“Film is like a drug. It is a shelter when you cannot deal with reality.” – Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cinema as an art form existed in Thailand since the end of the 19th century, evolving over the years and embodying the spirit of the nation. However, competition with big-budget Hollywood productions led to a significant decline in the output of the Thai film industry during the 1980s and the ’90s. It was around this time that younger filmmakers revitalised the industry with their fresh perspectives and original visions, ushering in the Thai New Wave.
One of the leading figures of the Thai New Wave, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, said: “For me, architects and film directors operate similarly. They are practical. As an architect, you know what you want in the conception of a space – but you still need a lot of people to help you out. You need an engineer, interior architects. But a film is the same – you have all these elements. But in terms of concept, it’s always about time. When you approach a building, you need time to go from point A to B. Buildings are designed as a journey and films are the same, you have an opening that you come through, an angle you follow, maybe a disruption in space.”
He also noted, “I try to mimic the pattern of memory and of thinking and the randomness of life. It’s like a journey. That is the main thing about the beauty of life; that you don’t cram. And not only beauty, but also the fact that there is never a concrete thing in life.”
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we look at ten essential films from the Thai New Wave movement in order to examine the unique sensibilities of the respective artistic visions of the filmmakers.
10 essential films from the Thai New Wave:
Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangsters (Nonzee Nimibutr – 1997)
This 1997 crime drama was Nonzee Nimibutr’s debut feature is often regarded as the breakthrough film that marked the beginning of the New Wave in Thailand. Influenced by the violent heroism of John Woo, the immensely popular film explored the life of young gangsters in Thailand during the 1950s.
“I became enchanted by motion pictures after a friend asked me to help make a documentary. I was thrilled every time I went onto the movie set,” the filmmaker said. “It lit a fire in me. I wanted to study motion pictures but my university didn’t have a faculty. The dean told me to get 250 students to sign up and then he would open the new faculty for me. I got 270.”
Last Life in the Universe (Pen-ek Ratanaruang – 2003)
A brilliant work that navigates the labyrinths of philosophy and psychology, Last Life in the Universe tells the story of a suicidal librarian who grows disillusioned with life until he falls in love with a girl. Critically acclaimed and noted for being trilingual, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s magnum opus beautifully shows the collision of two differing worlds.
“We want to see things that are happening inside the characters,” Pen-ek Ratanaruang explained. “All my other films have been plot-driven. I didn’t want to repeat what I’ve done. So I decided to see if the camera can photograph emotion. Can we take the camera inside the characters and film them from there? When that is the task, inevitably location and time disappear. You’ve not always sure when it’s night and when it’s day.”
Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul – 2004)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s is probably one of Thailand’s most important filmmakers of all time and Tropical Malady is a fine example of the power of his artistic vision. Dealing with wide-ranging topics like homosexuality, spirituality and existentialism, the film manages to transform a simple love story between a soldier and a country boy into a mythological treatise.
While talking about the liberation that cinema has to offer, Weerasethakul said: “It’s about freedom too, the freedom that comes with cinema. I felt suffocated in that little town, so films can be liberating, a way of opening up a space. Looking back on when I was growing up, I’m surprised that I could endure the system of education. You have to stand up at eight in the morning to sing the national anthem. There were so many things you had to memorise. It was like a prison.”
Citizen Dog (Wisit Sasanatieng – 2004)
Citizen Dog was Wisit Sasanatieng’s second film after his iconic bizarre debut Tears of the Black Tiger. This 2004 work is set in contemporary Bangkok and explores the life of a country boy who moves to a big city. Confronted by the challenges of modernity, the unambitious young man falls in love with a girl who cannot stop dreaming.
Often compared to the fantastic French film Amélie, Citizen Dog is a character study of youth in the context of the modern world. It picked up several awards and nominations at multiple film festivals around the world and was named among the 10 best films of that year by Time Magazine.
Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat – 2007)
Set on the mainland north of Phuket Island in an area that was affected by a tsunami, Wonderful Town is the intimate story of an architect from Bangkok who falls for a small town woman. The film won the top prize at the Busan Film Festival and went on to win the prestigious Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
The director commented, “Thailand is not a completely free country. You don’t ever feel completely free to voice your true opinion. There is social pressure to conform to mainstream thinking and you can run into quite a bit of trouble otherwise. So as filmmakers, you already know where the boundary lies, so you end up self-censoring.”
Mundane History (Anocha Suwichakornpong – 2009)
Described as “one of the most startling and original feature debuts of recent years,” Mundane History explores the formation of a friendship between a young paralysed man and his male nurse. Suwichakornpong is an extremely talented director and her 2009 film is proof of her undeniable skill. For her cinematic commentary on the class divides in Thailand, she won the Tiger Award at Rotterdam.
The filmmaker explained, “Even though I’m not a musician at all, I get inspired by music. I’m pretty helpless when it comes to music, but I think music is very evocative on a personal level. When I hear a note or song, I feel an emotion, and from that point onwards, I can start; I have an image in my head. Usually, that is how I begin my projects: with an image that comes from a song.”
Agrarian Utopia (Uruphong Raksasad – 2009)
This 2009 masterpiece follows the struggles of two debt-ridden families, despite the idyllic suggestion of the film’s title which devolves into the cruel realm of irony. Forced to leave their property because of their financial situation, Agrarian Utopia explores how the vicious cycle of debt leads to enslavement.
A powerful meditation on the unforgiving political landscape of Thailand, the film is an exigent chronicle of the socio-economic problems that haunt sections of the country. For its beautiful visual narrative, Agrarian Utopia was awarded the prize for Best Cinematography by the Thailand National Film Association.
Eternity (Sivaroj Kongsakul – 2011)
A memorable reflection on life, death and the intricacies of existence, Eternity is a simple story that remains stuck in the mind of the viewer. It presents a dead man who returns to the familiar world of his childhood in order to experience those valuable relationships all over again.
After working with other pioneers like Aditya Assarat and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Eternity was Sivaroj Kongsakul’s debut feature which announced his talents to the world. It picked up awards at the Hong Kong Film Festival as well as Rotterdam for its masterful storytelling.
36 (Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit – 2012)
Probably the most experimental film featured on this list, 36 is an investigation of the process of memory-formation in a world where everything can be codified digitally. Exploring the connection between modernity and our ancient evolutionary instincts, 36 transcends the confines of the cinematic medium and manages to touch the beating heart of the human condition.
When asked about his goals, the director said: “I don’t know, really. If you had asked me the same question when I was, like, 28, I would have had an answer. But now, my life goals have become much simpler, like not having a headache or getting to sleep well. That’s all.
“I’ve changed the way I live my life a little. I do more of what I want to do, not what I mean to. A movie project, for example, is something I have to spend a long time—like a year. If I happened to die while working on [something] I don’t like, I would have been suffering all the way to my death.”
In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire (Wichanon Somumjarn – 2012)
A poetic debut by a young filmmaker, this 2012 drama manages to strike a unique balance between the stifling monotony of reality and the fantasy of cinema. It is an extremely personal work that revisits the director’s own childhood and conducts an examination of how life is translated to the cinematic medium.
“One of my favourite films and one that has had a big influence on my film career is Fight Club (1999) directed by David Fincher. I really like Fincher’s style of storytelling,” Somumjarn commented. “In Khon Kaen, as well as Mahasarakham, more and more people are becoming interested in making their own films. Because of improvements in technology it’s easier than ever before to make a film. But what’s still lacking here is distribution. There are only a few places where you can find independent films in Khon Kaen, as the big theatres only screen blockbusters.”