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Desperately Seeking the True Thai Style
  Anchalee Chaiworaporn
   
 

This article was first published in The Nation Weekend, March 28, 1997, the year when the Thai film industry started to evoke. It is posted here again to give readers a general idea of the pre-1997 condition of Thai cinema.

What is the true style of Thai films? A movie student, who had planned to write about the Thai film industry but was unable to dig up sufficient information, posed this seemingly-simple question at England's Canterbury University.

He had seen Cherd Songsri's Japanese-funded film The Tree of Life at the Australian Film Festival but had little else to go by.

Thai movies are intended primarily for entertainment. Every detail has to be easy to understand. The story is driven by conversations or a character's thoughts - often expressing their innermost feelings, ideas and secrets.

The question came up again recently after the Penek Ratanarueng film Fun Bar Karaoke , was screened at Berlin Film Festival.


Fumiko Matsuyama, a German-based Japanese journalist expressed her fondness for Fun Bar Karaoke, citing its reflection of modern Bangkok and Westernisation. The director said that some people considered his film a break from traditional Thai style, though he disagrees.


Is there really such a thing as a Thai-style film? If so, what are its characteristics? In an attempt to pluck a definitive answer, some industry insiders have launched an informal investigation.

Chalida Uabamrungjit, a coordinator at the Thai Film Foundation, feels the word unrealistic applies to the overall concept of Thai film style. Thai movies often attempt realism but don't succeed. Many scenes simply make no sense. It vaguely resembles surrealism, but in fact it is not.

Chalida laughed while giving an example from the film Long June. In one scene, there is a policeman wearing a black jacket, playing the strong and serious cop. She almost fell off her seat on seeing the word police emblazoned across his back - presumably to make absolutely sure the audience understood who he was.

The expression of emotions in most Thai movies is also uniquely Thai, said Chalida. There are awkward attempts to portray situations that don't happen in reality.

They have the pattern of anger, love, and other emotions in mind and express it in a way that most people would never do in real life. For example, most Thais don't say I love you' directly like in the movies. They just look into each other's eyes, and know it.

If I had to give Thai film style a name, I would call it neo-unrealist.

Film critics Sananjit Bangsaphan and Suphab Harimthepathip compared Thai films to a type of Thai play called li-kay, a drama in which the actors sing, talk and dance to tell the story.

That is the root of Thai movies, said Sananjit, and that so-called root is entertainment. It makes no difference if it's a film, li-kay or khone (a silent drama featuring masked dancers).

Thai entertainment for Sananjit has a standard form - hero, heroine, supporting hero, supporting heroine and villain. The good and the bad are definitely separated, then there's a happy ending so the audience doesn't have to think about the film later on. The end is definitely the end.

There is no national identity in Thai movies, Sananjit affirmed. There is not even the whiff of a national identity. We have only the form. Even in Cherd Songsri ' s movie, which is considered very Thai, I think there is just a portrayal of Thainess from the costumes or the Thai words.

Suphab agrees. He feels this phenomenon is firmly woven into Thai entertainment, which basically sets out to play with the audience.

Performers and audiences work together in Thai entertainment, said Suphab.Performance is only meant for fun that the audience can participate in. Whatever the audience expects or wants, the story follows. For example, the hero's mother should be a mean person who looks down on the heroine.

He feels audience reaction proves his point The scream an audience lets out whenever pop stars appear on screen is one technique the movies employ to play with them, he said.Even teen flicks today are still presented in that way, no matter if directed by Chatchai Kaewsawang or Poj Anon.

Yet is li-kay itself a thoroughly Thai art form, or is it, as with so many other traditions adapted from another culture?

While it may be an interesting exercise to search for a national identity in Thai films, it ultimately leads to a dead end.

In a homogenising world where national identity matters less than ever before, and borders represent only variations in political mismanagement, the primary identity of a given film lies far more with the personal vision of the director than with a film's point of origin.

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