History of the Thai Film Industry

| 15 MIN READ |
Written by Marco Neveu

Key Content:
Creation of a Film Industry
The Golden Age
World War II and The Post-war Era
The Hollywood Advent, Foreign Influences and Productions
The Thai New Wave, A Second Golden Age
Thai Cinema Today

When the Lumière brothers arrived in Bangkok as part of their tour of Southeast Asia in 1897, the audience was just as captivated as those in the West, if not a lot more. At this point in history, Thailand was still called Siam, most of the population were serfs and slaves and the main audience for those tours were from the colonial elite. But for those with the means or influence to watch the wonders of the “the Parisian cinematograph”, it was an experience they wouldn’t pass up. This was the earliest known screening in Thailand.

Creation of a Film Industry

But the birth of the Thai film industry wouldn’t start with that. Rather, in the same year, a film of King Chulalongkorn’s visit to Europe was brought back to Siam, along with camera equipment in the hands of the king’s brother, Prince Thongthaem Sambassatra: the “father of Thai cinema”. These early years of cinema saw a lot of activity from the Royal family, often producing, sponsoring and creating films. A notable example is the Topical Film Service of the State Railway of Thailand set up by Prince Kamphaengphet. This service served as training grounds for many future filmmakers.

A film industry wouldn’t really exist without economic incentive, even if the artistic incentive was born through wonder and passion as it had with the Prince.
As such not long after, following the gradual end of the corvée system and the ban on slavery in Thailand in 1905, the first cinema was opened by Japanese businessmen: the Japanese Cinematograph. This Japanese influence would shape Thai film culture profoundly for the years to come notably through
benshi, the tradition of film narration over silent films. With the arrival of “talkies”, new challenges appeared in the form of translation and dubbing. Again taking inspiration from benshi culture, dubbing was made a live experience, often having dubbers prove to be more famous than the films and actors themselves. (Similar to VJs in Uganda, video below).

The Golden Age

Siamese Revolution in 1932

The 1930s marked the first golden age of Thai cinema. With skills and knowledge of film production acquired throughout the last two decades with Royal sponsorship or foreign aid, the Thai film industry exploded with activity. But the film industry also reflects the social upheaval of this decade. With the Revolution of 1932 and the end of the absolute monarchy, politics came with previously unseen fraught divisions. Political actors quickly found themselves using films for propaganda sometimes exporting it to show their intentions for the country while the world is tumbling into another world war. A notable example would be the first sound film from Thailand; the influential film Long Thang (Gone Astray) by the Wasuwat brothers from 1932, a film that reflects the birth of heated political discourse in Thailand, it proved a big success in theaters. The first golden age of Thai cinema ended in 1942, just as the Second World War arrived in Thailand.
But the 1930s also saw the 1930 Film Act be ratified, wherein any theatre owner or broadcaster must submit the films they want to show to the Film Censorship Board, the start of what we now know as the Film Board.

World War II and The Post-war Era

rattana pestoji film director

After the Second World War, the industry quickly took off once again using black and white surplus 16mm film that was used for wartime newsreels. But the boom only came with the introduction of 16mm color-reversal film. The vividly colored images quickly proved to be extremely popular with audiences. In 1949, Suparb Burut Sua Thai (Thai Gentlemen Fighters) was released as an instant hit, outperforming all Hollywood films at the box office, prompting renewed interest in a local film industry and giving an economic incentive to local production houses.
In the 50s, legendary cinematographer and director Rattana Pestonji (in the picture above) sparked a transition towards a 35mm film, seeing it as a way to improve Thai films’ artistic quality. His films were the first Thai films to ever enter international competitions in Tokyo and Berlin.

The Hollywood Advent, Foreign Influence and Productions

Hollywood signage

During the Cold War, Thailand became one of the United States’ major regional allies, often seen as a wall against communism in Southeast Asia. This relationship came with improved trade and military agreements culminating with the Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations in 1966 between the two countries. During the Vietnam War, Thailand was also a major staging area for the US Armed Forces with over 50,000 troops stationed at various airfields and ports. The tightening link between the countries and the presence of bored young soldiers brought in American popular culture that quickly spread and influenced the local culture. The aesthetics of Hollywood were quickly absorbed by Thai directors and producers. This decade also saw a few big-budget foreign film productions in Thailand, such as James Bond or The Deer Hunter.

In 1977, the Thai government decided to impose a tax on foreign films to promote and stimulate the local industry. Outraged, Hollywood simply boycotted the country. Filmmakers found themselves producing more films than ever before, with 150 in 1978. Many of these films were seen as cheap copies of Hollywood action films by critics and marked a low point for artistic expression.
Yet, many artists distanced themselves from the mainstream and a slew of socially conscious films was produced often teetering on the edge of censorship. A notable filmmaker of this movement was Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol who produced films about corruption or even prostitution.

By 1981, Hollywood films were once again being sent to Thailand. But they also sent film producers and filmmakers who saw an opportunity in shooting films in Thailand. Now a few years after the Vietnam War, Hollywood was ready to tackle the war head-on and film producers needed a proxy for locations as Vietnam was inaccessible. For many productions such as Casualties of War or Good Morning, Vietnam it was Thailand. This laid the seed for a fully functioning foreign film production service industry of which we are proudly part of. Having Hollywood productions shot in Thailand also meant that film crews and equipment really started to conform to Western industry standards, especially for these bigger Hollywood productions.
For local films, however, the exponential growth of television proved a big challenge. It was readily accessible for a much larger part of the still mostly rural population, and cheaper made-for-TV drama brought in the dough. Facing fierce competition from televised lakorn, many directors saw the need to distance themselves from formulaic and campy content present on TV and instead focus on their artistry to attract audiences and investors: it was the birth of the Thai New Wave.

The Thai New Wave, A Second Golden Age

Asian financial crisis

Following the 1997 financial crisis, the first breakthrough came with crime drama films like Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangsters by Nonzee Nimibutr which broke the local box office record or even Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s crime comedy, Fun Bar Karaoke that appeared at the Berlin Film Festival. In 1999, Nonzee’s second film proved to be an even bigger success than his previous box office record, Nang Nak a horror romantic tragedy that cemented horror as a staple genre of the Thai film industryAction films also moved towards the hyper stylized, with the Pang Brothers making Bangkok Dangerous or Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger the first Thai film to be included on the programme for Cannes.
In the 2000s, big film studios, now with ample investment and and well equipped for large productions, saw an opportunity in producing epic historical films. Chatrichalerm Yukol’s King Naresuan is the epitome of this being shown in three parts with the biggest budget ever for a Thai film.

Thai Cinema Today

While the New Wave directors go on to hone their craft with more successes both internally and even to some degree abroad, most of the film industry wouldn’t try to innovate. Basing off the success of the New Wave directors, studios and filmmakers found ways to distill it into rather formulaic content.
Today there are a slew of films that, from an outside eye, look the same. The restrictive and traditionalist nature of the industry through government officials and large film studios mean that safe content that bring in money work better than groundbreaking advances in the art. This by no means is unique to Thailand, as the biggest box office hits nowadays are the same everywhere: The Avengers, Fast and Furious, Star Wars. Thai films nowadays are often a blend of many genres using past groundbreaking advancements for style and flair: horror-comedy, romance-action, lakorn influences in cinema and ect. This gives moviegoers a bit of everything when they watch a Thai film. Hollywood’s presence in Thai theaters is now just an accepted fact, there is little in the way of censorship for most blockbuster films and filmmakers don’t go out of their way to compete.
But while Thailand was moving towards an increasingly commercial environment for film, some directors found their voice outside of the Thai studio system and often faced with strict censors. A household name for Thai cinephiles is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, seen as the leader of the Thai independent film movement and an occasional candidate and winner at various international film festivals notably winning the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in 2010 at Cannes.

I hope this article (or should I say dissertation) gives you a rough understanding of the timeline of the movements and events in the history of Thailand’s film industry. There will be many more articles that will give a more in-depth look at the different directors, independent Thai cinema and horror films. Most of what I learned has come from multiple sources, but while researching I ended up with a lot of dead links. So I had to rely a lot on a few dedicated websites, chief among them is http://www.thaicinema.org that has a lot of good reads on things I’ll never talk about here.

If you want to know more about the film industry in Thailand then you must read our Film Industry in Thailand – A Producer’s Guide article.

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Credits:
The Siamese Revolution of 1932 photo on The Economist
Hollywood photo by Ahmet Yalçınkaya on Unsplash
Asian Financial Crisis photo by Bangkok Post

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