Following on the heels of Ten Years’ success in Hong Kong, the dystopian anthology series set foot in Thailand with four short films comprising Ten Years Thailand.
Thailand—a constitutional monarchy—has seen a number of military coups in the twenty-first century, with the most recent coup in 2014 resulting in a military government that remains to this day. The passing of the much-beloved King Bhumibol (Rama IX) in 2016 only added to an air of political uncertainty.
However, in 2019, Thailand is expected to hold a fresh round of elections, making a forward-looking film such as Ten Years Thailand particularly timely.
Censorship and Hope
In the first short film, Aditya Assarat’s “Sunset”, a group of military police make a surprise visit to an art gallery, with orders to shut down a controversial photography exhibition. Probed on why the photos were offensive to the government’s censors, the military police are unable to come up with an explanation. Ultimately, they declare that they are merely following orders.
This is a direct commentary on the sometimes arbitrary and heavy-handed approach of Thai officials when it comes to limiting free speech—from media censorship during and immediately after the 2014 coup, to the strict lese-majeste laws that critics argue the government abuses for political purposes. Still, “Sunset” leaves viewers with a hopeful message for future generations: one of the young soldiers develops a crush on a female worker at the art gallery, exchanging fleeting glances and a smile before they leave.
The Absurd and Abstract
Ten Years Thailand then quickly makes a turn for the abstract as the next short, Wisit Sasanatieng’s “Catopia”, features a Cultural Revolution-esque attempt to hunt down humans in a world ruled by cats. When a cat lady is accused of being a human, and nearly ripped to shreds, a male human disguised as a cat attempts to help her. Varying interpretations of this short have ranged from a commentary on how brutal regimes suppress compassion, to the rift between pro-democracy and pro-dictatorship camps of Thai society.
Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s “Planetarium” continues this abstract trend, featuring a world in which a matronly female military officer controls the world through a combination of electronic surveillance and Red Guard-like youth soldiers. Controlling the world through her smartphone, the female military officer sends her youth soldiers to capture and re-educate any dissenters through a psychedelic experience. With no dialog and visuals that make liberal use of trippy colors and light fixtures, “Planetarium” feels like it belongs in a modern art museum, and is perhaps the most inscrutable member of the anthology.
A Hopeful Future?
Finally, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Song of the City” takes us back to the real world, with a series of conversations held in a park under a watchful statue of Thai Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who staged a coup in 1957. The conversations are generally mundane, ranging from meetings between old friends to a salesman pitching his sleep-inducing machine (which some critics believe is a commentary on Thais’ laid-back attitude to their lack of democracy). All this has echoes of Weerasethakul’s feature film Cemetery of Splendour, in which a sleeping sickness afflicts a unit of Thai soldiers. Like “Song of the City”, Cemetery contains only mundane conversations and languid pacing, choosing to obscure any political critiques beneath a thick layer of artistry in the renowned director’s classic style.
However, one other interpretation of shorts like “Song of the City” is that, through all the political turmoils Thailand has been through, life goes on for the average Thai—after all, the intrigues of the political elite are far removed from daily life for most citizens of the Kingdom. Despite repeated coups and suppression of free speech, the average Thai is many times better off today than they were at the turn of the century.
It’s on this ambiguously uplifting tone that Ten Years Thailand concludes. While some of its messaging may be lost in its more abstract sequences (especially “Catopia” and “Planetarium”), that is perhaps a unique feature of a film designed for Thai audiences—a direct commentary may upset the country’s strict censors, preventing its cinematic release in the Kingdom. Foreign audiences may have to work a little harder to read the underlying messages, however.
Ten Years Thailand—Thailand. Dialog in Thai. Shorts directed by Aditya Assarat, Wisit Sasanatieng, Chulayarnnon Siriphol, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Running time 1hr 35 min.