With cat-like humans, soldiers infiltrating an art gallery and brainwashed cadets, dystopian “Ten Years Thailand” is the latest in a pan-Asian film series aiming to stir political debate that debuted in the kingdom Thursday.
The original in the “Ten Years” series came out in Hong Kong in 2015 on the back of the “Occupy” pro-democracy protests, with versions from Japan and Taiwan exploring nuclear fallout and socio-economic problems.
The premise asks film-makers to wrestle with the subject of what their country will be like 10 years from now, resulting in unsettling visions of bleak futures.
Big guns from Thailand’s new wave cinema, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Wisit Sasanatieng, worked on the four short, dark satires on army rule, censorship, mob mentality and cramped free expression, that premiered at Cannes in May.
The creators of the omnibus movie, which made it past Thailand’s unpredictable film censorship board, see it as a clarion call to encourage critical thinking in a nation run by generals since a 2014 coup.
The target audience are “people worried about the direction the country is going and unhappy with the military being so powerful for the next 20 years”, director Aditya Assarat explains.
Aditya’s episode, “Sunset”, shows soldiers scouring an art gallery for politically incendiary works, inspired by a real-life confrontation last year in which security forces showed up at a show and ordered exhibits to be removed.
The junta has kept a tight lid on any form of dissent since seizing power, bringing with them a culture of censorship and banning gatherings of more than five people, an order it only lifted this week.
Censorship “harms the artists and ... it harms the military as well”, Aditya told an audience at an early screening this week in Bangkok.
The Hong Kong version made a splash, picking up the top prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards in the aftermath of the massive pro-democracy protests in 2014.
The film, which painted a picture of a city under Chinese control, drew condemnation from mainland Chinese authorities.
The Thai directors hope to reach an audience beyond the arthouse crowd and strike a wider chord at a time when the country is at a turning point.
The military has set elections for February 24 but has used its four years in power to dilute the checks and balances of the country’s democratic institutions.
Thai society also remains bitterly divided between pro-junta elites and supporters of the Shinawatra clan, whose political parties have won every election since 2001 but have been hit by military coups and court cases.
Director Wisit explores that rift in the ghoulish “Catopia”, which imagines a world in which a man has to try and blend in among a society of human-like cats.
Dressed in suits with cat heads they represent the groupthink that takes hold among fractured political classes.
“Thailand is divided between pro-democracy and pro-dictatorship people,” Wisit says. “Some people think that if you fight for democracy you are a dirty guy.”
Apichatpong’s “Song of the City” focuses on groups milling around a statue of former dictator Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat while using a soporific device that dulls their senses.
The most fiercely anti-junta vignette is “Planetarium” by Chulayarnnon Siriphol.
It uses 80s sci-fi imagery to envision cadets trained to spy on citizens and report to a female general in a pink uniform.
Opponents are expelled into space through a system controlled by a monk whose face is concealed with a motorcycle helmet.
Monks are venerated in Buddhist-majority Thailand and use of their images is considered inappropriate.
Viewers of the early screening were surprised it emerged unscathed from the censor’s red pen.
“I am surprised that the film has passed censorship,” Bangkok entrepreneur Naya Adam-Ehrlich says.
“We need these young intellectuals, this film makes you want to act politically,” she adds.