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Gay sex on film? No problem. Baring political rifts, problem.

Live and let live in Thailand. Except when one gay man is Buddhist, and the other is Muslim.

BANGKOK, Thailand — The gay sex scene alone would be enough to ban “This Area Is Under Quarantine” in many countries.

Filmed in a Bangkok hotel room, the scene offers lots of out-of-focus flesh, lots of fast breathing, lots of hands pawing at tighty whiteys.

But that’s not why Thailand’s Ministry of Culture banned the film, said 37-year-old director Thunska Pansittivorakul. His film was censored, he said, for baring the kingdom’s political rifts and showing raw footage of Thai soldiers detaining Muslims.

“The culture ministry told me it threatens the security of our nation,” Thunska said. “So they banned it.”

Thailand is well-known for its live-and-let-live attitude toward homosexuality and transsexuals. As long as films depicting gay erotic couplings don’t veer too close to pornography — i.e., penetration or full display of sex organs — they’re tolerated as well as any movie with heterosexual erotic scenes.

Learn more about the erotic East from Richard Bernstein.

But politics here remain raw as ever. An urban-rural class divide has played out in roaring street protests. Regions remain at political odds. And Muslim separatists continue a bombing and beheading campaign in Thailand’s deep south.

quarantine movie poster
A promotional poster for the banned film.
(Courtesy of Thunska Pansittivorakul)

In “Quarantine,” Thunska attempts to fuse the country’s varied tensions in back-to-back scenes. He pairs up two men, one from the insurgency-torn deep south and another from a poor rice-farming Northeast region.

One man is Buddhist, one is Muslim and both are gay. Before they become intimate, the film presents footage from the “Tak Bai” incident, a 2004 military crackdown on Muslim protesters. More than 80 men, detained and piled into the back of an army truck, died from suffocation in the heat.

Footage of the raid was circulated widely on YouTube and disseminated via CD to galvanize Muslims in southern Thailand against the government.

“It compares between violence the government has showered on the people and the intensity of the sex scene,” Thunksa said. “But the Tak Bai footage is something anyone could find on YouTube.”

Before it was submitted for government review, “Quarantine” was secretly shown five times in Thailand and publicly at the “International Film Festival Rotterdam.” Thunksa produced the film for less than $6,000, he said.

“The sex scene is quite erotic, because the camera is constantly moving and it’s cut very fast, so the effect is like a montage,” said Matthew Hunt, a cinephile and blogger in Bangkok who saw the film at a private screening.

The Muslim crackdown footage, he said, was already familiar from TV news. “It was brave to incorporate the footage, because it had not been shown legally in Thailand for several years,” Hunt said.

For Thunksa, the film is an unusual detour into hardcore politics. Most of his films focus on gay life in Thailand. Though the culture is tolerant of homosexuality, Thunksa said, pop culture is still uncomfortable depicting gays seriously. “TV and movies turn them into clowns,” he said.

“Quarantine” is the first film to run afoul of a new film rating system overseen by the Ministry of Culture. To be shown inside Thailand, each film must be viewed by a panel that ranks the movie on a seven-point scale.

Films deemed to have an “ethical high ground” receive official government support. Films with various levels of violence or lewdity are restricted by age. But the harshest rank, seven, is reserved for films that deride respected people or institutions or compromise national security.

“Quarantine” was forced to withdraw from its most high profile screening yet, this week’s World Film Festival of Bangkok. Culture ministry censors have “banned” the movie, festival organizers said, by refusing to give it any rating at all. The ministry claims the non-rating — which still bars the film from being shown — is the outcome of a paperwork snafu.

“Quarantine” is the first high-profile battle between Thai directors and censors since “Syndromes and a Century,” a highly acclaimed 2007 film. Government censors insisted the director remove scenes that showed doctors drinking whiskey, a monk strumming a guitar and monks playing with electronic toys. (Buddhist monks are forbidden from playing with gadgets or musical instruments.)

The director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, refused to cut the film. While effectively banned in Thailand, the film was seen internationally, ranking in Newsweek’s and The Boston Globe’s top 10 best films of 2007 lists. Apichatpong eventually showed the film in Thailand, but replaced the banned scenes with several minutes of pitch blackness.

“Right now, there’s a huge push from the government to approve movies that preserve Thailand’s good image,” said Thunksa. “The truth is, I’m not trying to tear down the country. I’m just presenting the truth.”

In protest, Thunksa and other directors are now collaborating on a film specifically written to earn the most severe rating possible from the Ministry of Culture, he said.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/091106/did-gay-sex-get-film-banned-thailand-or-was-it-politics