Thai film festival draws flak for dropping four movies

Last-minute changes in the line-up of a state-sponsored film festival this weekend have triggered criticism amid a campaign to brighten the kingdom's appeal to moviemakers.

Organisers behind the Thailand International Film Destination Festival - held to promote the country as a location for foreign productions - dropped four movies from the original line-up of 14 for reasons not officially made clear. Observers and film enthusiasts point out that most of the films dropped contained raunchy or violent scenes that put the country in a bad light.

The most controversial chop, however, involves a production called Twilight Over Burma, which is based on the real life story of an Austrian woman who married a Shan prince from then Burma in the 1950s.

Prince Sao Kya Seng was arrested after the 1962 military coup and never seen again. Scenes like one showing soldiers raping Shan women are believed to have been the reason it was pulled from a human rights film festival in Yangon last month, ostensibly for damaging "national unity".

A Chiang Mai-based independent scholar, Mr Akkanut Wantanasombut, said he was told by the Thai festival's organisers that "the film would affect the relationship between Thailand and Myanmar".

"It's strange, because we have a lot of films about conflicts between Thailand and Burma, like (King) Naresuan," he told The Sunday Times, referring to the series of Thai films depicting the ancient Siamese king who was held hostage by the Burmese as a child and eventually defeated Burmese troops.

When contacted, the public relations officer overseeing the Thai film festival, Ms Kaew Chaviwan, said the films were dropped not just for their content. "There are many reasons. We have to consider the time slots available, for example. There are only seven days (for the films to be screened)," she said, without elaborating.

Of the remaining 10 films in the schedule, which began last Wednesday, four will be screened twice.

Thailand unveiled generous incentives at the Cannes Film Festival in May last year to reel in foreign filmmakers. From next year, the government will give a 15 per cent cash rebate on all production spending within the country for expenditures over US$1.5 million (S$2 million). This will be topped up by another 3 per cent if the project uses a Thai national in the lead role, or if Thais are used as key production staff. Another 2 per cent rebate will be given if the movies promote Thai tourism.

According to the Thailand Film Office, there were 724 foreign productions in Thailand last year, an increase of 15 per cent from the year before. These productions - which included 63 feature films - generated 3.16 billion baht (S$120 million) in revenue. So far this year, the number of foreign productions has already crossed the 400 mark.

With the growth in ASEAN's second-largest economy constrained by high household debt and slow exports, officials see growing potential in the film industry. "It not only generates income for Thailand, but it is also a good way of promoting beautiful places in Thailand for the rest of the world to see," the Department of Tourism's director-general, Ms Wannasiri Morakul, said in a statement last month.

Yet some of the depictions have not been so pretty. According to an article by Matichon media group, one of the films dropped from the festival, a raunchy French production called Pattaya, featured a sex scene filmed inside an ancient monastic hall typically out of bounds to the public.

Also dropped is a Swedish film called Happy Hour In Paradise, which centres on a boozing priest in Phuket - a reminder of some of Thailand's more notorious destinations where foreign tourists congregate for alcohol and sex.

"Nothing is impossible in Thailand," the protagonist tells his companion in one scene. "You'll see."

This article was first published on July 10, 2016.
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