Cinema Politico

A compelling omnibus film that considers the very workings of Thai society from four different angles is now in theatres

The Planetarium.

The premiere of the social-commentary film Ten Years Thailand on Tuesday night saw a number of political celebrities in the vaulted foyer of the Scala, brushing elbows with journalists, film professionals and gawking onlookers. Sulak Sivaraksa was there, as well as historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thongthong Chandrangsu and several political-science scholars. Big names from political parties showed up: Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit from Future Forward, Parit Ratanakulserirengrit from the Democrats, Chatchat Sitthiphun and Wattana Muangsuk from Pheu Thai, Sombat Boon-ngamanong from Krian Party. Invitations had been sent out to all parties, according to the film producers, but no one from Palang Pracharat and Bhumjaithai attended the screening.

The intersection of cinema and politics -- of the arts and national matters -- can induce vertigo in this day and age. Ten Years Thailand, an omnibus of four short movies that touch on issues ranging from state censorship to intolerance of dissension and national hypnotism, has attracted much interest since being invited to screen at the Cannes Film Festival in May. It passed the Thai censor board without a glitch last week, to the surprise of many, and its premiere on Tuesday coincided with the official lift of the ban on political gatherings that had been in effect since the 2014 coup. Otherwise, the presence of so many political firebrands in one place could involve interesting consequences.

The pre-screening talk, led by writer and publisher Pinyo Traisuriyathamma, consisted of casual bantering about the upcoming election, interspersed with solemn predictions of the country's future by some of the guests mentioned above. The verdict verges on cautious optimism: hope is here, though the fume of uncertainty still fills the air.

The film itself, however, professes a mixture of feelings, from poignancy to dystopian surrender, capped with a profound sadness felt by a people living under the shadow of authoritarianism. Ten Years Thailand is an offshoot of the original anthology Ten Years Hong Kong, a cinematic expression inspired by the Umbrella Movement and the frustration against Chinese rule. In that Ten Years, released in 2015, five Hong Kong filmmakers were asked to imagine their city in the next 10 years. In one episode, a protester sets fire to herself outside the British consulate; in another, "youth guards" prowl the city to catch people using taboo words. The film was a huge success in Hong Kong -- and was banned in China, naturally.

Sunset.

The Hong Kong producers last year expanded the franchise to Thailand, Taiwan and Japan, following the same blueprint of cinematic expression against political frustration and the cloud of dark future. The Thai segment has four directors tackling stories that allude to the post-coup social condition: Aditya Assarat (his episode is called Sunset, in which soldiers inspect an art gallery that's exhibiting a potentially "inappropriate" artwork); Wisit Sasanatieng (Catopia, in which the city is overrun by talking infernal cats that hunt down the humans); Chulayarnnon Siriphol (Planetarium, sci-fi high-kitsch in which young boy scouts are programmed by an authority figure to become a surveillance squad spying on dissidents); and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Song Of The City, in which motley characters go about their lives around the monument of Gen Sarit Thanarat in Khon Kaen).

"We screened the film in Cannes, but we made the film because we want people in Thailand to see it," said Cattleya Paosrijaroen, one of the producers. "People keep asking me if artists have enough freedom now to say what they want. But I think it's not just artists; everyone should have the freedom to say what they want."

Despite the political nature of the project -- despite Ten Years Thailand's clear jab at the dictatorial rule of the junta and its associates -- the four short films rely on symbolism rather than activism, and their power comes not from rage but from insight. Thailand still lacks a documentary film that records the truth of the past four years in all its sordid detail; but for its emotional truth and its premonition, Ten Years Thailand is an important film that comes at an important moment.

In Sunset, for instance, writer-director Aditya borrowed the real-life news reports of when soldiers "visited" an art gallery in 2017 to fashion a story about state intimidation -- but also, unlikely as it is, a romantic vignette between a low-ranking private and a gallery's cleaning woman, both of them from the Northeast. The short underpins its commentary on censorship with a narrative on class distinction and the inevitability, no matter how slim, of hope.

"In fact my sympathy lies with the soldiers in the story," said Aditya, referring to the fact that the officer in the film is so tired of having to inspect art galleries that he requests transfer. "Censorship is a black-and-white issue, and the enforcers are often seen as the villain. My idea is to make it a little more ambiguous. Perhaps the system makes everyone sick and tired."

Aditya's opening salvo is based on realism; then satire and symbolism work overtime in Wisit Sasanatieng's Catopia and Chulayarnnon Siriphol's Planetarium. In the former, Wisit parodies the deep divide in society that sees "the other side" as a different species, through a story of homicidal cats and their human enemy. The latter is a tableau of trippy imagery and cartoonish sarcasm: at the centre is an elaborately-coiffed, passive-aggressive harridan who trains her youth guards to watch out for signs of subversion.

Three directors in Ten Years Thailand: From second left, Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Wisit Sasanatieng and Aditya Assarat.

Chulayarnnon serves up some wild images here, but he believes that the humour and weirdness of it all will let him off the hook.

"I use satire and humour to address a topic that might have come across as provocative had I told it straight -- the topic of authoritarianism and thought-control," said the 32-year-old filmmaker and visual artist. "As someone who expresses his views through art, I think what we're trying to do is push the ceiling, even if just a little bit."

"I think we've come to the point where everyone feels frustrated with what has happened," said Wisit. "But it's interesting that, compared to the original Ten Years Hong Kong, the Thai version is softer and more allusive -- not a direct show of anger. Ten Years Hong Kong was a huge hit because it captured what people felt. Our film is smaller and won't be as popular, and yet I hope it makes people realise that, though we have limits, we can still talk about what we want."

The most intriguing episode is the last one. Apichatpong Weerasethakul signs off the series with Song Of The City, which, like the director's other films, quivers with subterranean tension under the serene surface. Shot around the monument of Gen Sarit Thanarat, the military dictator who ruled during the 1960s, the film observes several characters who orbit the statue and chat about seemingly trivial subjects -- from organic farming to molam music -- while a persistent salesman is persuading a doctor to buy the Good Sleep Machine, a device that facilitates relaxation. The film ends with a man going to sleep, right next to the monument, as the national anthem is played.

Ten Years Thailand opens with a famous quote from George Orwell: "He who controls the past, controls the future; and he who controls the present, controls the past." As Apichatpong's film suggests, the shadow of the past is persistent, lingering, refusing to go away, and time in Thailand moves not in a forward progression but in a warped loop, where those who rule the present are a spectre of the past -- and maybe the future.