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Realtime >> Friday May 30, 2008

At the Cannes Film Market, Thai action and horror films generated much enthusiasm among international distributors. But are we being trapped by a self-made stereotype?


When non-Thai audiences think of Thai cinema, the genres that flash through their minds are action and horror. Fist-flying boxers and half-rotten corpses have become the icons of contemporary Siamese film, just like temples and elephants (among other things) have become the de facto image of the country as a whole. In the popular consciousness of international viewers, Thai movies exhibit almost inimitable strength through raw, often inventive, action sequences and hair-raising set pieces featuring extremely angry ghosts.

At the 61st Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up last Sunday, no Thai movies were picked to screen in the prestigious Official Selection. But in the Film Market, the trade side of this influential cinefest where studios and film distributors from all over the world gather to buy and sell movies, a few Thai films captured their fair share of buzz.

If Cannes is any indicator, Siamese cinema in general has yet to acquire a gleam of artistic lustre, but Thai studios sure know how to go about the business side of things. And yes, spearheading the charge of Thai movies abroad are our current crop of muay Thai and ghost films.

The film that generated the loudest oohs and aahs in the Film Market was Ong-bak 2, a sequel to the global sensation that helped kick-start enthusiasm for neo-martial arts films in 2002. Ong-bak 2 is still in production, but its two-minute trailer showing its star/director Panom "Tony Jaa" Yeerum brawling his way through a horde of bloodthirsty ancient warriors was enough to convince a number of drop-jawed foreign distributors to ink a contract.

"We've closed a couple of good deals based on this trailer," said Gilbert Lim, executive vice president of Sahamongkol Film Intl. "The film is not finished yet, but the buyers were excited when they saw the clip.

"At first they were a bit sceptical because Ong-bak 2 is a period film, so the production values had to be really good. But when they saw the trailer they were relieved. In Cannes we've made deals with a few territories and we're negotiating with American buyers."

Lim didn't reveal any figures, but said that his company is confident in the quality of the finished product and asking for "huge money" from international buyers.

While Ong-bak 2 was beating its chest proudly as the hero on the action-film front, there were other significant players in the ghost genre. GTH, another diligent Thai studio, said they could pre-sell their new still-in-production ghost story called Coming Soon based on nothing more than a poster and a 10-line synopsis. The studio also did good business in Cannes with their two other horror flicks, 4bia, a four-way ensemble that was released in Thailand last month and pulled in a hefty 70 million baht, and The Body, a visually arresting movie that opened last year to less success.

Another unexpected development came from Five Star Production. The studio revealed that it has struck a deal to sell the remake rights for its black-magic horror Art of the Devil (the Thai title is Lhong Khong) to a production company associated with Paramount Pictures. Art of the Devil is a three-movie franchise, with the latest sequel coming out in Thailand last month and raking in a significant 55 million baht. The three films hang their shock tactics on the occult, rural voodooism and sometimes bloody, slightly yucky deaths. It'll be interesting to see how Hollywood attempts to transform the story, with its strong Southeast Asian supernaturalism, into a mainstream, mass-marketable product.

"We've been in negotiations with our partner since last year, but the deal was delayed by the Hollywood writers' strike," said Five Star executive Apiradee Eiam-phungporn. "The remake will be based on the theme of black magic - the key visual that got their interest was the scars and tattoos on the characters' bodies. The scriptwriters will work from that."

Five Star also sold Soul's Code, a ghost film that was a flop in Thailand, to many territories, especially in South America (including such small markets as Bolivia), a region that seems to have developed a thirst for Thai horrors. Besides ghost films, the studio has also been pushing a boxing/gangster film, Muay-Thai Chaiya, to a decent response.

It's important to note, of course, that when foreign buyers purchase a movie's rights, they do not always release the film in theatres. In many cases they put the title directly into the DVD market in their countries.

But whether for multiplexes or for discs, Thai film studios have been actively selling their wares at Cannes for at least five years, and in the case of Sahamongkol, almost 10 years. Even though the domestic market remains the focus of Thai movie producers, they admit that the "bonus" from international distribution is too attractive to ignore, despite the weak dollar.

All the major studios mentioned above rented space and set up temporary offices in the Palais des Festivals, where the Film Market took place over 10 days, and this year the Department of Export Promotion, under the Ministry of Commerce, also rented space and allowed smaller studios to use it for free.

All studio executives agree that the action/horror banner is casting commercial Thai films into a fixed stereotype and could ultimately limit international prospects. Comedy, which is a mainstay for Thai audiences, has narrow potential for non-Thai viewers since the less-than-universal wit of our home-grown jokes can hardly be expected to transcend borders. And our scriptwriters have yet to come up with good thrillers, or suspense movies, or love stories to win the confidence of international distributors, like the Koreans are doing. This discounts a few Thai "brand name" directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Wisit Sasanatieng, whose films have loyal, if limited, followers around the world.

"We can't deny that we are a genre-driven country," said Lim from Sahamongkol. "But yes, we're aware that to make only action films will become our stigma; we need more variety. But still, foreign viewers have a specific expectation when they look for Thai films, and we have to keep that in mind."

A fresh case study is Nonzee Nimibutr's new historical/fantasy epic Queen of Langkasuka. The movie, which will open in Thailand in August, had two market screenings in Cannes to a mixed response. Some people liked it, others weren't so impressed. Neither a ghost film nor an all-out action saga, this film, which cost over 140 million baht to make and features large-scale sea battles, pirate attacks and underwater sorcery, failed to stimulate immediate interest from foreign buyers, even though most of them acknowledged that it is ambitious and has business potential. A reviewer in Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film will have to persuade buyers that a movie from Thailand can be interesting, even when it has nothing to do with "ghosts or muay Thai". Its length is another issue: At the moment Queen of Langasuka is 140 minutes long, and the studio is considering an "international version" that will be at least 20 minutes shorter.

Other obvious examples include Suriyothai and the King Naresuan movies, which were phenomenal hits in Thailand but hardly travelled internationally despite their merit as cultural and historical curiosities. Meanwhile, a period film with fierce, intense action elements like Bang Rajan remains one of the best-known Thai films among non-Thai viewers. In fact, the focus on action set pieces has got to the point where hardly any foreign buyers care about the storyline of Ong-bak 2 as long as the fight scenes are eye-popping.

So, while studios are enjoying the rush of attention, they are also conscious of the possibility of burnout. The dilemma is not easy to solve, but we can't afford to ignore it if we still harbour the ambition of upgrading Thai cinema to become an economic cash-cow in the same way that Japan and Korea have managed. "We know this popularity of action and horror films won't last forever," said Lim. "In the end, I think it depends on the quality of our movies. If we make good films, no matter what genre they are, people will come to us anyway."

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