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Politics in Thai Film

 

Anchalee Chaiworaporn

  All rights reserved.
 

 
King Rama VII (far right) with Douglas Fairbank (far left), Her Majesty the Queen Ramphai Phannee (second left), and Mary Picford (second right) during his visit to Hollywood in 1920.     
source: King Rama VII and Cinema, Dome Sukvong, 1996

The recent Thai cinema which walks more along the commercial rhythm of filmmaking seems to hinder one of its substantially social and historical aspects the connection of Thai cinema and politics. In fact, this interconnection took place since the birth of movies in 1922 and most importantly, even the change from absolute monarchy to democracy in 1932. Here are the first attempt to chronicle on the history of Thai cinema and politics. The following briefs are based on the writers own research on available documents and resource persons. She will update if any new findings coming out.

Censorship and the Early Days

Nangsao Suwan

Sakdina Chatrakul Na Ayuthaya has spent years researching this issue, says: "Thai movies have been involved with politics since the birth of cinema here in fact, since the first movie ever made in Thailand Nangsao Suwan (Suvarna of Siam).

Early so-called political movies did not portray politics per se, but were nonetheless affected by the prevailing political climate, often censored, modified or, in some cases banned, for purely political reasons. A case in point took place in 1922 when the countrys first movie Nangsao Suvan (Suvarna of Siam), which essentially a cooperative venture between Thailand and the US. At that time, the absolute monarchy was already being questioned. King Rama VIs civil and military bureaucracy had tightened their control over the media and the production team encountered some restrictions.

Political censorship become much more evident during the reign of King Rama VII since King Rama VII had a special interest in cinema. He was an amateur film-maker himself and understood the power of movies in influencing public opinion. In the late of 1920s, a sign of an official censorship board was established. Condemned scenes depicting a brothel and a thieves den were cut off. In 1930, as more and more foreign films began to be imported, a law was promulgated setting up an official censorship board and, in a controversial move, placing it under the authority of the Royal Thai Police Department, under whose control it remains to this day.

The First Constitution and the First Political Movie

King Rama VII was on shooting.
source: King Rama VII and Cinema, Dome Sukvong, 1996

The first real political movie can be traced back to June 24, 1932 - the date of the coup de tat executed by Khana Rassadorn (The Peoples Party) which heralded the change from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

In the early hours of June 24, 1932, while King Rama VII (King Prajadhipok) was holidaying at his seaside palace in Hua Hin, a group of military officers and senior civil servants (the 114 Promoters) took control of police stations and other strategic points around Bangkok and invited influential princes to gather at the Throne Hall for their own protection. The next day, Their Majesties returned from Hua Hin by train and two days later, on June 27, King Prajadhipok signed Thailand s first (provisional) constitution, ending centuries of absolute monarchy.

The revolutionary group, known as the People Party joined in this historical change. In the invitation of the King at Hua Hin Palace, Manit Wasuwat, a photographer with the Sri Krung Talkie Film Company and a member of the People Party used some 3,000 feet of film to record scenes from this bloodless coup detat for posterity. The result, although never given a Thai name, came to be known by two foreign language titles: Coup dEtat Siam and Revolution.

This was the first documentary ever made about Thai politics, says film archivist Dome. There was no television at the time so cinema was a much more powerful [propaganda] tool, capable of reaching a wider audience. Khana Raasadorn (the People Party) were going to release it as the definitive record of those events.

But this plan was shelved when Phya Manopakorn Nitithada was selected as the countrys first prime minister. A respected Court of Appeals judge and an ardent royalist, Manopakorn was afraid the film might irritate the King. It is not clear how they learned of the films existence but two US-based film companies (whose names are not recorded) bought the copyright from Sri Krung but were very disappointed with its content when they finally received delivery.

It wasnt the kind of revolution that people in the West expected to see, Sakdina explains, unable to resist a little smile. Maybe they were surprised that it was so peaceful. Not only did the two companies refuse to pay for it but they also told Sri Krung it would have to bill for shipping the reels back to Thailand !

On Dec.10 that same year, Sri Krung made another documentary (its title, if it was ever given one, was not recorded), this time filming the ceremony at which King Rama VII handed down the first permanent constitution to Phya Manopakorns government.

It was a huge celebration with lots of Brahmin ritual and performances by a full-size [traditional] Thai orchestra. There was even a rehearsal which the King attended. Four 35 mm cameras were used to film the event and the government put up a budget of Bt4,000 to fund a documentary which was later screened all over the country.

It tells how Thailand is about to enter a new era: the age of constitutional monarchy. And an important point was the depiction of those ornate Brahmin ceremonies implying that the monarchy was still a sacred and revered institution.

A close examination of the nuances in these two documentaries reveals some interesting facts about this transitional period in Thai politics.

The civilian members of the People Party did not have the full support of the two military factions. There was a lot of in-fighting. It wasnt too long after the coup that a lot of real power was again back in Royal hands. The first premier, Phya Manopakorn was close to the King; thats why the first documentary was suppressed and the second one dwelt so much on the glory of the monarchy, Sakdina notes.

The following June, a junior military faction within the Promoters deposed Manopakorn in another bloodless coup and installed Phya Phahon Phonphayuhasena as prime minister. The first serious threat to the new administration came in October 1933 when Prince Bavoradej, a grandson of King Rama VI who had been King Prajadhipoks minister of war, marched on Bangkok with rebellious soldiers from the garrisons at Nakhon Ratchasima, Ayutthaya and Saraburi. By Oct 12, they had seized the airport at Don Muang, and were moving into the suburbs north of the city. But they were routed by a government force led by Lt Col (later Field Marshall) Plaek Pibulsongkram.

A documentary was made by the military of these events and shown in many locations around the country.

Says Sakdina: This was a celluloid memorial to those events. It was a monument to the victory of the people and showed how the military changed from being guardians of the monarchy to protectors of the Constitution.

Apparently no copies of these three documentaries have survived.

The Rise of Nationalism (contact thaicine@yahoo.com)

Anti-cummunist Propaganda (contact thaicine@yahoo.com)

The Arrival of New Wave and the First Taste of Freedom

In the general history of Thailand itself, the period of the 1970s saw the most momentous changes in the country’s politics and culture since the change from absolute monarchy to constitutional system that occurred in 1932. The student uprisings of October 14 th, 1973 and the attack on demonstrating students on Oct 6th, 1976, forced into the open of the gulf between the power of the military governments and the aspirations of the people. In the first uprising, university students gained a victory in the quest for democracy, which forced the military government of Prime Minister Thanom Kittikajorn and General Praphat Charusatien out of office, and indeed out of the country. Unfortunately, the brief taste of democracy that began in 1973 did not last long. On the morning of Oct 6, 1976, army and police units again stormed Thammasat University and fired mercilessly into the demonstrating crowd of unarmed students who were accused of treason against the kingdom and monarchy.

The decade of the 1970s is also a decade of change and development in the cinema, particularly in the emergence of a socially critical cinema. The so-called cinema of social-criticism did not come up immediately after the victory of the students on Oct 14, 1973. To some extent, the emergence of the Thai new wave in the 1970s and the cinema of social-criticism had been triggered by the decline of 16mm filmmaking in the Thai film industry, and the influence of Western youth counterculture in Thailand generally.

 

Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol, or Than Mui as he is better known, was the first of this new wave of directors to produce a movie reflecting changes in society. Before the [ Oct 13, 1973 ] uprising, he made Khao Chue Karn (Dr Karn) based on the well-known story by Suwannee Sukhontha.
 
Dr Karn

This film dared to speak out about corruption and addressed the issue of the “underground” power wielded, usually unfairly, by local administrative bodies.

Although Prince Chatree is related to the royal family, his footage still suffered the indignities of the censor’s scissors. In an interview he gave to a Chulalongkorn University’s thesis, he elaborated: “Khao Chue Karn had problems with the censors from the very beginning because this was the first movie about the issue of corruption out into the open. I had to show it to Field Marshal Thanom and ask him rather bluntly: ‘Is everything in this movie wrong?’”

Thanom apparently gave the film his blessing and it premiered in 1973, just a few months before the Oct.14 uprising – an event which was to have an immediate and very dramatic effect on the movie industry.

“The Oct.14, 1973 uprising shook the whole industry. Afterwards it was if an epidemic, not of disease but of freedom, had broken out,” says Dome, marveling those days.

On the day of uprising itself, Dome remembers how the producers of a film called Chao Thung (Lord of the Land) rushed out a flyer that read: “Everyone, everywhere is now searching for freedom. There is only one place. Real freedom is here, on this land, come and see Chao Thung.”

And advertising companies started making money hand over fist. For the first time in the Thai movie industry, film-makers joined hands to arrange a charity show as a gesture of appreciation to the National Student Centre of Thailand. Dome smiles as he remembers how “even [the late actor] Sor Asanachinda donated money to build a monument [to the triumph of democracy].” In interviews he gave to the press during this period, Sor labeled students who got too involved in political issues as “communist’ and said he hated communists.

Ordinary people all over the country suddenly started taking a real interest in politics. At upcountry screenings of Thai and foreign movies, dubbing teams even altered scripts. “Although they were supposed to stick strictly to those already passed by the censors, in reality individuals interested in politics often used their dubbing skills to voice critical comments, for example, by changing the names of the screen villains to “Thanom”, “Narong” or “Praphas” [the ousted prime minister, his son, and the Army Commander in chief, respectively; collectively known as the “Three tyrants”]. Sometimes they were stopped and arrested by the police,” recalls Dome, his smile becoming even broader.

But this newly found freedom also had some negative effects. Thai movies made after October 1973 can be divided into two groups: those focusing on sex and violence and those with a strong political bias.

“We must remember that the creative endeavours of film-makers had been restricted and controlled [by the military] for so long that freedom was taken to the extreme,” remarks Dome. “There were a lot of movies where crude language was used and which dwelt too heavily on sex. The issue of bisexuality surfaced for the first time; it had never been talked about before.”

“The positive effect was that this freedom [of expression] resulted in film-makers paying greater attention to political issues and airing their concerns. Of course, the general public, some were left-wing and others leaned towards the right. But at least they had the right to make their own choices. Whether they agreed or disagreed with the student movement was irrelevant. In fact, some movies presented an ideology which was completely contrary to that of the students; strongly anti-communist in many cases,” Dome adds.

These “anti-red” movies included Haa Phaen Din Phloeng (Five Burning Lands), the story of five neighbouring countries that formed a joint militia to fight the communists, and Assasin 19 (The Knight), which praises the heroism of a group of soldiers who rescues a troupe of actors imprisoned by communists. Another film in this school is Prakasit Chang Sue Liang (Chang Sue Liang’s Command), the tale of a right-wing student who tries to persuade everyone he meets to turn against “communist villains.”

In 1975, Prince Chatreechalerm made another film that again had a societal theme although one not directly related to politics. Thewada Doen Din (The Violent Breed) is based on his premise that the increase in crime between ’73 and ’76 was a direct result of the euphoria that greeted the departure of the Three Tyrants. The hooligan acts committed by the three teenagers around which the story revolves provide visual evidence that without effective control, crime becomes rampant and leads to serious social problems.
The Violent Breed
 

Around this time, actor/director/producer Luechai Naruenart announced he was starting work on a film called Fun Fueng (Cog Wheel) while Warun Chatrakul Na Ayutthaya had already started filming sequences for Typhoon, a full-length feature that was to depict the lives of working-class people.

This was indeed a fertile period for the industry with the emergence of a group of a new-wave filmmakers including Veeraprawat Wongphuaphan (a well-known journalist), advertising executives Kid Suwannasorn and Suchart Wuthichai and university student Euthana Mukdasanit.

Many socially aware movies were conceived around this time but few saw the light of day: some were aborted, while others were to remain in gestation for another two decades.

Three short years later, military and rightwing groups were ready for revenge. On the morning of Oct 6, 1976 , Army and police units stormed Thammasat University and in the ensuing bloodshed, scores of students lost their lives. The country had returned once again to the rule of tyranny; freedom was a word of the past.

The Bittersweet Aftermath
Self-censorship in Capital Era

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