Thai dreams on screen in SeoulThink of Thailand, and you might conjure images of mountain vistas shrouded in mist, dark alleys hiding transvestite dancers, or perhaps kickboxers drawing blood before a roaring crowd. The world behind some of these cliches is illuminated by a film festival sponsored by the Thai embassy this week.
The films depict everything from bigotry and violence to hope and simple beauty, through tales set against rural villages and the buzz of Bangkok across a century of history. In all, the festival is an exotic escape from the conventional Hollywood films that clog Seoul’s theaters.
Since 2001, when Miramax bought the rights to “Tears of the Black Tiger” at the Cannes Film Festival, Thai directors have become increasingly aware of their impact on international audiences. Soon after, Thai films started appearing in greater numbers at major festivals. In 2002, “Blissfully Yours” won an “Un Certain Regard” award at Cannes, and in 2003, “Last Life in the Universe” appeared at the Venice Film Festival, taking best actor award.
Foreigners in Seoul have few opportunities to see these films subtitled in English. But this week, the Korea Foundation Cultural Center is screenings six contemporary Thai films. These include the international hit “Ong Bak,” starring Tony Ja, which rose to cult status for its incredible kickboxing footage and death-defying stunts, all executed without wires, special effects or safety nets. “Beautiful Boxer” is a more grounded representation of the Thai sport, telling the true story of the transgender boxer Nong Toom (Asanee Suwan), who enters the sport to support his family while earning money for a sex change. “Boxer” won best film awards at several international gay and lesbian film festivals last year.
On a quieter note, “The Judgement” is about a young man living with his retarded, widowed stepmother. The film opened to good reviews in New York this June. “Mekong Full Moon Party,” set in rural northeastern Thailand, explores the mysterious fireballs that annually fly out of a river. “Mekong” is unique in that its characters speak Isan, a dialect of Thai that is sometimes incomprehensible to central Thai speakers. Rounding out the festival are “The Overture,” a lyrical film about Thailand’s modernization at the turn of the 20th century seen through the eyes of a famous traditional Thai musician, and “The Adventure of Iron Pussy,” a musical comedy about a transvestite secret agent.
Veteran Thai director Manop Udomdej sums up the commonality of these seemingly disparate stories: “There are only three types of Thai movies ― action, comedy and ghost drama,” says Manop. It’s this simplicity that draws people to Thai films.
Most of the films on display are atypical, but a few, like “Ong Bak,” performed well inside and outside of Thailand. In fact, more and more Thai films are being released in foreign markets like Hong Kong and Korea, says Kim Ji-seok, a programmer at the Pusan International Film Festival.
In addition to stimulating interest in Thai films, the festival also intends to attract foreign productions to Thailand. Lower taxes, a smoothly-functioning bureaucracy and increasingly sophisticated on-site production facilities have drawn in several recent big-budget Hollywood productions ―“Alexander” and “Stealth” were both filmed in Thailand.
Yoon Keum-jin, president of the newly opened cultural center that is hosting the festival, emphasized the opportunity for cultural exchange. “The Korea Foundation's mission is to bring Korean culture to the world, and to bring world culture to Koreans and foreigners living in Korea.”
The Thai ambassador to Seoul, Vasin Teeravechyan, agreed. “The cultural center will definitely strengthen ties between our two countries. I hope this event will contribute to a better understanding of Thailand, its culture and its people,” he said.
by Ben Applegate
Screenings take place daily at 3 and 7 p.m. through Friday at the Korea Foundation Cultural Center on the first floor of the JoongAng Ilbo building, near exit 9 of City Hall station. For a schedule, see the center’s Web site at www.kfcenter.or.kr/eng.