One Funny Dossier: An Interview with Sorayos Prapapan

When talking to funny people, it tends to be a natural human reaction that one feels conscious not to make the conversation boring. If you have watched the works of Thai filmmaker Sorayos Prapapan, you would know that he gives a good name and an intellectual ring to the idea of mischief. His films are funny no doubt, but beneath the humour is something quite critical about the larger Thai society. There is something about the underclass in Boonrerm, something about bureaucracy in Aunite Maam has never had a passport and something about the industry in the hilarious Death of a Soundman. But all couched in something LOL. Face and face, one-on-one with Sorayos, or Yossy as many filmmakers would affectionately call him, one gets to see a more serious and opinionated side of him. Which is why our conversation with Yossy began with politics. Jeremy: Do politics interest you a lot?

Sorayos: The year I graduated was the year Thai politics became very violent. I was looking for work and money but it was super hard. Even harder for a filmmaker. So it made me interested in politics. In fact, it was my good friend who led me on. I come from a middle class family and most middle class people are ignorant about politics and my good friend comes from a lower income family. He opened my eyes to what was not fair in society, how the lower classes are being taken advantage of by middle class families. He asked if I thought the protests were wrong or right? I thought they were wrong but he said they were right and I asked him to share more.

Jeremy: Had you already started making films then?

Sorayos: Yes, but I was more interested in making rom-coms, love stories. 

Jeremy: When did you make your first film?

Sorayos: 19. I am thirty three now, so it was about 14 years ago. I was a freshman then and I was studying mass communications. I didn’t need to pick my speciality yet until the third year. So I didn’t know where I wanted to go yet but I thought I wanted to be in TV production because I like to watch comedy on TV. Then when I got it, one of the senior guys was a making a film and asked us to help him on set. And it made me want to make one myself too. I didn’t know if I would like the process, but I just wanted to make one. And I like the feeling when I copy my DVDs and pass it to others and ask them to watch my film.

Jeremy: So you made a string of comedies and rom-coms. When did you start making your more serious films?

Sorayos: When I graduated. Apichatpong (Weerasethakul) had a film called Syndromes and A Century. When I was in my third year, one of my teachers recommended us to go to the Alliance Francaise to watch this film by Apichatpong. When I watched it, I thought that it opened another film dimension to me. I did not get all of it but I enjoyed watching it. 

Jeremy: You also worked on his set for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recalls His Past Lives, didn’t you? Do you think he was a great influence on you?

Sorayos: Could be. But not just in film. He has done interviews in which he dared to speak about politics. He is quite radical but he knows how to make it subtle too. 

Jeremy: Who else has been an influence in your films?

Sorayos: Kongdej Jaturanrasamee. He is an actor, screenwriter and film director. He starred in some commercial films and then later in his career, he started making indie films like PO47, Tang Wong, Where We Belong. (pause) Very often, it is not about the film first but about the filmmaker. Also, as a beginner, you tend to try to copy someone. So watching some of these films, I thought ‘Hey, you can have just two persons talking to each other and it can become a film!’. And I thought to myself that I could see myself making these types of films. 

Jeremy: Many of your short films feature two people talking actually!

Sorayos: Maybe it is because I am realistic. I am a director, producer and a sound guy and I have only two levellers. So if I keep it at two characters, I don’t need to rent more. (Laughs)

Jeremy: That explains a lot!

Sorayos: It is easier to direct. 

Jeremy: And do you often use the same actors? I notice you work with the lady in Auntie Maam a lot.

Sorayos: She is in everyone’s films. Anocha Suwichakornpong, Aditya Assarat etc. She is well known among us filmmakers but I was the first one to use her actual name in the film - Auntie Maam. So people now know her as Maam. 

Jeremy: When you made Auntie Maam does not have a passport then, between the two of you, who was more famous?

Sorayos: She was more famous. Famous within the independent film scene.

Jeremy: While you say you are influenced by many other Thai filmmakers out there. But you always manage to inject something different in the way you make them. Mostly humour. It’s a humour that reminds me of the strain seen in Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. A deadpan kind of humour. So do people compare you to Thai directors like Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit?

Sorayos: Some people called me post-Nawapol.

Jeremy: Who did?

Sorayos: Some of my friends.

But to be fair, Nawapol is post-Roy Anderesen. So I can be post-Nawapol, but he is post-Roy Andersen.

Jeremy: But I also notice a lot of this deadpan humour in many Thai independent films. Another example is Tulapop Saenjaroen’s A Room with a Coconut View. The humour is very similar. Can you comment on that? Is this something to do with Thai culture?

Sorayos: Yes, I think so. We cannot be serious longer than two minutes. We have to make one joke before we can go on.

Jeremy: You are absolutely right!

Sorayos: And also, Tulapop and I have been friends since six-years old. We were in the same school all the way till we graduated. Then, he went to Chicago to study film. He made his first film when he was 15. I remember that even though I was not involved in that film. And after he found out that I was studying film, he got me to meet filmmakers like Anocha. I attended their workshops and soon got to know more filmmakers in the community like Aditya Assarat, Lee Chatametikool, And like what I said about knowing the filmmaker first, knowing these people led me to watch their films and observe their styles. And all these started with Tulapop.

Jeremy: Your films always manage to find a sweet spot between the funny and the political. Just like using the American flag to make the sound of a the Thai flag billowing in the wind in Death of a Soundman. How do you think of ideas like that?

Sorayos: I dunno. I guess I tell myself if you want to make a good film, you need a good ending. And if you want to make a comedy, you need to end with a good joke. As for the flag, we actually played with many alternative ideas before arriving at the American flag. At one point, I thought why not an LGBT flag. Then I thought, it may make some groups of people very angry and they are quite vocal about it. Then the other flag I thought of using was China’s flag. That could be quite funny. But then, I felt some people may end up thinking it becomes a bit racist. The American flag was a safe option. 
Death of a Soundman

Jeremy: That’s funny. That the American flag is safe to joke about (laughs)

Sorayos: Also, some ignorant people may not know what the China flag looks like but everyone should know what the American flag looks like. So, basically, the joke came first, then the politics. 

Jeremy: But to come up with all these political jokes, I guess you read a lot of news?

Sorayos: Not really. I read the headlines. I am not an information guy.

Jeremy: Oh really. Actually I was going to ask about some of your political views. What’s your view on the Hong Kong protests?

Sorayos: I think I want to support the protestors. I think the China government is too powerful. 

Jeremy: Have you taken part in a protest before? For instance, the 2014 protests in Thailand.

Sorayos: No, I was against the protests. 2014 was a middle class protest against Yingluck. I am on Yingluck side. Those people felt Yingluck’s family was corrupt and just wanted to get rid of them at any cost. And they would rather see the military in power than Yingluck in power. They may say Yingluck is corrupt, but with the military, we see a different kind of corruption. But a lot of them don’t pay attention, mainly because they are middle-class and comfortable.

Jeremy: And with the military rule over the last few years, what’s the state of censorship in Thailand?

Sorayos: Don’t even talk about censorship, I think things in general have become less free. People around you will tell you you cannot say this or that, or they will report you to the military camp. [to confirm]. Some people have already sought asylum in France. 

Jeremy: Have your films been censored before?

Sorayos: I have only made short films and they don’t censor short films. You only need to submit your films to the censorship board if you plan to release the film to the general public. Or if your film gets accepted into an overseas film festival and you want sponsorship from the government for the flight, then they need to see the film. 

Jeremy: What kind of content usually gets censored in Thailand? Take out content about the royalty, because I know that will get the film banned.

Sorayos: Weird sex? Like father doing it to the son. Hardcore sex….. Monks doing something. By the way, monks cannot be seen to cry on the street. I don’t know why. This happened to a commercial film.

Jeremy: Can a policeman be seen to cry, like in Aditya Assarat’s segment in 10 Years Thailand?

Sorayos: Yes. (laughs)

Jeremy: I feel if they do a version 2.0 of 10 Years Thailand, you should be inside. If given the chance to do, what would it be about? Off the top of your head.

Sorayos: I may make a segment called Game of Thrones

Jeremy: Why?

Sorayos: Because I like Game of Thrones series. I won’t explain why.

Jeremy: Moving on, in the world of politics, do you think you are more an observer or do you actually take part in it?

Sorayos: I used to be more active. I would try to influence the people around to vote for this party and not that party. Now, I have toned down, and I like to spend more time on my life and my film will do that duty for me.

Jeremy: In your other profession as a sound guy, how is the industry like in Thailand?

Sorayos: For the independent films, we have mostly four to five people rotating around the different productions. In the actual film industry, there are maybe 100-200. 

Jeremy: What made you interested in doing sound?

Sorayos: Because of indie films. If you watch indie films and listen carefully, they are very different from commercial films. And I enjoy listening to the sound design. Also, since there are not that many soundmen, there were less competitors when I started out. 

Jeremy: What do you think is the most surprising aspect of your character that very few people know about?  Maybe only your close friends or your mother knows?

Sorayos: I am a sensitive person. I have gone to watch some Iranian movie with some friends and during the movie I cried and my friends were surprised. They go like ‘You can cry?’ They don’t think I can have that kind of emotion. They don’t know I can cry a lot.

Jeremy: But do you like to make films that make people cry?

Sorayos: You should watch my latest short film Dossier of the Dossier. 
Dossier of the Dossier

Sorayos is an award-winning filmmaker whose short films have travelled far. Death of a Soundman was nominated for the Orizzonti award at the Venice International Film Festival in 2017 and won Best Southeast Asian Short Film at the 2017 Singapore International Film Festival. He was the Filmmaker in Focus as the 2019 SeaShorts Film Festival. He is currently working on raising funds for his first feature film ‘Armold is a Model Student’ which is about a high-school student in Bangkok whose perception of morality is change forever after being involved in cheating.

This project just received the Southeast Asia Co-Production Grant by the Singapore Film Commission, being one of eight film projects awarded the inaugural grant from 26 applications. He will receive up to S$250,000 in funding for the production. The film will be produced by Tan Si En, Anthony Chen (Giraffe Pictures) and Donsaron Kovitcanitcha.

Sorayos Prapapan worked as a production assistant for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. He attended workshops such as Generation Campus 2013, Asian Film Academy 2013. His short film Boonrerm (2013) has been screened at more than 30 international film festival including International Film Festival Rotterdam. His short film Auntie Maam Has Never Had a Passport (2014) was screened in International Film Festival Rotterdam 2015.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

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