Movies About Thailand – Help!
As some of you know, I am an aficionado of all things Thailand. I have a good sized collection of books on everything about Thailand, with subjects that range from art to politics to Buddhism to history and to many novels about this enchanting country. Add to that the great number of Thai pictures and posters and amulets and many other artifacts I have accumulated over the years, including a Thai wife and two step-sons. I think many people, especially here in America where most people confuse Thailand with Taiwan, would say I am a Thai nut. To this charge I readily plead guilty. Yes, it differentiates me from my peers striving to get ahead this increasingly oligarchical society, that I occasionally devote some of my time to place most do not understand. Many believe Thailand is the mental ward of humanity, but for me it’s where I retreat to keep my own mental state in balance. Yes, my collection reflects a lot of what is good about Thailand, but there is one area of my collection that I have utterly failed; good movies about Thailand.
But what makes a good movie? Besides my own personal enjoyment of its plot and scenery, I like for these movies to reflect some sense of what the people and places or history of these countries are really like. For China, there are lots of great movies, like The Sand Pebbles, The Road Home, The Last Emperor, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For Japan, there’s Rashomon, Lost in Translation, and of course all those great, hand drawn animated movies by Myazaki. Even Cambodia had The Killing Fields and Vietnam had Apocalypse Now and The Quiet American. Of course I am leaving out a huge body of work created within these countries, but what I was looking for were movies that I could recommend to friends that they might enjoy. With most of my American friends, even with these great movies, I failed miserably.
But with Thailand I thought it would be different. I started, as most of us do, with the classic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Although filmed in Sri Lanka in 1957, the producers used Thai actors. In their brief appearance, the Thai “women bearers” quickly seduced the western men such that they readily died trying to save them from the clutches of the evil Japanese army. At least that’s how I interpreted the ending, having a Thai girlfriend at the time. Then I discovered the hilarious The Iron Ladies, based on a true story about a ladyboy volleyball team competing for the national championship. After these nibbles, I was hungry for more. I eagerly waited for my next big find in what I thought was a huge treasure trove of great Thai movies. Little did know, I was about to embark on a journey of great disappointment that made Shackleton’s last trip seem like a success. Why, in this land of such interesting people and places, have there been no great movies made about Thailand?
I will admit to probably not having seen all the movies made about Thailand. But I have tried really hard, believing that my lack of success was due to lack of effort. When I was in Asia, I scoured the DVD bins every time I went shopping. When I returned to America, I used Netflix and other on-line movie databases to find any and all title dealing with Thailand, but I was always disappointed. I even asked my Thai wife what movies about Thailand she liked. Her answer: none.
My journey started with the The Beach, a extended moon party gone wrong with scary Thai marijuana farmers killing insolent western partiers. It quickly devolved into a weird version of Lord of the Flies. I then ventured to Ong Bak (mostly Chinese fighting silliness) to Butterfly Man (drippy puppy dog love) to Knockdown (the first whiney “hero” movie I have seen) to Tom-Yum-Goong (another wasted fight movie). Most of these movies I couldn’t even watch through to the end. The King and I, though Yul Brenner was terrific, left my Thai family wondering why such a lousy movie is banned in their country. I even tried acclaimed movies made by Thai directors, like Uncle Boonmee and Shutter, but these left me scratching my head. The worst, of course, was Hangover II. I hyped this movie to my Thai family by watching the first Hangover, which they loved. We then went to see the sequel in the theatre and we were the only ones not laughing. What Thai veteran didn’t spot the ugly ladyboy in less than a second? Big surprise – not! For the record, many of these movies had very compelling scenes of Thailand that made watching them not a total waste of time, especially Knockdown and Uncle Boonmee. But in the end, the one great movie about the real beauty of the land or the fascinating character of the Thai people has yet to be made.
To be fair, there are a few others I thought had their moments and were at least worth watching. Besides the ones I have already mentioned, let me start with Mee and My Dad. This surprising choice is about a young British director coming to grips with his English father’s new life in Thailand. It’s fairly predictable until the scene of his retired, pot-smoking father, acting stupidly at a party. All the while his younger Thai wife looks on protectively with a few menacing glances at the camera. It was a quick glimpse into the lives of many retired farangs and it chilled me to the bone. I quickly resolved that when my time comes to retire in Thailand, I do everything I could to not become the “village farang”, akin the infamous village idiot.
When I first saw the cable listing for “Brokedown Palace” I wondered if it had something to do with the Grateful Dead song of the same name. Then when I saw it was about Thailand and stared Claire Danes, for whom I have a soft spot in my heart, I set my DVR into record mode. But it was a depressing movie about young innocents abroad, mislead by evil men, and then trapped in a corrupt system of justice. Good scenes of Thailand were offset by characters of petty Thai people. The impression left was why would anyone want to visit this place? The court scenes were more authentic so I suppose if the one redeeming factoid to take from this movie is to never get involved with the Thai legal system, then it was worth watching.
Another film of note is “Bangkok Dangerous”; the 1999 version not the 2008 unwatchable re-make that proves body count alone does not a good action movie make. The movie’s main character is a deaf-mute who falls into the Thai mafia and becomes a deadly accurate hitman. He meets a young pharmacy clerk who treats him kindly and as their love progresses, the hitman starts to see a different world of love, kindness and jai yen yen. In a dramatic finish, he takes down his mafia masters who have done so much harm to him, his friends, and of course Thailand. Along with good acting and a crisp script, the film is packed with vibrant scenes of Bangkok showing both good and bad. It’s become one of those movies I will always watch when it’s on, which isn’t often in America unfortunately.
After writing this and thinking about all these films (and many more that were not included in this article) it seems the directors of movies set in Thailand either see the country as exclusively a bad or a good place. Films made by the former show Thailand as a corrupt land where everything is for sale, from hard drugs to human flesh. The latter paints a drippy sweet land of gentle beings in a paradise of blue seas and fruited jungles. In fact, it is rare to meet someone or to read an article about Thailand with an opinion that is neither good nor bad. Many long term ex-pats also have this love-hate relationship with their adopted country. So I often wonder why it is so difficult for farangs, and farang directors in this case, to just accept Thailand for what it is and concentrate on a good story with interesting Thai characters set against the dramatic scenery of Thailand?
Calling James Cameron! Why create the exotic world of Pandora when one already exists and is waiting for your master’s touch? One can only hope.
May I recommend that you pick up a bunch of Thai movies on DVD when you're next in the country. Thais are very creative and the local Thai movie production industry is developed and as long as you choose movies of a genre that you like, I bet you'll find you enjoy most titles you pick up. I am no fan of slapstick and Thai-style comedy doesn't do it for me – and many titles are in that style – but as long as I avoid those, along with Thai horror which again is not for me, I rather like Thai cinema.