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Bangkok Post : Laughing all the way to the bank

Arts & Culture > Film

Laughing all the way to the bank

Rerkchai Puangpetch has directed a series of nonsensical comedyfilms that have raked in the big money

Rerkchai Puangpetch knows a compliment from a slur, or a flower from a brick. Say, when someone calls his movies a load of nonsense - let's just stop at the printable "nonsense" - the director of several box-office bonanzas takes it in his stride. "Nonsense is a compliment," the 41-year-old director says with a smile. "Only when people say my films are serious, then I know I must have done something wrong. Only then will I start worrying."

So far, so nonsensical; it's like finding a needle in a monstrous haystack looking for someone who says Rerkchai's films are serious, even slightly serious. Rerkchai's latest opus, Sudkhet Salade-Pet - a non-translatable title that gives the wardens of the Thai language an itch - has become the first film in 2011 to hit the 100-million-baht milestone. The movie, a romantic farce starring a pop singer and popular TV clowns who function as the butts of many jokes, was released on December 30, and over the first two weeks you would need a booking or risk the ordeal of having to crane your neck from the front row.

Critics, as usual, are not moved, not in the least, but that doesn't seem to matter since Rerkchai took his film, as usual, on a march towards fortune and confirmed the reality of the film-going habit of our local audience.

Maybe Rerkchai knows something we all don't about the habits of local audiences, because investment-wise, his record is near stellar. Rerkchai's first movie in 2005, Payak Rai Sai Na (literally, "the rogues who shake their faces") made 75 million baht. His next film, Saab Sanit Sit Sai Na (a boxing flick whose title plays with his signature phrase, "shaking faces") booted up to the 100 million baht mark. In 2007, he made Pong Lang Sading Lamsing Sai Na, a comedy starring a band of farce-loving folk singers in weird costumes, and scored another 75 million baht. His least successful film, Hod Na Hiew ("wrinkle-faced rogues") still racked up 50 million. In late 2009 he took 32 December, a romantic comedy, to 101 million baht, and the latest Sudket Salade-Pet (the official English title, a toned-down version of the Thai slang coinage, is Loser Love) is cruising towards 100 million baht in receipts.

Each of these movies cost his investors around 20 million baht, though judging from the way they look - the basic setting and cinematography, plus the shadowless sit-com lighting that leaves much to be desired - you'd be forgiven for believing they cost even less than that.

"I had no idea how to make a movie when I made my first film," Rerkchai says, a confession rather than false modesty. "I had no idea how the image and the sound go together, and I needed all my assistants to help me make it work. I didn't even plan to direct the first film, Payak Rai Sai Na; I just went with these comedians to ask for funding from a studio and when they actually gave it to us ... someone had to direct the thing. The job fell on me, just like that."

Rerkchai in person is not a walking gagsmith who spews jokes like cheap fireworks - like his comedy actors often do in movies.

A graduate of Srinakarinviroj University's Visual Art Department, Rerkchai's heart has never been exactly in art; rather, he's a devoted aficionado of Thai-style comedy acts, the kind of quick-witted tomfoolery, lowbrow horseplay, physical jokes and racy pranks performed by born-to-be professionals with names like Der, Du, Dee, Thep and, later in the 1990s, the famous Mum Jokmok, Kohtee, Teng Terdterng, Kom Chuancheun, and more.

Fifteen years ago, Rerkchai compulsively went to see these funnymen perform live at nightclubs on Rama IX Road or Phetchaburi Road, before the heyday of nightly comedy shows fizzled out. At that time, "cafe comedians" - as these pros are called - began a mass migration to TV and cinema screens, with apparent success as Thais continued to need a fix of laughter like it was a drug. Their paths crossed when Rerkchai, who worked for a comic-book publisher after finishing school, became a television producer of a show that featured comedy acts as part of its attractions. Soon Rerkchai enlisted a squad of comedians _ Jaturong Jokmok, Kom Chuanchuen, Thep Pho-nagm, among others _ and made his cinema debut.

''I still don't know exactly why my films made money,'' says Rerkchai. ''After the first two, three films scored big, people tried to deconstruct their components and explained their success in a kind of equation. Is it because I have at least five comedians in them? Is it because I have at least one good-looking star? But I don't think there's any equation. I just make films the way I like, and I'm lucky that the audience likes the same thing.

''Ok, out of 100%, luck accounts for probably 40% of my film's success,'' Rerkchai says, not jokingly. ''Twenty percent is the nature of Thai audience who always loves comedy, and the other 40% is the work from me and my team. Maybe that's the only equation.''

For Rerkchai, Thai comedy is a form of national treasure, a cultural expression that distills our collective creativity and resilience. We can see its roots, he believes, in traditional performances such as lamtad or folk songs, in which witticisms mix sublimely with street humour and semantic manipulation. ''In the West they have stand-up comedy, here we have our own kind of jokers,'' he says. ''You used to see them in nightclubs, and now you see then on the screen. No, they're not as sharp as before because in nightclubs they performed every night and they became so fluent. Now it's no longer like that.''

Jokers as a national treasure, that's not far-fetched, since one of the most famous Thai comedias, Lortok, was named a National Artist late in his life. What's still bugging Rerkchai, and other observers, is the fact that while American, Japanese or Chinese comedians succeed in crossing over and making their jokes universal, the appeal of Thai buffoons are limited within the boundary of our frontiers and culture. Jim Carrey is comical to Americans and Thais, while Stephen Chow's antics are internationally well-known. Even Japanese TV shows feature comedians who're popular among fans outside Japan.

A scene from ‘Sudkhet Salade-Pet’.

Thai jokes run into a wall at subtitles, lost in translation, as exemplified by the non-translatable titles of Rerkchai's films, and by the fact that while Thai action and ghost films can be sold internationally, our comedy films have slim prospects in the world market.''It's possible that we can cross over,'' he says. ''Studios just have to be ready to invest a lot of money in comedy films, just like they do with action films. Look at Stephen Chow _ his films are huge and have good production values, and that lifts the image of comedy films.

''But most of all, to cross over, we need to stay true to ourselves. We can't try to make an 'international joke' _ we just have to keep making Thai jokes, our jokes, and push them. Our jokers have a unique appeal _ the physical pranks and the precise rhythm of each gag _ and if you promote that, it's possible that one day it'll cross over.''

That one day seems like many days away. In the meantime, Rerkchai is set on honing his skills (and, preferrably hopefully, his production values). On the road to comedic supremacy, Rerkchai admits that the evolution of Thai comedy means the gags have at times got meaner _ it's a practice that every joke requires a victim, the butt that triggers the laughter. But when the gags strays into insensitivity, like when dark-skinned people get mocked and victimized, or unattractive women bear the brunt of savage disdain _ some of these happen in Rerkchai's popular movies _ it risks setting a norm and familiarising the audience with this kind of disguised cruelty. And indeed a number of recent Thai comedy films seem to rely heavily on these jokes that push the insensivitiy button.

''I'm aware of that,'' says Rerkchai. ''In a film if you're too careful, then you risk being unfunny. But if you go too far, say if you mock disabled people, then you cross the line. And sometimes that line is fuzzy. Say, if we mock an unattractive woman, like we do in Sudkhet Salade-Pet, at least we have to find an exit for her situation, like when the film concludes that looks aren't everything in life. I know this and I try not to cross the line. It's bad to come across as insensitive, even in a comedy.''

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About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Real Time Reporter

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