A little bit of Thai history: Finale

by gonzotrooper

So, first of all, as a big “Thank You!” to a friend of mine who helped me out in the fall of 2011, I’ve written monthly posts about the history of Thailand for a year. This will be my final one, so far.

Second, it is at least sixteen days overdue.  Some of it due to job pressure, some due to laziness, but most of all due to me not knowing what the HELL I was to write about now? I mean, what is left uncovered?  Thai cooking? beauty pageants? Action movies? Wait a minute… ACTION MOVIES!


Insee thong, 1970. (image from Wikipedia)

But, in my best historical anecdotal style, I’ll start with a brief history of film in Thailand. I began, as so many other things, with the royal family. In this case indirectly. In 1897 the first films came to Thailand, first with the Lumiere brothers’ travelling film exhibition, soon followed by a film recording of the Thai royal family’s visit to Europe. Though Prince Thongthaem Sambassatra was the first film pioneer making documentaries and historical films, cinema theaters for the public were started up largely by Japanese business men. In the early days,  Japanese films were so popular that nang yipun became the generic term for all moving pictures. European and American films were called nang farang (after the nang drama (shadow puppet plays) that were a Thai traditional art).

The Topical Film Service, a company set up by the State Railway Service of Thailand to make promotional and educational films about the railway and other government services. As well as collaborating with Hollywood studios to make films like  the historical drama “Miss Suwanna of Siam” and the documentary “Chang”, the Topical Film Service was a training ground for indigenous filmmakers.


Miss Suwanna of Siam, 1923. (image from Wikipedia)

And THEN… Among the 17 films produced between 1928 and 1932, only fragments survive… However, among them are a minute long clip of a car chase and a 3 minute boxing match. The Thai Action Movie was born.

In the 1930s, new developments changed film again. The “talkies”, sound pictures, gave birth to dubbing (these were actually often done “live”, with a dubber in a microphone booth back in the theater) and color film. This is regarded as the golden age of Thai cinema. It lasted till 1942, when the dictatorship allied with Japan seized the film institutions to be used as propaganda tools for the government.

In the postwar era, 16mm film made for wartime newsreel production was abundant. And with the smash hit of 1949, Suparb Burut Sua Thai (Thai Gentlemen Fighters) actually outgrossed Hollywood movies at the box office, the action film was well back on track in the fifties.

Oh, and also a director named Rattana Pestonji made his breakthrough as  a director in Thailand at this time. Seeing as how most of his films are regarded as masterpieces ( including Santi-Weena, which was the first Thai film to be entered into international competition, at the 1954 Asia Pacific Film Festival in Tokyo, and 1961’s Black Silk, the first Thai film in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival) and he put Thai cinema on the world stage all by himself, he should probably be mentioned, I guess. So,to give him his dues, he is regarded the father of contemporary Thai cinema. He didn’t make any action films, though.

One who DID was Mitr Chaibanca, Muay Thai champion, flight instructor at the Royal Thai Air Force Academy and action film star who made 266 films before falling to death from a helicopter during a stunt in what was to be his last film, Insee Thong. In a sad twist of irony both died the same year, 1970, giving Tha cinema a big blow, both for action buffs and people who for some reason liked films with artistic merit.

It would bounce back however, with the 1977 tax hike on foreign films, making Hollywood boycott Thailand. Faster than you could say “LIGHTS! CAMERA! ARTISTICALLY RIPPED SHIRT! ACTION!”  The Thai action genre  was BACK, with 150 films made in 1978 alone. Scholars and critics generally refer to films of this era as  “nam mao”, stinking water. So you just KNOW they didn’t mess around with subplots, long dialogue or multiple takes. This was action ALL THE WAY.

However, when the boycott ended in 1981 and TV spread  in Thailand the demand collapsed, and in the 90s only 10 films were made a year. So the new wave,  three directors of television commercials – Nonzee Nimibutr, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Wisit Sasanatieng – had an idea in the wake of the Asian crisis of 97.

They would make action films with artistic merit.

Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangsters, a crime drama about the rise and fall of a young gang leader, Tears of the Black Tiger,  a Thai Western movie (and homage to the 70′ action genre) and  Bangkok Dangerous, a crime film about a deaf-mute hit man,  are some examples of the new wave within the action genre alone.  Also I should mention the thriller genre that has blossomed, with classics like The Eye and Nang Nak about a woman seeing ghosts with transplanted corneas and a husband haunted by his dead wife.

And I can’t write about Thai cinema without mentioning the gay film genre of Thailand (yes, there is a separate gay film genre in Thailand. Buddhists don’t judge, it seems). There are many, good and bad (including the spy B-movie Iron Pussy)The film Iron Ladies is a comedy film about a Thai volleyball team consisting of gays and transgender persons winning an international companionship. Tes, it’s based on a true story.



(image from Wikipedia)