Thai Cinema, Recent Trends & The New Wave Directors

Thailand has in the past few years made its mark as the post production hub in Asia, with post production companies like Kantana, Siam Lab, Cinecolor Lab etc. achieving international standards and at the same time, able to offer these services at a relatively lower cost. Many production companies in this region has their post production work done in Thailand and a lot of laboratory work is done there as well due to quality as well as cost considerations. It also helps that the government requires that all movies that is shown in Thailand need to have their release prints coming out of a Thai lab. With all these factors, many international distribution companies print their release prints in Thailand for theatrical distribution in the region.

However, as far as the Thai film industry is concerned, the picture is not as rosy. Production has gone down to only about 48 titles as year in 2003 and 2004 and dipped further to 37 in 2005 but finally got back up to 45 titles in 2006 and finally to about 50 titles in 2007. Looking back, it is actually a rather sad scenario as the Thai film industry had great promises, producing movies such as NANG NAK, THE LEGEND OF SURIYOTHAI, BANG RAJAN, etc. and the entry of very talented directors which formed what is considered now as the Thai New Wave. Instead, the Thai industry succumbed to pure commercialism and started to produce B grade horror and action movies and the very upbeat feeling begin to fade, and hopes for greater movies from Thailand begin to disappear, despite such efforts by reputable production companies such as Sahamongkol Films, GTH and Five Star who have consistently in the past supported good quality movie making.

However, putting aside the local Thai movies, the general cinema market remains upbeat as with the situation here in Malaysia, with significant increases in the total number of admission, 32.65 million in 2006 compared to aout 27.00 million in 1996, a more than 20% increase and the trend is still going upwards. In terms of number of cinema screens, it is standing at about 670 screens in 2006 compared to a mere 268 screens in 1996. Again, the trend is still going upwards. In short, the total cinema market looks upbeat despite the rather lackluster local industry.

I have mentioned about the positive outlook at around 1997/1998 and the general positive feeling that the Thai film industry is going places. This follows the new blood of directors who are formally in advertising and brought with them new perspective and ideas that fueled the boom. Forefront in this movement is Nonzee Nimbutr, whose movie DANG BAILEY AND THE YOUNG GANGSTERS (1997) and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s FUN BAR KARAOKE reset the industry by not only directing movies of artistic quality that is praised by film critics around the world, they also set box office records. This inspired a new blood of filmmakers and other talents from advertising such as Oxide Pang, Wisit Sasanatieng who made his mark with very colourful movies such as TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER and CITIZEN DOG and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, the baby of art cinema.

Api’s (as he is known) movies do not really appeal to the general audience, not only because his movies are considered slow but because the Thai cinema goers have become addicted to B grade horror, action and comedy flicks and considered Api’s movies more suitable for arthouse cinemas and film festivals. Api’s first big time success comes in the form of TROPICAL MALADY which became the first Thai movie that went to Cannes and won the Jury award at that. His works continue to make waves at film festivals but at the same time, still under-appreciated by his own compatriots.

Anyways, despite the recent disappointments, the Thai film industry is still far from gone and if you ask me, that industry is definitely still more solid than our Malaysian film industry. In fact, relatively speaking, the Thai film industry is the most solid among the film industries in South East Asia with a healthy domestic film share of about 30% plus minus plus a reasonable export market. The year 2007 also saw big movie projects such as the KING NARESUAN trilogy as well as Nonzee Nimbutr’s QUEEN OF LANGKASUKA which is due for release this year. The other new wave directors have also come out with some great movies, such as Pen-Ek’s PLOY and Api’s SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY. Moving forward still, one of the new Thai directors Aditya Assarat has shown promise by winning the Best Film award at the Pusan Film Festival with his directorial debut WONDERFUL YEARS.

In conclusion, the Thai film industry is still far from dead and by the looks of it, great times can still come from the Thais. However, like many of their Malaysian colleagues, the Thai filmmakers are also struggling with outdated censorship laws (dated back in 1931) despite many protests by directors such as Apichatpong, Wisit and Pen-Ek and if nothing is done to correct this, it will only serve as a barrier to the industry’s growth.

Some Thai movies that I will recommend:

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: TROPICAL MALADY, BLISSFULLY YOURS, SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY

Wisit Sasanatieng: TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER, CITIZEN DOG

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang: FUN BAR KARAOKE, SIXTY9, MONRAK TRANSISTOR, LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE

Nonzee Nimbutr: DANG BAILEY AND YOUNG GANGSTER, NANG NAK, BAYTONG

Yongyoot Thongkongthun: IRON LADIES

Banjong Pisanthanakun, Parkpoom Wongpoom: THE SHUTTER

Chatreechalerm Yukol: LEGEND OF SURIYOTHAI

Thanit Jitnukul: BANG RAJAN

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