“Thai independent films have had to struggle many years, and they still have to struggle now. We have talented individual film makers and creative film people, but as a group we have to come together, and look at the film industry with a long term plan in order to compete with other countries.” — Kong Rithdee.
In light of Covid-19 closures and a tightening “stay home” vice, social distancing and staying in has become an unexpected, yet very real norm. As we find ways to cope with this newly imposed self-isolation, the digital sphere has reared its head — from online delivery services, to, of course, the even more prominent rise of online streaming. Yet, time spent at home is still your time, and with so many options to choose from, it can be tough deciding which movies are worth watching while you self-quarantine. We spoke to Thailand’s leading film critic Kong Rithdee, who shares his top five Thai film recommendations to watch during self-isolation.
True to Kong Rithdee, each recommended film comes with unique nuances that result in fascinating works of art — think personal takes on socio-political issues, to delicate interpretations of existing cultural and societal topics. From independents and bittersweet rom-coms, to Thailand’s first animation ever made, here are the films you should be streaming while you quarantine.
Manta Ray (2018)
Originally released in Thailand, Manta Ray is an independent production directed by Thai director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng. His first feature film upon graduating from the Digital Film Academy, the film received a lot of attention globally. “I think this is one of the Thai films that has had the highest profile internationally,” Kong tells us, “it won one of the big prizes in Venice back in 2018, and has travelled extensively to many countries over the past year.”
“The story is about a refugee — supposedly a Rohingya —who formed a friendship with a Thai fisherman in Southern Thailand,” he explains, and it’s the way in which political themes surrounding the Rohingya people are approached, that drew him to the film. “This topic is very timely as it’s about the alienation and dislocation of communities in Southeast Asia. What is quite interesting is that the issue is told on a very personal level, which is through the friendship between these two men.”
Regarding how the film plays out, Kong describes the style to be very “non-mainstream, so the film is a little bit slow and nonlinear, but that’s the appeal, because the film wants you to feel this sense of disorientation. It shifts and out between reality, and scenes of fantasy and dreams.”
“But of course, you understand what’s going on,” he adds, “it’s a little bit challenging, but I think this is the perfect film to watch now, because it’s very relevant to the situation going on in the world. A lot of people say this is a time of quarantine and isolation, but for a lot of immigrants, this state of quarantine and isolation is a state of being.”
Watch Manta Ray (2018) on Vimeo.
An independent film by Puangsoi Aksornsawang, “Nakorn Sawan is the name of a province, but of course it’s ironic because it also means paradise city,” Kong tells us. “It’s a Thai film by a young female, and is partially a film, partially a documentary. A portion of the film is autobiographical, drawing from the filmmakers’ family. The other part is fiction — so you have in this other part, an actress and actors playing different roles and characters, but after a while you understand that the fictional part mirrors the documentary part, and the main actress portrays the filmmaker.”
“So it’s a very personal film,” he continues, “and it concerns a lot about the director’s family, especially her mother, who was very ill at the moment of filming. I think it’s very interesting, and very touching when you see a filmmaker tell a story through cinema, and through this structure of fact and fiction.”
Kong goes on to tell us that the film received more attention on the international stage. “Again, this film is very intimate, and it’s very personal. And again, it’s another Thai film that was very popular internationally, but not many Thai people went to see it in the cinema. It’s now available on Vimeo, so you can stream it there.”
Watch Nakorn-Sawan (2018) on Vimeo.
The Love of Siam (2007)
When asked to describe the film in a nutshell, Kong tells us that “this is the film that made Mario Maurer famous.” He goes on to describe how the film shot to fame, explaining that “when the film came out, it broke many grounds because it is, well, to put it bluntly, it’s a gay thing.”
To Kong, the charms of the film lie in its nuanced tackling of relationships. “Even though people describe it as a ‘gay thing’, the film is more subtle than that,” he explains, “it’s actually about the relationship between these two guys — so, the character Mario plays, and this other guy. And at the same time, it’s about the relationship between Mario’s character, and his sister and mother.”
“It’s very delicate in how it portrays the dynamics between this male character and his family, and also the bittersweet relationship he shares with his male friend. So, as I said, it broke many grounds because at that time, when you have gay characters in Thai films, they were usually in comedy. It was not usual to have films that tried to have an emotional understanding of gay characters.”
The film achieved critical acclaim in China, and many countries worldwide. “Love of Siam, the name can be interpreted as the ‘love of Thailand’,” Kong tells us, “but actually, it’s talking about Siam Square, which is a teen hangout. So you see, even the title invites a lot of different interpretations and readings.”
Watch The Love of Siam on Netflix.
“This is an old classic Thai film from 1954. It’s a love story between a blind man and his lover, set in Northern Thailand, but it’s important because it’s the first Thai film to be shown at an International Film Festival abroad.” A film that was released more than half a century ago, Kong tells us that “the films were lost for almost 50 years, and it was only five years ago, that the Thai Film Archive managed to track down the remaining film prints, and restored the film.”
“So we put the film together, and restored it, and it came back to life. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival four years ago,” he continues, “so the film has a historical importance. It was a Thai classic that was lost, and then was found once more.”
Watch Santi-Vina (1954) on Thai Film Archive’s official YouTube channel.
‘Het Mahatsachan’ (1955)
‘This is the first Thai animation ever made,” Kong tells us, and upon hearing our surprise, goes on to say, “I think it’s quite interesting that not a lot of people know about it, but you can watch it on YouTube.”
“It’s called Het Mahatsachan, which translates to Amazing Incidents, and is the first Thai animation made by Payut Ngaokrachang, who is the father of Thai animation. Obviously, the influence was Walt Disney, so you can see that the film has many characters that remind you of Disney characters, and even the movement of the characters is very early Walt Disney.”
“Back then, it was shown in the cinema, and it was only eight minutes long. It’s interesting because actually Ajarn Payut made this animation before Japan started making animations. So actually, Thailand was a pioneer in animation, but as you know, we didn’t go anywhere, and now Japan is the leading animator in the world.”
“We made animations at around the same time as Japan, so we weren’t far behind in terms of innovation and creativity, but along the way we didn’t get the support, and that’s why Thai animations and Thai cartoons are still very local, and still do not have the abroad appeal that Japanese animations do.”
Watch Het Mahasachan (1955) on Thai Film Archive’s official YouTube channel.