Over the last few years, Thai cinema has become an unpredictable and risky business. Several newcomers moved in, poured funds into the industry, and disappeared when they made losses. Film companies like Film Bangkok (Tears Of The Black Tiger, Bangkok Dangerous), CM Pictures, or Matching Motion Pictures (Zee Oui: The Maneater) are some of those which bailed out. It’s impossible to tell which films will succeed at the box office and which will fail. Many movies were cleverly marketed, but failed dismally. But several low-quality films became surprise hits.
For example, no one could have predicted that the slapstick Noodle Boxer would gain positive critical reviews and then take more than Euro 2.04 million. It was the number two in the 2006 top ten box-office chart. It was just another surprise in a year beset with external problems for the film industry - political turmoil, economic recession and the flood.
In the first quarter of the year, the industry had bounced back to attract filmgoers into the cinema. But people then started to follow politics rather than entertainment, joining the anti-Thaksin rallies. In September, the upheavals reached boiling point with the military coup. The new army-led government, which was seen as a white horse to eradicate the corrupt premier Thaksin, unfortunately encountered immediate problems. A big flood covered several areas of the country, there were bombings in the south of Thailand, and irritating actions by the former premiere-in-exile Thaksin. On New Year’s Eve, the situation worsened with several explosions in the inner areas of Bangkok.
Nevertheless, Thai cinema was still able to claim a moderate success. In 2006, a total of 42 films (compared to 38 in 2005) were released. They took approximately Euro 22.9 million (34.9%) out of the overall annual takings of Euro 65.6 million (only the first run in Bangkok and Chiangmai Provinces are counted). The highest-grossing picture of the year was unexpectedly the animation Khan Kluay, which accounted for about Euro 2.16 million. Khan Kluay was only the second animation feature in 100-plus years of Thai cinema. Khan Kluay responded to the nationalistic sentiments that had spread through the country. The story revolved around the life of an elephant who becomes the war chariot of 16th-century King Naresuan the Great.
In fact, there were several patriotic films released to respond to public sentiment. Only Khan Kluay was a hit. It reached out to all generations across the country. And perhaps the film was like a prequel to the biggest film of the decade, Legend Of King Naresuan, which has been in production since 2004.
Aside from Khan Kluay, genre productions still dominated. Horror might still be a favourite for Thais, but it was getting over-exposed. Out of 42 releases in 2006, there were only 10 horror pictures. Many of them did not do that well, except Dorm, about a friendship between two boys in different worlds. Even internationally-renowned director Wisit Sasanatieng (Tears Of The Black Tiger, Citizen Dog) was asked to direct one horror - The Unseeable - to help his producers, Five Star Productions, as his earlier films didn’t make any profit. Sasanatieng’s meticulous working style shone while detailing the life of a pregnant girl in search of her husband in a mysterious house in 1934. It ended with a moderate takings of Euro 420,000 - Sasanatieng’s highest box office result.
The real champions of the year were the comedian-directors who made locally-oriented slapstick films. Following the footsteps of The Holy Man, a 2005 surprise slapstick hit, all major studios tried to hit with at least one slapstick. All of 2006’s big hits were from that genre. RS Film saw Noodle Boxer sweep Euro 2.04 million and end up the second highest grossing film. The biggest studio, Sahamongkol Film, co-produced Nong Teng with Work Point Entertainment, a well-known television program producer. Nong Teng merely transformed a TV variety show to the big screen. It starred some famous TV hosts, and took more than Euro 1.77 million.
Even the reputable studio GTH invested in a slapstick with See How They Run, which took Euro 1.27 million. These kind of movies are always welcomed by local viewers. The stars are well-known and the films can reach audiences across the country, especially in the rural areas. Today, Thai stars are comedians rather than glamorous-looking movie stars as in the past. Famous comedians appear everywhere and in all kinds of media.
The slapstick comedies aren’t very cinematically satisfying. Anyone can do it as long as they can deliver gags and comic dialogue. Some comedies with more meat included Noo-Hin: The Movie and Metrosexual. Adapted from the decade-spanning popular comic book, Noo-Hin: The Movie looks at the life of a young country girl who always causes disasters. Brimming with top talent - it was produced by well-known director Nonzee Nimibutr, the pioneer of contemporary New Thai Cinema, written by scriptwriter-cum-director Kongdet Jaturatrassamee (Midnight My Love), and directed by young director Khomkrit Treewimol (My Girl, Dear Dakanda) - it unsurprisingly collected more than Euro 1.07 million.
Metrosexual by Yongyoot Thongkongtoon (Iron Ladies, M.A.I.D.) meant to explore the problems of an urban gay man uncertain of his sexuality. With its heavyweight casting of four famous television program hosts, it became a surprise hit, taking more than Euro 983,645.
Action started to re-emerge last year, after the success of Ong Bak and Tom Yam Goong. The genre has always been popular in Thailand, especially in rural areas. This time, however, it returned with more heavyweight special effects and exaggerated martial arts antics. But local audiences tended to find them too hybrid and most of them were not well received. Dangerous Flowers has women in action. The film tells of four female spies on a mission to rescue a young Japanese girl from a mafia gangster. Though all the major roles were given to the country’s sexy stars - and a famous folk singer - it merely broke even.
Even worse was the remake of Mercury Man, an attempt to create a Thai superhero. He is a firefighter who suddenly got powers after accidentally swallowing a mysterious mercury object. This new-version of Mercury Man was strange and largely unoriginal. It borrowed too much from Spider-Man and the White Witch in the Chronicles Of Narnia. The film paid the price by becoming one of the big flops of the year.
Another action remake, Dynamite Warriors aka Kon Fai Bin, almost became the disaster of the year, although it has been sold to America’s Magnolia Pictures. Packed with special effects, this new version of Tabunfire was smartly remade with a combination of Thai-style martial arts and Chinese swordplay. Locals found it too weird at first. But helped by the casting of Tony Jaa’s protégé Dan Choopong, his teacher Panna Rittikrai, and famous boxer-turned-actor Samat Payakarun, it finally broke even. With the price paid by Magnolia, Dynamite Warriors has already gained a large profit. More action flicks are set to follow, including Tony Jaa’s directorial debut Ong Bak 2.
US-based Weinstein also picked up the remake rights of the high-concept thriller 13-Beloved. This adaptation of the comic 13 tells the life of an underdog on an unlucky day where he is forced to quit his job, his car is repossessed, and his mother tells him to send money back to family. A mysterious call offers him multi-millions. Lead actor Krissada Sukosol was judged best actor of the year by several institutions.
2006 saw a diverse range of films. Romance even made a return. Three romances became hits. Season Changes became the fifth highest grosser of the year, earning more than Euro 1.28 million. Though the film does not contain any stars, this triangular love of pre-university teens won youngster’s hearts. Its director Nithiwat Tharatorn was one of the six directors of My Girl, a sleeper hit in 2003. The stars came out for Loveaholic and The Memory. The latter film had moderate takings, but it ended up playing for a month. The Memory cast all of Thailand’s famous stars: the contemporary pop singer Rattapoom Tohkongsab, TV pop star Paula Taylor, and supporting roles were taken by famous northeast band Pong Salang. Fans of these stars watched the film over and over again and finally The Memory took up Euro 1.08 million.
The best films of the year were inevitably genre films. Critics also gave these positive reviews. Season Changes, The Unseeable, Dynamite Warriors, Khan Kluay, Dorm and 13-Beloved were praised. There are very few art-house directors in Thailand, and they have been praised outside the country rather than in it. Pen-Ek Rattanaruang’s Invisible Waves often met some objections from national organizations as “not being local production,” due to its international co-production and crew members. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndrome And A Century is a globetrotter but has not been released in his home country.
There were protests against several films. Lucky Loser had just finished its press show right when the ambassador of Laos in Thailand showed his discontent over the depiction of his country. A soccer comedy, about a Thai coach who coincidentally goes to train the national team of Laos for the World Cup, it ended up with an immediate cancellation of all screenings. The studio GTH re-edited the film, and changed the name to a new nation called Arwee. It was quietly released in October, without any promotion. No surprise that it flopped. The horror Ghost Game also faced similar protests from the Cambodian ambassador because it depicted the action taking place in a museum that resembled the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng torture center. In late August, another horror called Cadaver was opposed by medical students and doctors.
This year, politics are still in crisis and more conflicts can be expected. At the same time, the biggest film of the decade, Legend Of King Naresuan, will be released as a trilogy. A release for Nonzee Nimibutr’s Queen Of Lungkasa is also planned. In spite of everything, 2007 is a year to watch.