Film critic Kong Rithdee is back in town for the 25th SGIFF. Having served as jury and done press coverage for previous iterations of the festival, Kong is a mentor for the inaugural Youth Jury Programme. Kong has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region. Over nasi padang and kopi at breakfast, we talk to Kong about how his approach to film writing has developed and his take on the critical atmosphere in the region.
What runs through your mind when you watch a film?
It’s difficult to answer. One thing is to appreciate it and not to find faults with it. I always have expectations even though I know it’s not a good thing. I try to reconcile my personal reaction, my emotional responses to the film, with a loose or general framework of ideas, theory, and film history, and how that film situates in the bigger picture of the industry or film history. So I think it’s both. In some films my personal feeling is stronger than this theoretical framework, sometimes it’s the second one that’s stronger, but I try to have both sides.
Is there anything particular you wish to achieve when you write something? A direction or change you want to effect?
I try to write the way I want to read other people write. I try to be serious and fun at the same time. I try to be entertaining and substantial at the same time. I can’t do that every time but it’s what I try. I think you can have fun reading a film review, sometimes it can be more fun than watching the film (laughs).
I never set out to have the thought of effecting change in mind. I don’t think anyone has the influence on another to make a film this or that way. But maybe slowly, it can trigger some switch, point out some dark corners the filmmaker may not see. But film-making is a choice, and sometimes you make good and bad choices, what I said may be just one of a hundred influencing factors.
How has your writing evolved over the years?
When you write about films, actually when you write about anything, unless you are very gifted or a genius, everything comes with age. When you watch a film at 20, you may not understand something because you don’t have that experience. For example, the experience of the death of a kin. A 20 year old understands a film differently from a 30 year old, it’s not that one perspective is better than the other, but some things come with life and some things become more meaningful to you [with time].
Development in approach and style, again, comes with age. When you are young you have so much energy and you rely so much on your energy, your bravado. You want to test the audience and yourself, it’s good and bad. You allow yourself to be more pretentious because you don’t know that it’s pretentious. When you grow up, you become more mature, you think about it more, your voice – the way you express something – changes. Sometimes recklessness and energy is good in writing, but when you grow up, you can control your energy better. I’ve become more mature in style compared to 20 years ago.
Has your work as a filmmaker in recent years influenced how you respond to a film?
I try to separate these, because it’s not respectful of other film makers when you make a film and write about other people’s films. When you make a film you become part of the community in a way, but I feel bad because I’m writing about your film. I try not to be straddling both branches of the film community; it’s not an easy thing to do. But of course I want to do both, but I’m lucky because my involvement in filmwriting has been small – independent non-mainstream documentaries – so I’m part of the system but not at the center of attention.
People still look at me as a film writer rather than as a director. I still consider myself primarily as film writer.
Would you say there is a conducive environment for film criticism in Thailand, where people feed off each another’s thoughts?
It’s becoming more like that. When I started, there were not many people writing. But now, because of the Internet, anyone can be a critic. It’s becoming more lively and I think it helps the film community as a whole.
In Thailand we don’t have this critical culture, people don’t like someone saying your film is bad, because it’s equivalent to saying you are bad. They cannot separate the work and yourself. The critical community in Thailand is very stunted because people are afraid to be honest in their opinion. But I think it has changed with younger critics, armed with energy and recklessness. If it’s bad they will just slam it.
What’s the relationship like between film criticism and filmmaking today?
The critical atmosphere in the world today, you might say we have more and more critics today, but the dynamics, or the relationship between advances in filmmaking and film criticism is not as revolutionary as in the 60s and 70s. Back then, when film critics said something it meant a lot, and it influenced the way filmmakers developed their style.
Right now, we have a lot of critics, but it’s not very much influential in terms of the evolution of filmmaking in general. Many philosophical filmmakers today have a relationship with the tradition of cinema but not so much with critics.
The war to prove that film is art is over, just for now. There’s no revolutionary zeal, perhaps we are waiting on the next spark or something else.
Would you say this happens because film criticism nowadays looks more reactionary? That it becomes a more personal response.
I think that’s part of it, especially when everyone, anyone can write criticism now. It’s more reactionary, but it’s also the system. Nothing much happens in the philosophical or critical environment. We haven’t seen anyone coming up with a new way of looking.
Someone who comes back to something written 50 years earlier should understand the social sentiment of that particular period. As a film critic, even though you cannot advance the philosophy of writing or filmmaking, you still have the function to do a form of journalistic and social service through record.
How has your writing about film been influenced by recent political upheavals in Thailand?
For Thai society, film is very much entertainment, both for filmmakers and the audience. Filmmakers are not comfortable with the idea of film as socio-political commentary and are trained to believe that film is first and foremost entertainment. You don’t see mainstream films reacting to the coup or the social situation. Maybe because of concerns about censorship, but it’s not even self-censorship – filmmakers don’t see film as something meaningful for discussing this. It’s not that they don’t have political consciousness, but it isn’t channeled through film. With short films yes, films made by young people, yes. In short films or independent films you see the undercurrents, but these are seen by very few people.
In terms of film writing, I wrote a film review one week after a coup, and people tell me that’s the thing the military won’t be happy about, because I made a joke out of them. But nothing happened. I have a political column at the Bangkok Post as well, but I separate it from my film writing.
Do you perceive, or foresee, a trend towards regionalization in Southeast Asian cinema? What’s the role played by film criticism?
If we are looking for regional cooperation in terms of culture, the exchange of films has to be more than what it is now. Southeast Asian films are not in the consciousness of the Southeast Asian audience. That is something to promote, because there are stories we can relate to. If you mean cooperation in filmmaking, you see a Filipino film using Thai stars for instance, it’s happening a little bit here and there.
It’s more difficult when you talk about stories. For example Singapore and Malaysia may share more cultural similarities that Thailand does with Indonesia. What is a Southeast Asian story, is there one, do we need to find one? So Southeast Asia is an imaginary thing. It helps in many ways but it may put too much importance to it, force something out of it when the thing may not have existed.
I try to push for Southeast Asian films when I visit festivals, that’s the best I can do because there are no Indonesian films opening in Bangkok, maybe once in every ten years.