A Conversation with Kong Rithdee
Interview by: Thunska Pansittivorakul
Kong Rithdee, film festival explorer and English-language film critic, is a vital character in the Thai film scene. Blending the readability of well-written journalism with sharp critical insight, he is a rarity among commentators in the Southeast Asian region, possessing a combination of intelligence and influence, flair and fearlnessnes, rarely seen in a single film writer. In the second of three insightful interviews with persons of import in the contemporary Thai cinema, Thunska talks to Kong about becoming a film critic, the Thai film scene, and why he writes about films that Thais may not have seen.
Thunska Pansittivorakul: How did you begin working as a film critic?
Kong Rithdee: I graduated from Marketing at ABAC [Assumption University of Thailand]. I had no previous knowledge of films, but I was interested in them and I read many books, watched many films. After graduation, I worked at the newspaper Khookhaeng (Competitor) for a year—translating international news. After that I came to work at The Bangkok Post where I have been working for almost ten years now. I write documentaries, write about the arts, culture, interview people, and cover tourism stories. When the person who wrote about films left, I asked to do that instead, and so I've been doing it continuously since 1998 in Real Time and Outlook. Lately there's been more to write about films in Thailand, so I've been writing more. I wrote for Sawasdee an in-flight magazine, Cineaste, Cinemaya, and some film festivals such as Pusan. Four years ago, Chuck Stevens contacted me to write for Film Comment. I wrote about how at that time everyone was very excited that the film industry was going great, but I was skeptical. You have to look [at things] in the long run; don't be so happy before it happens, because in the end, the Thai film industry was not as successful as expected.
TP: What made you think like that at that time, and do you still think that way [now]?
KR: At that time the film business was a soap bubble industry. There were very few quality films. Perhaps the Asian cinema wave was strong and so Thai films were closely observed. But now the view is more concrete, that there is hope, but not for Thai films. There are some Thai film directors we can [build our] hopes on, but probably not to storm the box office like Korean cinema.
KR: The quality of Korean films is much better. The market in Thailand has a large audience of around 8-10 million [people] and so it can stand on its own. Many skillful directors have developed [over the years]. The systems that support the training of new people to take their places are much clearer. But Thai cinema is still too ordinary. The domestic market is not strong yet. If the domestic market is good, then there is less to worry [about], because we merely [need] domestic sales to ensure survival. However, the domestic market is not surviving, and hoping to reach the international market is no guarantee of success.
TP: How would you explain the rapid success of Korean cinema, even though we have only known Korean cinema for a few years?
KR: It's about culture. Koreans like to watch films. Politics as well—they were also under a military government. Breeding of thought came about as a reactionary product of the suppression of intellectual freedom by the military government. With the end of the military government, the social environment loosened up, everything was fresh, blooming, and [Korean cinema] shot up like that.
TP: If Thailand were to follow what Korea did, what do you think should we do?
KR: In Korea, the [coordination of the film industry] mostly comes from the government. I'm not saying that the filmmakers in Thailand are incapable, but the Koreans have systematic plans. They have clear policies for the film industry. We have to stop thinking that films are a business that the industry can take care of by itself. [Films] are the most important way for a society to show itself because they are a cultural form consumed by most people. Films influence how people think and feel. Not that the government should take control, but rather [it should] help as much as it can. If the government doesn't help then it won't go anywhere, but we also have no idea whether it will go anywhere if the government does indeed help.
TP: When did you begin attending foreign film festivals, and why do you think you had to go?
KR: About three years ago. What is the point of just writing about the movies that you can watch in the cinemas, and that every other publication writes about? Some people ask why I bother writing about films in the film festivals when these films are not even screened in Thailand, but that is exactly the point. [It's about] opening the world so that we know what others watch and think, what the pulse of global cinema is like, and how Thai films can join in that pulse. When we want to compete with them—and this is competition on a global scale —we have to see what their competitions are like. I hope my writing helps in terms of knowledge. I go with what I'm interested in. The first time I went to Deauville—I was invited. And then it was Berlin. After that I went myself - Rotterdam, Venice, Cannes. I met people, exchanged perspectives. Sometimes I would get in-depth information, and this is the important thing that makes [these festivals] a must-go.
TP: What do you think of the atmosphere of each of the film festivals?
KR: Cannes is like a circus—everyone wants to go. There's something for everyone—it depends on which viewpoint you choose to see it from. The fact that Cannes is a big event, [that it's] conceited, and that the big celebrities are begged to attend, makes it a must-go. The queues to watch the films are hours long. It's interesting to see how these standards are created so that so many people flock to attend. The advantage is that Cannes only chooses to screen premieres. It is a constant search for new things, while at the same time they choose films that will be popular, and [it all] comes out to be a well-balanced mix. There's courage to try to find new things, such as Apichatpong's film—a very courageous move. A film from Thailand, filmed in the jungle, not made by a high investment company, yet it was successful. It wasn't successful because of foreign support, but it [gave Thai films] a wider reach and was able to bring fame to the country. Cannes is unlike Berlin, which has many political aspects because it is a country with intense political history. Recently, the films chosen by Cannes are stronger, whereas [the films chosen by] Berlin are not so glamorous. Many of the films bloomed in Cannes, so it seems that Berlin has dropped [a notch] lower. Berlin may have to be braver. Venice just wants everything, and has focused on Hollywood [films] lately. Many stars attend, and every year something will stand out such as Brokeback Mountain, which was refused by Cannes but became famous in Venice. I view this as competition between film festivals, which is always enjoyable. I've been to Rotterdam twice. It's cool. It's easygoing, fun to watch, no pressure, and the people who go are young men and women. There's life, [it's] borderless, and the films are truly screened for the purpose of cultural exchange. Cannes looks rather vain, or only business people attend, because Cannes is a big market, but Rotterdam's size is just right. The programmer is very sharp, likes a wide variety of movies, is a forward-thinker, and likes to try new things. Cannes has differences in each of the categories, but Rotterdam will highlight each category equally. It is possibly [because of] the appropriate size of the film festival, so there is a greater chance of success for the films. New people are also supported, whilst other places are not courageous enough to do so.
TP: What do you think of the film festivals in Thailand?
KR: Let's put it this way. If a rich person were to organize an extravagant film festival, no matter how good or bad it is, no one would say anything. But if it's a film festival organized with taxpayers' money, it should be advantageous to the people in that country as well. The situation now is that there's no effect on the industry, and it doesn't increase people's interest towards Thai films. Go ahead, organize it, but the way it is organized should be controlled. Don't overspend—we should know our position. For example, should we stand out in Southeast Asia first? Compared to the other countries in this region, we definitely stand out more than the Philippines or Malaysia. We need to look [at things] in the long-run, create a better film-watching culture, make it more easy-going than it is, such as having Thai subtitles so that those who are not very good in English can watch as well. We should also organize activities that have concrete returns for the Thai film industry. Korea has the PPP (Pusan Promotion Plan) which provides funding for skillful directors in Asia, and each year, at least one Korean will be included. This is a way of promoting films from their own country. A tremendous amount of money comes into [France] from Cannes every year because everyone wants to go there. In Thailand, the investments are high, but the long-term returns are not worth it. If one day we did not have the money to invite people in, would anyone want to attend? Why is it that Pusan and Hong Kong do not need to pay to invite people, and yet they [people] want to attend? This is an issue that should be assessed.
TP: What do you think is the link between films and society?
KR: They are definitely related. Look back at PM [Prime Minister] Chuan's era. Ten Thai films were produced annually. The economy was not thriving, but there was some form of stability. During the time of the military government, the films of Mitr Chaibancha were entirely for entertainment purposes. There was no serious content at all, because society was not relaxed. However, the state of our society today is extravagant, spending huge amounts of money, so today's films invest many tens of millions of baht with heavy spending on advertising. The films are crap, but they are advertised well anyway. If the country is managed with superficiality, it's no wonder that the films produced are also superficial. The positive aspect of commercial films turning out like this is that as a reaction, independent films also improve. You'll notice that Apichatpong's films received awards over the past 3-4 years. When there are a large number of mainstream films whose quality is declining, the independent films improve in quality [because they are sustained by] the energy to go against the mainstream.
(Interview first appeared in Siam Contemp, a magazine published by the Ministry of Culture, Thailand. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, Thunska Pansittivorakul, and with a new Thai to English translation by Vipavinee Artpradid)