If you are not familiar with Thai director Ing K’s adaptation of Macbeth,entitled Shakespeare Must Die, there is a good reason. The film was banned by the Thai government. In response to this, Ing K and her partner/producer Manit Sriwanichpoom created a pointed response, their documentary Censor Must Die, which recently was deemed exempt from the Thai Censorship board. We sit down and discuss the radical nature of Shakespeare’s works in today’s culture, Ing K as filmmaker and provocateur, and the constraints of artistic censorship.CK: Even before Shakespeare Must Die, you were known as a provocative filmmaker. Your documentary titles Thailand for Sale (1991), Green Menace: The Untold Story of Golf (1993), Casino Cambodia (1994), and Citizen Juling (2008) all demonstrate your ability to highlight and portray the problems of Thai society. Your film My Teacher Eats Biscuits was banned from a film festival for its “depravity.” How does Shakespeare Must Die fit into your oeuvre?
ING K: I switched from print journalism to filmmaking because I needed to show rather than tell. As the first writer to focus on environmental problems in Thailand, at a time (1980’s) when the environment was not yet considered real news in the world, I often encountered scepticism and antagonism from editors. They just wouldn’t believe that things could be so bad.
In Citizen Juling, my documentary about the unrest in the Muslim-majority South of Thailand, which centered on an idealistic young Buddhist teacher from the North who volunteered to teach art in the war zone of the south and was beaten into a coma, apparently by enraged Muslim housewives (untrue—turns out they were male terrorists in burqas). This film, permeated with a terrible sense of loss, consumed me with its grief, and when it was rejected by every documentary festival under the sun, the only way I could deal with it was to set myself an overwhelming task, my version of a Herculean labour, namely to translate ‘Macbeth’ into Thai. The sheer difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of it would leave me with no idle brain space for unproductive thinking.
I thought it would take years. But the task gripped me utterly and after locking myself away for four months, not just the straight translation but the whole script was done. (Oddly, as soon as this was done, Citizen Juling was invited to Toronto and Berlin Film Festivals out of the blue.) Macbeth 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 rule by fear and violence.
While Thaksin’s crimes did inspire me to reread and then translate the world’s best-known study of tyranny, in my mind were also all the local mafia figures in nearly every Thai village who rule with fear. Thaksin is just their overlord. According to Human Rights Watch researcher Sunai Phasuk as well as other sources, many people believe that Thaksin (who had been a police colonel—he studied criminology in Texas–before becoming a telecommunications billionaire and then politician) achieved his monopoly on Thai tyranny by getting rid of all opposing local influential figures, many of whom were local canvassers for other political parties, through his War on Drugs, which killed at least 2,500 people in police-perpetrated extra-judicial killings, including women and children. My killing of Lady Macduff and her child comes straight from this: the official-looking checkpoint on a lonely road at night, the menacing group of men in uniform-like safari suits. Thaksin’s (and his wife’s) well-known interest in the occult is by the way; all tyrants seem to share this supernatural interest: Hitler, Idi Amin, Hun Sen, Burma’s Than Shwee, you name it. It’s hard to find one tyrant who was or is not into the occult.
…CK: Can you tell us briefly about Shakespeare Must Die? Why use Macbeth as your source? What is it about Shakespeare that transcends time and space?
ING K: As for the title, Shakespeare must die because true artists (as represented by Shakespeare), by their very existence, threaten tyranny’s sense of security by shaking their flimsy constructs and versions of reality; by tyrants I mean those who would rule the world with fear and lies.
The film’s use of the Shakespearean play within a play device is appropriate as well as being affordable. It would’ve been delicious to have tanks in the streets, helicopter shots of Macbeth on a penthouse terrace over the Bangkok skyline at sunset etc., but that is not within our reach, so I couldn’t write that script. Cheap swords on a stage would have to work somehow, and the only way for that to work is to stage such scenes on a theatrical stage. The fake theatrical violence then serves to emphasize, by contrast, our bloody ending of a realistic lynching (of the play’s director) with echoes of the bloodiest chapter in contemporary Thai history (October 6 massacre in 1976, when a mob, incited by lying propagandists to become enraged by a protest play at Thammasaat University, massacred student protesters.)
Shakespeare transcends time and space because, one: he’s just so damned good, regardless of all this clever postmodern deconstruction, this plague of pseudo-intellectual profundity in contemporary art today, any truthful person can recognize truth and beauty (as in John Keats) when they experience it; two: his subject is the human soul and he has the gift of ecstasy; three: he deliberately and joyously plays with time and space, through his sudden gear-shifting from one dimensional reality to another without any warning nor excuses; his trippy visuals; his synaesthesia; his magic (literally, as in invoking, incantational power), so much so that his world view, or view of the whole cosmos, is more akin to quintessential Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism than his own cultural context of social Christianity. Naked Hindu mystics on the banks of the Ganges are more likely to understand and relate to Shakespeare than the average Englishman today. His structural reality (and lack thereof) is universal, therefore. To me, Shakespeare is not only a poet, the poet, of unimaginable power, he is also a prophet, as great or greater than most accepted religious and philosophical figures. His art leads us to self-knowledge and divine communion in the deepest sense.
While I was astonished that it took me only four months of total immersion to translate ‘Macbeth’ into Thai, I soon realised this was because there is something innately universal, quintessential, about his music, his rhythm, his very sound. Like the Hindu mystics (and the bible, actually), I do perceive the physical universe as the manifestation of sound: “OM”; “the music of the spheres”; “In the beginning was the word.” That’s why I worked so hard to keep Shakespeare’s sound. Interestingly, I had terrible problems with some passages, which I later found were suspected by some to be later additions to the original play.
My aim was to make an emotionally and spiritually authentic ‘Macbeth’, that brings the joys of Shakespeare to Thai people who must at the same time be able to relate to it. That’s why I changed Norway, England, and Scotland to censor-taunting obvious mythic names from the realm of poetry and fantasy like Shangrilla, Atlantis, and Xanadu. This is very much a Thai folk opera tradition. I took liberally from likay [ Thai folk opera travelling theatre groups equipped with not much more than two painted canvas backdrops] but, since I was making a Shakespearean film for Thai people rather than to seduce international curators, decided against the outright exploitation of such Thai exotica as it would get in the way.
Thailand, or Siam by its true, pre-fascist name, is nearly unique historically in that it was never colonized by Western empires. Most Thai people do not speak a second language. Shakespeare is heard of as a name, a ‘high-end brand’, like Gucci or Chanel. That’s why it was so exciting to attempt such a challenge, in the most ideal conditions, impossible elsewhere, to perform Shakespeare with actors who would speak every word “as if for the first time”. One girl looked up from the script after trying out for Lady M and said, with genuine wonder, “Oh my God, what a character this woman is. I love her. I’ve never seen such dialogue.”
Shakespeare Must Die is the first and so far only Thai cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare. But because of the ban and no one has seen it, you really have to say there’s been no Thai Shakespearean film and there won’t be any if the court decides against us. The appeal of Macbeth to the Thai public is obvious. We are living under a real live Macbeth, albeit one with an army of international spin doctors; we are living through Shakespearean times and the world beyond our borders does not know it. High drama in the streets, in the courts, in parliament, everywhere we go. Rage and hatred, operatic villainy, extreme fear and violence, spin doctors staging obscene plays within the play, piling lies upon lies, you name it. The play also contains, in the so-called ‘English scene,’ [Act 4. Scene 3, the exchange between Macduff and Malcolm] [a discussion on the divine right of kings, of leaders and rulers of men, which is the discussion we desperately need now.
I’m quite unrepentant. I went in with my eyes open, fully aware of the sensitive nature of my choice of play. Its relevance is the very reason to do it. It’s absurd that we’re not allowed to film a play that’s taught to 15 year old school children in English-speaking countries all over the world. It would be obscene to surrender to such a silly fear, even if—surely, especially when—the threats arising from this silly fear are very real.CK: Shakespeare Must Die is labeled a horror film. Can you elaborate? Is Macbeth a horror story? Is your adaptation more apt to be labeled horror? How so?
ING K: Like many people, I think Macbeth is the archetype of the horror genre. On the surface witches, dark prophecy, hallucinations, apparitions and the slaughter of innocents; then beneath that exotic manifestation we have the real horrors of spiritual corruption, guilt, insanity and torment, the ultimate horror being of course the loss of his “eternal jewel.” As the first Thai version of Macbeth, for an audience that’s mostly never heard of it, I felt the film had to deliver the eye of newt and toe of frog, both as gleeful Halloween fun and as a device to emphasize, by contrast, the true horror of the Macbeths’ disintegration, again as I believe Shakespeare intended. Witches for a laugh and Lady M for shivers.
To be honest, I’d always longed to make a horror film. People have often told me that all my films including the dog-god black comedy [My Teacher Eats Biscuits] have been horror movies at heart. As a horror movie junkie, I’m not offended. It is a genre that allows free exploration of the soul; heaven and hell, good and evil. Sacred texts like the Ramayana is at times a horror epic, not least because the hero makes his wife walk through fire to prove her fidelity. The Bible has incredible horror scenes. It’s not a genre that’s taken seriously because it’s so enjoyable.CK: What are your inspirations or filmmakers (especially Shakespearean) you consulted when working on this project?
ING K: One major source of inspiration for Shakespeare Must Die was TV melodrama: Thai soap operas and Mexican telenovelas gave the film its look and vibe (though with Caravaggio colours and lighting). This makes it instantly accessible for the soap-addicted Thai audience. The shock is also greater when it is delivered through this familiar guise. Where they expect mental comfort food served by vacuous TV stars mouthing inane TV scripts, they get, instead, powerful actors speaking Shakespeare’s intense words.
For its inner truth, I decided to trust the text unreservedly, no matter how unfashionable or scary that might turn out to be. I tried to be as free of preconceptions from existing Shakespearean cinema as possible, and did not show any Shakespearean film to my cast and crew. I didn’t want them to try to sound ‘Shakespearean’, but just to revel in the actual text. This was easier than it sounds as I haven’t actually seen that many Shakespearean films. I suppose my favourite Shakespearean film would be the Richard III film set in 1930’s fascist England starring Sir Ian McKellen. I love Kurosawa’s Lady M [in Throne of Blood], and the opening scene of Polansky’s Macbeth, with the witches spitting into a noose on a Scottish beach. I’ve been told that Orson Welles’ version is the only one that doesn’t delete the ‘English scene’, and I’d love to see his treatment of it, but I haven’t seen it yet.CK: How can a 400-year old Shakespearean play cause such controversy? Now? In another country? Can you comment on the censorship concerning depictions of the Thai monarchy?
ING K: I’ll answer the last part first, as it’s crucial to understanding. Shakespeare Must Die was not banned out of fear of the monarchy. It was banned out of fear of Thaksin Shinawatra.
As I explained earlier, we had to show uncut footage of the regicide scene before they’d fund us. They even praised the footage and greenlighted the money. That was under the previous government, a ‘royalist government.’ So the Yingluck Shinawatra administration could not, cannot, use that old chestnut against us. The incredible scrutiny, meted out to no other film project, that we received from the Cultural Ministry during the funding process has turned out to be a blessing. Because of it, this government was robbed of its favoured tool, Article 112 or Lese Majeste law, which the Thaksin juggernaut exploits to burnish his ‘democratic’ credentials while soiling the king with a tar brush. Even so, as the ban made international news, Thaksin’s spindoctors did their best to portray that it was banned because of the king. You can read their handiwork in the news slant. It didn’t matter what I said, the story was already written to fit the Thaksin script. As a former journalist, I knew that, but there was nothing I could do about it.
I am not fond of Article 112 [law that prosecutes those who ‘violate the monarchy’]; my family has suffered greatly from it, has even joined a campaign to amend this law. Now that it has become a much-abused political tool, all true reformers have been forced to retreat; we’d just get lumped in with Thaksin’s red shirts. All thinking people in Thai society are stuck between Scylla and Charybdis. The greatest irony is the king himself has publicly spoken against this law, on TV, broadcast nationally, on record. But never mind him. Things that deviate from the script must not exist.
The old divide and conquer strategy has been as fruitful for Thaksin and his corporate colonial cohorts as it was for the Western colonial powers in these savage lands. Thaksin would be the last to desire the amendment of Article 112. The knee-jerk reactions of ultra-royalists play straight into his hands.
The simplistic script as written by his spin doctors, and as slavishly followed by the international press, is this: Thais are not individuals with our own thoughts; Thais can be divided neatly into evil elite royalists and brave Thaksin democrats. People like me are inconvenient to such spin, so we cannot be allowed to exist. Thus Shakespeare Must Die is banned not only domestically but, through such spin, internationally. A business tycoon first and foremost, Thaksin thoroughly understands and exploits ‘soft power’; he’s smarter than the Iranian mullahs. I may not be in jail like Jafar Panahi, but in some ways I’ve been more banned than even him.
Thaksin’s best known spin doctor is Lord Tim Bell, whose most celebrated client was Margaret Thatcher. I’m sure this is why BBC and CNN didn’t touch the story of the banning of Shakespeare in Thailand, though Al Jazeera covered us twice. This is why the AP wire story was removed from the New York Times website not long after it appeared there—it never made it into print, of course. This is why BBC radio in London immediately cut short their interview with me the second I replied that no, we were not banned because it offended the king. I’d done other, formally set up interviews with the BBC, TV and radio, before. Normally it’s set up in their local office. BBC radio in London must’ve seen the wire story and decided to do the story themselves, so this was not set up in their office. I could hear the interviewer’s surprise at my answer and the sudden ending of the interview, as if someone came in and instantly shut it down.
CK: Who has seen Shakespeare Must Die? Censor Must Die?
Macbeth’s relevance to contemporary Thai society is almost literal: a man of insatiable greed for power who sets himself up as an enemy to the king. That’s why it had to be a faithful adaptation, an extreme close-reading even, of Shakespeare. The usual cinematic solution of Macbeth as a gangster, say, would be a coy distraction. It has to be political for these words to make sense: “Alas poor country, almost afraid to know itself. It cannot be called our mother but our grave…” Ross’ lament is the reason I made ‘Shakespeare Must Die’. It’s even our theme song.
ING K: It’s funny to think now that while we were making the film, the people we feared most were not the censors but Shakespeareans, since I’m no Shakespearean scholar but an art school drop-out making a horror movie. As it turns out, most of the moral support we’ve received has come from Shakespeareans. Apart from local Shakespeareans, Professor Mark Burnett of Queen’sUniversity, Belfast and the Indian director Rustom Bharucha have seen the film and given us wonderful feedback. Rustom Bharucha will hold a talk with me after theAsian Shakespeare Association conference screening. This should go ahead unless they too are deluged by emails from Thai Studies types, warning them not to show an anti-democratic evil elite propaganda film…CK: Are there possibilities of the film(s) being screened at international film festivals (such as Cannes, the Toronto International Film festival, etc.)?
ING K: No, there is absolutely no possibility of Shakespeare Must Die being shown at Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin etc. None, and not because it’s a crappy movie. I stand by this comment absolutely.
All, and I mean all, Asian cinema presented at the world’s great film festivals are controlled by the same small group of curators. They send scouts to our third world countries on film selection trips. (Such scouts even tell people how to cut their films. If you don’t obey the dictates of their tastes, you do not ‘go international’. That is why East Asian films shown at festivals are of the same type. This wouldn’t be so bad if local critics, colonially-shackled and lacking confidence, didn’t take their cue from these festivals. Thus entire national cinematic cultures are sacrificed at the altar of the festival circuit. I refuse to do this, so I do have this monolith against me as well as the Thaksin machine. If I had made my witches screechy ‘lady boys’, a Thai cliché, life might’ve been easier.)
The Cannes scout did come to my editing room. He said: “The politics are too specific.” He also “hated” my M and Lady M. Also, why make such a faithful Shakespeare adaptation, how unimaginative of me, how can I hope to compete with “real Shakespearean actors like Judy Dench etc.” as if we the savages have no right to ‘do’ Shakespeare unless we exoticise it, local colour being our only conceivable and acceptable contribution to Shakespearean cinema.
After we were banned, a French sales rep with Cannes connections asked for a DVD; he was initially ecstatic about the film and its chance of getting in at the last minute. Then silence. It was definitely shown to the selection committee. They would’ve consulted the scout in any case.
The Venice scout adored the film in the editing room, said it should be in competition blah blah, told me to rush the film’s completion for him, then at the last moment sends an email that it was not good enough to show to the selection committee, even saying that “the subtitles are in such weird, old-fashioned English.” The subtitles are of course the original text, “the work of one William Shakespeare,” as I put it to him.
Berlin, which had shown our Citizen Juling not long before, said Shakespeare Must Die “does not fit into our theme”—if we hadn’t been rejected, Shakespeare Must Die would’ve been in Berlin the same year Caesar Must Die won the Golden Bear.
Toronto asked for a DVD, then silence. None of which surprised me as the aforementioned Cannes film scout is also consulted by Berlin and Toronto, both of which that year, last year, showed just one Thai film, the same film, Headshot, a gunman movie incidentally co-produced by the very same film scout (and also funded by the Creative Thailand Film Fund, 8 million).
People aware of the situation did try to save us. In the end we screened at one festival in Seoul described as “middle-level but fiercely independent” called CinDi, where people sat around muttering stories about “the festival mafia”, even as members of that mafia appeared at the parties and at least one sat on the jury. CinDi was set up to fight the mafia, but now it no longer exists; that was the last edition. I’ve been told we got great press, but alas I can’t read Korean.
The very recent case of Boundary, a documentary described by many as sympathetic to Thaksin as it tells essentially the same version of events as Thaksin’s sister’s government, illustrates my point succinctly. It was the only Thai film at this year’s Berlinale. It was co-produced by Thai Palme d’Or winner Aphichartpong Weerasethakul and the same Cannes film scout (though he’s credited only as a Thank You) and funded by numerous Western film funds whose logos appear on film. After its Berlinale premiere, it was submitted to censors. What happens next says it all.
Boundary was at first banned by a censors’ committee headed by the most senior bureaucrat (non-politician) in the Ministry of Culture who accused it of distortion—a serious charge for a documentary. Unlike with ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ which was just vaguely charged of being a threat to national security, for the Boundary ban the censors had a proper long list of their objections, minute by minute. Even so, in no time (just over 24 hours) the ban on Boundary was suddenly lifted. This is legally impossible. Normally you have to file an appeal to the Film Board to reverse a ban; you have to do this within 15 days then the Film Board takes another 30 days to decide. These people hadn’t even filed an appeal. The censors actually phoned the director to “apologize for the misunderstanding”. The film then received an 18 rating (for those 18 and older), which is not even the highest rating (20)…. To save face, the censors told them to mute some harmless sound from a scene of a celebration for the king’s birthday, so that it appears to have been banned for less than 2 days in order not to offend the king.
The Boundary ban reversal is a great embarrassment for many. For us it’s a boon as we’ve been able to use it, as further irrefutable evidence of discrimination and political interference, to bolster our administrative court case. Also, we’ll be able to cite it if they do decide to ban our utterly truthful and factual documentary Censor Must Die.CK: What would you be willing to do to make Shakespeare Must Die be released nationally? If the Censorship Board stated cut out this or that reference or allusion (e.g. the allusion to the 1976 Bangkok student uprising), what could/would you remove without harming the integrity of this film?
ING K: That decision is long past. The censors asked for “corrections”, which we refused to make. They objected to so many things: our use of red, Lady M’s jewellery, the lynching scene, on and on and on in a never-ending run-around.
From my contact with them, from their extreme reactions, I believe the thing that’s shaken them to the core is none of these things. Yes, they fear Thaksin, but they also fear William Shakespeare. They’d never seen or heard Shakespeare before, that’s all. This must seem incredible to you. But imagine that you’ve never experienced Shakespeare in any shape or form (except perhaps Zefferelli’s or Baz Luhrman’sRomeo and Juliet) and never in your own tongue, then suddenly you’re hit on the head with Macbethwhich, incredibly, is just like your own country. You’ve only ever heard straight-forward, predictable Thai dialogue, then suddenly you’re hit by Lady M, in Thai, but Shakespeare’s words, invoking evil spirits to enter her. Nothing in your life has prepared you for such an assault. It’s in verse but it’s totally natural, and oh so intense. Meanwhile the English subtitles appear, Shakespeare again, floating in and out like a moving Shakespearean graphic novel, emphasizing it still more that it’s the exact translation, no hanky-panky from me.
Perhaps because of our Buddhist background, Thai people tend to mistrust intensity; it’s just not good for your mental health. It’s obvious to me that it just blew their minds. They’d never heard words used like this before; the power and the intensity thrilled and terrified them. You can see this clearly in Censor Must Die. Manit is convinced that it doesn’t matter what we cut, they’d still feel threatened by it. The most-rewarding response I’ve ever received was from an economics professor after a screening at Chula University, who said he now understands why ‘farangs’ (white foreigners) enjoy Shakespeare. He could never see the point before.
For a non-Thai audience, I can easily remove the long talky ‘English scene’. I was tempted to remove it even before we shot it, since it’s extremely sensitive politically, hard to do well and potentially boring: talking heads, a man weeping, discussion on the divine right of kings. Uncinematic and risky in every way. Who wants to touch that? But its relevance for the Thai audience cannot be denied so I couldn’t cut it with a good conscience, out of sheer cowardice. For the Thai audience, I can remove nothing without harming the integrity and impact of the film. Other Thai films have portrayed October 14 and October 6 events. The censors’ objection is not the real one. We are being discriminated against. They only latched onto that scene because, horrors, it’s the October 6 massacre!!!CK: Is the Censorship Board missing all of the irony of banning your film, which is all about the banning of Shakespeare’s play?
ING K: They are too fearful to care about irony. Manit did point that out to them, but they didn’t care.