that often, the law imposes a culture of self-censorship among artists. The vague interpretation of the censorship law is a problem. You never really know what is allowed and what is not, which is very counter-productive.”
Jakrawal is less pessimistic about the current state of censorship. “It’s getting better, honestly” he says. “My friend Anocha Suwichakornpong’s new film [Dao Kanong] deals with the subject of the coup from 40 years ago, and she got a local rating of 15+. I thought it would never be able to screen in Thailand.”
Right now, Jakrawal is preparing to shoot his latest film, Departure Days, a documentary which examines Thai attitudes towards Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic minority, produced in cooperation with China’s version of Youtube, Youku.com. He hopes that it will be screened domestically, but until that happens, says he needs to drum up support on the international film festival circuit.
“First we’re going to send it to Busan, where we hope it will be picked up” he says. “Then we’ll look for a wider audience in Europe and market it there before bringing it back to the local audience.”
For the indie filmmaker, these festivals should act as a life support, allowing their work to be appreciated by the outside world and in turn draw the attention of local audiences. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. “We need international film festivals,” says Prabda. “But to the general public, a film that did well in a festival just means a difficult art film they don’t want to see.”
The current government has stated that it is committed to growing the Thai cinema industry, which is ranked fifth in the ASEAN region. It is tempting to dismiss indie cinema as being irrelevant to that effort due to its poor ticket tales. But that overlooks its role as a laboratory for mainstream blockbusters. Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino all had their beginnings in independent cinema before going on to produce some of the Hollywood’s biggest box office hits. As such, audience and government apathy isn’t just hurting independent cinema. It’s depriving the entire cinema of the precious new techniques and ideas needed to stay ahead in the entertainment business. Needed but largely ignored, independent Thai filmmakers are all the more heroic, as nothing seems to deter them from the pursuit of movie-making with a purpose.