The rising Khon Kaen-born filmmaker speaks about his Bangkok: a city of simple pleasures that thrives through its diversity.
A young independent film director, Wichanon Somumjarn recently garnered much international festival-buzz with In April The Following Year, There Was a Fire. The semiautobiographical movie is about a young worker who visits his family and friends in his home city of Khon Kaen up in the northeast, or Isan. But more interestingly, the story takes place against the backdrop of the red shirts and government conflict back in April and May 2010, when Bangkok experienced violent convulsions that left the whole country reeling.
For Bangkok 101, Wichanon tells us about his first experiences of the metropolis. “I arrived in Bangkok to study IT back in 2000 at Ramkhamhaeng University in Northern Bangkok. Of course, the city looked exactly the way people tend to think of it up-country: like a large crowded metropolis. As a child or teenager, Bangkok for me was all high-rise buildings, something that we do not see in the provinces”.
Rather than the hectic lifestyle, Wichanon was, like many domestic immigrants, attracted by the opportunities. “I always dreamed about being a film-maker,” he says, “and when you come from Thailand, there is only one place which can turn this dream into a reality.” Wichanon studied at Ramkhamhaeng University for two years, during which his experience of the city broadened. “I started to realise that Bangkok is a great place to learn about life. This is a city of extreme contrasts, between poor and rich, beauty and ugliness, peaceful and noisy. This extreme is a source of inspiration. I also learned how to survive in this urban jungle and to find work”, he says.
He also revels in the city’s eclectic cultural mix. “I love the blend of communities. Bangkok is a microcosm of Thailand. Not only Bangkokians live here but also people from Isan, Muslims, Southern Thais, etc. This gives
Bangkok an incredible energy and vitality. It’s a place where hip-hop fans, skateboarders, artists and people that are usually marginalised can eventually prosper.” Bangkok is, for example, the only place in Thailand where it is possible to see Indie or art movies regularly. “Lido’s programming has changed recently to become more commercial. But House RCA is still a great place to see different movies”, he adds.
The Ramkhamhaeng area in North Bangkok is an unknown corner of the city for most foreign travelers, but this is where Wichanon finds himself spending most of his time. “Ramkhamhaeng is a cool district with lots of students living there and a strong mix of communities that includes Muslims from the Deep South. I like it as it’s a pragmatic and down-to-earth district, far away from the images of a Bangkok dominated by hi-so (high society) people. I still love today to play football near Ramkhamhaeng University at Rajamangala National Stadium. And I love to eat a Thai BBQ at Rhamkhamhaeng Soi 24. It is nothing special, just the fun to look at people gathering together to have a good time!”
Since 2006, Wichanon has worked out of a studio on Sukhumvit Soi 39. “One of my favourite hang-outs is WTF Bar on Sukhumvit 51. They play great music. But if I want to get some good traditional Isaan food, I go to Baan E-sarn Munggyo on Sukhumvit 31.”
Despite how well he’s settled, Isan culture is still part of Wichanon, especially his political leanings. How did he feel about the events of 2010 and did they change his vision of Bangkok following the violent ending? “I felt a lot of sympathy for the people there because I believe that many of them were very sincere in their plea and were not as manipulated as was often claimed. I filmed a few scenes there but I always tried to keep a distance from it. The 2010 occupation of the Rachaprasong area and the violent ending of it forced me to ask myself questions about the evolution of Thai society. Did it really change my vision of Bangkok? No, I do not think so.”
Wichanon’s City Picks
“WTF Bar and Gallery (7 Sukhumvit Soi 51 | 02-662 -6246 | www.wtfbangkok.com) for the atmosphere and music.
“Baan Isan Muang Yot (Sukhumvit 31 | 089-012-5750 | Facebook: Baan Isan Muang Yot) for authentic Isan Food, and the Thai BBQ outdoor outlets on Ramkhamhaeng Soi 24.”
“Siam, because of the incredible range and variety of goods to be found.”
“Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, 939 Rama I Rd | 02-214-6632 | www.bacc.or.th.”