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Outlook >> Wednesday December 26, 2007

Where did you go, what did you watch and what have you been listening to? 'Outlook' looks back on what changed and what didn't in entertainment and the arts this past year


`Legend of King Naresuan'.
Mr.. My self

It has become a cliche' to complain that Thai cinema is swamped with cheap horrors and inept comedies, with arm-flapping gay buffoons tossed in for good measure. But like most cliche's, this one seems to be true, especially over the past 12 months when audience saw ghosts of various pedigrees and malicious spooks mingle with professional bozos on the big screen.

The number of local movies released in 2007 clocked in at 49 (last year there were 43), with Poj Anont's Yern, Pae, Lae, Se Ma Kutae, a comedy whose principal humour revolves around its three physically handicapped characters (one cross-eyed, one physically disabled and one buck-toothed), ending the year with its December 28 release. I'm sure it's going to be so funny I won't be able to stop crying - what a marvellous end to an eventful year for Thai films.

Of the 49 titles, only two crossed the 100 million baht milestone - the two Legend of King Naresuan movies, each making around 230 million baht. But there is a big caveat here. The big-earning Naresuan pictures (the third, initially scheduled to open on December 5, has been postponed) cannot serve as reliable indicators of the health of the local film industry, or of audience loyalty to homegrown movies in general, because these two films by Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol were produced outside the mindset of regular movie-business practices and were subjected to no financial pressure. Whether the movies recouped their investment or not was not the major concern (reportedly the two films cost over 600 million baht). The two films might have stimulated audience enthusiasm - and invoked chest-beating pride - but they are not part of the game played by other (struggling) Thai film-makers.

Big TV clowns remain bankable assets, though they didn't carry any of their films past 100 million baht: Petchthai "Mum Jokmok" starred in and directed The Bodyguard 2, which made 90 million baht, whereas Teng Terdterng and Nong Chernyim took Teng Nong Khon Maha Hia to 80 million baht. The numbers seem impressive, but the investors certainly expected more.

Surprise hits of 2007 included the dog film by Pantham Thongsang, Ma-Mar See Kha krub (Mid-Road Gang), tallying over 50 million baht; Kitikorn Leosirikul's Mail Narok Muay Yok Lor (Bus Lane), a road comedy that opened on Songkran Day and made 80 million baht; and the gay ghost comedy - no bases go untouched! - Hor Taew Tak (The Haunted), Poj Anont's low-budget pic that made over 50 million baht.

Every Thai studio does exactly the same thing when they spot despair on the doorstep: Make a ghost film. Yet the much-awaited creep of the year, Fadd (Alone), turned out to be a surfeit of recycled scare tactics that shocked but did not awe viewers. The film, by the directors of the 2004 smash hit Shutter, made 62 million baht. Still, the graves of Thai horror are reputably fertile so we saw Rot Fai Pee (Ghost Train), Weng Pisaj (Haunted Cove), Perng Mang (Haunted Drum), Goey Ther Gay (Ghost Station), Kham Chanod (about a haunted movie screen) and Pee Maijim Fan (Haunted Toothpicks) - no kidding. All are mediocre ghost yarns made with the belief that Thai audiences need a weekly fix of lame and unworthy fear.

Surprisingly, the films that earned critical praise during 2007 were love stories, a much-maligned genre that has been relegated to the back seat for many years. In April we saw Kor Hai Rak Jong Charoen (Me ... Myself), which stars Ananda Everingham as a cabaret transsexual who's lost her memory and falls in love with a woman. In June, Pen-ek Ratanaruang released his sixth feature, Ploy, a marital drama taking place largely in a hotel room (the erotic scenes were trimmed by censors). And in November, Siam Square turned bright pink with Chukiat Sakweerakul's Rak Haeng Siam (The Love of Siam), a warm-hearted family drama that became a sensation with viewers of all ages. Kor Hai Rak Jong Charoen, Ploy and Rak Haeng Siam didn't earn phenomenal amounts at the box-office, but just enough to put a smile on their investors' faces.

Over with the independents, the most shocking news of 2007 was director Apichatpong Weerasethakul cancelling the release of his film Saeng Satawat (Syndromes and a Century) following the censor board's demand for him to cut four seemingly innocuous scenes. The incident led to a passionate, industry-wide campaign by film-makers to pressure the government to abolish censorship and to introduce a ratings system in the new Film Act. As of now, the bill is still stuck in the National Legislative Assembly.
`Goey Ther Gay'.
`Ma-Mar See Kha krub'.
`Rak Haeng Siam'.
`Mail Narok Muay Yok Lor'



James Ruengsak.

It doesn't suffice to say time flies nowadays! It seems as if the winged beast has gained turbo speed of late, and 2007 has gone faster than Speedy Gonzalez can say "A{aac}ndale! A{aac}ndale! Arriba! Arriba!"

So what was going on in the world of music during the year of the pig? Oink, Oink, there ain't much to talk about if I'm to be completely honest with you. The past year feels dry and stagnant, like an old lady's unmoisturised feet. Things aren't getting any better, but they haven't got yet any worse either. However, whether you want to know or not I've mustered up a couple of points worth noting. Well, one can only hope!

To start with, digital purchasing of music content looks to be on the up, up and up, while hard copy sales are going nowhere but down. Earlier this year, mega-label Grammy GMM stated their intention to delve into digital sales, and it looks like they're going full steam ahead with it. While local music content can be easily bought online (thanks also to cheap local Internet), iTunes still hasn't established itself on these shores, frustrating those who want to venture beyond the realm of Golf/Mike. Still, CDs won't be completely obsolete for there remain a rare breed who treasure meticulous sound quality and inspiring artwork.

The unavailability of iTunes brings to mind the unceremonious closure of EMI Thailand. Now it'll be even harder to get hold of quality Western music, pushing music lovers closer to illegal downloading. But maybe some big international bands will follow in the footsteps of Radiohead who released their newest album, In Rainbows, online. With no connection to any label _ indie or mainstream _ the luminaries bravely announced that their album was available for downloading at whatever price people wanted to pay (diehard fans can order a box set). It's said that so far Radiohead has earned an average of $7 (212 baht) from each album sold, and, ladies and gents, that's a lot of money considering the absence of middlemen means the band are pocketing every cent. Then again, this model might only work for Radiohead, whose massive, loyal fan base will eat up anything thrown their way and who command the kind of respect only one or two other active groups can match.

Thanachai Ujjin and Boyd Kosiyabong.

On the subject of downloading, True Music's aggressive marketing efforts can't go unnoticed. They are now tied in with True Visions (aka, UBC), which means that whoever they're paying big bucks to will be shown at almost every single break between TV shows. The annoying tunesmiths du jour are none other than BoydPod _ a sappy collaboration between Boyd Kosiyabong and Thanachai "Pod Moderndog" Ujjin. Why this duo thinks broadcasting their music on constant repeat will create longstanding admiration is beyond me. Also frustrating is that their album, Bittersweet, is only available for downloading to people connected to True Move. It will be released on CD one year from now. So who's left stranded? Record sellers who rely on hits to make ends meet. However, my biggest peeve of all with this project is the quality of the music and its marketing pretence, which almost drives me to smash in my not-yet-paid-off television set.

Moving from one example of corniness to another, the Korean tide keeps on getting stronger (kimchi is now even available in 7/11). There seems to be hordes of Korean popsters visiting the Kingdom each month, and they're on the said TV every time I flick it on. The list is no longer limited to Rain, 7even or TVXQ for the Koreans, savvy marketers that they are, know that Thailand holds strong commercial possibilities for them. But don't be disheartened, patriots, for Thai poptarts are now making their way into Korean and Japanese girls' hearts, too. Ice Sarunyu, James Ruengsak and Khun are a few of the names that are reportedly doing well in Korea and Japan.

Taking its cue from the K-pop invasion, the Thai hit making machine was hard at work this year producing J-pop and K-pop lookalikes that replaced sex kitten girl groups and buffed up boy bands. Cute seems to be the key word this year, and with the right amount of idiosyncrasy it can take you a long way in this country. The major players have no qualms about churning out one manufactured star after another; in fact they seem to operate on a "one success out of 10 is worthwhile" basis. So today's stars have a shorter shelf life and quantity prevails _ a trend that is likely to continue through the next year.

Hip hop finally has reached its use-by date (hip hip hooray!). Only the true players like Thaitanium or Gancore Club will remain in the spotlight. Even RCA hip hop clubs look like they're about to wilt as the supply of bling-oriented tunes from the West becomes too mainstream and overwhelming.

So if hip hop is out, what's in? Let me pause for a deep breath here ... and advise you to brace yourself for the rise of emo rock. Right. The continuing popularity of this once underground movement manifests itself in major labels signing bands like Retrospect, Harem Belle and Sweet Mullet, among others. Leading the charge is Retrospect whose devoted fan base have christened themselves "Retrolians". Nice one, kids.

I am, however, happy to report that lukthung, Isan-style big band Pong Lang Sa On are doing very well. The scrumptious act are being booked left, right and centre due to their adorable sense of humour and showmanship. Emulating such success is P Saderd, who is probably raking in more income than that of 10 indie poster bands combined. Another genre to watch is Southern lukthung acts in the vein of Boa Wee and Bew Kulayanee.

Who knows, but maybe the future of Thai music lies the hands and the hips of these lukthung superstars? Lets just pray they don't end up on True Visions every time we look.
Academy Fantasia 4.
Pong Lang Sa On.



Is Bangkok still a city that doesn't sleep? Sadly, a big "No" is the answer. We sleep aplenty when closing times are still strictly enforced and after hour venues are too lame to waste energy on.

But some will attest that Bangkok's major concert draws of this year have been a little better than last. Big name performers like Linkin Park, Beyonce', Black Eyed Peas, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Rain, TVXQ and Megadeth, among others, stormed into town for sold out, highly priced performances. Of that bunch, Beyonce' was the most rewarding. However, it should be noted that it is a scary state of affairs when only high profile performers can lure concert-goers from their homes. Visits to the Kingdom by smaller acts are becoming more and more rare. Aside from shows by Funeral for a Friend and To My Boy, along with some hardcore acts, those uninterested in the likes of Black Eyed Peas are finding less that pleases.

But then, who's to blame? Bringing in international artists requires strong sponsorship, and sponsors are looking to back a sure thing promising a huge turnout, not boost their credibility as artistic patrons.

Linkin Park.

It's a vicious cycle, really. Non mainstream promoters can rarely draw big budget sponsorship for artists with limited exposure, a situation compounded by sponsors' general ignorance and inability to appreciate the appeal of avant garde performers. When the promoters do manage to secure the funds to fly such artists in, the public's lack of enthusiasm and restricted media support presents entirely new challenges. To nurture more alternative events, there should be a balance between all parties involved. The sponsors must be more open minded and trusting while promoters must not be too obscure in their selections. Also, the public need to become more responsive and willing to experiment with not-so-big-name aritsts.

Concerts by local performers are influenced by two major labels that both have offshoots that handle gigs. Such concerts are mainly by in-demand artists such as Bodyslam, Carabao, Golf/Mike, Mai Charoenpura and Marsha, among others. But with some artists today gaining recognition with a reduced measure of star power, concert organisers have come up with an alternative way to present them whereby groups of performers are showcased according to a "theme". Academy Fantasia is rather good at this. Organisers of such concerts use various, generally fatuous themes, to pull together their charges' barely existing talents.

Makhampom Theatre Group's Bangkok venue, Makhampom Studio.

On a separate note, nostalgia concerts seem to be on the decline now that most '80's artists have been recycled, reused and re-abused by the money making machine to the point where their appeal is gone.

On the festival scene, jazz festivals are the most successful due to their non-discriminatory and laid back nature.

The annual indie-to-mainstream music get together, Fat Festival, was rather disappointing this year with the same old artist rotation and a lack of emerging talent. Using the same venue for the second time ever, Fat Festival became too comfortable and familiar, while their "Auntie A" theme was seen as nonsense.

French cultural festival, La Fete, presented all things French, and this year they deserve applause for bringing the internationally respected Joakim, even though their live band choices were too offbeat for anyone to pay attention.

CentralWorld's Melody of Life gave a platform to local artists, especially those from the Spicy Disc label. Tahiti 80 were one of the artists to perform at Melody of Life, although they didn't really deliver.

Gwen Stefani.

The Love Is showcase at Khoa Yai's Bonanza resort this month drew in around 20,000 punters and hosted over 100 artists. However, I wasn't there as I have nil interest in humdrum music and pointless sentimentality. All right, all right, I'll own up that without a sweetheart, the prospect of holding one's own hand on the cold mountain while being serenaded by romantic love songs was just too grim. Still, there have been testaments all over the Internet and by word of mouth on how badly organised the event was and how greedy organisers were, selling more tickets than capacity allowed. Not that those who profited are likely to pay much heed; with reportedly 18,000 tickets sold at 1,500 baht each, plus the money from sponsorship, you do the maths.

Hopefully, one event that will be better managed is the upcoming Culture One International Dance Music Festival on January 19 (, which will feature four club music zones with deejays from the UK to Ibiza.

Speaking of clubs, a powerful new kid on the block is 808. Replacing the old Club Astra on RCA, 808 bills itself as a full on nightclub with international deejays taking turns to drive the crowd crazy. The venue will wrestle with Club Culture for the clubland throne, yet I have to admit that I don't really care who wins. The more choices, the merrier I will be!

We reported last year that club nights were mushrooming, and 2007 has proved that only the real deal can outstay the rest. Some have come and gone while old hands stay afloat, wishing newer nights the best of luck. But as these nights share the same revellers, it will take more and more energy and creativity to pack a crowd.

Best of luck, then!


`Fah Jarod Sai'.
Makhampom Theatre Group's Bangkok venue, Makhampom Studio.
`Banlang Mek'.

It was a busy year on Thailand's performing arts scene. With the sprouting of new performing spaces, the atmosphere has grown more bustling as theatre-related activities are spreading into different parts of the city and becoming more regular.

Juggernaut Scenario, whose Muang Thai Rachadalai Theatre raised its curtain in May, created one commercial buzz after another with one play (Luk Khun Luang) and two large-scale musicals (Fah Jarod Sai and the revival of Banlang Mek), all of which had extended runs. A champion and emulator of West End/Broadway musicals, Scenario founder Takonkiet Viravan also gave Bangkok a taste of Western commercial theatre by bringing over the popular but long-closed West End musical Cats, which was produced by Andrew Lloyd Weber's Really Useful Company Asia Pacific.

At the other end of the spectrum, the new venues of struggling theatre companies - unofficially called "Off-Rachadalai" - like the Makhampom Theatre Group's Makhampom Studio and Crescent Moon Theatre's Crescent Moon Space - have been consistently providing venues for other small companies, and for low-budget original works by young theatre practitioners and foreign artists residing in Thailand. These have helped unearth previously untapped resources as their simple qualities offer an approachable and inexpensive start for small-time artists.

Pradit Prasartthong of Makhampom reported that the audiences they have been attracting have exceeded expectations in terms of numbers, diversity and new faces. Furthermore, the majority of the performances were followed by interactions between the artists and the audience.

`AF the Musical: Ngern Ngern Ngern'.

The use of such smaller venues, which will continue to mushroom as other troupes are in the process of hunting for their own spaces, may be an important vehicle for the expansion of the six-year-old Bangkok Theatre Festival (BTF), whose activities remain largely concentrated in the Bang Lamphu area.

However, do the packed houses at the Rachadalai Theatre and the emergence of pint-sized venues necessarily translate to a richer theatrical culture? After all, the productions that had the people storming into theatres this year were, in one way or another, TV soaps under a proscenium arch. This includes all of Scenario's creations, reality TV-turned-musical/concert AF the Musical: Ngern Ngern Ngern and TV production company Workpoint Entertainment's first play, Chai Klang. All of them were produced by giants of the mass media. All of them had celebrity participants that guaranteed an army of screaming fans, if not theatre-lovers, in the audience.

Even the BTF, some critics believe, only attracts regular theatre-goers, which is not saying much, and the friends of actors and directors. This year, the organisers believed the festival saw a large increase in the attendance of high school and university students, mainly due to the festival's experimental zone that allowed the staging of student and untested works. If the theatre scene is lucky, these youngsters will continue to be theatre-goers after their opening nights, and not just eager witnesses to their friends' 15 minutes of fame.

What remains worrisome in the playwriting field is that the stories that dominate the big stages still haven't moved beyond the popular soap operas and romance novels of yesteryear, some of which have been endlessly made and remade into TV dramas and films, including Banlang Mek, Fah Jarod Sai and Dreambox's revival of Khu Kham: The Musical, with hardly a new spin attempted in the stage retellings. This may be a reflection of the timelessness and mass appeal of these stories, but also of a viewing culture that remains largely stagnant.

More worthwhile adapted works could be seen in Damkerng Thitapiyasak's Gon Rak Game Love (from David Hare's Blue Room) and Ta Doo Dao Tao Yiab Ther (from Roland Schimmelpfennig's Push Up 1-2-3). The director-cum-TV scriptwriter did a fair job of fashioning the plays into stories more identifiable with contemporary Thai relationships.

Another noteworthy adaptation was Naked Masks' refreshing take on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Underscored with Beatles' tunes, and renamed When I Slept Over the Night of the Revolution, the Thai-language production brought a new spirit and accessibility to the bard's play.

There are glimpses of hope in the original works arena. The most notable were the plays by 8x8 Theatre Group. Writer/director Nikorn Saetang staged the insightful and memorable Rai Pum Nak (Where Should I Lay My Soul?), about a Japanese soldier's ghost's search for the spirit of his friend who refuses to return to the Yakusuni war shrine. The group's collaboration with mime troupe Baby Mime in Giant, about demon statues who flee tourist sites to inhabit human hearts, made them the first winner of this year's BTF Best Play award.

There are some interesting line-ups for next year when we will see a number of new plays and musicals staged. And so far, there's no news of more tiresome revivals.
`Gon Rak Game Love'.
`Khu Kham: The Musical'.

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