Thai independent films going strong

Dwarves, escorts, political intrigue among the topics explored by Thai film-makers

Dao Khanong (By The Time It Gets Dark). Photo: Anocha Suwichakornpong

History, identity, cavemen, dwarves -- independent Thai films taking on those subjects (and curiosities) are making the rounds at the film festival circuit this season. While the big multiplex release of the year is likely to be Fanday, the first output from GDH 559 (previously GTH) slated for Sept 1, some Thai indie titles are busily injecting necessary edge and provocation to the scene.

First, we have the hypnotic, skin-shedding drama Dao Khanong (By The Time It Gets Dark, by Anocha Suwichakornpong), which is competing at the Locarno International Film Festival this week. This film will surely generate a fair amount of buzz when it gets a chance to screen at home: Anocha's second feature -- after Mundane History in 2009 -- is cleverly structured like a matryoshka doll where layer upon layer of identity, history, narrative threads and characters slowly emerge from one another into a near-infinity of life. But at its beating heart is Thailand's political history, especially the Oct 6, 1976, massacre of students at Thammasat University; Anocha's attempt to revisit this dark chapter of national history -- one threatened as much to be repeated as it is to be forgotten, which is even worse -- is couched in a meta-narrative about a documentary film-maker and her subject, a student activist who's now a middle-aged woman.

500,000 Years. Photo: Chai Siris/Kick the Machine

From there, film within a film within a film becomes a life within a life. By The Time It Gets Dark is not an easy film to wrap your head around, but the feeling of loss, doubt and suffocated hope is right there. And again, this is prominently a film born from the film-maker's political consciousness -- something we've seen more and more from Thai directors in the past few years.

Next on is 500,000 Years, a 15-minute film by Chai Siris that will premier at the Venice International Film Festival next month. Set in Lampang, the film visits an archaeological site where 17 years ago fossils of Homo erectus were unearthed. But in an odd circumstance (though not that odd because it's Thailand), the site has been largely forgotten and now only villagers pay a visit to perform a rite of offering to the ancestral spirits. It seems Chai Siris is exploring the supernatural and science, as well as the idea of death and rebirth brought about by the act of cinema-making. Keep an eye on this one.

On a totally different mood, the Thai comedy Krasue Krueng Khon (Dwarves Must Be Crazy -- it's their official English title, no kidding) has scored an unlikely pick by Fantastic Fest, a movie festival in Austin, Texas. The film, by Bin Banleurit, stars an all-dwarf cast, playing a tribe of Amazon-like jungle dwellers whose village is terrorised by hybrid vampires.

You could say that this is a "cult" film -- but you could also say a lot of other worse things about it too, for instance the dubious physical humour. Still, the film is the sole Thai entry at this festival specialising in fantasy titles.

Lastly, we have to mention a film rooted so deeply in Thailand though it's not exactly a Thai film: Bangkok Nites, by Katsuya Tomita, will stir much debate if it actually gets to screen here -- though that won't be easy. For now, the film is competing at Locarno -- the same as Dao Khanong -- and it tells the story of a Japanese man and his relationship with a Thai escort girl who works at Thaniya Plaza, a red-light street frequented by Japanese expats. Tomita manages to shoot on location, a mean feat indeed, while the latter part of the film takes place in the girl's hometown in the Northeast near the Lao border, where -- this is a real coup -- the spirit of Thai left-wing hero Jit Phumisak makes an appearance in the story wrought with social and political implications.

Tomita has made Bangkok his second home, and his embedded experience with locals have contributed to the writing of this film. How it all meshes together remains to be seen -- and hopefully we'll see Bangkok Nites soon.

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