By Saksith Saiyasombut

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
(Three Witches, Act I, Scene I)

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a famous play by William Shakespeare that tells the story of a man and a woman on their bloody path to the throne of Scotland and their violent downfall, driven by arrogance, paranoia and death. The 400-year-old story has been adapted and re-interpreted countless times, even spanning movie versions from Japan and more recently from India.

Performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth

A modern cinematic retelling of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" has been banned in Thailand. Pic: AP

A Thai adaptation named “Shakespeare must die” (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย) has also been produced — touted by its directors Ing K. and Manit Sriwanichpoom as the first from the kingdom — set to be released later this year.

Set in an alternate Thailand ruled by a “superstitious, megalomaniacal and murderous dictator,” a theater group plays their adaptation of Macbeth. As it can be seen by the trailer below, the movie’s themes borrow heavily from the volatile current political climate, with street protests and burning effigies (but also notably a visual reference to the Thammasat Massacre).

However, this will not happen, according to the producer’s press release:

This afternoon the Thai Film Censorship Board, under the Department of Cultural Promotion, Ministry of Culture, ruled to ban ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, the first Thai Shakespearean film, a horror movie adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’.

To quote the Record of Film Inspection (see scanned attachment): “the Board deems that the film Shakespeare Must Die has content that causes divisiveness among the people of the nation, according to Ministerial Regulations stipulating types of film, BE 2552 [AD 2009], Article 7 (3).

Press release by Manit Sriwanichpoom, Producer “Shakespeare Must Die”, April 3, 2012

It is the second movie (the first one was 2010’s “Insect in the Backyard”) to be banned from commercial release under the Thai Film Act of 2008. According to Matichon, the board was about to determine the age rating for the movie. However, it did not reach a consensus and asked the directors to edit or cut some scenes. The director duo refused and thus the board decided to ban it.

Those he commands move only in command, / Nothing in love (…)
(Angus, Act V, Scene II)

What is noteworthy is that the movie got financial support from several government initiatives and funds (as seen in the last seconds of the trailer), namely the Thai Khem Khaeng Initiative, the Creative Thailand Project under the previous Abhisit administration, the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture and the now-defunct Ministry of Culture’s film fund. Surely, all these organizations must have been submitted with a pitch for the movie and a rough outline of the synopsis.

The producer continues:

It seems strange that the cultural ministry would ban Shakespeare, in the form of a film that the ministry itself had funded. It’s as if we’re actually living under a real live Macbeth. There are cinematic versions of Macbeth from all over the world—India, Japan, Taiwan, you name it. This is the first Thai Shakespearean film and, for reasons of national security, it is deemed too dangerous for Thai people to see!

Press release by Manit Sriwanichpoom, Producer “Shakespeare Must Die”, April 3, 2012

Make all our trumpets speak; give them all breath,
Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.

(Macduff, Act V, Scene VI)

According to director Ing K.*, the production has been plagued by many problems, most notably during the 2010 red shirt protests:

Our cast and crew motto was: Fight Fear with Art; Make Art with Love. It’s not an easy one to live by but very inspiring. (…) We needed a brave set motto, since in the making of the film we faced literal hell fire (red shirt occupation and riots in 2010 which closed down the filming for two weeks, made it a hassle for everyone to get to work, especially Lady Macduff who was daily and nightly harassed by red shirt guards so that she had to move, and once on 28th April stranded us in Rangsit when the highway back to Bangkok was cut off when violence broke out and a soldier was shot dead by a sniper) and literal high water (postproduction interrupted by the flood of 2011).

Director’s Statement by Ing K., co-director “Shakespeare Must Die”, March 13, 2012

This might also have colored the director’s bias against the red shirts who describes them as “violent, unreasoning, fanatical morons (…), courtesy of the alchemical spin of the Thaksin machine.”

She also reveals that he has shot actual footage of the May 19 crackdown on the red shirts, in particular the burnings of Central World and other buildings that have been edited into the movie – which is reportedly one of the scenes objected by the film board, fearing that the viewers would be too stupid have difficulties to distinguish fiction from reality.

But may be it could have also been the end that was very contentious (spoiler warning!):

In the world of the theatre, the tragedy ends with their deaths, but in the real world of the film, the tragedy begins as Dear Leader’s fanatical followers burst into the playhouse and, enraged by this perceived affront to their idol, massacre everyone present. Amidst sounds of cheering, the play’s director is hanged;

Synopsis of “Shakespeare Must Die”

This scene is a thinly veiled reference to the various personality focused cults in the Thai political history and their potentially violent consequences as seen most recently by the controversy over the Nirirat group and the threats made against them.

When our action do not, / Our fears do make us traitors
(Lady Macduff, Act IV, Scene II)

Art has been always been used to reflect and comment on society in various ways, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes painfully accurate. This little art project dared to paint the Thai political crisis with a broad brush and with the story of Macbeth, the creators are re-telling one of the most important stories about the striving for power, the paranoia of holding on to it and the downward spiral madness when it is unchallenged and out of control.

This movie might have not been the best to tell this, but with the commercial ban this project gets more attention than its creators would have ever imagined. Thus, it is unsurprising is the reason that the movie causes “divisiveness among the people of the nation” – a non-sense, empty urge for national ‘unity’ at all costs that has been far too often said in this political crisis, while being completely oblivious that the key to move forward is the co-existence of different views and idea(l)s.

*UPDATE: A reader has pointed out this profile on co-director Ing K. and her past work – least to say, she’s somewhat of an enfant terrible in the Thai movie scene…!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.