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Bangkok Post : Low-brow LAUGHS and sensational SCARES

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Entertainment » Entertainment Scoop

Low-brow LAUGHS and sensational SCARES

With major Thai movies targeting international fame, one proudly low-key studio, nicknamed a 'hillbilly hotshot', is keeping things deliberately local

By: Story KONG RITHDEE
Published: 16/01/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Realtime

Phranakorn Film makes movies whose titles can hardly be translated into English without frowns or titters. Phee Chong Air (''Ghost in the Air-Con Shaft''); Phee Liang Luke Khon (''Ghost Who Brings Up a Human Baby''); Luke Talok Tok Mai Klai Ton (''Children of Comedians are Like Comedians''); Yern, Pe, Lae, Se Ma Ku Te (''The Bucked-Toothed, the Crippled, the Cross-Eyed, If You Don't Walk Straight I'll Kick You''); Krob Krua Tua Dam (''Black Family'' _ starring Thai actors in black face); Khon Horn Kee Ruan (''A Werewolf That's Also a Mangy Dog''). There's also a title that threatens to defy Romanisation _ and nobody's really sure if it even has a meaning in Thai: Duk Dum Dui, or something like that.

These low-budget outputs from the self-described ''provincial studio'' were often scorned (even mocked) by reviews and sections of downtown audience, who find them low-brow, tasteless and idiotic. On its part, Phranakorn Film takes criticism in stride and good faith. ''The films simply reflect our identity,'' says Thawatchai Phanpakdee, general manager of Phranakorn Film.

''I think it's like food: Some people like spaghetti, some people prefer

[local recipe] nam prik platu. We're good at making nam prik platu and we still have regular customers, so, well, we're happy to make it.''

Actually, a lot of people like nam prik platu, and at the time when Thai movies have assumed a cool, urban personality and got carried away by the prospects of international fame, Phranakorn Film has become a specialist in what we may term Village Escapist Cinema: unsophisticated, unpretentious, B-quality and _ there's no way round it _ low-brow farces and sensational ghost films. Often, they decide to mix the two genres and give us a potent alchemy of sensational, farcical ghost slapstick, whose signature scene involves a large number of people running away from a badly-made-up ghost, which may sound fundamentally insane but is in truth hugely profitable.

Phranakorn Film's first movie in 2001 was Pee Hua Kad (''The Headless Ghost'') _ whose colourful poster shows a headless man on a buffalo holding his own severed head _ and to everybody's surprise, especially the producer's, the film, which features over 40 TV comedians, made 75 million baht and was the year's top grosser. In 2005, the studio released Luang Pee Teng (''Monk Teng''), a low-key comedy about a village ruffian who changes his ways and becomes a revered monk, and it snubbed its detractors by raking in a spectacular 145 million baht. Pundits continue to debate whether the film is really that funny, but the fact is that Luang Pee Teng is in the top six of all-time most financially successful Thai productions.

Last year, Phranakorn Film stole the headline again with Luang Pee Teng 2, another tickler about a young monk who's also an expert rapper (hip hop star Joey Boy leads the cast). Dismissed as simply more buffoonery, the movie cruised under the radar of most mainstream media and eventually made a hefty 80 million baht, the second-highest of all Thai films in 2008. It was surpassed only by the juggernaut of Ong-Bak 2.

''We have flops too, usually when we made action movies,'' says Thawatchai, with a smile. ''But we're confident that if we make comedy or horror films, we hardly ever miss. We know what the audience _ not the city, but those in the suburbs and in the provinces _ wants to see. People criticise us for continuing to make what look like low-end products, but we're good at it, and there's a market for it. So, well, we're not ashamed of what we've been doing.''

Indeed they should not be. In truth, the steady success of Phranakorn Film in the past eight years charts the complex reality and demographic structure of Thai audiences, which in many ways intertwine with economic status. While most film studios upgrade their productions and ''taste'' to fit the more urbanised, increasingly middle-class crowds in Bangkok and big cities, Phranakorn Film's output captures the provincial, ''less demanding'', followers who want their movies to be nothing more than a two-hour mindless escapade. Phranakorn Film may make cheap movies that would never make it to international film festivals, but arguably it makes those movies with a certain pride and innocence. Titles like ''Monk Teng'' and ''Ghost That Brings Up a Human Baby'', if nothing else, are the type of movies that reflect the time and place and attitude of the country that produces them.

Simply put, Phranakorn Film saw the gap that needed to be filled. The studio belongs to the Thanarungroj family _ of which GM Thawatchai has been a

Thawatchai Phanpakdee: β€˜β€˜The movies we make reflect our identity.’’

lieutenant for over 20 years. The Thanarungroj clan has over the past three decades built a mini empire in the central and northern regions, originally from their de facto monopoly of the rights to distribute all Thai films in those two parts of the country - this is a deal that was struck decades ago and everybody still sticks to it. The family also owns 40 multiplexes in the provinces, mainly in the central plains. To bring their business full cycle - from production to distribution - eight years ago the big bosses decided to set up Phranakorn Film.

"They call us 'the hillbilly hotshot', 'the backwoods producer', but we don't mind that," says Thawatchai, a lively man in stylish glasses. "It's true that we know what the viewers in the provinces want to see, because we've known them for 30 years. In the old days I would travel to temple fairs and school fairs in a remote district to supervise the screenings of outdoor films; I would tour the backwoods for months to show movies and collect the share. That's why we can see things from the ground level, as the viewers do, and that's why we can make films that fit with their taste. If we're a hillbilly, well, that's who we are!

"Movies by Phranakorn Film don't make much money in central Bangkok," continues Thawatchai. "We collect very little from, say, cineplexes around Siam Square and Ratchaprasong, because the audience prefers other stuff. But our movies do extremely well in Bang Kae, Bang Phli, Rama II, Ngam Wong Wan, Rangsit, all the way to Pathum Thani and Nakhon Pathom and further up - in those areas we are very, very strong. Our audience is [made up of] factory workers, vendors, guards, taxi drivers, and also office workers looking for something simple and fun."

In Luang Pee Teng 2, there's a scene of a monk being swept up the air by a heavy storm and landing on top of a coconut tree. He then wraps himself around the trunk and slithers down, in a Chaplin-esque comic stunt that's probably wilder than anything Chaplin ever did. There's also a scene, more hilarious than traumatic, of a monk being chased by a crocodile. And of course, the MC monk mixes rapping in his sermons.

"When we did those pranks, we consulted respected monks and officials from the Religious Department, and they suggested to us what would be inappropriate," says Thawatchai, adding that the subject of monks remains popular because the audience can relate to it easily.

"But of course we want to show that we can do more serious stuff; we just released Patiharn Rak Tangpan (Deep in the Jungle), a story of supernatural love, though it's not very successful. We realise that with the economy slumping, people think more about what they want to see in the cinema. Shall they spend 120 baht, or shall they wait for the DVD? Comedy and horror films remain the most bankable, because people know what they'll get. They don't even expect a good production; they just want to have a good time."

Yet when observers deride the mediocrity of Thai films - the feast of idiocy and regressive tendency to keep doing the same stuff over and over again - those complaints, though not specifically, seem to target the kind of pictures preferred by Phranakorn Fim. Again, this testifies to the disparate impulses of the film industry that struggles to improve quality and international acceptance on the one hand, and is aware of the reality of local moviegoers on the other. Phranakorn Film, in short, sometimes produces trash, but isn't trash necessary in keeping the wheel turning?

"Film is commerce, but of course we're aware that film can be beautiful and touching - it can be art," says Thawatchai.

"What our studio does is like what luk thoong [country] music does; we cater to a different market, a different taste. We put effort and hard work into every film, like the mainstream studios do. But what we cook has a different flavour, and we believe it's still a good flavour that a lot of people still enjoy."

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