Ten Years Thailand (Thailand, 2018) [CAAMFest 2019]

Ten Years Thailand opens with George Orwell’s oft used quote, ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past’. Linking the film to Orwell’s vision of a violent and dismal future sets the tone for this collection of four short films from Thailand.  Ten Years Thailand works from a similar premise on the Hong Kong 2015 film also entitled Ten Years, in that all the films present a vision of a possible future. The directors, Aditya Assarat, Wisit Sasanatieng, Chulayarnnon Siriphol, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, all present films that explore a vision of the future, both near and far, that, for the most part, are pretty bleak. Thailand has, of course, experiencing a series of political and cultural challenges and these films, although they never directly refer to contemporary Thai politics, it is hard to read them as endlessly running in the background of the respective works.

We open with Aditya Assarat’s ‘Sunset’. In many ways, this is the most accessible of the films as we follow a young police officer as he accompanies his boss to censor a local art exhibition. Filmed in black and white, ‘Sunset’ offers a moving critique of the ludicrous nature of censorship. Candid shots of everyday citizens laughing, eating and crying are removed from the gallery wall since, as the officer tells the photographer, they could be open to ‘conflict and misunderstanding’. However, whilst the young office obediently follows his superior, his main focus is his flirtation with the galleries young and attractive cleaner. At the segment’s conclusion, his inability to fully articulate his feelings verbally results in him taking a series of images of her that more accurately display his feelings of affection. This low-key but charming exploration of the endless potential of art to engage human emotion is a nice start to the collection.

‘Catopia’ sees Sasanatieng, who is most famous outside of Thailand for the anarchic cowboy feature Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), presenting a tail (pun intended) that is worthy of The Twilight Zone. Cats and humans have changed places and as cats go about in suits, work in offices and drive cars, the few remaining humans are forced into hiding. We follow one human who has managed to hide amongst the felines by masking his scent and befriending his repressors. When he meets a female cat, who is about to be stoned to death after been wrongly accused of being human, a tale of betrayal and murder ensues. Of all the films, ‘Catopia’ is perhaps the most enjoyable even though the ending is predictably dark. The cats, which, if badly rendered, could have made this film more humorous than disturbing, are well done and the film offers some genuinely unnerving and uncanny moments. Its central points are not perhaps as subtle as the other films in the collection, but with the state of global politics, the complex and often violent interplay of insider/outsider, them/us is a worthy and important topic

The third film, visual artist Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s ‘Planetarium’, continues many of the artists trademark visuals: floating buddhas, bright neon triangles ascending into space, bodies moving towards the sky and of course, planking which was the center of his 2012 video exhibition. ‘Planetarium’ follows a group of boy scouts, dressed in vibrant bubblegum pink, as they ferret out political dissidents who will undergo light therapy to transform them into the ideal citizens. Overseeing this all is an unnamed Madame Mao-like figure who controls the world around her by music, technology and her army of young boys. As a background to this film, Siriphol’s oeuvre as a video and installation artist has long focused on debating the role of the individual in everyday life and, of course, a criticism of an authoritarian state that seeks to repress, control and censor its citizens. His addition to Ten Years Thailand is in keeping with this tradition and visually, his roots in video installation are clear. The film is a beautifully presented ethereal and highly stylised but I suspect that unless you are familiar with his work, the main political arguments may somewhat elude the casual viewer.

Obliqueness is certainly at the heart of Weerasethakul’s addition to the collection. The final film, it opens with a focus on a statue of Sarit Thanara, a high-ranking military officer who staged a coup in 1957. Sarit’s legacy in Thailand is a complex one and ‘Song of the City’ shot in Ratchadanussorn Park, can perhaps be seen as making reference to Sarit’s legacy in terms of the modernization of Thailand and in his desire to repress those that he saw as undesirable. In ‘Song of the City’ we see average citizens debate the lottery, the cost of living, methods of relaxation and daily work commutes. This is a short film is filled with a feeling of dissatisfaction, and boredom. We are presented with a group of people who are disengaged from the city space around them, unable to fully reach their potential or find real happiness. Sarit was also instrumental in the reinvigoration of the Thai monarchy and in a city where giant posters of the royal family dominate both external and internal spaces, the role that the monarchy plan in everyday life is never mentioned but rather endless plays on in the background, like the brass band that we hear but never see throughout the film. The statue is surrounded by building works, and as the opening quote asks, is this just another method of controlling the future by rebuilding and reframing the past?

Ten Years in Thailand is an enjoyable collection of films that questions and queries the interplay of people and politics. Whilst many of the references are very specific to Thailand, the overall collection offers much to global audiences.

Ten Years Thailand is showing at CAAMFest 2019 on May 11.