Thailand revamps industry regulations

Changes include new censorship standards for films

BANGKOK — The wait for a new media law has lasted 77 years, and maybe it’s not over yet. Expectations rose and fell over the decades as Thai film professionals kept — and continue to keep — their fingers crossed for the new Film Act, written to replace the extremely outdated one from 1930.

Now that the draft of the new legislation is waiting to be approved by the interim government running the country since the bloodless coup last September, industry insiders find themselves ill at ease because they still can’t breathe a sigh of relief.

“As it stands, the new law doesn’t seem like an improvement of the 1930 Film Act,” says veteran producer Pantham Thongsang. “To be honest, it could be even worse.”

Thongsang’s pessimism seems justified. The Film Act of 1930 has been the source of constant anxiety for local filmmakers because its vague wording has been used as an excuse by the state to cut, ban, blur and apply double standards to a number of pics over the years.

The frustration peaked in April when the censorship board ordered four cuts from the acclaimed “Syndromes and a Century,” prompting the entire film community as well as visual artists and media activists to unite and demand the revamp of the law and especially to introduce the long-delayed rating system.

But the Ministry of Culture seems to have turned a deaf ear to their concerns, and the new law only heightens long-standing anxiety.

According to director-producer Prachya Pinkaew, who heads the Thai Film Directors Assn. (FDA), the new legislation promises to introduce the rating system — though, strangely, the state still retains the right to cut or ban films.

“The spirit of the new law is to control the industry, not to promote it,” says Pinkaew, director of hits “Ong-Bak” and “Tom-Yum-Goong.”

“I’m grateful that the government has started paying attention to us, but they still don’t get the point about why the law needs to reflect contemporary filmmaking sensibilities and audience expectations.”

“It’s necessary to start the rating system, but it’s unacceptable to have both the rating and the cut,” says “Syndromes and a Century” director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. “It means they do not wish to respect the integrity of movies and moviemakers — and I’m not talking about my movies, but everything produced in this country.”

Shaky politics after the bloodless coup last September only complicates the matter. With the 1996 constitution annulled by the military, Thailand is in the process of writing a new charter.

Seeing this as an opportunity, the FDA has been orchestrating a campaign to pressure the charter writers to define films as a form of mass media.

This legal definition would automatically prevent the state from interfering with content, placing films’ status alongside those of newspapers and TV, which the government doesn’t control.

The move attracted public attention when royal helmer Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol submitted the petition to the chairman of the charter-drafting assembly.

“The fight is taking place separately on two fronts,” Pinkaew says. “The association is pushing the constitution drafters to specify cinema as a form of media; meanwhile, our coalition is working on the Film Act and the rating system.”

A senior officer at the Ministry of Culture says the state understands the need for a film rating system and the development of the local film culture, but insists that “Western standards can’t always be applied here.”

Another surprise of the proposed Film Act is the absence of a state funding program, an issue that has been heavily debated by lawmakers and the film biz over the past 10 years.

The omission seems to be the result of a belt-tightening policy following last year’s coup. Observers believe that although Thai cinema has reached a certain level of maturity and international recognition, state support remains a missing tool in the attempt to push Thai movies into the same competitive level as, say, South Korea.

“The early draft of the new law included a plan of financial support from the government, which acknowledged that it was an essential principle in promoting the quality of Thai films,” says producer Thongsang. “But along the way the lawmakers dropped it, and by doing so they’ve reduced the function of this law into supervising, instead of supporting, the industry.

“Without state funding, Thai filmmakers will continue to have a hard time making anything apart from horrors and comedies,” Thongsang says.

Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who had to cut a number of shots from “Ploy” after the censors objected to its erotic scenes, says: “Audiences want to see uncut films, not because they want to see sex scenes or something inappropriate. But they want to appreciate the creativity of Thai filmmakers in its intact form. It’s sad that the state repeatedly fails to acknowledge this.”

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