Thai dramedies tug at heartstrings

Thai dramedies, which tug at the heartstrings, are becoming the country's next big pop-culture export

You could be a fan of Thai movies and not know it.

Comedy-dramas such as I Fine... Thank You... Love You (2014) and Hello Stranger (2010) share many qualities with the narrative-driven Thai television commercials that often go viral on social media, despite what could be a language barrier for people around the world. They are funny and sentimental without being cloying and manipulative.

A Thai Life Insurance ad titled Unsung Hero (2014), which shows the rewards that a young man gets in return for what at first appear to be stupid acts of generosity, has racked up close to 30 million views on YouTube.

Numerous articles have been written on international websites such as The Huffington Post about how touching it is. Almost three years after it appeared, the three-minute clip is still being widely shared on Facebook today.

Clearly, there is something about Thai commercials that translates across cultures.

That kind of universal appeal has extended to Thai feature films as well, as evidenced by their increasing popularity in the region.

This week in cinemas, Singaporean moviegoers can enjoy two Thai dramedies: omnibus film A Gift, which tells three stories inspired by the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej's music compositions, is now showing; while Suddenly 20, a remake of South Korean film Miss Granny (2014), opens tomorrow.

Local distributors are certainly hoping that they will perform as well as some of the older Thai dramedies, such as I Fine... Thank You... Love You and Hello Stranger, which have done relatively well here.

In Singapore, I Fine..., about an English language teacher who befriends a reluctant student, grossed more than $743,000; while Hello Stranger, about two Thai tourists who meet in Seoul, made more than $623,000.

That does not sound like much when compared with Hollywood blockbusters, which earn millions here, but these numbers are nonetheless considered strong for niche foreign-language titles which would otherwise find it hard to break the $200,000 mark.

Of course, Thai film-makers have long been known for producing successful horror films such as Shutter (2004) and Alone (2007), both of which have been remade by Hollywood and Indian film-makers respectively.

But Thai dramedies, which viewers say employ the same type of "emotional storytelling" techniques seen in the country's best TV commercials, are quickly gaining ground as Thailand's next big pop-culture export.

ELEMENTS OF SUCCESS

Mr Somkiat Larptanunchaiwong, chief executive officer of BBDO Bangkok, the advertising agency behind many of Thailand's most successful TV spots, such as last year's touching Mothers (2016), points out that Thai stories are "first, emotionally driven, and second, expressed in the most genuine style".

Movie buff Celine Chua, 29, concurs. She enjoys Thai dramedies, such as Bangkok Traffic Love Story (2009) and May Who? (2015), mostly because she finds them "so heartfelt".

The travel agent says: "I enjoy all sorts of romantic comedies, but Thai rom-coms are especially sweet.

"Some comedians from other countries can come across as quite proud and annoying, but Thai actors are always very likeable because they seem so sincere."

It probably helps that Thai stars always look so good too. Often, Thai acting leads are either Eurasian or have modelling backgrounds.

Ms Chua, who is a fan of ThaiGerman model-turned-actor Mario Maurer, 28, says: "Many people are big fans of South Korean stars, but I think they all look too similar because of plastic surgery.

"Thai stars also have perfect skin and hair, but at least they look different from one another. There's a type for everyone."

Many industry players also believe that the success of Thai dramedies boils down to the fact that Thais have a sense of humour.

Veteran Thai film-maker Jira Maligool, 56, who directed hit dramedies such as SuckSeed (2011) and one of the segments of omnibus film A Gift (2016), tells The Straits Times: "It's in our blood to have a great sense of humour. We enjoy making jokes in our daily lives and can find humour in even the most ridiculous situations."

Mr Leslie Tan, course chair for Ngee Ann Polytechnic's diploma in film, sound and video, adds: "The Thai sense of humour is one that makes them see the levity and comedy in even the bleakest of situations. International audiences can relate to that, often finding it refreshing from the sarcasm and more language-based humour adopted in American movies.

"Thai films such as The Iron Ladies (2000) and Pee Mak (2013) also showcase the Thais' ability to laugh at themselves in various situations." The Iron Ladies tells the true story of how a group of transvestite volleyball players make it to the national Thai male volleyball championships. Pee Mak is a wacky horror comedy based on a Thai legend about a soldier who lives with his ghost wife and child.

Director Jira believes that more young Thai people will go into film-making as the Thais are so "hungry for content", he says.

"Young people in Thailand seem to be getting more interested in making films these days - maybe because they see the potential in using film to reach out to a wide audience internationally. It has become a trend in Thailand for them to want to produce viral video content."

That is something that Singaporean university student Junie Ho, 22, hopes to see more of.

The fan of Thai omnibus dramedy Seven Something (2012) says: "Even the stupidest things can go viral these days, but the Thais know how to make their content moving. They know know to make you laugh and tug at your heartstrings."

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee


'Looking unladylike is a compliment'


Davika Hoorne (centre) stars as a grandmother who relives her youth and pursues her dream of becoming a singer in Suddenly 20, while Kritsanapoom Pibulsonggram (left) stars as her grandson. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

The beautiful Davika Hoorne, 24, whose mother is Thai and father Belgian, started modelling at the age of 14, before making her acting debut five years later in television drama Cupid's Shadows (2011).

 

She got her big break when she played the lead in horror-comedy Pee Mak (2013), Thailand's highest-grossing film, which made more than US$33 million across Asia.

Her latest film is the comedy Suddenly 20, in which she plays Granny Parn, a cranky old woman who magically transforms into her 20-year-old self one day. The film is a remake of South Korean hit flick Miss Granny (2014).

The Straits Times finds out more about her new role in an e-mail interview with Hoorne.

In Suddenly 20, you had to act quite vulgar. Did you mind that you would not look pretty and feminine?

Not at all. If you say that I look unladylike in the movie, I see that as a compliment because it means I acted well. While making this movie, I didn't think about looking pretty at all, I was focused only on the acting.

What did you do to prepare for your role?

I had extensive training in general acting, physical acting and singing. It was quite intense, but I was excited because I got to work with a lot of talented people. I also had to work closely with actress Niranuch Patamasute, who plays the old version of Granny Parn, so I could imitate her movements as closely as possible.

In the film, your character becomes closer to her grandson after becoming young again. In real life, are you close to your grandmothers?

I wish I could be, but my grandmother from my father's side died when I was very young. And I don't live with my grandmother from my mother's side, so we see each other only once in a while. I may not be as close to her as I should be, but I can say from the bottom of my heart that I love and respect her very much.

If you could go back in time, which time period would you go back to and why?

I would like to go back to when I was a kid because I was happy and didn't have any stress or responsibilities. I had so much fun back then, just going to school, playing with friends and eating whatever I wanted.

Some people say that all Thai people have a sense of humour. Do you agree?

Yes. We are always smiling and poking fun at one another. We are born to be happy. If you visit Thailand, you can see our smiles everywhere.


Thai stars to watch


Thai stars (from left) Nittha “Mew” Jirayungyurn, Mario Maurer and Nuengthida “Noona” Sophon. PHOTOS: INSTAGRAM

SUNNY SUWANMETHANON, 35


Sunny Suwanmethanon. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

See him in: I Fine... Thank You... Love You (2014); Heart Attack (2015)

Sunny, who is of Thai, French and Chinese descent, has both looks and solid acting skills. Long before he won over regional audiences in the role of a lovelorn English language student in smash hit I Fine..., he convinced domestic Thai audiences as a college student stuck in a love triangle in the much smaller flick Dear Dakanda (2005). Dear Dakanda earned him a Best Actor award at the Kom Chad Luek Awards, which is handed out by the Thai newspaper of the same name.

He is also unafraid of shedding his heart-throb image - in the dramedy Heart Attack, he had rashes and pus-filled spots painted all over his body for most of the movie to play a sickly graphic designer.


NITTHA "MEW" JIRAYUNGYURN, 26


Nittha “Mew” Jirayungyurn. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

See her in: One Day (2016)

Mew had a handful of roles in Thai television dramas before taking on the lead role in the movie One Day, but her all-Thai pretty face has, for years, been seen everywhere in Thailand, even before her acting debut in 2013. The gorgeous model has been fronting everything from shampoo to skincare to electronic products in print and TV advertisements and was a regular cover girl for fashion magazines.

She told The Straits Times in an interview last year that she was nervous making her film debut, but she need not have worried because she was a natural in One Day. That megawatt smile of hers melts hearts.


MARIO MAURER, 28


Mario Maurer. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

See him in: First Love (2010); Pee Mak (2013)

This Thai-German hunk started as a model after he was scouted at the age of 16 at Bangkok's trendy Siam Square mall, appearing in print and television advertisements as well as local music videos. He successfully transitioned to acting, winning acclaim for playing the lead in Chookiat Sakveerakul's award-winning gay romance The Love Of Siam (2007).

Maurer gained mainstream popularity after playing a charming high school student in youth romantic comedy First Love, but it was not until he starred in horror-comedy Pee Mak, Thailand's highest-grossing film, that he truly topped the A list.


NUENGTHIDA "NOONA" SOPHON, 24


Nuengthida “Noona” Sophon. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

See her in: Hello Stranger (2010)

Forever smiley and bubbly, Noona got her start in show business singing theme songs for television dramas such as Orange Blossom Crown (2010) and Like The Sun (2008).

The Thai star then took on several supporting roles on TV before shooting to fame overnight as the female lead in regional hit movie Hello Stranger, in which she played a Thai tourist obsessed with South Korean dramas.


CHANTAVIT "TER" DHANASEVI, 33


Chantavit “Ter” Dhanasevi. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

See him in: Hello Stranger (2010); One Day (2016)

Ter is leading-man material because of his Mr Nice Guy charm. His role in Hello Stranger was so popular regionally that he was named a Star Hunter at the 2011 Shanghai International Film Festival, which is given to one of Asia's 10 most promising young actors.

Beyond acting, the Thai actor is also getting rave notices for screenwriting - he co-wrote Pee Mak (2013) and One Day, both of which fared well at box offices across Asia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2017, with the headline 'Thai dramedies' appeal'. Print Edition | Subscribe