Troubled Territories

The Preah Vihear conflict and the heartache of democracy are the themes of two new Thai films set to premier at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival this week.


Kongdej Jaturanrasmee's new movie is barbed wire coiled beneath a layerof giggling teen comedy. At the Berlin International Film Festival, his Tangwong will premier in the Generation section, a programme of films for youths with the top prize being the Glass Bear, and yet it will be adult Thais who are more likely to grasp the underlying political contemplation the film smuggles in and turns into a big question mark.

At international screenings, the film will also stick to the Thai title: Tangwong literally means "be in position" and refers to the basic pose in traditional Thai dance. In the film, a group of secondary school children take a crash-course in Thai dance from a transsexual dancer in order to fulfill the pledge they've made with a local shrine (failing to do so, as we all know, will enrage the deities).

They struggle, because they can't even "tangwong", or get into position, and they can't resort to hiring professional dancers to do the dance on their behalf _ like most people do _ since the protests on Ratchaprasong Intersection have shut out the dance troupes normally plying their trade at Erawan Shrine.

"I first made the film as part of a project by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture on the theme of Thai culture," says Kongdej, a well-known scriptwriter and filmmaker. "So I think about children and the kind of cultural context they're living in. But soon the idea about democracy and political environment seeped into the screenplay. The protests that affected the landmark of traditional Thai dance _ the Erawan Shrine _ also got me to think about that space.

"Meanwhile, the film talks about the kids who can't tangwong, and perhaps it's the same for the country, since we're still struggling to get our feet planted firmly on the ground."

Tangwong takes place mostly in a working-class flat compound, but it heavily refers to the escalating situation at Ratchaprasong, culminating in a night scene when a boy goes to the protest site to look for his father.

It may be a coincidence _ or maybe it's about time Thai filmmakers revisit the episode _ that the two Thai movies in Berlin this year (see the accompanying story on Boundary) have the same spark of inspiration, from the 2010 street protests that convulsed the city and the mind of the whole nation.

In his other films, Kongdej is a director known for subtly trafficking social commentary into his narratives, but here the visual and thematic allusion is apparent while the critique particularly bitter. And while he's worried that international audiences may miss some of the details regarding our complex conflict, the filmmaker has another concern _ one that seems to set back a number of socially engaging Thai artist.

''I'm concerned that the film can be interpreted as taking sides,'' says Kongdej. ''Even among my crew, there are people of different political views.

''But I stress that this is not a movie that supports any view in particular. I try to balance it out, and yet I know that we're living in a sensitive time, that anything can be interpreted in any way. I'm not blaming anybody. I'm just asking questions.

''It's part of our attitude as a filmmaker to think about what's going on around us, and now that politics has become such a big part in our daily context, we can't avoid talking and thinking about that,'' adds Kongdej.

''Think of the Middle-East filmmakers. They can't possibly make movies that don't deal with politics, because it's such a big part of their lives. We may not have reached that point yet, but maybe it's time for us to begin to think like that.''

Fah Tam Pandin Soong

The film begins with the raucous New Year countdown at Ratchaprasong Intersection, shot seven months after the clashes that left over 90 red shirt protestors dead. The narrator then describes his encounter with one of the soldiers who took part in the crackdown on Ratchadamnoen Avenue in 2010, another fatal episode of our recent political malaise, and soon the film follows the private back to his home village in Isan.

Then Nontawat Numbenchapol, director of Fah Tam Pandin Soong (Boundary), attempts something ambitious and difficult: he shifts the narrative to the Thai-Cambodian conflict regarding the disputed territory around Preah Vihear Temple and tries to mirror this external quarrel with our internal one.

The movie spends time listening to villagers and soldiers, both Thai and Cambodian, disgruntled and resigned, and shows battle footage of RPG-wielding Thai troops as well as scenes shot on Preah Vihear itself.

It's the first film to show the place whose ancient majesty has been overshadowed by its status as a contested object; despite some shortcomings, Boundary is a timely movie given the World Court's hearing on the issue in April and the release of Thai activist Ratree Pipattanapaiboon from a Cambodian jail last week. Thai viewers will have to wait a little though. Boundary will premier next week in the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival, the year's first major cine-fest known for its attention to politically-conscious titles (two years ago, the festival showed The Terrorist, a documentary that discussed the crackdown on the red shirts, largely unseen in Thailand).

"It started off when I met the soldier and I followed him home to Si Sa Ket, because I wanted to hear more about the political unrest from someone who was actually there," says Nontawat, 29, a maker of short films making his feature-length debut with this documentary. "When I was there, the Preah Vihear conflict erupted, so I started following the events along the Thai-Cambodian border. The connection that I see between the yellow-red clash and the Thai-Cambodia dispute is that each side lays claim to what they think is fact, and only their fact is fact and the rest is not.

"In Bangkok, people blame the red shirts for the problem. In the provinces, the red-leaning villagers blame city people for the problem. Then I cross into Cambodia, and some Cambodians just blame all Thai people for another problem. It goes and on and on."

Boundary has been made with the support of Asian Cinema Fund in Busan, and the Berlin debut is prestigious for a small film that tackles a specific regional and socio-political issue.

Nontawat made several trips to the border village in Si Sa Ket, spending weeks filming the villagers, the Songkran festival, the (military) drafting day, and had Border Patrol Police show him the damage from the shelling in 2010. By trying to address large and complex issues, the film sometimes feels scatter-shot, and yet it has the virtue of patience and ground-level contact. Its focus on the people in the eye of the storm _ soldiers and villagers near the border _ is an attempt at individualising and giving a face to what has occurred mostly as headlines and televised rhetoric.

In one scene, senior Thai villagers discuss the thorny issue of border posts and whether they have been ''moved''; in the following scene, a Cambodian soldier stationed near Preah Vihear argues the same subject with heated emotion and accusatory tone. If nothing else, these are the voices hardly heard on prime-time news.

''I filmed on the Thai side first, then I felt the movie wouldn't be complete without the Cambodian angle,'' says Nontawat. ''So I crossed over, sometimes filming secretly. But the hardest part was to film at Preah Vihear Temple _ tourists can go there, but a Thai person showing up with a video camera is certainly a no-no. But I had friends in Cambodia, and we managed to pull it off.''

It's worth it, for the Preah Vihear shown here counters the image it has acquired from newspapers and television reports.

''The temple is perched on a high plateau. The builders obviously meant to make it into a castle of heaven looking down on Earth. It's beautiful, and it's only too bad that we now can only think about it in a not very positive way.''

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor