Sakda Kaewbuadee on the set of Syndromes and a CenturyLast night I finally got to see the new film I’ve been anticipating with more fervor than any other in the past six months, Syndromes and a Century by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose Tropical Malady was Cinemarati’s #10 film of 2005). This privilege felt bittersweet, however, knowing that Thai moviegoers, who had been anticipating the film at least as fervently as I, had just been denied an opportunity to see it on local cinema screens. As reported by Kong Rithdee, the Thai Censorship Board has demanded that Apichatpong cut four scenes from the film before letting it be released as scheduled on two Bangkok screens April 18th. The director refused to make the cuts, stating in the introduction to an online petition:

If these offspring of mine cannot live in their own country for whatever reasons, let them be free. Since there are other places that warmly welcome them as who they are, there is no reason to mutilate them from the fear of the system, or from greed. Otherwise there is no reason for one to continue making art.

If you’ve seen Blissfully Yours and are imagining the censored scenes might bear a resemblance to the sexually explicit images in that film, you might be surprised to learn that the contested content actually involves scenes with comparatively tame images:

1. A robed monk plays an acoustic guitar.

2. A doctor kisses his girlfriend while in his office, both fully clothed. A close-up of his crotch reveals that he is sexually aroused.

3. Another doctor hides whisky in a prosthetic leg in a hospital basement, and offers to share it with her colleagues, some of whom oblige.

4. A robed monk plays with a toy flying saucer in a city park.

It seems that these images are controversial because they show a human side to authority figures that are normally expected in Thai society to be portrayed in a very austere manner, even if it runs counter to the reality of daily life in modern Thailand. I’ve seen Thai monks playing guitars and otherwise recreating. Apichatpong’s parents are both doctors, so if any filmmaker might know about the behavior of the Thai medical profession when patients are not around, it would be him. Not that Apichatpong’s films employ documentary realism, or should be judged by those standards, of course. But a quote from a representative of the Thai Medical Council, “drinking whisky in a hospital is not proper conduct by medical professionals,” betrays a rather simplistic understanding of the function and force of art in modern culture.

Syndromes and a Century itself shows the friction between as well as the gravity connecting the traditional and the modern, which befits a work commissioned for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Perhaps it was somehow inevitable that the Thai government, currently at something of a crossroads following last fall’s coup that left the country in the hands of the military, might react negatively to some of the situations in Apichatpong’s unconventional film. Somehow this quote by George Bernard Shaw seems appropriate:

“The first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.”

I encourage you to sign the petition here.