Thailand's 18 Oscar picks: It's all about culture

Thailand's 18 Oscar picks: It's all about culture

As the nation sends its latest -- and critically panned -- submission to the Academy, a look back at past entries and the insights they offer
Kon Khon
"Kon Khon," Thailand's submission for the 2012 Oscars, was a box office flop, earning around 7 million baht.

The recent selection of the Thai traditional-dance melodrama "Kon Khon" (คนโขน) as Thailand's submission to next year's Academy Awards, while controversial because of lack of critical acclaim and box-office success, is hardly surprising.

The Oscar committee of the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand (FNFAT), with endorsement by the Culture Ministry, has traditionally favored movies that highlight Thai culture and historical events.

But while critics noted the high-minded cultural-preservation ideals of director Sarunyu Wongkrachang, they lambasted "Kon Khon" -- a drama about rival masked-dance troupes -- for its one-dimensional characters, heavy-handed melodrama and an unfocused plot.

In his roundup of the foreign-language nominees, Bangkok Post film critic Kong Rithdee said "Kon Khon" (meaning "men who perform khon") "is a labored promotion of traditional Thai masked dance, and despite that noble purpose, its quality is unarguably subpar."

Not only weren't critics impressed, audiences stayed away and the movie was a flop, earning just around 7 million baht. The Culture Ministry, which helped fund the film, doesn't care.

Since Thailand started sending films to the Oscars in 1984, none have won or made the shortlist of nominees for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Rather than winning the Oscar, the goal is to promote Thai culture via the movies, the ministry said in a news release.

It hasn't always been like that. The first submissions in the 1980s and early 1990s were a string of highly acclaimed "social problem" dramas that reflected issues in contemporary society. And, occasionally, Thailand's Oscar picks have actually been great films.

Here's a look at all of them, 18 so far.

1984: "Story of Nam Poo" (น้ำพุ)

Nam PooDirector: Euthana Mukdasanit

What it's about: The teenage son of a famous writer drifts into drug use, becomes hooked on heroin and dies.

Cultural significance: The factual drama is adapted from the book by award-winning writer Suwanni Sukhontha, which she wrote after her son died at age 18 of a heroin overdose.

Singer Amphol Lumpoon stars as the son with theater doyenne Patravadi Mejudhon as the mother.

1989: "The Elephant Keeper" (คนเลี้ยงช้าง)

Elephant KeeperDirector: MC Chatrichalerm Yukol

What it's about: Boonsong the mahout (Sorapong Chatree) and his elephant Tang-On struggle to find work at a time when timber companies are switching to machines and the forests are dwindling.

With nowhere else to turn, they go to work for a dodgy company that's illegally harvesting teak and are caught between the authorities and the violent timber poachers.

Cultural significance: It's a snapshot of a time when elephants –- one of Thailand's national symbols –- were still working the forests and not hauling tourists around, but "The Elephant Keeper" also has a strong environmental message.

It's notable for the documentary-like footage of Thailand's unique wildlife species.

1990: "Song of Chaophraya" (น้องเมีย)

ChaophrayaDirector: MC Chatrichalerm Yukol

What it's about: A woman grows bored of her life on a sand barge, going up and down the Chao Phraya River, and one day gets off the boat and disappears into the city.

The husband (Sorapong Chatree) goes in search, combing Bangkok's red-light districts while his teenage sister-in-law stays on the boat, holding together the family and their business.

Cultural significance: Another one of Prince Chatrichalerm's "social problem" movies, it's a look at the divide between city and country folks.

1995: "Once Upon a Time ... This Morning" (กาลครั้งหนึ่ง เมื่อเช้านี้)

Director: Bhandit Rittakol

What it's about: A pre-teen girl and her younger brother are upset that their parents have divorced. They don't want to stay with their mother (Jintara Sukapat) in a cramped apartment.

So, they bundle up their infant brother and the three children set off on a journey across Thailand to go live with their father (Santisuk Promsiri).

While mom and dad put aside their differences to search for their wayward offspring, the kids fall in with a group of drug-dealing homeless boys and are chased by gangsters who prey on children.

Cultural significance: Yet another strong "social problem" movie, it's a look at broken families, homelessness, drugs and the child-prostitution trade.

1997:  "Daughter 2" (เสียดาย 2)

Daughter 2Director: MC Chatrichalerm Yukol

What it's about: The virginal 13-year-old daughter of a well-to-do family has a blood disease and contracts HIV through a transfusion.

Cultural significance: At the center of this AIDS drama is a stigmatized upper-middle-class family with a classical-musician Thai father and ballet-teacher farang mother, challenging beliefs that AIDS only afflicted the poor and was transmitted only by sexual activity or through the sharing of drug needles.

As he often did in his movies of the 1970s through the 1990s, Prince Chatrichalerm points an accusing finger at incompetent and corrupt authorities, personified in this case by a snoozing public-health minister, snoring loudly during a researcher's briefing about the disease.

1998: "Who Is Running?" (ท้าฟ้าลิขิต)

Who is runningDirector: Oxide Pang

What it's about: After his girlfriend is severely injured in a car wreck, a young man is led to believe by a monk that his sweetheart's fate was caused by evil things she did in a past life.

So he sets about to prevent the deaths of five other people in hopes of righting those wrongs.

Cultural significance: Buddhist beliefs about the cycle of karma are woven into a stylish thriller by half of the duo of Bangkok-based Hong Kong twin brothers who would go on to make the huge horror hit "The Eye".

2000: "6ixtynin9", (เรื่องตลก 69)

6ixty9Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang

What it's about: A young woman (soap star Lalida Panyopas), laid off from her office job because of the economic crisis, finds a Mama noodle box full of 500-baht notes that's been mistakenly left at her door.

Thugs who come to retrieve it are killed under freakish circumstances. More bodies pile up in her apartment and she has to find a way out of the mess.

Cultural significance: Lift the lid off Pen-ek's amusing satiric black comedy and you'll find a reflection of contemporary urban Thailand in the years following the 1997 financial crisis and the desperation that working-class Thais felt.

2001: "The Moonhunter" (14 ตุลา สงครามประชาชน)

MoonhunterDirector: Bhandit Rittakol

What it's about: Activist college students in the 1970s flee to the jungles where they join communist rebels.

Cultural significance: It's Thai history. The biographical melodrama is based on the life of Seksan Prasertkul and Jiranan Piitpreecha, pro-democracy student leaders at Thammasat University who led an uprising that culminated in the deadly crackdown by the military on October 14, 1973, which led to the removal of a field-marshal dictator by His Majesty the King.

But by 1976, the tide had turned against the students and military government was back in power and Seksan and Jiranan made their way into the jungle to join communist rebels.

2002: "Monrak Transistor" (มนต์รักทรานซิสเตอร์)

Monrak TransistorDirector: Pen-ek Ratanaruang

What it's about: A young country boy with dreams of becoming a singing star goes AWOL from the army and leaves behind his wife as he pursues his music career but is dragged further and further into a life of crime.

Cultural significance: No history lessons or Buddhist morality tales here. Pen-ek's highly entertaining, sprawling black comedy is another look at the desperate dreams of the working class in contemporary Thailand.

But if there were a bit of actual "culture" for Culture Ministry officials to tout, it would be the songs of luk thung singer Surapol Sombatcharoen that are performed throughout the film, which in turn is dedicated to the late singing star.

2003: "Last Life in the Universe" (เรื่องรัก น้อยนิด มหาศาล)

Last life in the UniverseDirector: Pen-ek Ratanaruang

What it's about: Violent circumstances force a suicide-obsessed Japanese librarian (Tadanobu Asano) to flee Bangkok and hole up in the countryside home of a slacker Thai woman ("Noon" Sinitta Boonyasak) and further contemplate his existence.

Cultural significance: With a script by award-winning writer Prabda Yoon, it's a portrait of a contemporary Thailand in which cultural borders are being broken down by globalization, as symbolized by the Japanese expat.

But really, "Last Life" appears to be one of those rare cases in recent years when a Thai film was sent to the Oscars because it's actually a great film and not because it represents anything cultural that's specifically Thai, apart from perhaps the policeman saluting the National Anthem.

It was really a surprising choice, given that much of the dialogue is in Japanese as well as Thai and even some English -- a risky proposition for a "best foreign language" film.

2004: "The Overture" (โหมโรง)

The OvertureDirector: Itthisoontorn Vichailak

What it's about: The life of a classical Thai musician is traced from the 1880s to the 1940s, covering his time as a royal court musician, competition with fiercely virtuosic rival and finally as an upholder of Thai traditional art in a time of rapid modernization and adoption of Western culture.

Cultural significance: A highly fictionalized and melodramatic account of the life of Thai palace musician Luang Pradit Phairoh, this is exactly the kind of movie the Culture Ministry and the industry panel want to send to the Oscars.

In its time, "The Overture" sparked a renewal in interest in Thai classical music and the ranad-ek, the Thai xylophone played by the main character.

Musician Narongrit Tosa-nga, who portrayed the ranad-ek sorcerer Khun-In, also rose in popularity and continues to be recognized as "Khun-In".

2005: "The Tin Mine" (มหา’ลัย เหมืองแร่)

The Tin MineDirector: Jira Maligool

What it's about: Having posted failing grades at university, a young man in 1950s Bangkok is sent by his father to the jungles of southern Thailand to get a life education working in a tin mine.

Cultural significance: Based on the partially autobiographical short stories of writer Ajin Panjapan, the coming-of-age melodrama is a picture-postcard from the tin-mining era that enriched Phuket in the decades before it became a tourism haven.

2006: "Ahimsa ... Stop to Run" (อหิงสา จิ๊กโก๋ มีกรรม)

AhimsaDirector: Kittikorn Liasirikun

What it's about: Ahimsa is a young man involved in Pattaya's nightclubbing scene. He's haunted by his bad karma, which is personified by an angry dude in a red track suit who carries a two-by-four and uses it to repeatedly beat the tar out of Ahimsa.

Cultural significance: "Leo" Kittikorn's absurdist comedy is a Buddhist morality tale of a young man's bad karma causing chaos in the lives of all those around him.

Controversially, "Ahimsa" was a replacement submission after "Invisible Waves" was disallowed by the Thai industry panel, which deemed Pen-ek Ratanruang's pan-Asian-produced Phuket crime tale to not really be a Thai film because it featured Japanese, Hong Kong and South Korean stars along with some Hong Kong locations.

2007: "The Legend of King Naresuan Part II: Reclamation of Sovereignty", aka "King of Fire" (ตำนานสมเด็จพระนเรศวรมหาราช ตอนประกาศอิสรภาพ)

Naresuan 2Director: MC Chatrichalerm Yukol

What it's about: The lavishly mounted historical battle epic depicts an action-packed chapter in the life of 15th century Siam's "Black Prince," a fierce warrior and cunning strategist who would become King Naresuan the Great, ruling the Ayutthaya kingdom from 1590 until his death in 1605.

Cultural significance: Again, it's Thai history, based on meticulous research by Prince Chatrichalerm and made with the largest budget ever for a Thai film.

In constant production for the past seven years in Chatrichalerm's studio and ancient-city movie town in Kanchanaburi Province, the "Naresuan" franchise continues, with the third and fourth installments released earlier this year and a fifth, purportedly depicting a landmark elephant battle, due sometime in the near future.

2008: "Love of Siam" (รักแห่งสยาม)

Love of SiamDirector: Chookiat Sakveerakul

What it's about: Childhood friendship blossoms into puppy-love romance for two teenage boys (Mario Maurer and Witwisit Hiranyawongkul).

Cultural significance: One of the first Thai films to depict a romance between a pair of straight-acting boys, "Love of Siam" was a landmark for a movie industry that usually depicts gay men as flamboyantly effeminate comic-relief characters.

"Love of Siam" was also much-acclaimed and won several awards, including best director and best film at the industry's top-prize Thailand National Film Association Awards, aka the Suphanahongsa Awards.

2009: "Best of Times" (ความจำสั้น แต่รักฉันยาว)

Best of TimesDirector: Yongyoot Thongkongtoon

What it's about: Another heartfelt family drama, this one depicts the romance between a widow grandmother and a silver-haired gentleman farmer who it turns out is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Cultural significance: It's a return of sorts to the social-problem movies, with a look at issues involving the elderly.

2010: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ)

Uncle BoonmeeDirector: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

What it's about: A dying farmer is surrounded in his last days by friends and family, including his ghost wife and estranged son who returns in the form of an ape-costume-clad "monkey ghost."

The farmer's past lives may or may not include an ancient princess who has a sexual encounter with a talking catfish.

Cultural significance: The screenplay is inspired by a Buddhist monk's book and delves into the belief of reincarnation. Boonmee believes his terminal illness is the result of karma -– he mentions being a soldier who killed communists back in the 1960s.

The sixth feature by Apichatpong, it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, one of world cinema's top prizes and the first time a Thai film had earned the honor. "Uncle Boonmee" couldn't be ignored. Thai cultural authorities have long had a love-hate relationship with Apichatpong, whose films have generally been more successful overseas than in Thailand.

On one hand they censored his 2006 feature "Syndromes and a Century" but on the other gave him the Silpathorn Award, Thai contemporary art's highest honor.

2011: "Kon Khon" (คนโขน)

Kon KhonDirector: Sarunyu Wongkrachang

What it's about: Rival masked-dance troupes in the 1960s stage competing performances of the Ramakien, Thailand's version of the Indian epic poem, the Ramayana.

Love triangles form, friends betray one another, a wife cheats on her husband, students betray their teachers, and everyone will pay their debt of karma.

Cultural significance: The pageantry of the Thai traditional dance form of khon, with its masks, glittering costumes and mythological characters, is on full display. As a bonus, Sarunyu weaves in a Buddhist morality tale.

Wise Kwai is a Bangkok-based newspaper editor, film fan and blogger.
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