LETTER FROM BANGKOK
Wednesday 19 May 2010
APEX Entertainment, the last independent exhibitor in Bangkok unattached to any studio, runs all three cinemas in Siam Square, the Scala, Lido and Siam. These three once grand sisters in a row, rock’n’roll it girls circa 1969, presided over generations of Thai teenagers. The Lido, the only art-house cinema in the centre of town, is the one great hope and refuge for independent filmmakers and cinephiles alike. Which is why I cried real tears when APEX rejected ‘Citizen Juling’, our documentary about the Southern Unrest during the last four fearful months under the butcher Thaksin Shinawatra. Their stated reason: they were afraid Mr T’s red shirts would burn the Lido down.
This was before the Songkran riots last year. In other words, they played it safe before they even had to. But to no avail. This afternoon Mr T’s red goons burned down APEX’s Siam Theatre anyway. The Lido itself, almost next door, barely escaped the flames.
More decadent and indecently personal stuff from me in a time of chaos: I couldn’t get designer-looking shirts for Malcolm and Macduff for the relaxed Prince William-at-home look for Scene 36 and 37 (in which the general tries to persuade the crown prince in exile to liberate the country from the bloody reign of Macbeth and Ross says, “Alas poor country, almost afraid to know itself. It cannot be called our mother, but our grave..”), because the red shirts occupied the central shopping district, putting the newly opened The Gap out of commission. Why The Gap? Because it’s relatively cheap and can look expensive. SHAKESPEARE MUST DIE is a low-budget horror movie; we can’t afford Burberry.
That just proves it: we’re incorrigible elite horseshit aristocratic wankers who deserve to be ripped to shreds by the red mob. If you were a Western foreign correspondent, that would be your inescapable conclusion. Your tiny dinosaur brain could not possibly imagine that a bunch of elite Third World wankers making a Shakespearean horror movie could also be fighting tyranny—the tyranny of moronic stupidity and greed.
Our Shakespearean adventure is not supported by the Ministry of Culture’s new Film Fund, instituted under the auspices of the “Thai Khem Khaeng” (Make Thais Strong) policy. The august committee, made up of industry professionals from the studio and a sprinkling of academics, film critics and bureaucrats, rejected our proposal because the film contains a scene of regicide. Well, it’s Macbeth. What do you expect? Rather an important plot point there that you want us to drop.
In the background comes the melodramatic voice of the BBC World Service: “Bangkok Burns. This is Bangkok Right Now.” The girls (Pum the production manager, Mhu the wardrobe mistress and Fio the Lady M who are sleeping in the office across the road, some 350 metres away) have decamped to the house around the TV with their laptops open. They had a bit of an adventure getting here.
Lady M: “ We came out of the office soi and the flow running away from Asoke (Sukhumvit’s gateway to the centre, which is shut down) was like a surge, a flux, where everybody was moving very quickly out of town. Cars, people—office workers, bank employees, the local supermarket clerks, everybody was pouring out onto the street. Bus #2 made a careening U-turn when it saw the crowd waiting for it, but people ran for it and leaped on anyway. And as we were being shuffled along, in the frame of an expensive furniture shop was an apparition with blacky green spots all over his face and kinky wild hair. His body was dark brown and yellowish; he was dressed in black open shirt and black trousers, and in his hand was a giant joo—the penis head, heart-shaped with the lotus petal lines, was very clearly seen as he jerked off and smiled—as if he was feeding off this situation, like a kid in a candy shop, you know? Almost next door, a customer was trying on a mild jade chiffon evening dress. She had a tattoo on one arm. Yes, she was beautiful.”
Unfortunately, that amazing scene is beyond the budget of SHAKESPEARE MUST DIE. I should be filming all this during our enforced break.
I certainly can’t hope that if Lido had found the courage to show ‘Juling’ or if Thai PBS had broadcast it as a mini-series, Lido might not be in ashes now. Nevertheless I can’t help wondering: if this society had made room for the likes of us, just a little room, allowed us to contribute to the nurturing of contemporary Thai culture, ie. our national soul, if they had allowed our version of the Thai story to be heard, might it not have been helpful as antidote to all the mind-numbing soaps and game shows that have rotted and withered the Thai imagination, made people ripe for masterful PR exploitation/ manipulation by the Thaksin machine? We’re having to endure the sight of poor people weeping with melodramatic grief for their handsome hero whose corrupt billions have been confiscated by the Thai government, pressured by the will of its thinking people yearning for rule of law, who by default have become the “amart” (the toffs) enemies, like the nang ijcha (“the envious lady”) whose job in any soap is to slap the Cinderella heroine.
For a long while, to preserve the right to freedom of expression, official culture permitted space for Thaksin’s brain-washing hate-inciting lies and propaganda (which is equivalent to, say, allowing neo-Nazi propaganda to spread unchecked on TV and radio in Germany), while actively suppressing the voices of our independent filmmakers.
The Thai state appears to have just two ways of managing culture, namely to promote or ban. When they’re out to promote something, eg. all things remotely connected with the royal family, their fanfare overkill is such that it provokes antagonism and the inevitable backlash. If they decide that something is harmful to the public, they ban or cut to shreds. Then when they think it’s time to “strengthen the people’s ethics”, they trot out monks to give us sermons on TV; they bring on superior citizens to tell us exactly what we should do and not do, as if we were little children. And so little children we remain. These two extremes leave no room for the real cure of nurturing the people’s imagination so we’d be able to analyse and think for ourselves.
Back at the house with the production office ensconced in my house following the news on TV and internet. As we debated whether to cancel the Banquet Scene this Friday-Saturday, a burst of gunfire came from the direction of the burning TV station (Channel 3 building is not far away) and the smell of smoke wafted in. The TV went black as did the lights; they were burning our local power station. Without electricity to fuel the pump, the water stopped running. Then a curfew was announced, 8 pm to 6 am tomorrow. So the Banquet Scene, in which old sins visit the tyrant, is cancelled, along with Scene 13 (pre-regicide) that we were forced to cancel because the university studio was closed, the whole campus in lock-down mode. From being ahead of schedule, we are now a week behind, but it's probably just as well. The filming has been going so well and so speedily that we're in danger of burning out.
Sometimes I feel like we’re painting; the act of making this vividly visual film is so visceral, so physical. We were 2 days ahead, now we are a week behind. We start shooting again on June 1st.
Macbeth, whose day job is as deputy mayor of a small town in Isarn—red shirt country--has gone home for the week. He tells us the villagers are all watching TV and saying it’s all lies, that soldiers are shooting women and children who have surrendered. “My experience as a local politician,” he says helplessly, “has convinced me beyond all doubt that the biggest problem facing our country is the stupidity of peasants (kwarm ngo khong chao barn)”. This is the jet fuel that drives him to work so hard on his M. We are not staging designer riots and committing designer arson (oh please, the power station, the stock exchange, provincial town halls, a mall owned by the backers of this government? Their targets are as impulsive as PM Abhisit); we are not burning mountains of tyres (neither cheap nor easily available) or looting ATMs, but SHAKESPEARE MUST DIE is our version of political struggle. Fight fear with art; make art with love, or so we hope to do.
Thursday 20th May
Curfew fever propelled what’s left of the office, ie. four people, on a day trip to Ancient Siam, a theme park shaped like Thailand. Ostensibly it was to see if we could afford to shoot Scene 32 there instead of relying on CG. (We can’t afford it). Racing against curfew, we bicycled to the Cambodian border and climbed up Phrear Vihear. The pre-fascist old Siam flag, white elephant on red, was flying high above the disputed temple. Cambodia was an endless horizon of industrial ‘parks’. We had the whole of miniature Thailand almost to ourselves, including the whorehouse and the gambling den in the quaint Ye Olde Market.
Skirting round the red shirt town of Samut Prakarn, we got home an hour before curfew.
Friday 21st May
Today we took Lady M (Fio) and Lady Macduff (Ploi) to the burned-out wreck of the Siam. It wasn’t easy to get there with all the roads blocked off by the army, but if we waited until tomorrow, we wouldn’t have been allowed inside the theatre. Hulking black shell with sunburst holes in the ceiling at noon; on the floor, shards of glass and other sharp debris. A skeletal escalator, a forest of twisted metal rods, a broken fountain, and Lady M, seized by a sudden impulse, Thai-dancing in a beam of light among the charred remains.
The Siam opened its doors--in 1969?—with ‘Battle of the Bulge’; its last offerings were ‘Iron Man 2’ (or 3?) and ‘The Bounty Hunter’, whose misogynistic poster of a man holding handcuffs sitting on top of a woman was the only thing untouched by the flames. Jennifer Anniston’s immaculate blond head looks strange as snow in a jungle.
If APEX goes bust from this, it would be a grievous blow for Thai independent filmmakers and cinephiles. Why didn’t they burn the Paragon instead? Bit of a slip there. That would’ve been a lot more PC. They messed up in Victory Monument too, burning down the Dog Ya Bookshop building. But then, for Mr T, a capitalist posing as a communist, a bookshop and an art-house cinema are far graver threats than the biggest and glitziest shopping centre in Southeast Asia.