An Abridged Initiation to Modern Thai Cinema6 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Thai cinema has been established for many years. In fact, the very first film screening that took place in the country was on 9 June 1897, marking the beginning of Thailand’s long and fruitful film history. Thailand has always been a film powerhouse. The most notable era for me personally is the early 2000s, where Thai horror amassed international attention and praise. I still remember the first time I watched Shutter (2004); I was terrified but also inexplicably intrigued. There’s something about Thai horror that I can’t quite put my finger on, making it more terrifying than most horror films for some reason.
But the country is also renowned for many other film genres. Thai filmmakers have proven, and still continue to prove, the country’s impressive stance in the world of cinema. With the abundance of renowned Thai films out there, here’s a list of films that is a great place to start exploring Thai cinema.
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast: Sakda Kaewbuadee, Banlop Lomnoi, Sirivech Jareonchon
Runtime: 125 minutes
Categorising Tropical Malady into one singular genre would be grossly discrediting the intensity and depth of the film. Drama, horror and romance all come together perfectly, giving us an unforgettable movie experience. Director Apichatpong Weersasethakul demands our attention wholly, as he uncovers the intricacies of human desire, dreams and memories
The film is separated into two starkly contrasting, yet interrelated segments. The first segment appears to represent the physical, and conscious reality. The second, on the other hand, conveys the subconscious mind. Structuring the film this way seems to symbolise how the realm of dreams and reality can collide, both worlds presenting their own inexplicable challenges.
Tropical Malady starts out with what appears to be a love story between the soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and local villager Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). Their journey is of profound yearning, complemented by the exceptional music sequences and camera work. The film progresses in a way that’s similar to an exploration of the human psyche, and as Keng and Tong’s feelings deepen, the film takes a more dream-like quality. In this world, the primitive environment is in charge, as if to symbolise Keng’s innately human desires and fears.
As we all may very well know, looking into our own minds and exploring our own psyche can be unnerving. The film’s alarming tonal shift captures this feeling perfectly. As Weersasethakul says, Tropical Malady shows us a “mind from one world adjusting to another”.
Beautiful Boxer บิวตี้ฟูล บ๊อกเซอร์
Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Cast: Asanee Suwan, Sorapong Chatree, Orn-Anong Panyawong
Runtime: 118 minutes
Beautiful Boxer is based on the true story of kickboxer Parinya Charoenphol, aka Nong Toom, and her controversial position in both the sports world and the LGBTQ+ community.
Nong Toom, played by Asanee Suwan, is a transgender Muaythai athlete, competing as a man as a means to support herself and her family. Although she identifies as a woman, Nong Toom competes among men and even cross-dresses during competitions. This is a refreshing combination of a sports feature and a transgender fairytale.
Beautiful Boxer is immensely emotional and inspiring at its core, and is something that I’ve personally never seen before. Knowing that it’s based on a true story makes the experience all the more remarkable. One particularly memorable aspect is how the choreographed fight scenes are both powerful and graceful at the same time. The portrayal of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits is so well done, excellently balanced with a subtlety that blurs the traditional gender roles. Director Ekachai Uekrongtham’s portrayal of LGBTQ+ experience refuses hackneyed stereotypes of drag queens, and instead presents a heartening yet realistic narrative.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast: Thanapat Sisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee
Runtime: 114 minutes
Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes another appearance on this list with his illustrious film, and my personal favourite, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The film garnered glowing reviews and even won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes 2010 – you can immediately tell why from the beginning. The aesthetic merits of the film is just one of the many reasons why Uncle Boonmee is such a compelling watch.
Uncle Boonmee is kind of a ghost story, but not the usual types that we’re familiar with. When we think of ghosts, we think of evil spirits. But the spirits that visit Boonmee are simply of those that he has once encountered in his lifetime. They’re not malevolent or wicked, they’re almost human in every sense other than their physical vessel. These spirits are as alive and conscious as Boonmee can ever be.
The film takes us on a kind of cultural odyssey, exploring ideas of reincarnation and transmigration. The film also touches on some important historical events and the grim consequences of war on the common man.
The film is undoubtedly peculiar, with several scenes that may be baffling to people who aren’t familiar with Thai Buddhist beliefs. For example, there was a seemingly romantic scene between Boonmee and a fish. My confusion was immediately replaced by awe and reverence once I could grasp that this is a stirring encounter between husband and wife.
Uncle Boonmee visually matches up with the incredibly rich, ethereal doctrine that is explored in the film. It’s mystical, yet somehow still rooted in human realities of life and death, and reckoning with our mortality.