By Yun-hua Chen.
After Covid, young generation started to think in a totally different way. That’s why the Bad Students movement came into being…. Young people don’t shut up anymore. They know that this country has a problem, and they are not indifferent.”
The Thai filmmaker Sorayos Prapapan has an intrinsic talent in cinematically exposing difficult subject matters with a deadpan sense of humor. His shorts such as Boonrerm (2013), Death of the Sound Man (Awasarn sound man, 2017), and Dossier of the Dossier (2019), premiered at major film festivals including Venice, IFFR and Locarno, are characterized by their poignant social critiques on well-observed topics surrounding social divide and hierarchical abuse of power, from the abuse of domestic helpers to the plight of precarious artists. His shorts have a distinct visual style characterized by carefully choreographed frames and well selected cinematic moments, whereas subtle undertones, clever twists, and an unignorable penchant for absurdist comedy permeate his script.
Sorayos Prapapan’s debut feature, Arnold is the Model Student (Arnon pen nakrian tuayang), premiered at the “Corso Cineasti del presente” program of Locarno Film Festival. It is a continuation of his unique personal signature that blends social critique in everyday scenarios of commoners with a strong sense of humor and is a stand-out especially at the film festival overwhelmed by heavy political subject matters that do not leave any space for laughter.
In Arnold is the Model Student, Arnold is a prize-winning “model student”, in contrast to so-called “bad students” as in “Bad Students” Movement, a movement initiated by high-school students against authoritarian rule and for education reforms in 2020. Arnold is recruited by an underground cram school that helps clients to cheat in exams while his friends started rebelling against the school’s autocracy and physical punishment; the latter’s coming-of-age is realized through their gradual awakening and fierce clashes with the education system, a form of repression deeply ingrained in state-level bureaucracy and corruption.
Juxtaposing the archival footage of Bad Students Movement with fictionalized narratives from these students’ perspective towards the end of the film, Sorayos Prapapan reflects upon the education system and abusive authoritarian mindset that worm their way into people’s mind at the most impressionable age; school is the prelude to the silencing and suppressing of dissidents. With the subject matter that can be easily overdramatized and sentimentalized, Sorayos Prapapan is not self-indulgent at all. Brutality is shown side by side to snippets of school kids’ daily mischievous tricks and battle of wits with teachers; emotional overload is thus consciously kept at bay. The absurdity of school as a propaganda machine is epitomized into a school-produced video that teaches traditional etiquettes, so exaggerated, so feudalistic, yet so spot-on that it functions as a comical relief.
Scripted, produced, and directed by Sorayos Prapapan, Arnold is the Model Student is heartfelt and certainly resonates among those who have experienced repression in different contexts. It is produced by Anthony Chen who made his name with Ilo Ilo and Wet Season, Si En Tan, the producer of Wet Season, and Donsaron Kovitvanitcha whose Die Tomorrow was a festival gem.
The film is incredibly funny, but the audience in Locarno did not seem to laugh that much?
I thought, what’s wrong with you people? They might be shocked or shy though. In some of the jokes, I was giving the audience the opportunity to make fun of our Thai accent portrayed in the movie, but they did not laugh. Maybe they are too politically correct? Or maybe they were shocked? When I screened my short film that was supposed to be very funny, people laughed a bit in the end.
Were you worried that people would compare your film with Bad Genius?
I started working on this film eight years ago, whereas Bad Genius came out like five to six years ago. The first time when I heard about the film Bad Genius, I felt, shit, is it something similar to our film? It has a similar topic indeed. But then, I went to watch the film, and Baz Poonpiriya is very good at his films, but my film is different and deeper down. That’s what I thought. I think that even though McDonalds and Burger King both make burgers, their burgers are different. I admire Baz Poonpiriya’s films a lot, but when I watched Bad Genius, I knew that I was not going to compete against him. I would just be myself and be different.
How did this idea come to you eight years ago?
It happened during the coup d’état. At that time the media people supported the army. They are well educated people. They believed that the army could get rid of the corrupt government. But for me it is bullshit. Coup d’état is something that is corrupt from the beginning. That’s what I thought. It’s weird. Many of my friends supported the army especially those high school friends, so I started thinking why this happened. And I felt that my education was different from theirs from the moment that we went to universities. My university was Thammasat University, in the older part of the country, and my friends went to the modern part. When you go up to the capital and go somewhere up north, the perspective become very different. There are things that remain the same, of course, but some other things are very different. This opened my mind. I felt, oh shit, Bangkok is like that.
Back to the story, many of my high school friends supported the army so I was thinking, what’s wrong with the education? I started looking at social problems closely and then thought, of course, someone behind wants to seize power; there is something wrong.
Did you feel that society is so divisive that there is no conversation possible anymore, like between your high school friends and yourself?
I used to think that way because it was going towards that direction. After Covid, young generation started to think in a totally different way. That’s why the Bad Students movement came into being. It happened after Covid. Young people don’t shut up anymore. They know that this country has a problem, and they are not indifferent. Our generation never said anything, and the previous generation never said anything. But this generation is not like that. I want to support them with what I can do. I am not brave like them. They are very brave. They speak in a very upfront and direct way. For me, I still tend to hide and prefer communicating it through jokes. Now people understand what they want and what is not fair.
If they have a problem with the archival footage, they have a problem with reality and are a country that is afraid.”Sorayos Prapapan, on the prospect of his film ever seeing a release in Thailand
You feel that real changes will come?
It had come. There is chance. But I mean, maybe I am too hopeful here. Let’s see.
The acting is amazing, but I do not see a lot of information about them. Are they professional actors? How did you work together with them to bring out this authentic side as well as the exaggerated and comical side?
I mixed the cast. The only star we have is Korndanai Marc Dautzenberg. He was a DJ host and TV host at the beginning and became a model afterwards. He is politically involved, so commercial projects and brands don’t want to work with him anymore. He lost a lot of jobs, so became a TV host for his own show with his sister. The show is awesome; it is about politics and education. He’s been doing this for more than ten years already. As my company has a budget to shoot the film, we were considering casting him and approached him. After he read the script, he said yes. And then by the end of 2020 with the second wave of Covid, we had to wait another year for the shoot.
The rest is non-actors. For the role of the headmaster, we found a university lecturer who is also a TV host; he is a first-time actor. The role of the teacher was played by a real teacher. Our casting department found her at a high school. Some of the supporting cast, like those boys, are from the same school. The film was also partially filmed at that school.
How did you work with non-actors?
It’s our casting department that did really well. I did not do anything. All I did was direct. All I said was, talk faster, walk slower, and that’s it. When the actors asked very deep questions, I told them, sorry I don’t work that way; it’s up to you if you want to understand it in a deep way, but what I want from actors is simple things only, like, talk faster, talk slower.
How did you get the producers onboard?
They like my short films. We got a grant and then found the producers.
This is a coming-of-age film with high school students’ brutal clashes against the system. Is this what you experienced personally as well?
When teachers caned us when I was young, I would think, fuck it, and then my leg would become normal again after a while. That was the experience when I grew up. Now you would think, they cannot do that; this is my body, and they are not allowed to do that.
How did you start making films in the first place?
I have nothing else to do. I went into a university with faculties of news, TV, advertisement, management of films. I shot music videos and felt that I liked it, and that’s how I did it.
Do you think your film can be released in Thailand? Would archival footage of the movement be a problem for censorship?
If they have a problem with the archival footage, they have a problem with reality and are a country that is afraid.
What are your future projects?
This project took a very long time. My method of filmmaking is, I make films with subject matters that I know. Especially with feature films, you have to know a lot about the subject matter and feel that you can relate to it. Comedy has to be there, of course. I hope people would laugh more. Political discussion will be there; I feel that there is a problem and I want to explore that problem. I am not sure if the problem I see is universal and can be relatable to the global audience or not, but it is something that affects me.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).