Never mind nipples, the law is an ass

The debate on free speech is heating up around the world, from the tumult of the anti-Islam video to the US boycott of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's UN speech and the tyranny of extremism laid bare in Salman Rushdie's newly published memoir.

And here's how Thailand contributes to that burning issue, wrapped as usual in the fog of absurdity and phoney moralism: nipples are bad, particularly female ones, and those under 18 should be banned from seeing them.

It's more useless hysteria. The case involves a Thai film called Jan Dara, an adaptation of a famous erotic novel in which a 1930s aristocratic household bristles with carnal excess. The movie, which features a liberal amount of topless females (and transsexuals), has been rated 18-plus, a generous decision from the censors known for their superhuman sensitivity to naked flesh and political allusions. Two weeks after the film's Sept 6 release, Phetchaburi senator Sumol Suttawiriyawat cried foul that the film had too much sex in it and that the Culture Ministry, another super-sensitive organ, was doing nothing to protect young audiences, supposedly from those venomous nipples.

The senator resorted to a very dubious argument that since both the culture minister and prime minister are women, how could they, as mothers, allow this movie to be screened without proper surveillance? A plague on your house!

Cinemas, the senator said, should be forced to check the identity cards of the patrons of this particularly nipple-infested motion picture.

I never thought I would have to write about this case because, legally, it's utter nonsense. By law - and sure, we're talking about the very flawed Film Act of 2007 that permits banning of movies, which is equivalent to permitting book-burning and blindfolding of citizens - by law, the 18-plus rating (so do the 13-plus and 15-plus classes) functions only as guidance, meaning that cinemas are not required to request customers to flash their identity cards. The law states clearly that only films that are rated 20-plus entail ID inspection. The senator's demand for ID checks to be enforced is basically a demand to curb freedom and, in a way, break the law.

But in the land that would've inspired the surrealists, what happened next was worthy of national face-palm. The Culture Ministry danced to the senator's tune - they wanted to run ID checks at the door! The Thai moral metre kicked up like a Japanese earthquake rocking the Richter scale. We failed to censor the breasts, so now let's backtrack and stop people from seeing them. The ministry thus announced that cinemas should run the checks - an action that is not endorsed by any law. Next, they might want to ban or burn or boycott or blacken the pages of the original novel, The Story of Jan Dara, Pramool Unhathoop's classic satire of high-society excess written in the 1960s - the source book that is much more erotic and disturbing than this middling film adaptation.

The Culture Ministry is missing the point, again. The point is to fix the Film Act - or, even better, write a new bill that promotes freedom of expression and designs a fairer, better audience filtering through age classification. The point is to encourage media literacy by allowing more speech instead of suppressing it. Currently, two lawsuits have been brought against the censors by filmmakers whose movies have been banned: Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, who made Insects in the Backyard, and Ing K's Shakespeare Must Die. The cases are now in the Administrative Court, and while it will take a long time before any rulings are reached, the directors are basically asking the state, rightly and loudly, to understand that banning movies is a violation of our rights.

That's the point the ministry needs to get serious about, not this comical panic over a film that has been showing for three weeks and is nearly at the end of its cinema run anyway. What's unnerving is that the ministry doesn't seem to realise that doubling back and asking for ID inspections for an 18-plus film is messing up the standard and setting a precedent - does it mean other films with the same rating should require ID checks too? Why does this movie require particular vigilance? In fact, the bigger question is as obvious as a gigantic elephant in a wee room: In our great and free nation, the state cannot ban newspapers, books, articles, television shows, stage plays, public speeches, street protests, coups, pole dancing, ping-pong spectacles, bad singing contests, etc, etc, so why can they still ban movies, and usually good movies that ask tough questions? Nipples are never a problem, but the law and narrow-mindedness are.

Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor