Millennial Traversals – Tarriance in Thailand

As resident film critic of National Midweek, I had to compensate for two extensive absences in 1988, when I took my first foreign trips, by reporting on the countries I visited, with special attention to their film scenes. First was Thailand, and this account I filed was printed July 20, 1988 (20-22), titled “Slow Train to Thailand.”

The institutional film short gets played, not just once in a day, the way our national anthem does in Manila, but before every film screening, and everyone has to stand. It’s an amateurish curiosity – a succession of shots of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the present Thai monarch, detailing his childhood and maturation, and ending with a display of people’s affection for the subject. All in slow dissolves of miserably taken still photographs. And no one attempts to laugh, or even giggle.

“Within the constitutional monarchy, the king’s supposed to be beneath the law, but anything out of the ordinary can be carried out only in his name,” said Surapone Virulrak, whom we address as Ajan, or teacher. He’s the former dean of the communication faculty of Chulalongkorn University, which sponsored a video workshop for us teachers at the newly upgraded College (from Institute) of Mass Communication at the University of the Philippines. He supplements his lecture with unusually adroit sketches, a carry-over of his undergraduate training in architecture. He’s also quite fluent in English, almost typically Filipino-academic, and that derives from some years of work and study in Seattle.

For his entire term as dean he had to turn down film and television lead-role offers. Ajan Surapone’s arguably the most prestigious film actor in Thailand [circa the mid-’80s], and not just by his own account either; at least he was the most consistently nominated for film-acting awards, until the deanship came along. Now, he stars in a period soap-opera on TV, just to make the industry aware that, as he puts it, he’s available again.

Spectations

The first film I saw in Thailand roughly translated as Tiger on Beat. It was a rough-and-tumble detective movie, well-paced and contemporary in sensibility, but I had trouble asking further information from the Chula U hotel staff. Then I encountered the receptionist in the department store under lease from the university, and I pointed out the mini-theater where the movie was playing. “That’s not Thai,” he said, “That’s Chinese.”[1]

Next night I checked out a nearby movie-house where something that translated as The Ghost Rises from the Grave and Causes a Riot was playing – after confirming it was Thai, of course.[2] The box-office attendant wouldn’t let me in after I specified my ticket price in English. “This is Thai,” she said. “I know” I said, “I want to watch.” “Sorry,” she said, “this is Thai. You won’t understand.” Fortunately a long line had formed behind me and those on it were, from the way they sounded, getting impatient.

The movie caused a riot, all right. As in Tiger on Beat the viewers were mostly teenage kids responding enthusiastically to every punchline (that’s how I knew it was a punchline) and slapstick routine. The story oscillated between a village old-timer by day, giving advice to a bunch of, what else, teenage kids, and a haunted temple by night, where the kids try to liberate a lovely female ghost from the control of a prosthetically pathetic phantom. This time I managed to correctly identify a trailer subtitled Call Girls 88 as non-Thai;[3] the work wasn’t as cheap as its title suggested – social-realist film noir, Hong Kong gone Hollywood, permeated the screen.

Object lessons

“A Thai actor,” Surapone was answering my question en route to the Grand Palace, where he would tour our group to what we made-believe was the envy of onlookers, “would make, maybe at the most, 150,000 baht [per project].” A baht’s almost the price of our peso, 1 to 1.47 at the Dong Muang International Airport the day we left Thailand, 25 days into the country. And how much, I inquired further, would a highly paid movie actor get? Mentally deducting Dolphy’s rate from, say, Eddie Garcia’s, I had in mind differences in the millions. “Much less, of course,” Surapone said. “About 100,000.”

Bridget Zubiri, our head of delegation then going on a binge on Thai desserts, said, “Actors in the Philippines can make millions.” Our Ajan’s eyes dilated momentarily, then regained their admirably cultivated distance. “Ah yes, in Manila. I’ve been there before.”

We were required to finish documentary projects on Thai handicrafts, which flourish in the northern city of Chiangmai, somewhat the lowland counterpart of our Baguio. We left the day after Songkran, the Thai New Year, when pouring water on someone earns blessings for the receiver and maybe a cold virus or two. The Nation, one of two English language papers in Bangkok, ran a front-page picture of a policeman smiling at a Songkran reveler while reaching for his gun.

To our dismay Songkran in the north is observed for over a week. We’d sneak out of our bus for midday meals or snacks, when water-drenching is disallowed, then race back with merry-makers after us; we’d be lucky to get back sans shivering from the air conditioner. No one dared go out to watch movies, although the glorious Doi Suthep temple-atop-a-mountain and the several-blocks-wide Night Bazaar were generally spared such sloshy frolic.

And anyway our quota of film pleasure had been met before we left. The night before The Last Emperor swept the Oscars, the film teachers in our delegation saw it and agreed it was a humanist achievement of sorts. Even extensive cavils by The Nation[4] regarding allegedly pro-Chinese censorship practices that subtracted almost a half-hour from the original running time did not deter us from discussing at length what merits (and demerits) we found. At the very least a textbook case, we agreed, of classicism in epic filmmaking.

And then some: viewing it in Thailand gave me the added poignancy of identification with the paradox of not being satisfied with what most men would die fighting for. Pu-yi, the lead character, was basically the archetypal decent guy struggling to keep abreast of sweeping social developments that somehow managed to march a step ahead of him each time. The Thai king, after a succession of sometimes controversial and even excessive ancestors, did not have to deal with upheavals in the political structure, colonization by foreign powers, or the worst aftermaths of social revolutions. When he decided to institute reforms within himself, as monarchy, he actually took a step ahead of developments forthcoming in his society, particularly the Westernization and industrialization of Thailand.

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Misimpressions

We arrived bearing the notions of acquaintances who had been there at least a half-decade earlier. Don’t worry, the line went, Bangkok’s just like Manila. Going by the flora and natives, they were right. But the hour-long drive from Dong Muang airport to Chulalongkorn in the heart of the city revealed something else: Manila in a time-warp of what could have been if the recent political storm had never brewed at all.

Surapone, after some nagging and pleading on our end, finally screened for us his personal video copy of Red Bamboo,[5] which made waves during the last Manila International Film Festival.

He played a monk caught between the irrelevance of old ways and the extremes of political radicalism. I quick-recalled the spate of politicized “biographical” films that emerged in the wake of our 1986 revolution and wasn’t surprised at Red Bamboo’s resolution: the centrist won out in the end.

The only Thai film I’d seen prior to the trip was the official MIFF entry, Vichit Kounavudhi’s Son of the Northeast.[6] It won a special jury prize as well as the Office Catholique Internationale du Cinema award, and has grown fondly since in my memory. I couldn’t source a copy in the Bangkok videoshops, though, and even if I did there’d have been the additional expense of transferring it from an alien video system to one compatible with our own. I settled instead for a copy of the 1976 novel, a Southeast Asia Award-winner.

One last excursion into contemporary Thai cinema was a semi-bold tear-jerker called Golden Butterfly.[7] A rural lass gets gang-raped, submits to her hometown boyfriend, moves to the city and entertains a succession of lovers and rapists, and realizes to her horror that they all somehow get killed after sexual contact with her. Her golden-hearted employer pines after her, but since she genuinely loves him, she refuses to give in, until he too forces himself on her. What do you know, he gets shot by the girl’s father, but the difference is that he survives, and he and she wind up on a meadow in bloom prior to another consummation of their passion.

I recalled how last year was dismal enough to outrage our local critics’ group, but couldn’t name any Filipino film item from the period that could compare with the naïveté of the two Thai titles I saw in downtown Bangkok. One movie-house was showing Isla, Maribel Lopez’s literal coming-out film, and even if it were all cut up, which was likely, it could still provide a couple of lessons for Thai filmmakers on some merits (and a whole lot of demerits besides) of straightforward storytelling. And that was from five years back yet!

Turning points

Then began our requisite studio tours, Channel this and Channel that showcasing space-age technology and state-of-the-art equipment. One outfit in the itinerary confirmed my growing suspicion. Kantana Studio was actually a sprawling mansion where its showbiz-family owners reside. The place served the best meal among all the outfits we visited, but saved something even better for last: a video screening of a succession of opening billboards of their TV series, some already expired, others still ongoing. Such imaginative exploitation of any audiovisual medium I had not seen since the heyday of the Hollywood brats, honest. And so this is where all the talent promised by Red Bamboo and Son of the Northeast had gone, a crossover case.

Display shelves modestly kept to one side of the receiving area attested to Kantana’s stature as record-holder in media awards in the country. Proof positive lay literally in the backyard studio lot: walk around a fair-sized pond complete with quay and a couple of boats, and you arrive at a block-long reconstruction of a Bangkok slum; farther down lies a simulated pre-war prisoners’ camp where cast and crew are busily working on a period series on political detainees. As we kept repeating, hanep.

I was a bit alarmed as well. A generous proportion of Pinoy film talent now works regularly for TV, and the current dispensation still refuses to taint its fingers, so to speak, by supplying the movie industry with the institutional support that the previous dictatorship provided. How long before Philippine cinema gets abandoned by its best and brightest, in favor of a less satisfactory medium? More worrisome, is such a transition a necessary consequence of Third-World media development?

The answer will have to wait, so meanwhile I sought a statistically normative means of escape. The movies, yes, but this time excluding Thai and Chinese outputs. Fatal Attraction still has to reach Manila, and No Way Out I hadn’t seen. They charge plenty, 30 baht for the equivalent of orchestra comfort, and make you wait for the start of the screening, then make you leave afterward. I prefer this system, but I inquired anyway if any movie-houses observe the enter-anytime arrangement the way Manila theaters do.

“Sure,” said Surin, a Chula technician earning twice what I make from teaching. “In the second-run theaters. But not in Bangkok. In the provinces.”

Notes

[1] The movie’s star, Chow Yun-Fat, would eventually be globally famous in John Woo films, with 1992’s Hard Boiled as his breakout role; directed by Lau Kar Leung, Tiger on Beat, like Hard Boiled and a lot of other Chow Yun-Fat films, was a buddy movie. A closer Pinoy connection up to that point almost took place when he starred as a Vietnamese boat person in Ann Hui’s God of Killers (1981), and was originally cast (though eventually replaced) in the same director’s Boat People, made a year later.

[2] Unfortunately I am unable to identify the movie today. The Internet Movie Database lists no Thai horror films from 1988, although it does identify two comedies, Bhandit Rittakol’s Boonchu Poo Narak and Somching Srisupap’s Rak Rak Oom; either one sounds likely, so I’d appreciate any reader providing a definitive confirmation of what this movie’s Thai title was.

[3] David Lam & Chi Wong’s Ying zhao nu lang 1988, also translated as Girls with no Tomorrow, was an omnibus Hong Kong film that starred the now-inactive Elsie Chan and a then-lesser known Maggie Cheung.

[4] A Bangkok daily newspaper, not to be confused with the self-described “flagship of the left” New York weekly magazine.

[5] Adapted from the 1954 novel by Mom Kukrit Pramoj, Pai Daeng (Red Bamboo in English) was directed by Permpol Cheyaroon in 1979.

[6] Produced in 1982, Son of the Northeast was adapted from Kampoon Boonthawee’s novel Luk Isaan.

[7] I must acknowledge defeat at this point by admitting that I am entirely unable to even suggest which among existing Thai filmography titles this might be. The lesson to take away here is: watching films without translations provides unique insights into popular responses, but also leaves the observer completely helpless in attempting a recollection when archiving activities have been less than optimal.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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