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Thai Cinema Ready to Roll

Overshadowed by Michael Moore's big win at the Cannes film festival, a Thai director is awarded the prestigious Jury Prize shining a spotlight on a new generation of Thai filmmakers.
 
 
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BANGKOK, Thailand--For years, at any given time of day, a visitor to the famous Siam Square in Bangkok could find a dozen Hollywood movies available for viewing. But lately, those American films have gotten some serious, home-grown competition.

Next to billboards promoting Van Helsing, Troy , and Shrek 2 are films that, though most Americans will likely never see them, have gotten Thai audiences talking. There's Garuda, a monster-action movie about a mythical bird that causes havoc in Bangkok when a subway-digging crew accidentally unearths it. In 102, as in Hollywood's Ocean's 11 , a group of bank robbers uses sophisticated technology to perform their heists. I-Fak (The Judgment) is a tragedy about an unusual but platonic friendship between a half-mad young widow and her stepson. Siam Renaissance explores time travel and ends up commenting on the power of colonization.

Until recently, homegrown Thai entertainment resigned itself to television sitcoms and soap operas. Hollywood dominated the silver screen, and Thai movies were far and few in between.

But all that is changing. Hong Kong's movie industry may be shrinking in size, its many talents migrating to Hollywood, but Seoul, Beijing, and now Bangkok are fast becoming East Asian movie powerhouses. More and more Thai movies are being shown abroad -- the latest being Iron Ladies and Beautiful Boxer . The former, about a group of gay volleyball players, has even produced a sequel (Iron Ladies II), and the latter, about a transsexual professional kick boxer has garnered rave reviews overseas. Many American distributors, according to NotesfromHollywood.com, are actively looking to buy Thai movies for art-house distributions.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that the recent avant-garde film Tropical Malady , a two-part tale by Apichatpong Weerasethakul featuring gay romance and a night jungle trek on the trail of a mythical tiger, won the Cannes 2004 Jury Prize, the first of such awards for a Thai film.

Bobbie Wong, deputy director of Kantana film studio, the largest movie studio in Thailand, with over 1,000 employees, says that the Thai film industry has been given a boost thanks to new technologies. "We have the latest equipment, everything Hollywood has. Production is improving steadily in the last 10 years." Wong, who hails from Hong Kong, brings to Thailand technological know-how from the Hong Kong film industry, as well as contacts to overseas producers. Hong Kong's loss, he says, is Thailand's gain: Many talented movie makers who don't go to Hollywood end up here.

Surapong Pinijkhar, 37, director of Siam Renaissance , says more young Thais are making movies, spurred on by the knowledge that their films have a chance of being seen outside of Thailand. And with new computer graphic technology, Thai movies are getting as competitive as any international film, he says.

Siam Renaissance , which was made for around $1 million, was helped by Kantana studio's computer-generated graphics for its time travel sequences and its futuristic renderings of Bangkok. It's Pinijkhar's first movie and his own version of The King and I , he says.

Pinijkhar says Thailand's film industry, with about 50 movies made a year, is still fledgling.

The industry is not without its critics. Kittisak Suwannabhokin, who teaches film directing at Bangkok University, says, "Thailand movies are getting to be known overseas for their gay characters, but there are more subject matters that we deal with than that." But he quickly adds that any international recognition is better than none.

Thai movies are becoming well-known internationally due in large part to the country's increasingly popular Thai Film Festival, which for the last six years has enabled many local and international filmmakers to showcase their work to international distributors.

Pantham Thongsang, 39, who made I-Fak, says he is cautiously optimistic about the industry's future. More young filmmakers are making movies that are social commentaries on contemporary life in Thailand, he says, but "you have to balance between entertainment and social messages. If you don't do well at the box office, you don't make another film."

Kittisak says the industry was given a boost when the Thai government decided to actively promote Thailand as an ideal location to shoot a film -- Alexander the Great , starring Colin Farrell, was recently filmed here -- and when it began promoting its international film festival. But Thailand, he says, got into the game late and is trying to catch up. "Korea, for instance, has gotten government backing for its film industry for a long time now. So have the French. And that really helps their artists."

In the meanwhile, Apichatpong, director of Tropical Malady , humbly tells journalists, "My film is so personal I'm not sure how well it will travel. But I hope this will encourage other Thai filmmakers."

But personal vision is what makes Thailand stand out. And with the Cannes Jury Prize in Apichatpong's pocket, his film has not only traveled well, but also officially announced the Thai film industry's coming of age.

Andrew Lam is an editor for the Pacific News Service.