Thai censors say out, damned spot, out to Macbeth film adaptation

The maker of 'Shakespeare Must Die' is appealing the decision, but Thai bureaucrats are nervous about the movie's political overtones.

Sakchai Lalit/AP
Director of 'Shakespeare Must Die' Ing Kanjanavanit shows a DVD sent to Thai film censorship board in Bangkok, Thailand, during an interview on Wednesday, April 4.

The banning of a Thai cinema adaptation of William Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' is causing a stir in Thailand. The censors ruled that the movie “has content that causes divisiveness among the people of the nation."

In a country where the royal family is protected from criticism by possibly the world's strictest lese-majeste laws (designed to prevent public criticism or ridicule of royals), any drama featuring regicide might be deemed taboo. But Shakespeare Must Die seems also to have touched a raw nerve with its depiction of Shakespeare's ambitious but guilt-ridden usurper blended in with scenes of protest and violence redolent of Thailand's recent past.

The country has been beset by on again, off again street protests since 2005. To some, the Macbeth character in the movie is reminiscent of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose apparent vaulting ambition prompted royalist suspicions that he had a real-life anti-monarchy agenda.

Thailand's Culture Ministry told director Samanrat Kanjanavanit that she could only proceed with a bowdlerized version of the government-funded movie, but the filmmakers held their ground.

A red-clad Grim Reaper in the movie was deemed too evocative of the red-shirt demonstrators who took to Bangkok's streets in 2010, in protests that turned violent with more than 90 killed. Another scene inspired by a gruesome massacre of student demonstrators in 1976 was also deemed unacceptable.

Director Samanrat, better known as Ing K., says the censorship makes little sense. "Why do they (the censors) find a 400-year-dead poet so threatening?,” she told the Monitor.  The original Macbeth was penned during a fractious period in English history, probably shortly after the 1605 "Gunpowder Plot," when Catholics aggrieved at religious discrimination sought to assassinate England's King James I, a Scot.

Now, four centuries later, Thailand's volatile politics could hold the key to the censors' anxiety over a now-archetypal tale about how power corrupts man. Mr. Thaksin was ousted from office in a 2006 coup backed by royalist street protestors and faces jail on corruption charges. But his sister Yingluck is the country's prime minister, after her Peua Thai party routed the royalist-leaning Democrats in a 2011 election.

Thailand's 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world's longest-sitting monarch and remains popular, drawing vast crowds onto Bangkok's streets last December for his birthday celebrations. But the combination of color-coded antagonism ("red-shirts" for pro-Thaksin demonstrators, "yellow-shirts" for royalists)  and the King's age makes for nervy bureaucrats, and the censors' actions on the movie come after several recent high-profile jailings for lese-majeste.

While Ms. Yingluck's government has sparked renewed royalist ire by hinting that Thaksin could return to Thailand without having to do jail time, her administration simultaneously pledged not to amend Thailand's lese-majeste laws and to tighten censorship of websites containing allegedly offensive content.

Now it seems even The Bard of Avon is caught up in Thailand's censorship dragnet. Southeast Asia-based documentary filmmaker Bradley Cox saw his Who Killed Chea Vichea? – about a Cambodian trade unionist who was murdered in 2004 – banned in Cambodia. Discussing Shakespeare Must Die, Mr. Cox told the Monitor that “it makes one think that the censors must not think that highly of the Thai people, if they feel that they cannot handle the imagery and messages contained in this movie.”

For Ing K., the censors' reaction to the movie says a lot about Thailand, where the government and the opposition are at odds over a reconciliation proposal that, to some, could mean impunity for those involved in recent political violence. “We don't want to look at ourselves," she lamented, “we want to forget about painful events in our history."

The trailer for "Shakespeare Must Die:"

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