Nicole Brenez: Tell us about your education, formation, artistic environment.
Ing K: I’m an art school drop-out, so I am formed by life rather than by formal education, though I did have a good classical education both in Thailand and later in England (middle and high school).
My biggest influence was undoubtedly my mother, an artist, teacher and serious environmental activist. She was Thai but was born and raised in England during World War 2 (to this day, we don’t waste food in our family!). She inspired in me a great love of nature, art and music, as well as English poetry (Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Blake especially, but nonsense rhymes too) and world myths and fairy tales, especially Greek mythology, which is probably my first religion. At the same time at school in Thailand I was steeped in Thai epic poetry, which as a child I loved to chant in the traditional way. (Thai education has since changed for the worse; the current syllabus almost totally neglects essay-writing and the teaching of poetry. Thai culture is actually very lyrical; when you take this away, you take away our soul. I consider this one of the roots of our present evil.)
I went to art school instead of university because I wanted to become a painter, but I dropped out after seeing a film on the Cambodian refugee crisis on TV which made me feel guilty and useless, so I came back home to work in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in 1980. This led to journalism and eventually to film.
Spiritually, my mother’s parents were Zen Buddhists/Taoists; my father’s half-German mother was Catholic, while his father came from a Hindu priestly family from India, though they’re now Thai Buddhists. So it’s a complete mix. I have no specific religion, or rather I take freely from all religions and mythologies. I travel a lot in India, Greece and Nepal, which I consider my spiritual homes.
NB: How and why did you conceive Shakespeare Must Die? How long to translate Macbeth?
IK: Poetry has always been a great part of my life. However, as a writer here I’m known for investigative journalism (the environment). Though I’ve also written on film and poetry a little, I’d never really had the chance to express this core part of myself. I am also a horror movie junkie, so Macbeth, rightly considered by many as the Great Grandfather of Horror, combines my obsessions.
I first encountered the play as a 15 year old at school in England and it has haunted me all my life. At the back of my mind the dream was always there, to translate it into a Thai horror movie. There is much in it that Thai people can relate to: a black magic-obsessed tyrant with a scary wife, an exploration of megalomania, a discussion on the divine right of kings, extra-judicial killings, the fate of a land in darkness.
In 2008 I’d just finished Citizen Juling, a documentary about the unrest in the Muslim-majority South of Thailand. This film, permeated with a terrible sense of loss, consumed me with its grief. I was in the perfect frame of mind to tackle Macbeth, which as Shakespeare Must Die is a totally natural outflow, of blood and tears if you will, from our conversations with the grief-stricken people of the South, Muslims and Buddhists, who have suffered most from Thaksin’s (our Macbeth-like former Prime Minister, now a fugitive in Dubai from a corruption conviction, who still runs Thailand through his little sister, our present PM) rule by greed, fear and violence.
I thought the translation would take years or turn out to be an impossible task. But it gripped me utterly and after locking myself away for four months, not just the straight translation but the whole script was done, which really surprised me. In a way I should not have been so surprised, since I’ve translated many different things, from laws to poetry, and I’ve always found that the better the writing, the easier it is to translate. In translation, one has to submit one’s personality to the writer’s style and soul, so if it’s a stupid style and badly written, the soul rebels against it. Shakespeare packs so many layers of sensations and meanings into a single line, even a single word, so it would seem impossible to render. Yet it is so enjoyable that I didn’t mind the effort of stretching my whole mind in its service. I soon found that there is something deeply universal and instinctive about the Shakespearean sound and imagery. (There are things you have to change, for instance: Macbeth’s “I’ll not play the Roman fool…” had to become “I’ll not play the Samurai fool…” There’s just no time to explain Roman culture to a Thai audience at that point, but we’ve heard of Japanese samurais committing hara-kiri.)
NB: How was the production of Shakespeare Must Die possible?
IK: Shakespeare Must Die was funded by the Ministry of Culture’s Creative Thailand Film Fund, which was a project of the previous government and now no longer exists. At least 50 other films received this funding, most of which went to the big studios rather than to independents like us. It was the last film to receive the funding, as the board was concerned about our depiction of the regicide scene. We had to shoot the scene and show them all the footage before they were convinced of our Shakespearean sincerity. All other films only had to submit a synopsis and treatment.
I’m mistrusted because I have no doctrine except John Keats’ “Beauty is Truth”; my creative roots are purely organic story-telling. When people can’t classify you as ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’, ‘classical’ or ‘postmodern’ etc., they become suspicious; they fear what they don’t understand. I know this is true everywhere, but especially here because Thai people are raised on state propaganda. (To explain this I would have to take you back to World War 2. Imagine if in France, instead of honouring the Resistance, the Nazi collaborators are honoured and the Resistance is reviled. That’s basically what has happened here. My family was very much a part of the Free Thai during the war and so we know the ‘forbidden history’ and don’t believe the fascist propaganda.)
NB:Shakespeare Must Die is remarkable for its courage and aesthetic uniqueness. But were you inspired by other artists eg. Hans Jürgen Syberberg at the beginning and end of the film, because of the impressive work on images in the background of the scene?
IK: I’m deeply ashamed to say I’d never heard of Hans Jürgen Syberberg! I googled him after reading your question and will sit down to watch Hitler as soon as I have time; it looks amazing. Thank you for the recommendation.
I’m a visual person since at heart I’m still the painter that I was trained to be. (I still paint with oil on canvas.) As a filmmaker I have to work with very small budgets, so the best way to increase production value is to rely on what we have—a strong art department as well as artist friends who can lend us their work (often worth more than the whole film, such as the weird rollicking statues under the witches’ tree and the painting behind M and Lady M in her boudoir). I solve budget problems with the structure of the film, by working with what I do have. It would’ve been great to make a realistic Macbeth with a coup d’etat with real tanks in the streets etc., but obviously this is not possible, so I made use of the Shakespearean ‘play within a play’ device. Whatever I couldn’t afford, I put on a theatre stage, so that stage tricks and cheap swords would be acceptable, in the way that Shakespeare makes an actor stand between two lovers and call him ‘wall’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Such artificiality could in the end serve to contrast with the realistic violence of the lynching in ‘the real world’ at the end. At the same time, since Thailand was never a Western colony and has no Shakespearean culture to speak of (to most Thai people, Shakespeare is just a ‘high-end brand’ like Prada or Chanel), I wanted the Thai audience to experience the theatricality of it, as well as to revel in Shakespeare’s love of leaping from one ‘reality’ to another without warning, at any time, at will. I love the way he bleeds the senses into one another and one dimension into another. We go into and out of people’s heads at will.
Generally, though I love film, I’m more influenced by art, literature and current news footage than film. I have to say that for Shakespeare Must Die, I made the conscious decision to trust Shakespeare absolutely, wherever that might lead, no matter how scary or ‘uncool’ this might sometimes prove to be. Thai folk opera (a wonderful mix of minimalism and maximalism) and TV soaps are other strong influences for the film. I wanted to use some of their grammar to lull the Thai audience (which is very addicted to nightly TV melodramas) with its apparent familiarity while the Shakespearean dialogue mesmerises them on an entirely another level.
You mention the opening of the film—I presume you mean the girl walking through a cemetery to make offerings to a cheap fun fair cut-out of the Hindu Goddess Durga. Before every Thai performance, from Thai folk opera to boxing, there is always a brief ceremony of ‘Guru Worship’. I use the Goddess Durga for our film’s Guru worship because she is the slayer of fear and ignorance; like Kali, she is the teacher of painful lessons. Her face is a hole, like the cut-outs you see for people to pose for photos at carnivals. God is nobody; God is you. We go through the hole into the story, into Macbeth’s mansion, as if the Goddess is the one showing you this morality play. Again, I arrived at the cheap cut-out art department solution because I couldn’t afford to achieve a vision of the Goddess with visual effects. This cut-out could then be used again for the propaganda children scene (the Hecate scene in Macbeth).
NB: Apart from the censorship, how has the film been received in Thailand? Any secret screenings?
IK: We’ve had about 4 private screenings at universities. The response has been wonderful. Before we were banned, my greatest fear was the reaction of local Shakespeareans, but they have been the most supportive. But the best comment came from a political science professor who told me that now he understands why westerners enjoy Shakespeare. It made me feel that I succeeded in what I set out to do. It’s such a pity that we can’t release the film right now. This atmosphere of revolution would be the perfect moment to be showing Shakespeare Must Die in cinemas.
Someone who knows the protest organizers told me I should try to show the film at the main protest site at Democracy Monument (which is like a massive camp site interspersed with screens to relay the protest leaders’ speeches to people sitting far from the main stage), which would be amazing. However, they’ve never shown any film at the protest and a horror movie is not really a good choice for the situation. In the worst-case scenario, claiming the film makes fun of their hero, a bunch of Thaksin fanatics might choose that moment to attack people at the protest (something they’ve been threatening to do), then the censors could crow triumphantly that they were right to ban the film as a threat to national security. Such a scenario would set back our campaign to change the film law for years. So this is just a nice but not a good idea, even if it were possible.
We have to wait for the Administrative Court to lift the ban. I’m optimistic that we would win our case against the censors, but I don’t know when that would be. The case of ‘Insects in the Backyard’, the other film that has also sued the censors in the same court (Administrative Court is for cases filed by citizens against governmental organizations) has already dragged on for 3 years.
NB: Is it possible to see your film Censor Must Die?
IK: Censor Must Die isn’t banned, in fact it’s the first film in Thai cinema history to be “exempt from the censorship process” since it was “made from events that really happened.” The censors are citing a law that exempts news footage from censorship. But at the same time, they have threatened to sue any cinema that shows the film, saying that they never gave us permission to film in their office. This is ridiculous as I never shot surreptitiously and they interact with the camera quite openly, but Thai cinemas are owned by the big studios and distributors, who must submit their films to the censors all the time. So Censor Must Die is in effect banned too.
NB: How do you feel about the future of Thailand? How would you formulate a response of film to an oppressive political situation?
IK: The future of Thailand? Actually I feel optimistic. Long-suppressed energy is being at long last released. It’s always cleansing for the truth to reveal itself.
Thaksin is our nemesis, a potent and bitter medicine; it’s as if he’s been specifically designed to plague us in exactly the right way for us to react to cleanse and examine ourselves. He personifies the dark side of our collective psyche, in the same way that Hitler did for the German people. A gift from the Goddess of Painful Lessons. Before him, we “happy-go-lucky Thais” never really suffered, not in the way that other countries have suffered, so we were never forced to really come to grips with our dark side.
This is of course the gut feeling of a horror filmmaker, not the analysis of an academic. It’s a horror movie in full bright sunshine. The horror we are experiencing through Thaksin is in the deepest sense the horror of our own moral bankruptcy. Such a man would not be possible otherwise. It doesn’t look like Bosnia or Sudan, but everything is wrong. On the material level, the corruption is brazen and on an unimaginable scale; in public life, there is a total lack of conscience; things look normal but people disappear.
This on-going protest is a zero-sum game, because what I call The Beast, the great mass of the people, has finally had enough and rejects all pretense of compromise. No more lies, full stop. We will never believe a word you say and we want you gone, full stop. We have to win because if we lose, we will become a failed state, that’s all. That’s why I’m opitimistic; when there’s no alternative, all the energy flows in one direction.
I’ve been recording much of what’s happening—wonderful, mesmerising images with a cast of thousands. At first I was just collecting stock footage, but I’m realising now that another film is organically growing from these images—and sounds, such incredible sounds: the roar of a great crowd, the voice of the Beast. Before this happened, I’d been struggling to write a script that would express that voice, but nothing I could dream up was extreme enough. When these protests erupted at Hallowe’en, I realised the movie I was trying to write is actually right here in front of me; all I have to do is go out there and shoot it. I’m not making a documentary but I hope to construct something from the images in a raw, impressionistic way. I think there is no way to consciously ‘formulate’ a cinematic response to an oppressive political situation. It has to happen naturally, instinctively. A consciously designed cinematic response is likely to be unfree of propaganda; it may even be insincere and opportunistic, just making a certain type of film to fulfill a certain expectation. I think you have to have the faith to let it form itself unconsciously, un-self-consciously, as it will, not as you consciously will.
(Thank you Jocelyne Saab and Philip Cheah).