Film Review: ‘Ten Years Thailand’

A quartet of Thai directors offer a dystopian vision of their nation, steeped in a mood of collective paralysis.

10 Years Thailand Cannes
Cannes Film Festival

Ten Years Thailand” an anthology of shorts by Thai directors Aditya Assarat, Wisit Sasanatieng, Chulayarnnon Siriphol and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, imagines what happens to their country, ruled by a military junta since 2014, a decade from now. Opening with George Orwell’s famous line in “1984”: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” a common theme in the anthology is mind control for the purpose of producing homogeneity. Drolly absurdist, but only average in inventiveness, and lacking the truly pungent satirical wit of a similar dystopian omnibus like “Tales From the Golden Age,” these vignettes will nonetheless make the rounds at plenty of festivals thanks to the cache of 2010 Palme d’Or winner Weerasethakul.

The Thai, Hong Kong and Japanese co-production is spearheaded by the producers and sales agents of Hong Kong omnibus “Ten Years,” whose dystopian vision of post-handover Hong Kong was banned in China but was favorably viewed elsewhere. While the Hong Kong shorts, by less-experienced filmmakers, are visibly crude in technique, their stories sizzle with anger, resistance and martyrdom, which provokes instant empathy. By contrast, in “Ten Years Thailand” a mood of acquiescence and hopelessness prevails, exacerbated by an undercurrent of distrust and hostility.

Each short runs without announcing its director, but those familiar with Thai cinema could easily guess the author. The first is the most articulate and emotionally resonant of the lot. Assarat’s black-and-white “Sunset” highlights the unnatural nature of censorship. A small army squadron checks on an art gallery, and takes issue with an exhibition of photos that capture the spontaneous moods of ordinary people. The captain warns of the “conflict and misunderstanding” that such images may sow in the community. What’s disturbing is the casual civility of the exchange between the captain and the gallery head, a suggestion that this kind of thought policing has become routine business. Also implied is the state presumption of the public’s gullibility and its distrust of foreign-educated intellectuals.

As in Assarat’s shorts and features (“Wonderful Town,” “Hi-so”), themes of repressed longing and the uncertainty of love crop up in an interlude about Kaen (Boonyarit Wiangnon), driver of the army van, who has a crush on the gallery’s cleaner, Ann (Waranya Punamsap). In a heart-melting twist, his confession wryly proves the absurdity of any attempt to suppress the human impulse for expression.    

“Catopia” sees Sasanatieng (“Tears of the Black Tiger,” “Citizen Dog”) returning from a creative hiatus to his signature absurdist-fantastical form. Both impossibly cute and delightfully creepy, it envisages a world in which cats have taken over and humans are all but exterminated. Only a young man (Kidakarn Chatkaewmanee) manages to blend in, but a public lynching exposes him to unforeseeable risks. Easily the most entertaining offering in the project, it combines elements of spy thrillers and alien invasions to teasing effect. Sasanatieng’s usual eccentric wit can be seen in how he uses balls of yarn as a playful motif while springing the appearance of the first cat person as a total surprise.

Set within a generic office environment where the cats dress and behave just like humans and the ways of distinguishing a human seem cruelly arbitrary, the idea is that the line between oppressor and oppressed is whisker-thin. The predictable, but sobering ending proves that to survive in a brutal regime, one has to ditch one’s compassion and rat (pun intended) on one’s compatriots.

Youth indoctrination is the theme of “Planetarium,” a trippy, experimental exercise that reflects director Siriphol’s background in video installation and documentary. Presiding over a society of robotic order in lurid bubblegum colors is a matronly ruler (Tanasawan Thepsatorn) who loves to wear pink military uniforms and enjoys watching over citizens via state-of-the-art surveillance systems; she can control their every move by pressing the pause and start icon of her smartphone. According to the press kit, the New Youth in this segment, who resemble boy scouts, are trained to ferret out dissidents, who then undergo light treatment at the Ministry of VHS to toe the party line.

None of this is actually comprehensible from the free-associative piece, which throws in some hip retro images of space travel and pop-art icons but doesn’t give a fresh enough spin on such totalitarian trademarks as Litte Red Guards and re-education camps.

Weerasathikul’s “Song of the City,” shot in Ratchadanussorn park in Khon Kaen, repeatedly trains the camera on a statue of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who staged a coup to become prime minister. People go about their leisurely pursuits, chatting to friends about hobbies like organic farming. A man tries to peddle a mask that improves relaxation and beauty. Here, the futuristic element is completely downplayed. Life seems to go on as if nothing’s wrong, but could the people’s sleepy gait, their fad for health and well-being reflect the anatomy of the state?

As with most of Weerasathikul’s oeuvre, meaning usually lurks just outside the frame. Here, a brass band can be heard blaring off-screen, hinting at some ceremony in progress. Construction is seen here and there, and the ending shot lingers on a mural of national harmony with a crane hovering rudely above. With the passing of His Majesty Rama IX, the world’s longest reigning monarch, the common people are not privy to high-level changes behind-the-scenes. Similarly, it’s hard to say whether all that construction is meant to dismantle the past or build a new future.

Film Review: ‘Ten Years Thailand’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting), May 9, 2018. Running time: 95 MIN.

  • Production: (Thailand-Hong Kong) A 10 Years Studio, Pop Pictures Co., 185 Films production. (International sales: Golden Scene Co., Hong Kong.) Producers: Cattleya Paosrijaroen, Soros Sukhum, Aditya Assarat, Felix Tsang, Lorraine Ma. Executive producers: Andrew Choi, Ng Ka-Leung, Teerawat Rujenatham.
  • Crew: Directors-writers: Aditya Assarat, Wisit Sasanatieng, Chulayarnon Siriphol, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Camera (B&W, color) Sarun Srisingchai, Pitthai Smithsuth, Pasit Tandaechanurat, Chatchai Suban. Editors: Kamontorn Eakwatanakij, Harin Paesongthai, Lee Chatametikool.
  • With: Boonyarit Wiangnon, Kidakarn Chatkaewmanee, Tanasawan Thepsatorn, Sakda Kaewbuade