Posted On:October 1, 2012
Written by Matthew Hunt
A provocative Thai adaptation of Macbeth. A melodrama about a transvestite’s dysfunctional family. A documentary exploring the persecution of Thai Muslims. The connection? Over the past few years, they have all been banned by Thai film censors.
Despite a thriving movie industry, and an ever-increasing indie film scene, censorship still looms large over Thai cinema. Sexual content is the number one cinematic no-no, though politically-sensitive material can also result in a ban.
In the most notorious case of Thai film censorship, Apichatpong Weerasethakul was forced to cut his poetic drama Syndromes & A Century. Apichatpong’s film received international acclaim at the Venice and Cannes film festivals in 2007, though the Thai Ministry of Culture insisted that four scenes be removed before it could be theatrically released.
Their verdict was astonishing, because the ‘contentious’ scenes were completely innocuous: what could possibly be ‘offensive’ about a monk playing with a toy, or a doctor drinking whiskey? The Ministry’s patronising attitude was surely more offensive than anything in Apichatpong’s film: according to Ladda Tangsupachai, director of the Orwellian Cultural Surveillance Department, “Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong. Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh”.
Apichatpong appealed against the Ministry’s decision, though he was then told to cut out two additional scenes! In response, he replaced the cut sequences with strips of black film, highlighting the censorship rather than hiding it. Audience-members were each given a postcard containing photos of the cut scenes, and links to view them on YouTube.
Syndromes & Century was shown uncut in Thailand only once, when Apichatpong introduced a screening at Alliance Française in 2007. Similarly, his earlier film Blissfully Yours also had only a single uncut screening in Thailand, at the 2002 International Film Festival; a sex scene was cut from its theatrical release.
Apichatpong launched the Free Thai Cinema Movement in 2007, with the slogan ‘No cut, no ban’, and called for the introduction of a film ratings board. Film classification was officially approved later that year, by the Film & Video Act, which replaced the 1930 Film Act. The ratings range from ‘P’ (‘Promotional’, for films that promote Thai culture) to ‘20’ (films suitable only for people aged 20 or over). As director Thunska Pansittivorakul told me in an interview: “The most embarrassing rating is ‘P’ for promotion. It aims to advertise movies that spread misleading information to audiences. Some of these films are even funded by our taxes!”
But unfortunately the ratings board still reserves, and exercises, the right to ban films it considers unacceptable. As Thunska discovered when he submitted his independent documentary This Area Is Under Quarantine in 2009.
Thunska has been making short films for over a decade (and he had a retrospective at Gallery Ver in 2008). His shorts are highly personal, and they often include hardcore imagery. Unseen Bangkok (2004), an interview with a nude rent boy, was particularly graphic. When he won the Silpatorn Award in 2007, he released the tender Middle-Earth as a subversive response, as if to confirm that he wasn’t interested in government recognition.
With his more recent feature-length documentaries, Thunska’s work has become more political though no less explicit. This Area Is Under Quarantine stars two gay men, who are interviewed about their love lives. When one of the men mentions that he is a Muslim, the film changes tack and cuts to footage of the 2004 Tak Bai incident, in which a group of Muslim protesters suffocated to death while held captive by the Thai military.