Killing Shakespeare in Thailand-Bangkok Post

April 13, 2012


Unfairly ripp’d, ‘Shakespeare’ must pass

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post: April 7, 2012

Four centuries after his death, Shakespeare’s child suffers a miscarriage, aborted into a limbo by the Thai censors. Unless the appeal goes through at the National Film Board, you will be deprived of a chance to watch what has already become the most scorching movie of the year, Ing Kanjanavanit and Manit Sriwanichpoom’s Shakespeare Tong Tai, or Shakespeare Must Die, an adaptation of Macbeth, charged with black humour, scheming harridans, buxom Lady M in blood-red dresses, and a political parable that peaks with a simulation of the infamous chair episode of Oct 6, 1976.

Debate is boiling with the intensity of the Three Witches’ cauldron. The film is dangerous and will lead to divisiveness; that’s the opinion of the gatekeepers who kept avoiding my calls like sulky old lovers.

As if we ate unity for lunch in this country. As if this blessed land, so obsessed with “reconciliation” like a debutant is with a Prada bag, were so weak, so simple-minded that one movie would bring the whole house down. If you haven’t noticed, the house is already on fire, so at least allow us to enjoy a film while it lasts.

Four people can’t judge what we can see or cannot see – there are seven members on the censor committee, three of them didn’t sign the verdict on Tuesday. This much is clear: Film censorship is medieval in an age when you can watch a film while riding in an elevator or on your phone while stuck in traffic. Film, in a sense, is now free. In terms of judiciary philosophy, it’s a betrayal of the rating system when the state plays the wild card of a ban. And Ing had gone through this before: In 1998 her film My Teacher Eats Biscuits was deemed by the censors, under the old law then, to be an insult to all religions (I mean, is that even possible?). She was grilled by the committee, and the film, a very funny prank only believers can deliver, was banned and became lost to all eyes.

But the case against Shakespeare has taken on the various dimensions that feed into our larger debate involving ideology and truth. Macbeth is a story of a general, prodded on by his devious wife and pig-slaughtering crones, who kills a king to become king. In Shakespeare, Ing K translated the entire Macbeth (I’ve seen and heard the whole thing, and it’s a notable translation job), had it staged, and added on a contemporary allegory about “The Leader”, a politician of a fictitious country – okay, we can tell it’s Thailand – who’s drunk and lost in the labyrinth of power.

At the end of the three-hour film comes the scene in which a rabid mob raids a theatre and lynches the play director in a way resembling Neal Ulevich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the October 1976 violence. That’s strong stuff, and my guess is that was the last straw.

Ambiguity plays to such great effect in Ing’s previous film, the documentary Citizen Juling, in which both the yellow and the red wanted to claw at her face after seeing it. This time, the analogy is more obvious, at least in parts: Shakespeare can easily be read as an unfavourable portrait of the red shirts, and of Thaksin Shinawatra, and it is suspected by some that this is the reason it has been banned. It’s worth nothing, however, that foreign news agencies seem to focus more on the monarchy element of the film than the Thaksin symbol.

The point now is not if the film is anti-this or pro-that. The point is freedom of expression. The point is the basic rights of the artist to voice his/her opinion and the rights of the viewer to keep his/her eyes open. The point is this is an adjunct to the campaign to amend Section 112. The point is no movies – or books, paintings, songs, poetry – should be burned or banned. The point is the little-seen The Terrorist – an impassioned, anti-Abhisit Vejjajiva movie made after the May 19 crackdown by Thunska Pansittivorakul, who chose the underground channel and didn’t submit the film to the censors – should receive a licence to screen. The point is the new film funded by the red shirt members, tentatively called Nuamthong and based on the life of the taxi driver who crashed his car into a tank in a fatal protest against the Sept 19 coup, should also be released when it’s finished. We should be able to see them all and think for ourselves, in this Shakespearean universe, who’s the devil and who’s the fool.

This is a plea to the National Film Board: Pass the film. Ing K’s responsibility is to answer to the viewers. Her fate is to enjoy the praise or endure the pressure from society after it has interpreted her film. Her job shouldn’t be to answer to four people who don’t even care about movies, and who dictate to the rest of us from the seat of paranoia.


Kong Rithdee writes about movies and popular culture for the Bangkok Post.



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