Lao new wave

With a little help from Thailand, young Lao film-makers are trying to turn the light back on in their national cinema

For decades, the light has been out in Laos. The movie screens have become totally dark, and the profession known elsewhere as "actor" is, up to today, still non-existent. For so many years our land-locked neighbour has subsisted on a staple of Thai TV soaps and movies, cultural imports that have travelled, or been smuggled, through airwaves and distribution channels, and so much is our cross-Mekong dominance that Lao people have almost forgotten what it's like to watch a Lao film.

A scene from At the Horizon , the first Lao film in history to feature guns, fight scenes and a dose of violence.

That, with fingers crossed, will change. Young, forward-looking Lao artists and film-makers are working hard to bring back the light of Lao cinema. Earlier this year, the first Lao thriller in history was released in the country, drawing a modest crowd and reviving an interest in the activity of movie-going. At the moment, a YouTube trailer for a new romantic comedy from a Lao-Thai director, shot entirely in Laos and starring Lao non-professional actors, is building a strong buzz from Vientiane to Pak Xe.

There are other forces at work, too. In 2010 and 2011, the newly minted Luang Prabang Film Festival created newfound enthusiasm and genuine hope that Laos is getting ready for film. The festival is run by Gabriel Kuperman, an American who has been living in Luang Prabang, but it is an effort that honestly tries to solidify the local identity in relation to regional interest; the festival last year screened three Lao movies, while the rest in the programme were Southeast Asian titles.

Meanwhile Thailand continues to play a role, directly and indirectly, at this early stage of Lao awakening. Australian-Lao actor Ananda Everingham, whose career in Thailand is so prominent that people tend to wrongly assume that he's half-Thai, is actively involved in using his clout to get more film projects off the ground in Laos. Ananda has been talking to some Lao film-makers, who are shaping up stories, though nothing is concrete at the moment.

The small crew of Hak Um Lum , a Lao romantic comedy to open in Laos soon.

"It looks like something is happening. In general it's not as colourful, not as exciting as Bangkok, but let's hope we can start something," says Panumas Deesatha, director of the upcoming romantic comedy Hak Um Lum (a play on the Lao word "hak", meaning "love"). "The timing is right, that's why I'm making a movie here."

Panumas is a member of the loose group of young film-makers and media professionals who've come together under the label Lao New Wave. The man who founded the group is Anysay Keola, whose film Plai Tang (At the Horizon), was the first Lao film to feature guns, violence, and women in contemporary wardrobe instead of traditional sinh. Both Panumas and Anysay have strong connections to Thailand and in fact, their film-making sensibility is largely influenced by exposure to new Thai cinema and Thai experience: Panumas has a Thai passport and studied at Rangsit University, though he lives in Vientiane with his family. Anysay, too, is from the Lao capital, but he's currently finishing his master's at Chulalongkorn University's film department. The thriller Plai Tang is his thesis film.

''It's a half-joke to call our group Lao New Wave. See, it's a riff on the French New Wave,'' says Anysay, 29, referring to the avant-garde cinema movement of the 1960s. ''We're not inventing a new cinema language like the French did, we can't! We just want to be different from, say, the Old Wave of Lao movies that are usually propaganda films or melodrama. We think we can offer a variety.

''The idea of our group is to show that it's possible for Lao film-makers to make Lao films for the Lao audience.''

Plai Tang is a revenge tale in which two men's lives intersect in a deadly encounter. The film was released in three cinemas in Laos _ in Vientiane, Savannakhet and Pak Xe. It made around 300,000 baht (a movie ticket costs around 50 baht), which Anysay says is a fair success though it narrowly covered his costs. Plai Tang was shown in Thailand at Hua Hin International Film Festival in January and again at the Foreign Correspondents' Club. But the more fundamental contribution of Anysay's movie was how it convinced the nation that the idea of a market-driven Lao film is not impossible. After the release, an offer came in from a company in Laos for Anysay's group to make another film, and Hak Um Lum, a comedy revolving around the romance of several couples, is the result. In the new film, Anysay works as editor, and the director, Panumas, casts singers and models to play the lead characters since Laos doesn't have professional actors, or at least hasn't for so many years.

Anysay Keola, director of At the Horizon and the de factor leader of the Lao New Wave group.

In the past half-century after the founding of the Communist state, Lao cinema has been scarce, inaccessible and mostly an ideological instrument rather than entertainment. Over the years, the handful of films have carried propagandistic messages, some of them with the help of the Vietnamese government. One of the most recognised films from Laos in the past 30 years was Bua Daeng (Red Lotus), a social-realist film about the struggle of a family during a war.

To make a film in Laos, film-makers need permission. As Anysay was preparing Plai Tang, he applied for a licence to shoot and was originally turned down, because his script contained elements of violence. But the director appealed on the grounds that the film was only a student film and he would only complete it for the professors' assessment and not for release. The authorities allowed him to proceed, and when they saw the finished film, they were actually pleased, according to Anysay. The Lao Film Department even allowed the film to be released, on the condition that Anysay change the ending and blur all the guns in the film.

''The officials saw that the film didn't promote violence, they were open-minded about it,'' says the director.

''But they asked me to change the ending so that the bad guy is seen going to jail. I complied, because I wanted the film to be screened in the cinemas. This is the first Lao film to feature men with tattoos, men wearing earrings, guns and fight scenes. They were okay with those things, so I think I should make compromises, too.''

Like most Laotians, Anysay grew up watching mainly Thai films and Thai TV soaps. Like the Thai audience, he says, Lao viewers prefer comedy, horror and action films, and those are the regular content found on Lao television and its few movie screens. But the Lao New Wave group credits the landmark moment that made this present rebound possible to a romantic Thai-Lao film from 2008 called Sabaidee Luang Prabang (Good Morning, Luang Prabang). The film was directed by a Thai director, Sakchai Deenan, and it was a co-investment between Thai and Lao companies. It stars, aptly, Ananda Everingham as a half-Lao photographer who travels through the country and falls in love with a Lao lady. Sabaidee Luang Prabang was a huge success, and Sakchai would pursue the same formula with three more sequels (Ananda didn't star in them). He's currently making a Lao ghost film called Pa Pankor Daeng (The Red Handkerchief), though the fact that the Lao authorities do not fully approve the idea of superstition in film has compelled him to tweak his script to accommodate the rules.

''The first three films I made in Laos were admittedly from the perspective of a Thai person,'' says Sakchai.

''In the fourth film, I tried to make it more from a Lao side. But it's better that now we're seeing Lao directors making Lao films. The atmosphere is more open, though what I'm worried about is the size of the market. There is not enough of a Lao audience to make a film profitable, and that's the problem young Lao film-makers will have to consider. In my case, I can show my films in Laos as well as Thailand, and I can also release it on DVD to help recoup the investment. To have only the Lao market will be tough, at least in the beginning.''

Anysay is aware of this, and the Lao New Wave group hopes to use their Thai connections to present their films to the Thai market. His main concern, however, is cultural: Lao New Wave is an attempt to prepare a crop of film-makers to share Lao stories with Lao people. In terms of Thai-Lao relationships, Anysay and Panumas, who've spent years shuttling between Bangkok and Vientiane, are hoping to see the two-way exchange between his and our ''sister'' countries. Lao people have watched Thai films for decades, and it's time for the reverse to happen. The dreadful fact that the word ''Lao'' carries a negative connotation among some Thais, and the fact that there were incidents when Thai film-makers showed insensitivity when referring to Laos, notably in the film Mak Te (Lucky Losers), in which a Lao football team are presented comically as a bunch of losers _ this is a well-known display of cultural selfishness, intentionally or not, that has to be accounted for. And one way to mend the ''mutual distrust'', as Anysay says, is to increase the cultural traffic between the two countries in a more meaningful way.

''Thailand has made me believe that movies are an important creative force that can say something to be more than just entertainment,'' says Anysay. ''Your country shows me that movies aren't useless. Laos surely has many things to improve, and to me this is certainly one of them.''

Sabaidee Luang Prabang , starring Lao-Australian actor Ananda Everingham and directed by Thai film-maker Sakchai Deenan, is credited as the film that brought back the enthusiasm for movies in Laos in 2008.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist