Banjong Pisanthanakul’s “The Medium” is scaring the hell out of South Korean moviegoers and is set to do the same in Singapore. But no one in Thailand has seen the winner of the top prize at July’s the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival and no one knows when they will.
It’s not only go-go bars and nightclubs that have been closed since April 10, movie theaters have been shuttered as well, depriving cinephiles of perhaps the greatest crop of Thai-made films ever.
On Friday, “Anatomy of Time”, a ruminative drama about old age, memory and the tyranny of time, made its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. Producer Mai Meksawan said he has no idea when it will show on a screen in Thailand.
Other high-profile Thai films also made their debuts this year at the Sundance, Berlin, Venice and Cannes film festivals.
Apichatpong Weerasetakul’s “Memoria” won the Jury Prize at Cannes with the director winning the Grand Prix d’Honneur from the International Film Festival Marseille for his 21 years of work.
Baz Poonpiriya’s road-trip drama, “One For the Road” won the prize for outstanding creativity at the Sundance Film Festial.
“The Edge of Daybreak”, a gleaming, black-and-white family drama directed by Taiki Sakpisit won the critics’ prize at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. With its references dark episodes in Thai political history, the film normally might have trouble finding a screening at home. Now it may be impossible.
While the government has begun easing restrictions on some business sectors, cinemas, stadiums and other venues where large crowds gather are last on the priority list for reopening.
That leaves excited filmmakers and audiences alike glum over the prospects to see Thai films that the rest of the world is marveling over. And Bangkok is not Hollywood: The domestic film industry is wrestling with both economic and cultural reassessments brought on by the pandemic, the rise of video streaming and changes in consumer behavior.
2021 marks the first time Thailand has had films selected by all the major film festivals in the same year. Yet producers and directors like Mai were unable to go due to travel restrictions.
“It’s necessary to have a festival presence before we bring the films back to Thai theaters,” Mai told Nikkei Asia. “We know that a film like “Anatomy of Time” may not bring in that many people once it hits local cinemas, but still, it’s important for the director to have it shown here.”
In 2020, experimental films like Anocha Suwichakornpong’s “Come Here” and Prapat Jiwarangsan’s “Ploy”, which recounts the tale of a Thai prostitute in Singapore – both of which played at the Berlin Film Festival, one of Europe’s Big 3 – would have a fast track to Thai cinemas.
Theaters last year closed only for a few months and, with Hollywood shut down, Thai films had one of the best receptions ever. In fact, the comedy “Riam, Fighting Angel” earned more at the box office than 2020’s only Hollywood blockbuster, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”.
Thai films normally account for less than 18 percent of revenue. That jumped to 25 percent in 2020.
Now, after five months of closed cinemas, the Thai movie industry is writing off 2021. Everyone hopes cinemas will be allowed to reopen in October, but 28 provinces remain under a semi-lockdown and curfew.
As a result, Thai movie makers are following their western colleagues in sending films direct to streaming, which continues to gain strength in Thailand.
“The Medium,” for example, is a Thai-South Korean coproduction that took in US$7.3 million form South Korean multiplexes since its July opening, beating Walt Disney Co.’s “Black Widow”.
It tells the story of a female shaman in rural Thailand and the paranormal rituals that are still widely practiced around the country. The film was originally scheduled to open in Thai theaters in July as well. But Banjong, the mastermind behind 2013’s “Pee Mak”, the highest-grossing Thai film in history, is resisting the urge to stream it.
Banjong says he still wants “The Medium” to be shared in a communal cinema atmosphere due to its visual and aural aspects. But to do that, he has to wait. And wait.
Art-house master Apichatpong’s “Memoria”, meanwhile, is tentatively slated for a December release in Thailand, in cinemas.
“Watching it on TV or on a laptop is like watching a different film. It’s not even my film anymore,” the director told Nikkei.
Yet, even if cinemas open, audiences will be slow to return. Songpol Wongkondee, an executive with M Pictures, Thailand’s most prolific film studio, predicted ti will take up to three years to feel comfortable sitting for two hours in a confined, air-conditioned space inches from strangers.
Songpol said M Pictures has more than four films backlogged and several more comng down the pike. The studio will release them first in theaters, but Songpol isn’t expecting big box office numbers for the few few to screen.
Thailand has about 1,200 movie screens, mostly in Bangkok and major regional cities. In the past decade, 40-50 Thai films were made annually, with many distributed across Southeast Asia.