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Film & Music: THAILAND'S BATTLE OF THE BARD: Against a backdrop of military rule, director Ing K's film about a production of Macbeth remains banned, though her documentary about the dispute, called Censor Must Die, has been waved through. Andrew Dickson meets the unlikely subversive

June 6, 2014



A lot has happened in

Thailand over the past two weeks: the imposition of military rule, the suspension of the constitution, and the creation of an ominous-sounding National Peace and Order Maintenance Council.

Amid all that, there's one case

that's unlikely to catch much

attention. It sits in the in-tray of

a Bangkok administrative court,

and concerns a dispute between a

director and Thailand's board of film censors. The movie in question has been banned since 2012, when the

censors decreed that it possessed

"content that causes divisiveness among the people of the nation". The director's name is Ing Kanjanavanit. The title of her film is Shakespeare Tong Tai (Shakespeare Must Die).

Even by the fraught standards of Thailand's recent history, the idea

of a 450-year-old poet being politically too hot to handle seems surreal. But then everything about this story is

surreal: belligerent title aside, the film is a dutiful adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, faithful to nearly every jot and scribble of the text (at 172 minutes, it's not for lightweights). It received

3m Thai baht (pounds 54,000) in funding from Thailand'sMinistry of Culture, two years before a different branch of the same ministry decided to outlaw it. Ing has been attacked as a royalist sympathiser and a dangerous subversive, and simultaneously lauded as a selfless defender of free speech.

She and I are sitting on a bench outside the campus of National Taiwan University in Taipei, where Shakespeare Must Die has just been screened. The air is heavy with traffic fumes from the evening rush hour;

you could slice the humidity with a knife. The reason we've abandoned the blissful air-con of the screening room for the bench is so that Ing can smoke.

"Sorry," she says, quite troubled. "Sorry. Really, you don't mind?"

Slight and neat with a patient,

wide gaze, Ing (who as a director goes under the name of Ing K) doesn't

look like a firebrand. Born in 1959,

she was sent to boarding school in

Derbyshire and studied for her A-levels in Godalming, Surrey; her English has a pleasingly antiquated quality. It is easier to picture her as a smalltown university lecturer than a dangerous rabble-rouser.

I run through the outlines of

the case, to check I'm not missing something. She smiles wanly. "Two years now," she says. "We have no idea when we'll get our day in court. It could be any day, it could be much longer. But when the country's like this, who cares about a movie?"

The project began in earnest in 2007, when Ing had finished her previous

film, Polamuang Juling (Citizen Juling),

a documentary about the death of

a teacher assaulted by a group of

Muslim women in southern Thailand. Convinced that Juling would be too

controversial for international festivals, she began translating Macbeth to keep her mind off things. "I just wanted to have no brain left for anything else.

So I went back to Shakespeare."

As it happened, in 2008 Juling was selected by the Toronto festival, where the New York Times called it "unflinchingly and achingly human". Soon after, it was accepted by Berlin. But by then Ing had become consumed by Macbeth; her partner Manit Sriwanichpoom, one of Thailand's leading photographers, who'd also collaborated on Juling, produced. Together they called it Shakespeare Must Die. Though she wanted to translate Shakespeare's text into Thai as precisely as possible, Ing wanted to make the play contemporary. She sensed it could be a pointed analogue for her country's turbulent recent history, which had witnessed the arrival of the tycoon Thaksin

Shinawatra as prime minister in 2001 (a hero to some; a corrupt dictator to others), his overthrow in 2006, and the subsequent tumultuous power struggles, capped by this latest military coup - perhaps the 12th Thailand has seen since 1932 (calculations vary).

In the film, Macbeth/Dear Leader, played with porcine cunning by

Pisarn Pattanapeeradej, transitions with alarming rapidity from dutiful

officer to narrow-eyed megalomaniac, chillaxing in his garishly overdecorated compound.

Even if you're unversed in the

intricacies of Thai politics, it is not hard to see Thaksin's shadow falling across the screenplay. That at least seems to have been the view of the censors, who decreed that it was "in conflict with peaceful social order or good public morality", and demanded changes -

notably objecting to its use of the

colour red, associated with Thaksin's supporters. The film had been funded by an opposition-led government; by the time it came to be licensed, Thaksin's sister Yingluck was prime minister.

Ing concedes she is hardly a fan of a man she accuses of a "blatant and obscene lack of ethics", but rejects the accusation that the film is anti-Thaksin propaganda: her use of red, for

instance, was decided long before it

became associated with his redshirts. "I use Thaksin to illustrate Shakespeare, not the other way around."

One of the most disturbing sections occurs at the end, where Macbeth's

execution bleeds into a scene

resembling the notorious massacre at Thammasat University in Bangkok on 6 October 1976. The facts are disputed, but police and rightwing paramilitaries were accused of torturing and murdering at least 46 pro-democracy students, some of whom had been staging satirical theatre as part of their protests, an ominous interleaving of art and life. "Macbeth ends optimistically:

the bad guy dead, all that," says

Ing. "But in real life it's not a happy ending. The film is a kind of warning."

If it is a warning, few have been able to attend to it. Barred from public screening in Thailand, Shakespeare Must Die has been seen only in campus settings and at a handful of festivals. Her response to the impasse was to do what she did before: pick up a camera. Watching her husband return from meeting after fruitless meeting with the men in suits, Ing decided to come along, too - partly to keep him company, partly as legal cover. Initially she had no thought of turning the footage into a film, but as they journeyed from being denied a rating to public protests to a failed appeal, a plotline began to emerge: a shoestring Waiting for Godot with overtones of Kafka; high Shakespearean tragedy transformed into a bureaucratic comedy of errors, complete with a cast of face-saving goons. They called it Censor Must Die.

It's not without laughs: on one

occasion Manit is made to wait while the board urgently reviews the film Dear Doggies 2; on another Ing is expelled to the culture ministry lobby, whereupon her camera lingers on a fatuous instructional video on the niceties of Thai etiquette. "This is their mentality, so out of step with the times. It's absurd. Like

Alice in Wonderland."

Equally Alice-like is the fact that - presumably embarrassed by having outlawed a film co-written

by Shakespeare - the authorities

have allowed Censor Must Die to

pass, on the basis that it depicts "events that really happened".

"Effectively it's been banned,"

says Ing. "They threatened to sue

any cinema that put it on. But

what cinemas want to screen

documentaries anyway?"

The court case is still pending;

she and Manit are busily considering

alternative ways to screen their

work in Bangkok. And Ing has been shooting yet another documentary, this time following the anti-government

protesters camped around Bangkok's Victory monument and filmed largely on her iPhone. Her working title is Bangkok Joyride. She's been working on it for seven months. A long time,

I say. She shrugs helplessly: "I haven't got an ending yet."

Back in London, I call up Ing to check how she's doing. It's now 10 days after the military moved in. She is more optimistic than I expect: perhaps there will be a political settlement, she says. The court case is progressing. And she has her ending - to Bangkok Joyride, at least. Gatherings of more than five people are now outlawed;

she was filming on the day the soldiers arrived. A conclusion of sorts.

The phone line makes her sound a world away. "What can you do?" she says. "You just go on and on. Put one foot in front of the other."

Captions:

Toil and trouble . . . (top, from left) Lord and Lady Macbeth; Banquo's ghost; Censor Must Die; the producer by parliament; (inset) director Ing K


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: Guardian (UK)


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