Six weeks ago in New York, we met Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, a Thai film director and screenwriter considered one of Thai cinema’s leading ‘new wave’ auteurs. He was in Manhattan to present his new film Headshot. “If you make it over to Bangkok, give me a call,” Pen-Ek said, “so we can meet and I can tell you more about New Thai Cinema.”
And here we are, in Bangkok. The meeting is set in the Sukhumvit area with a view of the busy street life. There are tuk tuks speeding by, taxis honking, merchants carrying oversized luggage on the back of their bikes and motorcycles driving against the traffic. “It may seem like chaos, but it is organised chaos,” Pen-Ek says, pointing at the street.
“Thanks for meeting us on such short notice,” I say. “I’m getting more and more curious about what New Thai Cinema is. How would you define it?”
“I think the term came into existence at a point when Thai cinema had been in a slump for over ten years – approximately from the mid-80s to the late 90s,” Pen-Ek says. “The majority of the movies being released were silly teen romances or really broad comedies. Then, myself and a few colleagues started making films that were more personal and somehow caught the attention of the audience and critics, and later, the international film festivals. In retrospect, I don’t think any of our first films were that good, but they happened to be fresh and interesting and since then we have been labelled New Thai Cinema. It’s a film critics’ invention, really.”
“How do you explain the recent rise of Thai film on the world stage,” I say, “and its success at film festivals around the world?”
“We have a number of good filmmakers who are consistently making films for personal reasons,” Pen-Ek says. “These filmmakers are concerned about challenging themselves intellectually and less interested in box-office numbers. They are really quite unprofessional and uncontrollable, even amateurish you could say. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but they are persistent. They have to look abroad to finance their films because in a country where movies are still considered mere entertainment, no one is going to finance their films. Luckily, the serious film world like the film festival circuit, is inspired by these qualities, so we have been welcomed into that community.”
“I noticed that a fair few of the key directors in Thailand are from advertising,” Maarten says. “Why are people from advertising getting into filmmaking?”
“Well, I think it’s a natural progression for anyone seriously interested in making films to want to make something longer than one minute, and free from client or agency interference. Filmmaking is a conservative industry, but advertising is a hundred times worse. As a film director doing advertising, you have to ask permission to do things from people who know nothing about making films. They often choose the actors, wardrobe and locations and on the days of the shooting, come to sit around, watch you work and criticise what you’re doing. It is very frustrating.
“When I make feature films,” Pen-Ek continues, “I assume a completely opposite mode from advertising. I go for the most interesting-looking actors, who wouldn’t be allowed in advertising. I always go for long shots and long takes whenever I can. For example, the opening shot of NYMPH was over eight minutes long. It was done in a single take, uncut. Advertising films are cut every two seconds and always prefer close-ups to long shots because of the screen size. I tend to be more obscure in my films. In advertising you are forced to be so obvious all the time, sometimes to the point of being insulting to the audience.”
“Is New Thai Cinema primarily an export product or do you believe that there is a growing Thai audience for the type of film you are producing?” I ask.
“Although there is a growing Thai audience, it is still primarily for export. Gaining a large audience depends on many factors, apart from the quality of the films – like advertising and promotion. With little money to promote our kind of movies, we can’t expect to compete with the hyper-commercial movies, both Thai and Hollywood. In Thailand, my movies usually do well on DVD because people hear by word of mouth that the movies were good once they have finished at the cinemas. And of course when the movies start winning prizes,” Pen-Ek adds with a smile. “I’ve been making films for 15 years, so I have a small but really quite loyal audience around the world.”
“So the chances we will see you again at an international film festival somewhere around the world are big?” I ask. “I know you won a Lion in Cannes, so who knows next time we might meet up in Cannes or in Berlin?”
“The Lion,” Pen-Ek says, “that was in my previous life at the Lions International Advertising Festival. But the answer to your question is yes, there’s a good chance you’ll find me at international film festivals. I will first and foremost continue doing what I like best; making movies.”
© 2012 CoolBrands – Around the World in 80 Brands
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