Published on September 21, 2007
Pioneering Thai filmmaker Cherd Songsri introduced Thai culture on celluloid to the world with his 1977 romance film "Plae Kao" ("The Scar").
The tale of two peasant lovers in an rural Thailand was Thai cinema's biggest box-office hit. It also won a prize at the 1981 Festival of Three Continents in Nantes in France - one of the earliest overseas appearances for a Thai film - and was picked as one of the world's 360 classic movies by Sight & Sound magazine in 1998.
"Plae Kao" and four other classics will grace the big screen in the "Cherd Songsri Retrospective" until September 30 at Grand EGV Siam Discovery. Along with "Plae Kao", there will be "Puen Paeng" (1983), "Ploy Talay" (1987), "Tawiphop" (1990) and "Am Daeng Muen Kab Nai Rid" ("Muen and Rid", 1994). New prints of "Ploy Talay" and "Puen Paeng" have been made for especially for this event.
The retrospective is organised by the Thai Film Foundation and the National Film Archive with financial support from the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, Ministry of Culture. The retrospective opened yesterday in commemoration of Cherd's birthday (September 20, 1931).
Born in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Cherd essentially grew up on the streets and in the rice paddies after his parents separated, and then the grandmother who cared for him died. At age 12, he learned the painting and crafting of nang talung (Southern-style shadow puppets) and earned his living as an artist. He worked for a time as a schoolteacher in northern Thailand, but ended up in Bangkok when he needed to be treated for an illness. He then took a job as the editor of publications for the Express Transportation Organisation of Thailand, and from there became an editor for the movie and television section of Lak Muang Daily newspaper. He then started writing scripts for television and radio programmes.
He made his debut as a director with "Norah" in 1966. He handled all aspects of making the film - scriptwriting, securing financing and shooting. This made him a pioneer of independent filmmaking in Thailand, and he retained this system of work throughout his career, eventually starting his own production company, Cherdchai Films. Another film was the comedy, "Poh Pla Lai", starring Sombat Metanee. Both were the most successful Thai films of the 16mm era.
In the late 1960s, Cherd studied at the University of California Los Angeles. His stay in the US made him reflect on Thai culture and upon his return to Thailand, he set about making films that would present his concept of "Thainess" - idealised Thai values and culture of bygone years. Cherd died on May 21 last year after a four-year battle with cancer. His last film was "Behind the Painting" in 2001.
"Cherd's films always reflected a charming atmosphere of Thai folk culture, and nowadays we ask for this nostalgia," says Chalida Uabumringjit of the Thai Film Foundation, who programmed the retrospective. "Through his films, we take a time machine back to see our culture in the good old days and also learn about past generations."
Chalida talked some more about the event.
How did the "Cherd Songsri Retrospective" come about?
We had been thinking about this programme since he passed away last year. We had planned to have it as part of this year's Bangkok International Film Festival but it didn't happen. So finally, we decided to organise this event to start on his birthday, September 20.
Why did you pick these five films? What's significant about them?
Cherd had long history of works but we wanted to emphasise his films that remind us of the good old days, which is the strongest characteristic of Cherd's films. These are also the films that are best known internationally, so I think these films will be the best example to introduce to the younger generation. This year is also the 30th anniversary of "Plae Kao", so it is a good opportunity to screen it again.
Where are the old prints of his films? Who holds the copyright?
All his negatives are now preserved at the National Film Archive while the copyright is maintained by Cherd's family. We were only able to make two new prints because of the limited budget.
Is it difficult to make new prints with English subtitles?
Technically, it is not so difficult if the negative is in good shape. It just takes time and costs money. I always wish that we have more time and money.
How much support did you receive from the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture?
We received Bt200,000, which covered the cost of making new prints of two films and the catalogue. Other costs are covered by the Thai Film Foundation, which had prepared a budget for this event.
It seems that the OCAC is becoming more supportive of the Foundation. What does this say about the concept of cinema as art, rather than purely entertainment?
We really appreciate the support of the OCAC because we are a non-profit organisation and the events we organise are not profit-making, so we need the subsidy from the government so that we can stand on the ground of art without being compromised by other sources of funding. We do really hope that people will appreciate cinema as art as much as they are entertained by it.
Can you define Cherd's work and his life? How influential was he? Can you compare filmmaking in his generation and the present day?
Cherd was one of the outstanding filmmakers of his generation. From his start during the 16mm era, his films have always had a strong connection with Thai art and culture. He was one of the pioneers who put Thai cinema on the world map. He is also an inspiration for many new filmmakers. One special thing about him was that he was always interested in new filmmakers and was very supportive of their work.
This event will reveal some rare footage of Cherd, with support from the French Embassy. How did this come about?
I think it is a miracle that I talked to the French Embassy about co-organising this event a few months ago, and I asked them about the Festival of Three Continents [in Nantes, France] where Cherd received an award for "Plae Kao" in 1981. Geraldine Durand, cultural attache, said she would check to see if there was some news footage about it. In August, Geraldine informed me that she found two minutes of the award ceremony. I was thrilled when I first saw the moving image of Cherd at a younger age.
What's main aim of the retrospective? Do you have a long-term plan for other events?
The main aim of this event is to commemorate Cherd Songsri and his achievements. We would like to emphasise the significance of film preservation to support the work of the National Film Archive, which has preserved the negative and prints of Cherd's films. Film preservation is something often invisible. People might appreciate seeing some old films once in a while but they might not realise that without the sweat of the film archivist [Dome Sukwong], we might not be able to see the old films in good condition. Film preservation is also a costly process, too. But we hope that we can keep on doing the same project in the following year.
After this project, what's next for the Thai Film Foundation?
Next year will the 100th anniversary of the birth of RD Pestonji [regarded as the father of contemporary Thai cinema]. Although we have restored all his films, we still have much to prepare for an event to celebrate him.
What are you hoping from this event?
Seeing film in the cinema is an experience not to be missed, especially for old films that have been designed to be seen on the big screen. This is a rare opportunity to view these masterpieces. So don't miss it.