Bangkok  —  

The Siam@Siam Guide to Bangkok Cult Film History

Published: 29 October, 2019
Written by: Carl Dixon

Thailand as seen through the lens of world cinema's finest names.

Thailand is no stranger to big screens globally, whether it’s the lush jungles and azure waters of The Beach or the utter chaos of The Hangover 2. And there are a tonne more examples you may not have realised. The Thai capital has appeared in some of history’s best-loved films, though not always as Bangkok itself. Calling all cinephiles—our film guide will have you seeing Bangkok through the lens of world cinema’s finest names from Wong Kar Wai to Nicolas Winding-Refn (we’ll leave the local films to another story).

Duel of Fists

Duel of Fists (1971)

Bangkok gets the Hong Kong kung fu action treatment! This film by the legendary Shaw Brothers production house delves into the murky Thai boxing underworld of the 1970s, and was shot on-site in Bangkok and surrounding areas. An engineer played by David Chiang travels to Bangkok looking for his long-lost brother (Ti Lung), who it turns out is a Muay Thai boxer. Together they must take down a ruthless crime syndicate.

The film is often described as part-beat-’em-up, part-travelogue, with long, sweeping scenes used to showcase top Bangkok tourism sites of the time. Chiang touches down during Songkran, the water-splashing Thai New Year holiday. Landmarks on show include the Art Deco-inspired Dusit Thani Hotel (currently undergoing major renovations) and Siam Intercontinental Hotel (razed in the early ‘00s to make way for Siam Paragon mall). In general, this is certainly a far greener, far quieter version of Bangkok than you’ll find nowadays.

James Bond, The Man with the Golden Gun

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Bangkok has starred in two James Bond films to date, though 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies saw the Thai capital stand in for Saigon, Vietnam (read more on that trend below). Rewind to the mid-’70s, when Roger Moore was in his pomp, and The Man with the Golden Gun was shot at a variety of locations around Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand. The most notable setting was Koh Khao Phing Kan, a stunning, 66-feet-tall islet northeast of Phuket that served as Scaramanga’s hideout and has been dubbed “James Bond Island” ever since.

Hot on the heels of his arch-nemesis (played by Christopher Lee), Bond is captured and held at a Thai dojo where he must fight for his life against a succession of karate students. These scenes were filmed at Dvaravati House in Muang Boran, the so-called Ancient City about an hour’s drive from Bangkok. Often referred to as the world’s largest private outdoor museum, this 200-acre space remains much as it was back during shooting.

With Bond fleeing by boat, the action carries on to Damnoen Saduak Floating Market and Khlong Dan (khlong refers to canal). In fact, the film really takes in the sights. Bond keeps a date with his assistant Mary Goodnight at the legendary Mandarin Oriental Hotel (still prime date-night material to this day). Some underhandedness goes down at Ratchadamnoen Boxing Stadium and an ensuing car chase starts at the Royal Turf Club and features glimpses of Democracy Monument, the Giant Swing and Wat Suthat in Bangkok’s Old Town.

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Thailand has regularly been used as the shooting location for films set during the Vietnam War, the most notable example of which is probably Michael Cimino’s Oscar-laden classic The Deer Hunter, from 1978, which flits between scenes of “home” in the U.S. and the “war.”

The 1973 evacuation of Saigon was staged on Throng Wad Road in Bangkok, while Don Muang Airport (Bangkok’s main international terminal at the time) acted as the U.S. Airfield. The prison camp, where the characters played by Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken partake in gut-wrenching games of Russian roulette, was built on the River Kwai near Kanchanaburi, about 2.5 hours’ drive from Bangkok.

The memorable bar scenes were shot at Mississippi Queen, a long-gone soul bar on Patpong Road that was reputedly one of the first in Bangkok to have go-go dancers. Nowadays Patpong is one of the most infamous areas of Bangkok, but back then it was a far quieter affair that was only just opening up to nightlife.

Good Morning Vietnam

Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

Another Vietnam War film largely shot in Thailand, including both Phuket and Bangkok. This comedy-drama saw the late, great Robin Williams star as a DJ for the Armed Forces Service Radio in a role that earned him an Oscar nomination.

The Malaysia Hotel in Bangkok was chosen as one of the prime shooting locations—a strange choice given that substantial renovations were required to convert a second-floor room into a radio booth. The hotel, which opened in 1967 and has nothing to do with its namesake nation to Thailand’s south, still stands today though it recently underwent a slightly garish facelift. Its 24-hour cafe is popular among party-goers for its khao tom (rice soup) and the chance for a few final sneaky beers at the end of a night out.

The Beach, Khaosan Road

The Beach

The Beach (2000)

Though mostly shot at Maya Bay, on the southern island of Phi Phi Ley near Phuket, the 2000 film actually opens in Bangkok where a young Leonardo Di Caprio (complete with shell necklace) has a brush with the pushy touts of Khao San Road. Leo’s voice-over tells us Bangkok is a “good time city,” a place “where the hungry come to feed”—and this portrayal will no doubt remind many of their first time visiting this bustling backpacker mecca, home of cheap booze buckets and dodgy tattoos.

While the main “Bangkok” scenes were actually shot in Phuket and Krabi, in the country’s south, due to the logistics of moving great swathes of tourists from Khao San, some shots featuring Leo’s body double were indeed shot in the City of Angels itself.

Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel may have put Maya Bay on the tourist map, but the years since have not been so kind to the film’s “secret paradise.” Decades of unmonitored tourism (as many as 5,000 visitors a day) have caused all sorts of damage to the local marine environment. As such, Maya Bay is currently closed to visitors.

In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Here’s one that’s not so obvious. Though set in early-’60s Hong Kong, much of Wong Kar-wai’s turn-of-the-millennium masterpiece was actually shot in Bangkok. The dark alleys, crumbling shop-houses and noodle stalls of Charoenkrung Road—one of Bangkok’s oldest neighbourhoods down by the riverside—stand in for the cosmopolitan Hong Kong of the director’s childhood.

The love story starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai packs all of Wong Kar-wai’s common themes of betrayal, nostalgia and heartbreak, augmented by sultry night-time shots in abundance. Nowadays many bars and restaurants can be found dotted around Bangkok’s Chinatown that pay homage to the film’s moody lighting and rich colour palette. Can’t get enough? Wong Kar-wai’s 2004 sci-fi flick 2046 was also partially shot in the Thai capital.

The Hangover 2

The Hangover 2 (2011)

For its second instalment, the film franchise that launched “Wolfpack” into the popular lexicon transplants a bunch of manbabies to Thailand with hilarious/disturbing (your pick) results. While part one centred on a disastrous bachelor party in Las Vegas, the sequel shifts the action to the other side of the world. The gang are reunited for what’s supposed to be a subdued pre-wedding brunch, but it’s no surprise when all hell breaks.

Some of the country’s top tourist destinations enjoy screen-time, including Muang Boran, Thailand’s ancient city about one hour’s drive from Bangkok. What’s probably seared even more into viewers’ memories is the rooftop bar at Lebua hotel that packs some incredible views of the city. If you’re planning a visit, be warned: the place is crawling with sightseers at sundown. Lucky for you, Bangkok has no shortage of rooftop bars at which to soak up the sights.

Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives (2013)

Fresh from releasing his cult hit Drive (2011) to rapturous acclaim, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn threw a curveball with this exercise in highly stylised ulta-violence. He teamed up again with Ryan Gosling, who puts in a taciturn performance as Julian, a drug trafficker on a mission to avenge his older brother’s death in Bangkok.

The neo-noir version of Bangkok we see here is saturated in neon lights, with long, slow camera moves helping to build an almost unceasing feeling of dread. Among the recognisable sights are Rangsit Boxing Stadium which acts as the muay Thai stadium out of which Julian’s drug dealing ring operates. A few street scenes were shot around Chinatown and Soi Nana Nuea, just off Sukhumvit Road, to shadowy backdrops punctuated by neon signage, while Julian’s foul-mouthed mum (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas) stays in the swanky Emporium Suites.

A Prayer Before Dawn

A Prayer Before Dawn (2018)

Director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire tells the true story of Billy Moore (played by Joe Cole), an English boxer who fought his way out of imprisonment in the notorious Bang Kwang Central Prison, also known as the Bangkok Hilton, through Muay Thai tournaments.

Of course, the film wasn’t shot on-location; instead the team came upon an abandoned prison on the outskirts of Bangkok that was set for demolition. The place was so run-down, they had to clear the place of overgrown trees and plants. Adding to the authenticity, most of the cast was made up of ex-con boxers.


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