Within mainland Southeast Asia, the film industry with the most extensive history, as well as with the most activity at present, is that of Thailand. Film screenings put on by traveling foreign exhibitors have been present in Thailand since 1897. A Japanese businessman opened a permanent cinema in Bangkok in 1905, and others followed soon afterwards. Although broadly popular, film was not necessarily seen as a lower-class form of entertainment: not only did its foreign origins endow it with a certain cachet, but members of the royal family also took an interest in it from the time of its arrival. Indeed, it was a member of the royal family, Prince Sanphasat Suphakit, who is credited with being the first Thai filmmaker, shooting footage of royal ceremonies from early as 1900. While a number of filmmakers, both Thai and foreign, shot documentary footage in the silent era, records show only a modest number of fiction films made in Thailand at that time, including the American-produced Suvarna of Siam (1923). Survana was followed in 1927 by the Thai-produced fiction feature Chok Sorng San ( Double Luck ), followed by sixteen other silent features, none of them extant. In 1932 a Thai-produced sound film, Long Thang ( Going Astray ), was produced, and in the subsequent decade both films with recorded soundtracks and features with soundtracks performed live, Thai-produced and foreign-made, could be found in Bangkok cinemas.
Perhaps the most remarkable development of the post–World War II era was a turn to shooting feature films in economical 16mm, rather than 35mm, without recorded soundtracks. Just as in earlier decades, these films were presented with live performers offering dialogue and sound effects, and this remained the dominant mode of production through the 1960s. Film viewing took place in traditional film theaters as well as in temporary, open-air cinemas run by traveling exhibitors. Such screenings were commonplace through the 1970s and indeed can still occasionally be found. The most popular movie star in this era was undoubtedly the ever-suave Mitr Chaibancha, who appeared in hundreds of movies between 1956 and 1970 before he died while filming a helicopter stunt. A key director to emerge in this era was Rattana Pestonji, who tried to promote the use of 35mm through his own independent studio. Rattana produced the first Thai film to achieve international festival recognition ( Santi Weena , 1954), then went on to direct and photograph a handful of stylish films considered key achievements in Thai cinema, including the comedy drama Rong Raem Narok ( Country Hotel , 1957) and the crime film Prae Dum ( Black Silk , 1961).
The 1970s were a time of substantial political and social unrest in Thailand: national power changed hands, sometimes violently, on a number of occasions, and the decade ended with a military-backed administration in power and many left-leaning activists forced into hiding. It is in part out of the turmoil of the decade and the resulting raised social consciousness that a significant new tendency toward making social-issue films arose in the Thai industry. One senior figure (who had worked in the industry since the 1950s) exemplifying this trend was director Vichit Kounavudhi (b. 1922), who distinguished himself with films examining the difficulties faced by women in Thai society (for example, in the melodrama Mia Luang [ First Wife , 1978]) and the hardships of northern ethnic groups ( Luuk Isaan [ Son of the Northeast , 1982]). Among the newly emerging directors focusing on social woes at this time were Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol (b. 1942), Euthana Mukdasanit ( Thepthida Bar 21 [ The Angel of Bar 21 , 1978] and Peesua Lae Dokmai [ Butterfly and Flowers , 1986]), and Manop Udomdej ( Prachachon Nok [ On the Fringe of Society , 1981] and Ya Pror Me Chu [ The Accusation , 1985]). Though not equally focused on contemporary political issues, Cherd Songsri also distinguished himself at this time as a director concentrating on rural and historical dramas, especially with his highly successful film Plae Kao ( The Scar , 1977).
The start of the 1990s was not, on the whole, a good time for Thai cinema (save perhaps for teen films), in part because of competition from both the video market and Hollywood films, which soon achieved even greater domination on the screens of the multiplexes that started to be built in mid-decade. From 1997, however, feature films from a group of new, younger directors, largely with backgrounds in the Thai advertising industry, began to achieve recognition at international festivals and attention from foreign critics. The first new director to appear on the scene was Nonzee Nimibutr, with his highly successful 1950s crime drama, 2499: Anthapan Krong Muang ( Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters , 1997). He followed this with the box-office record-breaking period horror film Nang Nak (1999), which also proved a favorite with festival audiences and achieved some measure of international (especially pan-Asian) distribution. Penek Ratanaruang (b. 1962) made the first in a series of quirky, highly stylized dramas of contemporary Thai life in 1997, Fun Bar Karaoke , following it up with the dark comedy 6ixtynin9 (1999). Both directors have continued to make films on a regular basis, and both have also been able to garner international co-financing for their films.
Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol's work exemplifies a number of trends in modern Thai cinema, such as the interest in social issues in the 1970s, teen-oriented drama in the mid-1990s, and historical drama in the early twenty-first century. At the same time, however, Chatrichalerm is an exception in the attention he has received abroad, his sustained and regular production of films, his films' characteristic use of stylistic flourish, and his willingness to embrace controversial subject matter and imagery (this last made possible in part because of the prince's exceptional social status as the nephew of a former king).
Chatrichalerm's exposure to film began early: his father was a sometime filmmaker, and the prince studied at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), at which time he also worked as an assistant to Merian C. Cooper, the producer of such film classics as King Kong (1933) and The Searchers (1956). His knowledge of world film history is clear from his films themselves: his first feature, and Thailand's first science-fiction film, Mun Ma Kab Kwam Mued ( It Comes with the Darkness , 1971), is clearly informed by the plots of classic 1950s US science-fiction films, while his Thongpoon Khokepho ( Citizen , 1977), a feature about a taxi driver in search of his stolen vehicle, is a kind of Thai take on Ladri di biciclette ( The Bicycle Thieves , 1948). Issaraparb Kong Thongpoon Khokepho ( Citizen II , 1984) thematically recalls the films of John Ford, a favorite director of the prince.
These international inspirations, however, have been put in the service of distinctively Thai concerns—the second of Chatrichalerm's Citizen films, for example, concerns the difficulties of underclass existence in rapidly developing Bangkok, particularly for rural migrants. Before 2001, Prince Chatrichalerm was best known for his social-issue films, dating back to his Khao Cheu Chan ( Doctor Kan , 1973), with its then daring theme of an idealistic young physician facing official corruption; his prostitution drama, Thepthida Rong Raem ( Angel , 1974), with its memorable montage of an upcountry girl's sex work intercut with construction of the rural family home for which her work is paying; and the more recent, harrowingly graphic drama of teen drug abuse, Sia Dai ( Daughter , 1995).
Suriyothai (2001) was unprecedented in both the prince's work and Thai cinema for the massiveness of its budget and scale. Based upon years of research and supported and bankrolled by the royal family, the film goes to great pains to authentically represent the times of the sixteenth-century queen of its title. The film was wildly successful in Thailand, but its international-release version, produced under the supervision of Prince Chatrichalerm's UCLA classmate, Francis Ford Coppola, did not fare as well. The prince subsequently began work on another big-budget historical epic, King Naresuan , scheduled for completion in 2006.
Thepthida Rong Raem ( Angel , 1974), Thongpoon Khokepho ( Citizen , 1977), Khon Liang Chang ( The Elephant Keeper , 1987), Sia Dai ( Daughter , 1995), Suriyothai ( The Legend of Suriyothai, 2001)
Anchalee Chaiworaporn, "Thai Cinema Since 1970." In Film in South East Asia: Views from the Region , edited by David Hanan. Hanoi: SEAPAVAA, 2001.
Hamilton, Annette, "Cinema and Nation: Dilemmas of Representation in Thailand." In Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema , edited by Wimal Dissanayake, 141–161. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Kong Rithdee, "Bangkok Journal: Kong Rithdee on Cinematic Renewal in Thailand." Film Comment 38, no. 5 (2002): 12–13.
As Nonzee and Penek experienced success, producers gradually started investing in more local productions from more new directors. Yongyooth Thongkonthoon's comedy about a (real-life) transvestite volleyball team, Satree Lek ( Iron Ladies , 2000), managed the up to then rare feat of garnering a theatrical release (albeit limited) in the United States. The co-writer and cinematographer of that film, Jira Maligool, then had a terrific local success as director of a comedy of rural life, 15 Kham Duen 11 ( Mekhong Full Moon Party , 2002), and went on to produce the even more successful comic-nostalgic childhood romance, Fan Chan ( My Girl , 2003). Aside from comedy, other popular genres have included crime films, horror films, and historical dramas; most significant among the historical dramas has been Prince Chatrichalerm's Suriyothai ( The Legend of Suriyothai , 2001) and Thanit Jitnakul's epic of eighteenth-century Thai-Burmese battles, Bang Rajan (2000). Since 2002, Thai producers have also started to release substantial numbers of new direct-to-video features on video compact disc (VCD) and DVD, primarily for the domestic market.
One recent film that seems to hold the potential to raise international awareness of Thai cinema is the martial-arts film Ong-Bak (Prachiya Pinkaew, 2003), which made substantial money in Asia and Europe and received a modest release in the United States. Some of the international festival and art-house favorites, however, have paradoxically garnered little interest in their home country. Wisit Sasanatieng's nostalgic, spaghetti-western inspired Fah Talai Jone ( Tears of the Black Tiger , 2000), for example, while generating much interest at Cannes and getting released in DVDs in several markets, was a financial flop domestically. And the stylistically unconventional (and often sexually frank) feature films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (b. 1970) ( Sud Sanaeha [ Blissfully Yours , 2002]; Sud Pralad [ Tropical Malady , 2004]) received only limited play in Thailand until the director won repeated awards at Cannes.