Take That, Hollywood!

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NISID HAJARIThais have long and jealously guarded two things: the idea that their country, alone among its Southeast Asian neighbors, has never been colonized, and the sanctity of their royal family. Both have been sorely tested by Hollywood. Not only does American pop culture dominate Thailand as forcefully as the rest of the world, but Twentieth Century Fox's forthcoming Anna and the King riled local sentiment with a script that supposedly does not accord proper respect to its subject, reformist 19th century King Rama IV.

Thai authorities denied Fox permission to film in the kingdom. And royalist defenders have fought back along another front as well. North of Bangkok in the ancient capital of Ayuthaya, one of the country's best-known directors has begun shooting a lavish historical epic to commemorate King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 72nd birthday this Dec. 5--suspiciously close to Anna's scheduled release. The project was initiated by Queen Sirikit and stars a minor princess as the legendary Suriyothai, a 16th century warrior-queen. The director, Prince Chatri Chalerm Yugala, is himself a member of the royal family. And though privately funded, the production boasts a kingly budget of $5.4 million, the largest ever for a Thai film. Unlike Anna and the King, Chatri says pointedly, I will make my film very accurate, so Thais will be proud of their history.

Most Thais are familiar with the semi-mythical tale of Suriyothai, a Queen who rode into battle against the Burmese to defend her husband's kingdom. In Chatri's retelling, her predecessor (played by pop star Mai Charoenpura) poisons her husband (played by Pongpat Wachirabunjong) even though he has just declared his love for his duplicitous wife. This is the most difficult scene to shoot, says Chatri. I have to bring out the emotions of the king, his love for his beautiful consort, and her cheating heart. In a cavernous tapioca warehouse that has been transformed into a red-and-gilt royal chamber, four palace maids, clad only in low-slung sarongs and silk sashes that don't quite cover their breasts, inch forward on their knees toward the king's throne. One by one, they lay trays laden with food at the feet of an equally subservient taster. Chatri is not satisfied. Cut! he yells, in fair imitation of a Tinseltown auteur. Lower your heads, girls. You're not supposed to look at the king. And food taster, pick up the food and put it in your mouth. You're supposed to taste for poison, not enjoy the food.

Perched beside him, Mom Kamala Yukol, Chatri's wife and production manager, shakes her head sternly. We have the money to buy the latest equipment, the best in the world, but we don't have the talent, she sighs.

The lament is familiar. At one point in the 1980s, Thai studios churned out 200 features a year, making the kingdom one of the world's top 10 film-producing countries. Last year only 11 local movies were released. Much of the decline can be traced to the Asian economic crisis--which has slashed both film budgets and the disposable income of Thai moviegoers--and to the dominance of Hollywood blockbusters in the country's mushrooming multiplexes. But many in the industry also decry the lack of scriptwriters and trained crew (Chatri is relying on Slovakian cinematographer Igor Luther, who shot Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum). Some have suggested that Thailand concentrate on its advanced post-production facilities, which are far cheaper than those in, for example, Australia and Japan, and that aspiring directors turn their energies toward television.

Chatri seems unlikely to reverse the trend. Though he won several awards for probing social dramas in the 1980s, his last film, a Buddhist sci-fi comedy called The Box, flopped miserably. (It was a total failure, he says candidly. I am not so good at humor.) Many see Suriyothai as a similarly indulgent boondoggle, one that will appeal to the palace far more than to teens, who would likely rather watch Anna stars Chow Yun-fat and Jodie Foster. He is wasting resources instead of saving the movie industry, says Scott Rosenberg, a Bangkok film consultant. At the very least, though, perhaps Chatri can salvage a measure of self-respect for a country that fears being colonized by Hollywood.

Reported by Kim Gooi/Ayuthaya