Stories about the industry’s decline continued to resonate around local film circles in 2016. Most filmmakers think this is the return of the nightmare that haunted the industry during the late 1980s and mid-1990s, with one big exception. At that time, teen pics were dominant, as teenagers were the major target audience for local productions. But today’s teenagers do not like watching Thai movies at all. In fact, Thai filmmakers now find it difficult to find any kind of audience.
Superficially, not much has changed, as the number of film releases remains around 50. But only a few films managed to hit the jackpot. There’s an unequal distribution in the top 10, with the highest figures sometimes reaching four million euros, and the lowest around 368,400 euros. This shows that only a few movies have been seen by the whole nation. In the past, the top 10 box-office of Thai national cinema would surpass 2.5 million euros. The recent figures show that Thai cinema has been is now mostly watched by specific demographics. Audiences have become dispersed, and movies are no longer seen by the whole nation.
Take a look at the top 10 box-office movies, for example. Only Luang Pee Jazz and One Day make it into the ‘100 million baht’ (2.6 million euros) or ‘nine-digit-figure’ club – the mark of success in the good old days. The next two titles, Khun Phan, and The Gift, took only half of the above. The best the rest can do, with less than one million euros, is claim that at least they were not flops. In the past, the latter group would not make it into the top 10 chart at all. So Thai cinema seems to get smaller on all levels – it has smaller budgets, smaller audiences, and smaller earnings.
Success today is triggered by a few factors. The first is who makes the movie. Filmmakers say only GDH559’s films can make money now. GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) is the successor to GMM Tai Hub (GTH), which had a decade-long reputation for well-made movies. Each of their works were created with care, and utilised well-planned research and marketing. Scripts were written with a team of two or three writers, and they took their time. Not surprisingly, some companies try to lure the public into theatres by making GDH-lookalike pictures starring their former stars. The ploy can work, as can be seen from the romantic comedy Mr. Hurt (Ittisak Eusunthornwattana, 2017), which was produced by the studio Transformation.
Under their new name (necessary because of the departure of shareholder Wisit Poolvaraluck), GDH released One Day and The Gift. Director Banjong Pisanthanakun, who once saved the company from bankruptcy with the comedy horror Pee Mak (2013) – Thailand’s highest grossing film – was assigned to bring luck to the newly-named company. His romantic drama One Day was the story of computer nerd Denchai, who risks everything to be with his dream girl, Nui. Denchai secretly loves Nui, but he does not have the courage to express his feelings towards her. He finally got his chance during the company trip to Hokkaido, after Nui encountered temporary memory loss in a skiing accident, and pretended to be her boyfriend.
GDH also released the omnibus film The Gift, consisting three love stories directed by Nithiwat Tharatorn, Chayanop Boonprakob, and Jira Maligool. Story one is about love at first sight between a young couple who meet at an embassy party. Story two is about the eternal love of an old man who suffers from alzheimer’s – only the memory of his late wife remains. The third is about company staff who secretly team up with their band and practice at night. All the stories are connected to songs composed by the late King Rama IX, who passed away in 13 October last year.
Success can also be brought about by the exploitation of old victories. Luang Pee Jazz topped the chart due to its association with the comedy series of The Holy Man (Note Chern-Yim, 2005). Several sequels have been made with different lead actors and storylines. Only the plots remain are the same, focusing what happens to new monks in a new land, this time with the addition of new comedian Jazz Chuanghuen. After the film’s success, Jazz was cast in the comedy 888, which was hastily made to cash in.
Horror is another way to avoid flops, as there’s a market at home and abroad. But the market got smaller, and only two horrors reached the chart last year. One was the omnibus horror 11 12 13, about the ghosts of people who unexpectedly die in accidents when they visit their hometowns in Thailand’s New Year (Songkran), which is in April. The period is known for high death tolls due to car accidents. Another successful horror was Kongkiat Khomsiri’s Take Me Home. The story begins with a young man (Mario Maurer) who loses his memory due to his accident. He lives the hospital and helps out with chores for more than a decade, until his family are discovered. Tragedy follows. Take Me Home is a very complex and multi-layered story. Kongkiat Khomsiri was more successful with his action-drama Khun Phan, based on the real-life police who fought with the legendary bandit in the south of Thailand during the 1940s. A familiar face at FEFF, Khomsiri orchestrates the film with a tight script and beautiful design based on classic Westerns. The policemen fight with the bandits by riding horses, as in a cowboy film.
Newcomer Phairach Khumwan tried his hand at a teen horror, Siam Square. The place has been a legendary hangout for teenagers for a long time, and as a centre for tuition schools in the last two decades. Director Khumwan masterfully employs both aspects by grafting on a ghost story. A group of students try to investigate a rumour about a young ghost who wanders around their school. There’s a complex storyline about a friendship that travels from the past to the present – from the parents’ generation to today’s teens.
Khumwan is one of a group of young filmmakers who have emerged during the last two years. Only a few senior directors worked last year, including Prachya Pinkaew, Poj Arnon, Dulyasit Niyomkul, and Yuthlert Sippapak. There were also films by the middle rank, like Kongkiat Khomsiri, and GDH filmmakers like Banjong Pisanthanakun. The rest were all young filmmakers on their first and second films. They come from all over Thailand – Bangkok, the north, the north east, and the south.
In 2016, Thai movies started to be made all over Thailand, not just in the capital. These movies are normally released in their home region first, before expanding to a limited release in Bangkok. The north-eastern pictures are the most successful out of them all, as their fans can boost the box-office in their region first – if they become successful, the theatre operators in Bangkok will open their doors to them.
All this has made Thai cinema very diverse. Despite the preponderance of horror, other genres do exist –comedy, drama, action, and thrillers. Comedy is usually targeted at the whole nation, and films like Luang Pee Jazz can attract the lower-middle-class Bangkok residents, and all the classes outside the capital. By contrast, northeastern comedies like Thai Ban the Series (Thai Village Series, 2017) explores the love affairs of a country man. These movies glorify a rural lifestyle, and appeal to a rural audience.
Drama can take in national issues like the historical investigations of political murders in 1973 and 1976, as seen in the arthouse indie By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016). Films from the south explore the hardships of survival, as seen in Terd (Ekkachai Sriwichai, 2016). Gay films have become popular, and these films portray the difficulties of being gay in Thailand.
The Thai film scene 2016 was fresh, small-scale, and segmented, targeting diverse groups – from the audiences of Bangkok to regional viewers, from straight to gay, from young to old. No longer can one film appeal to everybody in the nation.
THAILAND’S TOP TEN BOX-OFFICE (Euro)
Luang Pee Jazz 4,060,000
Khun Phan 1,624,820
The Gift 1,128,420
Suddenly Twenty 604,470
I Love You Two Jumnien Vivien Tomorn 502,895
11 12 13 421,050
Take Me Home 368,420