A still image from the Thai film "Uncle Boonmee". There are three figures seated at a dining table set with food. One diner faces away from the viewer. The other diner is a man with dark hair in an orange and yellow tee shirt. He is facing the third figure, at left, a ghostly apparition of a woman.

Uncle Boonmee (film still), courtesy of Strand Releasing.

What is Thai Cinema?

This post’s titular question may have crossed the minds of some of you who attended our film series Thai Buddhist Ghost Stories last fall, with its plethora of bizarre supernatural beings and styles ranging from gently ghostly to genuinely gory. The wide range of aesthetic approaches on display in that series is indicative of Thai cinema as a whole, as we shall see in this month’s streaming recommendations.

If that series whet your appetite for Thai horror, there are quite a few titles out there to stream. I recommend Shutter (streaming on Netflix and Kanopy), in which a hit and run victim’s ghost haunts the images taken by the photographer who killed her.

Another major genre in Thailand is action movies featuring the indigenous martial art known as muay thai. This genre’s biggest star is without a doubt Tony Jaa, whose jaw-dropping skills are on full display in Ong-Bok: Muay Thai Warrior and The Protector, which are available for free or for rent on a variety of streaming services. Both films, and their various sequels, are jam-packed with dazzling action scenes. The Protector alone includes chase scenes utilizing rollerblades, motorbikes, speedboats, and helicopters, not to mention its most famous fight scene in which Jaa battles oodles of baddies while ascending a spiral staircase in one unbroken, four-minute take.

(This seems as good a point as any to tout Bad Genius. It involves an elaborate plan concocted by high school students to cheat on their college entrance exams. It’s not necessarily an action movie but the pace is so nail-biting that it feels like one.)

Probably the most famous Thai filmmaker worldwide is Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The fact that I was able to include his Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in the Thai Buddhist Ghost Stories series shows how intriguingly close the links are between art and popular cinema in Thailand. It’s currently streaming on the Criterion Channel along with his first film, Mysterious Object at Noon. Those films and Cemetery of Splendour (available for rent on various services) are perfect examples of his languid, dreamy style, which effortlessly blends the everyday with the metaphysical.

Weerasethakul’s influence can be felt in two beautiful movies by younger filmmakers. Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark (streaming on Kanopy and available for rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes) is a metacinematic examination of a 1976 massacre of Thai student activists. I can’t describe it any better than The Guardian’s Mark Kermode, who called it a “headspinning tour-de-force” and a “mesmerizing . . . kaleidoscopic meditation on the shifting relationship between past and present, truth and fiction, movies and memory.” And Aditya Assarat’s “delicate, delightful, and nearly note-perfect” (Andrew O’Hehir, Salon) Wonderful Town (streaming on Kanopy) is a tender story of a relationship between a hotel keeper and a visiting architect in a resort town devastated by the 2004 tsunami.

Don’t forget to join me on June 28 at 2 p.m. for a discussion about this month’s recommendations. Enjoy!

Tom Vick

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer and Sackler and the author of "Time and Place are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki and Asian Cinema: A Field Guide."

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