“Shakespeare Must Die,” a new Thai film that bills itself as a Shakespearean horror movie, tells the story of a dictator who suppresses a local staging of “Macbeth.”
But in a case of life imitating art, the Thai government — which partially funded the movie — has banned it, saying its content “causes divisiveness among the people of the nation.”
Directed by Ing K, or Samanrat Kanjanavanit, and produced by “Pink Man” artist Manit Sriwanichpoom, “Shakespeare Must Die” is based on the Scottish Play, with “some cinematic and Thai cultural adaptations,” according to a director’s statement.
The movie’s funding, by the country’s Ministry of Culture, was granted by Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government in 2010, but it was submitted to the censorship board under his successor, Yingluck Shinawatra, last month. It was due to be released later this year.
Thailand has barred controversial movies in the past, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Syndromes and a Century” in 2007 and more recently, Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s “Insects in the Backyard,” a sexually explicit drama about a transgender father whose teenage children turn to prostitution. Ing K herself is no stranger to such obstacles: Her 1998 film “My Teacher Eats Biscuits” was raided by police at a screening, and it took her 10 years to release “Citizen Juling,” her documentary about unrest in Thailand’s Muslim south.
With its political overtones, “Shakespeare Must Die” recalls recent events in Thailand’s tumultuous history. In one scene, the dictator addresses his subjects in front of a red-and-yellow flag — echoing the country’s rival red- and yellow-shirt contingents — while another scene references imagery from the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, specifically a widely seen photo of a man beating the hanging corpse of a student demonstrator.
“Shakespeare Must Die” has experienced its share of setbacks prior to the censorship ruling. Not only did the 2010 red-shirt riots hold up production, but postproduction was delayed during last year’s floods.
Shakespeare “is barely heard of in Thailand,” its website says, “a country that is actually living through Shakespearean times.”
Authorities ban film based on Shakespearean tragedy about a king’s murder
Thai film censors have banned a politically charged adaption of the Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth, apparently out of concerns that it could be construed as disruptive to Thailand's still fragile societal strains.
According to an article in a Bangkok-based film publication, Wise Kwai’s Film Journal, censors have banned Shakespeare Must Die, co-directed by artists Samanrat Kanjanavanit, also known as Ing K., and Manit Sriwanichpoom despite the fact that it had received financial support from the Thai Khem Kaeng (Strong Thailand) "creative economy" initiative of the Cultural Ministry's Office of Contemporary Art and Culture.
A trailer for the three-hour Shakespeare Must Die shows that the film “plays on images from Thailand's turbulent and violent political past, including 2010 anti-government red-shirt protests and the 1976 Thammasat massacre, in which a hanging corpse was beaten with a chair,” the film journal reported. The Thammasat massacre was a particularly bloody affair in which students from various universities protesting the return to Thailand of the onetime dictator Thanom Kittikachorn were shot, beaten and their bodies mutilated. At least 46 were killed although many more are believed to have died.
A document from the Ministry of Culture's Office of Film and Video obtained by the Bangkok Post said that since the film "undermines the unity of people in the country", the censorship committee refuses to give permission to screen it in Thailand.
"The reason given is very broad," Manit told the Post. "I asked the committee which part of the film fits that verdict and how I should go back to fix it, but they cannot tell me which scene. This is a Shakespeare story. It's a tale of greed and lust for power. Since we're banned, I wonder if Thai film-makers are allowed to have opinions, to criticize and to reflect on the reality of the situation.”
The film-makers said they would appeal against the decision.
The original Shakespearean play, of course, is a blood-drenched tragedy in which MacBeth, the Thane of Cawdor, is driven by his ambitious and murderous wife, Lady Macbeth, to murder the king of Scotland and to take over the throne himself, blaming two chamberlains whom Macbeth also subsequently murders, along with plenty of other people before he himself falls from power.
Even without the images from the 2010 protests, the reference to a murdered king arguably would have Thailand’s jittery royalty on edge. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, at 84 the world’s longest serving monarch, has been ill for months and remains in Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok. There have been longstanding questions over the succession, with his son, Vajiralongkorn, considered by many not to be fit for the throne.
Thailand has been in a state of uneasy calm since May 2010 protects that were quelled violently by the military, resulting in an estimated 92 deaths, most of them protesters, as the authorities sought to restore order. That crackdown capped nearly four years of social turmoil as Red Shirt followers of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 royalist coup, clashed with Yellow Shirt royalists. The Yellow Shirts, using violent street demonstrations, managed to in effect drive Thaksin surrogate governments from power twice.
Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, led her Pheu Thai government to power in July 2011 elections which her party won decisively. Since that time, besieged by massive floods and other problems, Yingluck has managed to consolidate power. However, despite promises of human rights reforms prior to the elections, few of those promises have been kept. The lese majeste law, which offers stiff punishment for anyone who purports to insult the king, has been used against an unknown number of people, many of whom have received long prison sentences.
Shakespeare Must Die is the second film to be banned by Thailand’s Film Board under the 2008 Film Act according to Wise Kwai’s Film Journal. The first was Tanwarin Sukkhapisit's Insects in the Backyard, because of its explicit sexual imagery and allusions to patricide in a story about the transgender father of two troubled teenagers, censors deemed that movie to be "against public order or morality" and "contrary to morality," the publication reported.
Ing K. and Manit previously co-directed the critically acclaimed 2008 documentary Citizen Juling, an exhaustive account of the Thai political landscape following the 2006 beating death of a Buddhist schoolteacher in Thailand's restive South, according to the magazine.
A polarizing figure in Thai art circles, Ing K. also made the controversial feature My Teacher Eats Biscuits. It has never been shown publicly in Thailand, the film journal reported. The screening at the 1997 Bangkok Film Festival was raided by police.