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Thai
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..Thai
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One of the few remarkable things that happened at what everyone agrees was a relatively uneventful Cannes Film Festival was the surprise winner of the Palme d’Or. Instead of the expected buggin’s turn awarding of the prize to someone dull but respected, like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, the Tim Burton-headed jury gave their top prize to a Thai film about an old man visited by the ghosts of his wife and son. The success of the snappily-titled Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives will presumably focus the attention of the cinematic world, however briefly, on Thailand. Journalists who have never seen a Thai film before are probably currently trying to research the country and its native cinema, while all the distributors who missed the boat on Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film will be searching for something similar to ride its coat-tails.
      What these journalists and distributors will discover will surprise them. It will probably surprise you. Because Thailand has one heck of a big film industry. Not much makes it outside of the country - ‘international release’ for most Thai films means basically Singapore and Hong Kong - although a handful of bigger-budgeted, slicker movies have made it to the West in recent years. But domestically, the Thais bang low-budget DTV movies out at an incredible rate of knots.
      And if there’s one genre they love, it’s horror movies.

      Just selecting a grab-bag of random titles from my files, we find Alive or Die, Brutal River, The Death Fang, The Demon’s Legacy, Devil Species, House of Haunted, The Magic of Devil, Mask Horrified, Mortal Reflection, Queen Zombie, Seven Days in Coffin, Soul Under Bed and the memorably-titled 999-9999. Tell me there isn’t at least one of those titles that makes your DVD-ordering finger itch. Above all, like their Southeast Asian neighbours in China, Japan and South Korea, they absolutely go crazy for ghost stories in Thailand: Aborted Ghost, Crazy Ghost, Headless Ghost, Dormitory of the Ghosts, The Troop of Ghost, Wake Up Ghost, Ghost of Valentine, Ghost Delivery, Ghost Variety, Ghost Station and, yes indeedy - Ghost Bra. You will find few, if any, of these films listed on the IMDB or mentioned in Wikipedia. But you can Google every one and there isn’t a film there which isn’t (or at least, wasn’t at one stage) available for you to buy for a couple of quid.

      Most Thai films have Thai titles but when they do venture into English (these are actual titles, as used on the sleeves of the domestically-released DVDs) they have, as you can see, a wonderful capacity to mangle syntax and grammar. Films with titles in the Thai language - I won’t list any, it would just sound like white noise -  often include the word ‘phee’ or ‘phi’ or ‘pee’. Meaning ghost. Some of these films are spooky, some are genuinely frightening, many are comedies. Some take place in jungle villages, others are modern, urban tales. Some were successful, others disappeared almost without trace. And in among all the ghosts and haunted bras, there’s a good smattering of other genres: vampires, werewolves, science fiction and superheroes.

      The almost-breakthrough Thai horror film was the gloriously alliterative Nonzee Nimibutr’s Nang Nak in 1999, the umpteenth retelling of a famous Thai legend. Young man leaves pregnant wife to fight in a war; young man returns to find that loving wife and beautiful baby are ostracised by fearful neighbours; young man eventually discovers that wife died in childbirth and he is living with two ghosts. There have been at least twenty film versions of this tale before and after Nimibutr’s take, even one directed by a Briton (Mark Duffield’s 2005 feature Ghost of Mae Nak). But it was Nang Nak which really stood out and revitalised the somewhat moribund Thai film industry. Nimibutr’s first film was an urban crime caper, shown at international festivals as Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters, but he already had massive experience directing more than 200 TV commercials and pop videos. As a producer, he was responsible for Tears of the Black Tiger, a western(!), which was almost certainly the first populist Thai movie to receive a theatrical release in the UK. He also produced Bangkok Dangerous which launched the career of Danny and Oxide Pang.

      The Pang Brothers really broke through with The Eye in 2002, which was an international co-production but perceived more as a Hong Kong film than a Thai one. Nimibutr also contributed directly to a 2002 international co-production which might have kick-started interest in Thai horror - if it had been perceived more as a Thai movie. Three and its sequel have one of the oddest release/retitling histories ever, possibly even more so than Invisible Mom (see the March 2010 blog). Three is an anthology comprised of one Thai segment, directed by Nonzee Nimibutr, one South Korean segment, directed by Kim Jee-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) and one Hong Kong segment directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan (producer of the recent Bodyguards and Assassins). A couple of years later, this collaborative experiment was tried again, with Park Chan-Wook representing South Korea, Fruit Chan flying the flag for Honkers and Japanese crazy man Takashi Miike in place of a Thai contribution. Park was making a name for himself with Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, the first in a wildly violent trilogy of international hits, while Miike-fever was spreading across the globe as audiences (and distributors alike) discovered such bonkers cult-classics as Audition and Ichi the Killer. Lions Gate spotted a marketing opportunity and snapped up the film, which it then released in the USA as Three Extremes, presumably to make it a little more distinctive and Googleable. When that did well, the original was released as a follow-up and was retitled Three Extremes II, which effectively made it a second sequel to itself.

      So why hasn’t Thai horror cinema taken off in the west the way that Japanese - and, to a lesser extent, Korean - horror has. The new wave of Japanese terror films at the tail end of the 1990s, dubbed J-horror, saw western audiences and media discovered that there was more to Japanese fantasy than manga, Mothra and Mighty Morphin Ultramen. Hideo Nakata's Ringu was the poster child for the new wave, swiftly followed by its several sequels, likewise Ju-on: The Grudge. Hollywood rushed to remake all of them with its usual lack of success. South Korea was the obvious place to look for the next big thing and there was soon a flurry of Seoullywood movies playing the festival circuit, although the emphasis remained more on post-Tarantino violent action pictures than on the long-haired spookiness of Tokyo’s output. Rather than compete with J-horror, Korea gave us K-action, from the stylish shenanigans of Shiri, through the aforementioned Vengeance violence of Park Chan-Wook, to the splendid Hollywood-trumping giant monster malarkey of Bong Joon-Ho's The Host.

      Alas, despite a few minor festival successes, T-horror never really established itself in the popular cine-zeitgeist in that way. That hasn’t stopped Bangkok from churning out scores of films, but their distribution has been limited. And while there may be a number of reasons for that, two stand out as obvious. J-horror is mostly urban horror, or at least suburban. Twenty-first century Japan is a neon-lit, 24-hour, corporate technopolis. Japan has always been seen as the future. How did Ridley Scott make rain-soaked Los Angeles look futuristic in Blade Runner a quarter-century ago? - He filled it with sushi bars. And now there’s a sushi bar on every high street in the west. (Which is great, by the way; I freaking love sushi!) South Korea is another very urbanised, quasi-westernised society and this is reflected in its films. But Thailand (and I must stress, I’ve never been to Thailand) is more rural. Think of Japan or Korea as a holiday destination and you think of gleaming cities, all bright lights and bullet trains. Think of Thailand and you think of lush jungle, sandy beaches, crystal-clear rivers, tumbling waterfalls, brightly coloured birds squawking in the treetops as insects and lizards scuttle around your feet. Or something similar. Like I say, I’ve never actually been there.

      A lot of T-horror reflects this rural ambience, especially films based on traditional stories like the legend of Mae Nak, which inspired Nang Nak, and the legend of the Snake King’s Daughter, which seems to have inspired almost everything else. Thailand, by dint of its tropical lushness, is a more alien society to western audiences. Distinctive local ghosts and spirits are intrinsic to the Thai culture and hence endemic to Thai cinema, further alienating these movies from all but the most adventurous western film fans. But if you are feeling adventurous, there is a vast swathe of undocumented cinema to be explored, available at the touch of a keyboard for less than the price of a pint. Which is something that not even Ridley Scott foresaw. And there is more of this stuff being made every year. It’s an inexhaustible supply. A swift Google will bring up plenty of mail order websites in Thailand which price their product in US dollars and will happily ship it to anywhere in the world. It behoves me to say that I have always used eThaiCD.com and found their service excellent, but other e-tailers are available.

      Films are generally released on VCD as well as DVD, the former offering poorer image quality spread across two discs but saving a couple of bucks. A DVD will cost you about ten dollars and a VCD about eight, give or take. English subtitles are available on some releases, while others require you to work out the plot from what you see on screen. But if you’re feeling adventurous and enjoy, like I do, watching films about which no-one seems to have ever written anything in English, then this is the ultimate cinematic lucky dip. Especially as plot synopses are often notable by their absence from the online shops. But you do sometimes get a bunch of screen-grabs and, more importantly, Thai DVD sleeve designers don’t muck about with enigmatic images. You can safely judge these books by their cover. There are plenty of romances, comedies, action flicks etc., but the ghost and horror movies are easy to spot, easy to order and easy to watch. And there’s the thrill of knowing that, for all the ubiquity of information - especially entertainment related information - in today’s connected world, you’re holding a copy of a film for which there is no way to find out anything about it except to watch it (or learn to read Thai).

      Which brings me to the other factor that holds back Thai cinema: the language, and specifically its lack of consistency in anglicisation. Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Hindi - all have standardised ways of writing their sounds phonetically using the western alphabet. But Thai is all over the show when the film-makers try to put their credits in a form that westerners can at least read, if not necessarily pronounce. Oftentimes, actors’ name are spelled differently, not just between different films but between the opening titles and end credits of the same film. And finally, there are those names themselves. And this is really infantile, some might consider it racist, but it’s a basic practicality of the differences and similarities relating to the English and Thai tongues. Put simply, the range of syllables commonly found in Thai names includes, by an unfortunate coincidence, a considerable number of English profanities and inanities, to the degree that it is difficult for an anglophone to read these names and not smile. Pramote Suksatit, Pissara Umavijani, Pornthip Wongkitjjanon, Kanyaphat Unshagate, Boonsong Yooyangyeng.. and that’s just a random selection. Add to this unavoidable childish humour the inconsistency of spelling these names, and you can see why western distributors shy away from trying to market these films.
      Will even a Cannes award for a Thai ghost story make T-horror marketable? Probably not.

      But by the glory of the internet, you can bypass western distributors and order a Thai movie tonight with no significantly more difficulty than is involved in ordering a Thai green curry from your local take-away!





MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.