Saturday, September 02, 2006

Thai Film Moviegoing Experience

I had hoped to catch a number of Thai films while here, but that hasn’t been an easy task as there isn’t much to see. Like much of the world Hollywood films reign and most of the theaters are showing the likes of “Snakes on a Plane”, “Miami Vice”, “The Lake House” and “You, Me and Dupree” among other vastly forgettable films. There are certainly a few Thai films in rotation, but you have to move quickly or they may be gone. I had planned on seeing the superhero film “Mercury Man” that looked to be reasonable fun, but it came and went so quickly that I barely had a chance to blink.

It hasn’t been a great year for the Thai film industry as best as I can tell – not creatively or at the box office. This is a shame since a few years ago it appeared to be waking up after a long slumber with some marvelously inventive films, but little of that seems to be in evidence of late. It has become more difficult keeping up with Thai films because so few of them are suddenly getting international exposure other than the occasional horror film and now for some reason the vast majority of them no longer contain English sub-titles on the DVD releases. In trying to get a handle on what has been released this year I checked out three valuable Internet sources – the “Mojo Box Office”, “Wise Kwai’s Film Journal” and “All About Thai Cinema” and realized that I had barely even heard any discussion on any of the films (“Dorm” and “Invisible Waves” being the exceptions) and had not seen one of them.

As best as I can figure out some 28 Thai films have been released so far this year – in general a commercial mix of horror, action, comedy and romance with the only one that seems to be somewhat of an artistic stretch being “Invisible Waves” from Pen-Ek Rattanaruang but he seems to be doing a Wong Kar-wai by making films for the international film community and not his home country. Most of these films haven’t done particularly well at the box office – the majority making less than $1 million, a handful between 1 and 2 million and a couple that just breached the $2 million barrier – one a comedy called “Nong-Tong” and the other an animation film “Khan Kluay”. Poor “Mercury Man” made less than $200,000 even with lots of publicity. With those kinds of returns it is a huge gamble putting out a big budget Thai film.

The Thai movie going experience is much like that from anywhere else these days. The venues at least in Bangkok are generally multiplexes in their many modern malls and as plush as you would want – esp. the VIP theaters that cost more and seem to offer you more space between you and your neighbor. Malls though in Thailand are great – so much more fun than your typical mall in the states that are full of brand name department stores and large people rushing for sales. Here they have loads of small cubby sized stores that sell all sorts of things and seem to be the main hangout of students who overrun them in the afternoons with their white shirts and black trousers/skirt uniforms. That goes for the films as well and it seems unusual to see many people over twenty sitting in them. That partly explains the film programming that dominates the screens. It seems to be the same the world over now and the decline of cinema may some day be tracked back to the audience takeover of the cinema’s by the under 25 set.

You have to pick out your seat while buying the ticket (120 baht - about $3) and then peruse the concession stand that has the usual assortment of popcorn, soft drinks and candy before going into the theater that ranges from chilly up to meat locker frozen and try to find your seat number in the dark while stumbling over people already seated. You are soon surrounded by people and look nearby at big sections of empty seats but are afraid to move there. I did one time and sure enough someone came for that seat – then moved again – same thing – and again – till I finally found myself in the front row with frightening close-ups of actors crotches. I sadly looked back at my original empty seat but realized I would have to step on the feet of at least 20 people to get there and didn’t want to give us farang’s a bad name – so I came out with a sore neck instead. Then you have the assorted endless series of commercials and trailers by which time your snacks are long gone and the movie hasn’t even started yet. Finally, the national anthem is played and everyone stands up. It is kind of a catchy tune that sounds like something from the Pogues or some other Irish group and it always features the King and Queen making the rounds of Thailand. They are totally revered in this country and though he has little power by law, he has such a command of the hearts of the people that he can force a government to step down if needed – but he seems to be a very cool guy who stays out of politics unless a crisis is at hand.

A few days ago I was wandering down a street around 9 a.m. and suddenly realized that I was the only person moving in this frozen street tableaux of outdoor foodstalls and shoppers - sort of like Chungking Express in reverse – very strange that no one was moving I thought – was I freaking out - then I realized the anthem was blasting through some street speakers and I was thankful no one had whacked me one. It was bad enough that I wasn't wearing a yellow shirt on a Monday which it seems 90% of the population does in respect for the King. Finally the movie begins and the cell phones ring continuously. Just like being at home. My favorite mall and theater group is MBK where all the Thai films have English subs. Unfortunately, I think the Korean films are dubbed – unfortunate because “The Host” opens next week. I am just grateful that MBK has been rebuilt since it was destroyed by that giant Garuda!

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