The Thai Film Industry

Thai film industry

Mitr Chaibancha was Thailand’s first movie superstar and made 266 films during his long filmography.

In the 1970s, musicals and weepy romances were particularly popular. Euthana Mukdasanit’s Pee Seua lae Dawkmai (Butterfly and Flowers) introduced urban audiences to regional poverty through musical theatre.

Nonzee Nimibutr and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang made headlines globally when they began making films that addressed social issues. Their productions soon won international acclaim.

The Early Years

Lumiere brothers arrived in Thailand (formerly Siam) in 1897 to find an audience delighted by moving images on screen, even for those without enough money for tickets – seeing films of Western origin was seen as an invaluable treat!

After World War II, filmmaking resumed using surplus 16mm black-and-white stock from wartime newsreel production. Director and cinematographer Rattana Pestonji advocated for using 35 mm film, believing it would enhance Thai movies’ artistic quality; his films such as 1954’s Santi-Weena and 1961’s Black Silk have now become classics of Thai cinema.

Since the 1970s, Thai directors have begun challenging traditional cinematic conventions, such as categorizing characters into two groups–good and evil–for movies. Starring actresses such as Preeya Roongrueng, Kaenjai Meenakanit or Chadaporn Wachirapranee dared playing seductive roles; many 35mm movies even presented original soundtrack versions instead of dubbing into Thai.

Thailand has earned an international reputation as a provider of top-tier film production services, catering to both international and local clients alike. Thailand’s industry boasts an impeccable track record when it comes to reliability and efficiency – this makes the region’s premier production hub with companies like GMM Grammy and GDH offering state-of-the-art equipment as well as highly experienced personnel.

Thailand has long competed with Hollywood for filmmaking talent, yet continues to prosper thanks to films from Nonzee Nimibutr’s hit romcoms and Dang Bireley’s Young Gangsters; Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s crime dramas Fun Bar Karaoke and Nang Nak; Teenage films have also grown increasingly popular; Piak Poster’s Wai Ounlawon is an example of such film that was well received at international film festivals.

The Thai New Wave

Film-makers in Thailand face many hurdles if they hope to break into the global cinema market, including lack of practical support – not limited to money, but including support for independent filmmakers themselves and short films, such as Graceland by Anocha Suwichakornpong which featured at Cannes Short Film Festival.

In the 1970s, a new wave of Thai directors emerged. Capitalizing on changing times to produce socially conscious films, Chatrichalerm Yukol created several notable works, such as Khao Chue Karn (Dr. Karn), which dealt with corruption within civil service; Hotel Angel (Thep Thida Rong Kapong); among many others.

However, the success of new wave filmmakers did not result in an industrywide breakthrough. Instead, most major studios and film makers chose safe bets that would draw audiences, leading to more formulaic films such as those by Nonzee Nimibutr and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang from 1997-2004.

Independent filmmakers are currently striving to find their place in the global cinema market and push back against expectations for Thai films. Unfortunately, this can be a challenging feat given Thai audiences’ general lack of appreciation for cinema as an art form; evidenced by limited aesthetic and art training in university curricula; leaving students without an adequate grasp of independent cinema. Furthermore, audiences still subscribe to Hollywood narrative rhythms and plotlines, meaning cinemas lack incentives to promote such non-Hollywood offerings.

The 1980s

By the late 1970s, Thailand had become more polarized than ever. Middle class opinion had drifted away from student liberalism and government was trying to silence dissent with an intense campaign of smears and repression; simultaneously many young people headed off into the jungle to join what had previously been a small rural-based communist insurgency; Thai version of anticommunist McCarthyism emerged – anyone expressing disaffection was being accused of joining some sort of conspiracy against authority.

In the 1980s, Thailand embarked on a process of democratization under King Bhumibol and Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda. They preferred constitutional rule over military involvement in politics. At the same time, however, its eastern border remained under threat due to Vietnam’s occupation of Kampuchea (Cambodia) with frequent skirmishes between Vietnamn troops hunting rebel guerillas hiding out at refugee camps; this situation was only eased with Deng Xiaoping visiting Thailand which convinced them not to support Khmer Rouge forces.

During this period, Thailand saw an emergent cultural life while arts in Communist Southeast Asia and Burma were severely restricted due to oppressive political regimes. Artists in socialist Vietnam and Laos practiced Socialist Realism for the benefit of the state; art in Burma was limited to elites. Furthermore, television had brought modern entertainment directly into villages. Urban life was changing rural life as rural areas saw urban lifestyles emerge more readily than before. This drastically transformed traditional forms of entertainment, such as regional opera, which was now tailored for urban audiences. Rural families also benefited from government programs providing electricity to homes; this expedited the spread of modern technology into rural areas – so much so that even smaller villages had access to televisions and video recorders.

The 1990s

Filmmakers in Thailand in the 1990s were inspired by political events to produce Third Cinema films. Examples include Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Fun Bar Karaoke and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Invisible Waves by both Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which highlighted the military role in Thai politics. Nonzee Nimitbutr’s Nang Nak was an international hit; its success marked a turning point for Thai cinema – filmmakers made more urban-oriented middle-class-themed movies while production of action/ghost movies decreased significantly by late 1990s.

As the popularity of teen films increased, producers turned their focus towards producing movies specifically targeting teenage audiences with plots and themes tailored for this demographic. Unfortunately, however, quality has suffered significantly while American blockbusters threatened Thai movie production-by the mid 1990s this number had decreased from 200 annually during the 1970s to 10 annually!

During the 1970s, 16mm color-reversal film enabled many aspiring filmmakers to enter the field. Some screenings would feature live performers reading from scripts; this tradition still lives on today at temple fairs and village festivals where screenings occur.

Thai film censorship remains stringent. Images depicting violence, nudity or smoking may be edited out. Formerly, images would be cut with scissors or petroleum jelly; now images are blurred electronically instead. Unfortunately for the board’s efforts however, some films still manage to escape censorship altogether.

The 2000s

Throughout the 2000s, larger studios found success producing epic historical movies like Chatrichalerm Yukol’s King Naresuan while New Wave directors continued honing their craft by creating more sophisticated and artistic films like Komgrit Treewimol’s college-age romance Dear Dakanda (which left audiences reaching for tissues).

More independent filmmakers emerged who challenged the formulaic movies being produced by studios, exploring subjects and themes that touched upon Thai society in new ways; many achieved international acclaim – most notably Apichartpong Weerasethakul’s critically acclaimed 2010 film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives which won Cannes’ Palme d’Or prize.

However, Thai independent filmmaking faces significant hurdles. There is no supportive legal environment and censorship remains an issue despite clear standards being in place; film-makers also struggle with high living costs that make maintaining crews difficult.

Though there have been significant challenges facing Thai independent film, there have been encouraging signs for its future. A handful of recent independent movies such as The Letter and Fan Chan have received critical acclaim and commercial success abroad. Many young filmmakers have begun emerging, with established directors such as Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Nonzee Nimibutr serving as mentors. However, in order for independent film to continue growing in Thailand, its ecosystem must be strengthened and more support given to filmmakers and audiences. To accomplish this objective, university and school curricula should include aesthetic appreciation courses which inspire budding filmmakers.