Letters: The Politics of Thai Film
This exchange between Anchalee Chaiwaraporn, a Thai film historian, and Kong Rithdee, chief film critic for The Bangkok Post, addresses issues concerning nostalgia and modernity discussed in Rithdee’s article in the Fall 2011 issue of Cineaste (“Filming Locally, Thinking Globally: The Search for Roots in Contemporary Thai Cinema,” Vol.XXXVI, No. 4).
Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Nymph ("Gybzy" Wanida Temthanaporn)
To the Editor:
I wish to respond to Kong Rithdee’s article. I hope my ongoing research on Thai cinema will not only add to the discussion among Thai cinephiles and scholars, but will also encourage a nuanced critical appreciation of the subject. There is a problem with Rithdee’s claim that nostalgia and “rerooting” represent the dominant face of contemporary Thai cinema because this assumes a sense of “passivity” on the part of the filmmakers. In fact, the successive political infernos bearing down on Thailand of late have greatly influenced the current generation of Thai filmmakers. I propose that the former approach is better suited for engaging several notable films that emerged during the turn of the century when the Asian financial crisis gripped Thailand. From 1997 to 2002, many mainstream films explored nostalgia through their portrayals of old Thai traditions. This fixation on nostalgia was part of a national policy of the then-ruling government to encourage Thailand to return to its roots––the basic and simple life that previous generations of Thaïs continue to hold dear. Thais soon appreciated that the roots of the nation’s economy belonged to agriculture and tangible forms of production, not a bubble economy of capitalist consumption. Therefore, old guard directors such as Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol and Tanit Jitnukul glorified this thinking in nationalist hits like The Legend of Suriyothai(2001) and Bangrajan (2000) respectively. The other side of the equation was that Young Turks portrayed the same phenomenon in more auteurist modes—Nonzee Nimibutr's Daeng Bireley and Young Gangsters (1997), Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Monrak Transistor (2001).
Crucially, it is only in the last five years that we can see the extent to which filmmakers have been affected by the striking changes in Thailand’s politics, economy and society. Even younger filmmakers like Nonzee, Wisit and Pen-Ek, whose early films are strongly colored with nostalgia, identity crises and “rerooting,” have since changed course. For example, the thematic longing for home in Pen-Ek’s earlier films has since evolved to his questioning of the familial institution in Ploy (2007) and Nymph (2009), and also the roles of government, law enforcement, and religion in Headshot (2011). Similarly, Wisit’s sympathy with Thailand’s ‘Red Shirts’ political movement is discernible in The Red Eagle (2010). Unlike these urban-raised filmmakers, Apichatpong Werasethakul and Uruphong Raksasad’s films are harder to define in terms of nostalgia and “rerooting” because both grew up in the agricultural heartland of Thailand’s rural provinces. They’re already aware of their roots and thereby present their knowledge impressionistically, instead of framing them through nostalgic lenses. In Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), political subtexts that critique communism and the monarchy are apparent, while Uruphong’s Agarian Utopia (2009) also questions the government’s ongoing policy of returning to “the basic and simple life.” Other new-generation filmmakers, such as Anocha Siwichakornpong also tackle political subtexts in presenting their works. In order to critically engage contemporary Thai cinema, understanding the nation’s social and political changes is vital. My 2002 essay, “Nostalgia in Post-Crisis Thai Cinema, “offers a broader analysis of what I have been discussing in this letter.
Kong Rithdee Responds:
Although I found Anchalee’s letter of interest, I ‘m surprised that my article inspired a (mis)reading that places me in the camp of nostalgia-mongers, a position I certainly have tried to avoid in both my waking life and during sleep. From my vantage point, the article points to one tendency among contemporary Thai filmmakers that I termed “rerooting,” but also reveals a certain skepticism concerning the legitimacy of that concept. Anchalee is right that certain filmmakers from the 1997 to 2002 period were committed to exploring nostalgia, but I believe my piece makes clear that this nostalgia does not represent a glorious wonderland that Thai filmmakers are trying to return to. In fact,”rerooting” doesn’t mean going back to the root: rerooting implies an effort to discover new roots that perhaps have something to do with the old ones.
This is what I wrote: “This search for roots is not a conscious labor to return to the established, or “official,” culture—such efforts belongs to the Thai Culture Ministry, a reliable source of laughter and bewilderment. Rather, it’s an expedition of young men and women who’ve rummaged through the old boxes in the corner of the attic to find what’s still useful for their new ventures.” It’s clear that I’m not betraying “a fixation on nostalgia [that] was part of a national policy of the then-ruling government to encourage Thailand to return to its roots.” And besides, this is not the first article I’ve written about Thai cinema for a foreign publication: my mistrust (not to say contempt) for the “fixation of nostalgia” as championed by the Thai authorities is visible internationally (notably in my article anthologized in James Quandt’s anthology on Apichatpong Weerasethakul published by the Austrian Film Museum. This article also contains the following sentence: “The rerooting took on a literal approach and the reconnection with the (imagined?) glorious past received a nationalistic treatment in a series of historical epics.” This, again, clearly shows that I distinguish the “literal re-rooting” of certain filmmakers from the “applied” rerooting by younger filmmakers. Nostalgia in itself is not the devil, and it’s undeniable that many Thai filmmakers, both then and now, toy with that sentiment; it’s only when nostalgia is exploited to achieve a form of cultural tyranny that we have to be careful. And that’s one of the messages of the article. I think Anchalee and I share the same beliefs, and if my article fails to convey that notion, it must be a consequence of my far-from-perfect command of English.