สนับสนุนโดย สำนักงานศิลปวัฒนธรรมร่วมสมัย กระทรวงวัฒนธรรม Supported by Office of Contemporary Art And Culture ,Ministry Of Culture

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Nostalgia in Post Crisis Thai Cinema
  Anchalee Chaiworaporn
  Published in focas: Forum On Contemporary Art & Society, vol. (September 2002), Singapore.
   
 

In Thailand, cinema is usually considered as mere entertainment, in which artistic sensitivity –– if any at all –– is less developed as compared to the other arts. Cinema's cultural value ranks low in Thai society. Not surprisingly, the marked increase in so-called “period movies” in recent years did not provoke much critical attention from cultural workers or academics.

Nang Yon Yuk or “returning to the past” cinema is therefore only causing a real buzz among popular consumers and industry insiders. During the past three years, and particularly after the blockbuster success of Nonzee Nimitbutr's Nang Nak in 1999, the majority of contemporary Thai movies are caught up with “returning to the past” cinema.

But how do these new movies differ from what we already know as “period” or “heritage films” ? Both genres are a part of Nang Yon A-deet or “looking back” cinema, which spans a whole range of Thai history. “Returning to the past” movies can refer to any film whose story happened more than two decades earlier. This could be an event that happened 200-300 years ago, as in Suriyothai (2001), the story of a Thai queen who engaged in politics and battles for the throne in 16 th century, or Bang Rajan (2000), an epic about the solidarity of Siamese villagers against the Burmese occupation of 1765. Sometimes these movies feature events that happened only four or five decades ago, like Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), a postmodern rehash of a 1950s Thai movie about a difficult love affair between a poor hero and rich heroine. Even The Moonhunter (2001)


which tells the story of two political events in October 14, 1973 and October 6, 1976 can also be considered as Thai “looking back” cinema.

One might argue that the arrival of these new Nang Yon Yuk/ “ returning to the past ” movies is merely a coincidence. But how did more than half of Thai cinema in the past three years come to be about Thai history? That is: four out of the eight movies in 2000, seven out of the fifteen in 2001, and seven in 2002. Besides the above titles, the list also includes: Youth Soldier (2000), the story of a group of high school students who were youth soldiers during the Second World War; Satang (2000) , a group of villagers search for money during World War Two;

Behind the Painting (2000), a classic tale of forbidden love between a young man and a middle-aged lady; Jandara (2001), an erotic movie about the haunting 1930s world of sex, lesbianism and guilt; Kwan Riam (2001), the tragic story of a 1930s folk couple sacrificing their lives for love; New Born Blood (2002), the life of 1950s Thai youngsters against the backdrop of Elvis Presley hits; and Kunpaen (2002), an adaptation of a famous literary classic about the life and loves of a Thai Don Quixote. There are still more in production. Many of these are remakes.

Most scholars explain this phenomenon by attributing it to nostalgia. In their understanding, the Thai people have experienced great uncertainty after the 1997 economic downturn. Before then, Thailand was one of the most rapidly developing countries in the region, with the potential to join the ranks of Newly Industrialised Countries (NICs) such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. The stock market was a main source of income for many families. White collar workers suddenly enjoyed a triple increase in salaries, particularly those working in finance or media businesses, the main oxygen source of Thailand ' s bubble economy. Farmers sold their lands at sometimes a tenfold increase from the former price. The cost of living doubled. Brand-name imports flooded the country –– so much so that even university students were the target consumers of Gucci and Versace.

Then the bubble exploded. On July 1, 1997, the Thai government announced the devaluation of local currency, which had disastrous consequences on the Thai economy. Hundreds of companies, particularly those involved in finance and media, closed down. Millions of people lost their jobs and businesses. Suicide stories became everyday headlines. The country became not only the epicentre of economic crisis, but the shock effect of the devalued Thai baht catalysed a regional economic crisis.

All developmental prognoses seemed to have been proved wrong. Daydreams of joining the elite club of NICs had turned into a nightmare of struggle and survival. And in the midst of all this hopelessness and despair, Thai people felt that they needed something that their hearts could rely upon –– or at least something that would not ruin them.

And so they chose to recall the old Thai lifestyle –– the basic and simple life that their parents once used to live. The Thai people and the government started to understand that the root of the Thai economy belonged to agriculture and to tangible forms of production –– not a bubble economy rising from stocks, overpriced land or luxury goods. Sethakij Phor Phienng or“ Living Appropriately”, the motto formulated by the King and then promoted by the government, was understood to be as the correct way to develop. The general argument went as follows: “In the past, our ancestors had not brought us into these difficulties. The simplicity of their lifestyle might not propel us into the realm of international achievement, but it would also not drive us into the current state of melancholy and disaster.”

The motto, Khuen Soo Raak Thai or “going back to Thai roots”, resonates in every aspect of Thai life. People have had to learn to live simply, even in big cities. One example of this is the return of “old taste of Thai coffee”–– popular again, when a decade earlier, they had been sold only in small traditional cafes around the outskirts of Bangkok. Today, the sign reading “Old taste of Thai coffee” has been hung everywhere, from vending pushcarts to luxury restaurants. Traditional architecture and interior design attract contemporary customers suffering from “nostalgia syndrome”. Other brand names such as “Mother Noodle” hark back to the “good old days”. Shopowners have even painted new chairs and table to resemble old ones.

The launch of a pop magazine called A Day early in 2001 was also a symptom of this “nostalgia syndrome” . It even had a special section called “Nostalgia” , featuring stories written in a reminiscent tone. The section includes coverage of such things as the childhood of the most beloved HRS Princess Sirinthorn, scenes from all-time teen hangout Siam Square, homegrown movie idol Namphu or even cartoon character Doraemon –– all these are printed with sepia images. The magazine has become hugely popular among teenagers and young adults.

Special “nostalgia“ concerts have moreover been arranged for bands who were popular in earlier years. Many of these bands have long since dissolved and their members have already moved on to other careers. But they gather together on special occasions and their concerts are very popular, with tickets selling out in no time.

The trend has had its even more glittering moments with the two box office movie hits: Bang Rajan and Suriyothai.

Bang Rajan is a historical epic about the solidarity of Siamese villagers against the Burmese occupation of 1765. The film was released at the end of 2000, at a time of political tension. A few months before its release, the whole country had been in chaos over the upcoming national election. It was then already three years after the start of the economic crisis. The once-popular government, led by then Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, had been dissolved and there was a tremendous loss of morale among the Thai people about their economic future. The government was regarded as unreliable and, like many previous governments, had become involved with corruption scandals, while the new party, led by telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, looked even more unreliable. The film distributors Film Bangkok intentionally released the film during this state of uncertainty. The film fed into the mood of the time, becoming the only “light of hope” for Thai people, who could at least experience solidarity with the historical tale of Thai peasants who tried to protect the whole nation, in spite of the ignorance of the then official administrators.

Along with this sentiment of solidarity, Bang Rajan also depicted Thailand as being involved in a border conflict with Burma, a long-running enemy of Thai people. Around the time of the film's release, Burmese newspapers had published complaints that the Thai media and educational textbooks were consistently representing Burma in a bad light. The situation got worse when Thai Life Insurance Co vowed to apply nationalistic marketing strategies to beat foreign companies, by producing commercials that were explicitly against Burma, for example, by having a commercial which depicted a character from Bang Rajan fighting against the Burmese occupation.

Bang Rajan became the longest running movie in Thai film history and broke all box office records for Thai movies. Nationalist ideology seemed to have penetrated every inch of Thailand. Anti-neocolonial sentiments had emerged among the Thai people, adding to an already fiercely proud national ethos. Thailand has always been an independent state and was never really colonised by European nations, even during the mid-1800s when most of her neighbouring countries were made European colonies. Now, young men voluntarily applied for the first time for annual conscription (though this was partly also due to unemployment), while a local insurance company embarked on a nationalist campaign to beat foreign and foreign-Thai competitors (who were operating in Thailand. Thai Life Insurance Co co-sponsored the publicity of two movies during 2000-2001, Bangkok Dangerous and Bang Rajan, in order to build an image for itself as a good corporate citizen. The company annually puts aside hundreds of millions of baht earmarked for advertising campaigns.

Several months after Bang Rajan, another film, Suriyothai, was released. The response was even more phenomenal. Suriyothai was a long-awaited film with a huge amount of prior publicity. It had been the most time-consuming production, and had the largest number of star performances. It also received royal funding, with the premiere screening presented to the King, the Queen and other important members of the royal family. Its publicity slogan already indicated its national significance: Phapphayon Haeng Siam Prathet translated as “The Movie of the Siamese Land” . Suriyothai then became the must-see Nang Yong Yuk/ returning to the past movie for Thais — all generations, races and classes. Not surprisingly, it broke in turn all box office records. It was also one of the least critiqued productions. Most film critics avoided any comment.

Suriyothai is about a blood feud between brothers, old and new dynasties, involving adultery, women and murder. When the royal conflict ends, a new conflict arises with the Burmese forces. Queen Suriyothai rides into battle on an elephant armed with a slingblade to defend her city and her culture, and in the process she loses her life. The director clearly constructed the film to make it understandable to general audiences, and to communicate the historic sacrifice of the Thai heroine Suriyothai. Despite the lack of strong reviews by local critics, disputes did arise with local history experts who argued that the facts of the movie were skewed. Some even argued that Queen Suriyothai actually did not exist as a historic figure.

 

This nationalist fervour has gained popularity –– with very serious consequences. One of these was the “anti-colonialist” movement against foreign takeovers. Local small supermarket stores cried out against the business decline resulting from the penetration of foreign hypermarket chains in the city. Many foreign hypermarket stores, like those set up by the English company Tesco, have often been bombed with no trace of evidence. *1 A military mafia gang was suspected of involvement because of its loss of gang advantages after the company terminated the security contract with Royal Guard, owned by a member of military. However, upon the fourth attack at the end of last year, a new theory emerged when a suspect was tracked down and died in a stand-off with police two days later. *2 The suspect's motives were apparently (as suggested by his personal computer files) anti-colonial anger at foreign companies. He wrote that he had received money from a group of Thai and Chinese-descent businessmen to sabotage stores dominated by foreign owners, including Makro, Carrefour and Tesco. “I will not allow this [intrusion of foreign firms] and swear to do everything in my power to fight it,” he wrote. *3 Further evidence that the issue was politically motivated was suggested when British Foreign Office minister Ben Bradshaw unexpectedly visited the Tesco-Lotus branch on Rama IV Road in Bangkok four days after the attack, with nationwide coverage from the Thai media. The case was closed after this.

Other Thai movies might not celebrate nationalist loyalties to the same extent as Bang Rajan and Suriyothai. Instead there have been romantic representations of a traditional or rural Thai lifestyle –– even in works of internationally renowned directors.

*4 Wisit Sassanathieng's Tears of the Black Tiger is a postmodern movie. But instead of augmenting a stylistic choice with modern criticism, the director instead paid homage to the old formula of Thai action movies with representations of Thai cowboy-lookalikes, who “quote” scenes of exaggerated shooting in the mountains and the bombing of huts, as well as the inevitable forbidden love story between a poor man and rich woman.

Most post-crisis Thai cinema looks at Thai history through rose-tinted spectacles and with no political commentary or analysis. In one of the recent films New Born Blood –– directly marketed as a “nostalgia film”–– the plot revolved around the simple contentment of 1950s Thai teenagers, listening to the hits of Elvis Presley.

Penek Ratanaruang's Monrak Transistor again asserts and celebrates the simplicity of rural life in the story of the rollercoaster life of a rural man who encounters many difficulties just because he wants to be a singer. The film uses bright colours to depict the rural lifetyle while it uses dim and greyish tones for the Bangkok scenes.

Nonzee Nimibut's Jan Dara might be about a man who is brought up to hate his father, but when he triumphs against the father at the end of the film, by becoming the owner and leader of the house while his father is paralyzed, his own life is also in ruins. The movie was adapted from the 1950s scandalous novel of the same title. In the end, even though he has triumphed, he is not happy because he has lost his child.

A new crisis of Thai identity has emerged from the uncertainty of contemporary lifestyles, following modern or western development adopted by previous governments. The way that this crisis comes to expression is informed by both the media and the receivers of this media. Thai consumers have experienced the disadvantages of rapid development. At the same time, a national ideology promotes Khuen Soo Raak Kwam Pen Thai or “going back to basics” or the “search for nostalgia”. Movies are produced to serve this demand. However, the film producers in turn augment this demand for nostalgia with their over-production of such films.

Unlike the people of former colonies, who might feel strongly against the West, Thai people have never been colonised and therefore have not had the antipathy to neocolonialsism or globalisation that has come to expression elsewhere. Instead, they have blamed incompetent political administrations for their woes. However, when the contemporary Thai political-economic situation provides no ray of hope, they turn instead to romantic fantasies about a historic simplicity of Thai lifestyle.

In the final scenes of Monrak Transistor, the protagonist Paen talks to his trendy, sunglasses-wearing friend Siaw, who comes to pick him up in front of the prison. He persuades him to work with his mafia gang and promises to help set up a folk band for him. Paen, however turns his eyes to Siaw's wife, sitting tiredly in the car. Paen always recognises her. His mind goes back to the first singing contest which later changed his life. She was one of the co-winners, but was later was persuaded to use drugs. Paen flashes her a smile. Her eyes are full of emptiness.

Paen decides to reject Siaw's offer and return to his family and country life. In the very last scene, he and his wife Sadao hug each other, crying without reason. After all the dramatic experiences of these two, it is the family and this rural home that promises never to bring any more disturbance. It is truly here.

“ It might be about the cycle of life or the current “live appropriately ”economy,” said the director Penek Ratanaruang when asked about the main theme of the movie. “We all always struggle to through all the ups and downs, just to come back to the same beginning again.” *5


Note:

1 Tesco was the object of four attacks in the period from June-December 2001. See “Tesco Lotus Bombing”, Bangkok Post, December 6, 2001.

2 “Tesco Lotus Bombing”, Bangkok Post, December 15, 2001.

3 “Tesco Lotus Bombing”, Bangkok Post, December 10, 2001.

4 I have also been writing two other related essays with the emphasis on different perception of nationalism and identity crisis between the generations of directors. The “Home, Nostalgia and Memory: The Remedy of Identity Crisis in New Thai Cinema” and “Generations and the Conflicting Construction of Identity in New Thai Cinema.” The first essay is on the consideration in a film journal and the latter is on the working process and will be read in the Ninth International Conference on Thai Studies on 4-5 April 2005 at Northern Illinois University.

5 Interview with the writer, 2001.

   
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