Eternally exotic?

Westerners have been making movies about Thailand and Thai people for over 80 years. How have their perceptions of the country changed?
Bangkok Post, Friday 07 October 2005
Kong Rithdee

Driven by different motives _ cultural curiosity, a penchant for the "exotic" Orient, commercial possibilities, the sight of elephants and pretty women, or even subtle exploitative intents _ Westerners have come to Thailand to make movies about Thai people for over 80 years. In 1923, Henry McRay directed Nang Sao Suwan, a love story between a lowly clerk and a nobleman's daughter, starring an all-Thai cast. In 1927, Merian C Cooper, who later went on to produce King Kong, made a film called Chang in Nan province, featuring a disastrous attack by a herd of rampaging elephants on a forest village.

The phenomenon is not new, and during the past year, there have been more Westerners coming here to make movies about Thailand and Thai people. Englishman Paul Spurrier did a Thai-language DV movie about a superstitious bargirl called Phi (Ghost). Another curious Briton, Mark Duffield, re-imagined Thailand's most famous ghost story into a film called Nak; it has an all-Thai cast, and was widely released in cinemas last month. American Seth Grossman shot The Cool Season in Chiang Mai, featuring American and Thai characters; he's now editing the film in New York.

Lastly and with the biggest bang is the 250-million-baht historical fantasy The Kingmaker, produced by Londoner David Winters and directed by a Thai. The screenplay, which is based on a turbulent chapter in Ayutthaya history, is written by an English scriptwriter _ in English dialogue _ and involves everything from Portuguese mercenaries and Arab slave-traders to gravity-defying fight scenes. The Kingmaker opens in Thailand on Oct 20.

Mr Winters believes that his epic film will do well in international markets. Asked which aspect of The Kingmaker he thinks should appeal to Western audiences, he says: "The elephants. They're exotic animals. Then the costumes, the sets, the palaces and the temples _ I'm sure the film will be a good advertisement for your country."

In 1927 it was the elephants that brought a foreign filmmaker here. In 2005, it remains the elephants. It's different when foreign filmmakers simply use the Kingdom as a shooting location (as in The Beach, Tomorrow Never Dies or Alexander) and when they offer their own perspectives about this country through stories centred on Thai characters, Thai beliefs, or Thai history. In one sense, the arrival of Western filmmakers is natural given the globalisation of the film industry, which drives directors to start finding inspiration beyond their borders, and perhaps to see through the classification of race and nationality to convey the universal human condition.

But for us Thais, the stories about Thailand told through the eyes of foreigners can tell us about how we are perceived by the world, and if that perception has undergone any change during the years. Take the elephants, for example. Or take a look at novels published by Westerners living here _ one must wonder why such a staggering number of them are about one subject: bargirls. (Thai directors have created many fine works on the subjects of elephants and prostitutes too, see sidebar.)

Judging from the themes of recent movies made by visiting filmmakers, the impressions Thailand makes on the world still concern superstition, debauchery, and fantastic Orientalism. The "exotic" effects are still pretty much intact. Is this a naive way to sketch a portrait of a country, with limited understanding of its culture? Or can foreigners see our society and our people with more honest eyes than we're able to see ourselves?

Mark Duffield, director of Nak, says that he didn't see Thais as any different from other people, and his film, though sprung from the much-retold legend of an angry female spirit, tries to portray human behaviours that are universal. "My idea came after I saw the film Nang Nak (the 1999 Nonzee Nimibutr version)," says Duffield, who's a professional cinematographer based in London. "The film ends with Nak's spirit being locked inside a piece of her bone, and I thought, what would happen if someone stumbled on that bone?"

The story in Nak thus takes place in contemporary times. A young couple happen to have in their possession that lost bone of Nak, and the spirit of the ghost returns from the grave to haunt them. "I re-invented the story because like Dracula, Nak is a well-known character, and one can keep re-imagining her into different stories," says Duffield.

While it's obviously more difficult for a Thai director to travel to, say, Bucharest and make a film about Dracula, Mr Duffield believes he's lucky to get his script turned into a movie here (his investors include a British-Thai production company and a Thai distributor). And he insists that in shooting Nak he made it his priority to be truthful to Thai culture. Directing a movie whose characters speak a language he doesn't understand is not an obstacle for him either, citing examples such as the Mel Gibson-directed The Passion of the Christ, which is in Aramaic, or when Taiwanese director Ang Lee directed Sense and Sensibility in English.

For foreigners, the vibe of heady fun oozing from Thai soil, particularly Bangkok's, serves as a powerful muse. Duffield describes Bangkok as "a decadent playground". Paul Spurrier, the man behind Phi, says that living in Bangkok is like "living in an amusement park". Seth Grossman of The Cool Season describes his lead character as an American who wallows in "decadence and self-destruction" after abandoning his studies in the US and coming to live in Chaing Mai.

"Decadence". Is that a variation, or another stereotypical reaction, of that same old "exoticism"?

A lot of good movies work with stereotypes (Italian mafiosa, German Nazis, Thai prostitutes), but what makes them good, even great, is how the filmmakers use the stereotypes as launch-pads to arrive at more meaningful renditions of individuals. That, too, is what the foreign filmmakers shooting their works here claim is their objective.

"There are some elements of my film that are cliches: a Thai bargirl who seduces an American tourist, a katoey kickboxer, etc," says Mr Grossman, who's been a regular visitor to this country since 1997, before he decided to film The Cool Season. "But these cliches are grounded in my personal experience, and I hope that in the film these characters will have the texture and uniqueness of real life."

Grossman continues: "I didn't set out to make a movie about Thailand so much as a movie about how farang, particularly Americans, react to Thailand. My main characters convey the sense of the basic American traits that have formed our troubled relationship with the rest of the world. When Americans travel, they leave behind the superstructural domestic authority. In some cases, this leads them to abandon their American morals and enjoy the debauchery of booze and 'rental' women that are available to tourists in Thailand. In other cases, this leads them inwards, to a reckoning with their own minds that involves meditation and other Buddhist practices, again readily available to tourists in Thailand."

To this Grossman admits, though, that he's aware of his position of an outsider looking in. "I wouldn't presume to understand the Thailand that Thai people see, but the Thailand that farang see, which is colorful, foreign and extreme in its pleasures and deprivations."

From the business point of view, Thailand's pleasures and deprivations _ plus history _ can work as selling points in international markets. Or simply, they are the basic ingredients of movie entertainment. Tom Waller, a Thai-born, London-raised film director and producer who produced both Nak and The Cool Season through his production company De Warrenne Pictures in downtown Bangkok, believes that the fusion of ideas between foreign directors and Thai crew or Thai stories can add more value to the finished products, and that means they can probably capture the imagination of foreign buyers better than when the films are purely, totally Thai.

"This fusion sometimes works, sometimes doesn't, but the films certainly have the benefit of being seen though objective eyes," says Waller. "Like in Nak, I think it's refreshing to see what looks like the same old story being told in a contemporary context, with the lead characters being modern people. Nak is a commercial movie aimed at entertaining, and I think what's good about this new version s that you don't have to be Thai to understand the whole thing."

Mr Waller _ who also produced a film about a young backpacker and a Thai masseuse called Butterfly Man in 2003 _ says he continues to receive many scripts that tell more or less the same stories about farang backpackers and Thai bargirls. "I don't want to produce them because I've done that story once and I want to move on," he says.

At the moment, Waller's trying to groom up a big historical movie based on the real life of Constantin Faulkon, a 17th century European trader who assumed a high-ranking position in the royal court of King Narai. Waller believes that with a Westerner in the lead role, the story will have more thrust in the international market than, say, Suriyothai, which has colourful though largely unknown characters. No schedule is yet mapped out for the film's actual production.

But another history-based film that's ready to open in Thai theatres _ and that sums up the perceived image of the Kingdom in foreigners' eyes _ is The Kingmaker. On the surface, the film is a hybrid effort: the idea of the movie came from Lek Kitipraporn, a Thai director who made films during the 1980s, but it was Lek's British producer David Winters who raised the 250-million-baht budget from "private investors". Mr Winters also brought in Sean J Casey to pen the script based on a chapter of Ayutthaya history. The Thai title of the movie is Kabot Tao Sri Sudachan, meaning "the coup of Sri Sudachan", which comes from the titular consort who masterminded a deadly coup to install her young son on the royal throne.

The synopsis of the film shows that the story is seen through the eye of the fictitious Fernando De Gama (Gary Stretch), a Portuguese mercenary who, on his journey to the East, is captured by Arab slave-traders, rescued, then made a personal bodyguard of the Siamese king due to his gallantry. Thai model Yo Yossawadee plays Sri Sudachan, and part-Thai beauty queen Cindy Burbridge plays De Gama's lover.

"We're not making a historical document," says Winters. "This is a film about people, emotions, love, intrigue. It's classical, almost Shakespearean. We did a lot of research on history, but we added elements of fantasy to make it entertainment. The idea is to make a film that appeals to the international market."

Thus the elephants, the palaces, the temples, as well as the high-flying, Hong Kong-style fighting sequences; Mr Winters hired a stunt choreographer from Hong Kong. "Definitely, the exotic effects still sell," says the producer. "They're still very interesting for people in New York or L.A. It's a theatrical experience and I believe a lot of people will enjoy it. This is a film that when people in the West see, they'll say 'I want to go to Thailand."'

The Kingmaker was filmed in English (it's not the first film to do so; Pridi Banomyong filmed his 1941 epic The King of the White Elephant entirely in English). With its huge investment, the movie requires strong international sales in order to recoup the money. Winters says there have been offers from many countries in Asia and Europe, though he chooses to play his cards close to his chest and wait until the film's local release in Thailand.

"I'm sure the film will be a great advertisement for your country," he says.

That's true. And it's also true that most advertisements are naturally misleading and superficial. At the bottom line a movie _ no matter who made it _ should be judged on its own terms, on its sincerity to tell good stories. At the same time, we cannot overlook the fact that a movie can shape perspectives of the people who watch it, and certain images of Thailand, either true or false, realistic or quixotic, will be perceived through these movies made by foreign filmmakers _ the same way this country was perceived after Nang Sao Suwan and Chang came out in 1927.

There might come a day when a Thai filmmaker could raise enough money to make an epic movie about, say, the American Civil War featuring a gravity-defying Abraham Lincoln. But of course that is just a fantasy.


Elephants and prostitutes may inspire many foreign visitors to Thailand to write stories and make movies. But Thai writers and moviemakers have long used their arts to reflect on the reality of these two national "symbols". Here are some examples.

Thep Thida Rongram (Motel Angel), 1974

One of Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol's social-realist masterpieces, Thep Thida Rongram pitches the feisty Wiyada U-marin, playing a northern girl sold to a Bangkok brothel, with the imcomparable Sorapong Chatree, playing a sadistic pimp who eventually falls for her.

Phuying Kon Nan Chue Boonrod (Her Name Is Boonrod), 1985

Wijit Kunawut's gritty take on the phenomenon of "rental wives" following the arrival of American GIs during the Vietnam War is one of the best Thai feminist movies. Linda Kharthancharoen plays Boonrod, a dark-skinned rural woman who tries to prove to society that she's not selling herself to a farang, even though most other women around her are doing just that in order to survive.

Thep Thida Bar 21, 1978

Euthana Mukdasanit's musical drama tells the story of a bargirl tricked by a young man she loves and later scandalised by a murder case. More a showpiece than a social study, the film is nevertheless remembered for its undaunted subjects.

Prachao Chang Puek (The King of the White Elephant), 1941

Statesman Pridi Banomyong made this pro-peace epic to showcase the virtue of moral leadership, spiced with lavish Orientalism and a thundering herd of war elephants. With all characters speaking English, the film was made for both Thai and Western audiences to oppose the looming shadows of World War II.

Khon Liang Chang (The Elephant Keepers), 1990

Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol's sombre, reverential drama about the trials and tribulations of elephant keepers of the North is one of the director's most cherished work of the 1990s.