Sunday, May 06, 2007



Allure of the forbidden

Seeing my colleague Kong Rithdee address the subject of movie censorship in Thailand with such fervour inspires me to set aside the DVD of Alain Resnais's Muriel that I was going to discuss this week and share some memories of our censorship as it was in years gone by.

Some of the fondest of them date from the early 1970s at the time when Western directors, newly released from the censorship shackles that had impeded them in previous decades, where making films on mature themes. Many of them had the look of cherished projects that the filmmakers had been sitting on for years. A surprising number of them endure today as classics. In those days what are now called art house films, including work by great European directors like Bunuel and Fellini, were routinely imported into Thailand by distributors and shown to the censors.

I sometimes attended the censorship screenings held in the basement of the Southeast Insurance Building on Silom Road and as an experience, it was enlightening. Films like Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge and Pier Paolo Pasolini's lousy take on the Canterbury Tales were watched cheerfully and with great enjoyment and then promptly banned: mai mohsom!, "not suitable!".

I remember a scene in the Pasolini film where one of its characters withdraws his championship-size penis from another and a chorus of thrilled giggles went up from the delighted censors and their guests. Needless to say, the film was sent boomeranging back to wherever it came from.

And of course, at the time there was a justification for doing so. Implementing an enforceable rating system was clearly impossible. In those days children of the wealthy and influential were often raised in such a way that they didn't hesitate to bully anyone who asked them to respect the law with intimidating questions like, "Do you know who my father is?". A solemn prayer for anyone who seriously tried to stop them from entering a cinema where an adult movie was being shown, and even if the underage kids had had to forego the film they could have found plenty to do at Hotel 39, Hotel Pink Pussycat, or any of the hundreds of others where no questions would have been asked.

But there would have been more justification for this argument if the censors hadn't left the door open to virtually any degree of violence in films. At the same time that Carnal Knowledge was being banned for some non-explicit bedroom frolicking, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with its notorious girl-on-a-meathook scene, got through unscathed.

I remember a few years later being taken to a showing of Luigi Fulci's Eurotrash classic Zombies, in which a scene of a woman's eyeball being slowly pierced in extreme close-up by a wooden splinter sent one little girl in the audience into such hysterics that her parents had to take her out of the theatre. They could have rested sure, however, that their child was in no danger of seeing the woman's breasts.

There were some occasions where the censors were momentarily foiled. Sam Peckinpah's landmark film Straw Dogs was banned outright, but somehow made its way into the country and onto the screen of the Siam theatre with a different title - The Bitch - and shown at its initial screening without a frame cut. Saturday matinee audiences got to see nudity and a brutal rape, recalled by the heroine in flashbacks. By evening of the same day the nudity had disappeared, and eventually the flashbacks were gone, too. William Friedkin's massively popular horror film, The Exorcist, was also subject to a gradual stripping down after its local premiere in almost intact form.

Here we are 30 years later, and from any realistic standpoint all of that should be history by now. After all, given the new, electronic channels of access, banning things is practically impossible. Shut the door on a movie or book or website and anyone who is interested will have it almost immediately, including many who would have ignored it if it hadn't acquired the allure of the forbidden.

The recent, absurd censorship of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's delicate and poetic film Syndromes and a Century seems to have registered on many people locally as the straw that broke the camel's back, judging by the uproar that it has caused. What were the censors thinking? A scene of a young monk who dreams of being a DJ borrowing a boy's guitar and strumming a few chords is given a thumbs-down by the censors: mai mohsom!. But in the newspapers we routinely read about monks using temple youngsters to provide services that have nothing to do with Buddhism, and anyone who has never seen a monk walking around listening to his iPod must venture out of doors very rarely.

Censoring such a scene keeps it out of view only for people who have been seeing the media reports of scandals involving monks, the iPods, and more regularly for years. Meanwhile, viewers in other countries can see and are seeing the film in its excellent entirety anytime they feel like making a trip to the cinema. The hypocrisy of the censors' decision - knowing as they do what is going on in the real world - approaches the surreal and makes us look ridiculous to outsiders. If there is an upside to this nonsense it is that more Thais will probably seek the film out because of the publicity.

Given the fit of official Puritanism that we are currently experiencing here in Thailand, we will probably have to resign ourselves for the time being to being treated like children by their prissy old aunties. But we can always hope that time, and a little serious thinking, will bring a change.

No comments: