From Bangkok to Cannes

Vithaya Pansringarm, Panya Yimmumphai and Pornchanok Mabklang on Cannes Red Carpet. (© F. Silvestre De Sacy / Festival de Cannes photo)

CANNES – It was a startling sight on the red carpet of Cannes Film Festival late Friday night: A Thai actor covered from head to toes with tattoos, only inches of his body left un-inked, sauntered down the tapis rouge to shake hand with the festival’s artistic director. Keng Laiprang — stage name of a Punya Yimaumpai, ex-convict and internet idol — walked the famous steps of Cannes as part of the French film A Prayer Before Dawn. With him were two other Thai actors starring in the film, Vithaya Pansringarm and Pornchanok Mabklang, and the film’s director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire as well as the lead British actor Joe Cole.

A Prayer Before Dawn is an unflinching look at the hellhole of Thai prison, a true-story account of addiction, violence and redemption based on a memoir by ex-convict William Moore.  We will discuss the film in a separate article, but here it’s worth taking note at Keng’s presence at Cannes’ midnight screening late Friday night, which lit up Thai social media a few hours after first photographs went around.

The question is: Who is this man covered in tattoos, always in dark glasses and looking, honestly, like a chief hooligan? To walk down the Cannes red carpet in an official screening is a lifetime dream for most actors — a dream not many can achieve — and now we have this man, with little experience in acting and unknown to many, doing just that with aplomb.

Keng spent 14 years behind bar for attempted murder. Last year he was in the news for drug possession. But online, he’s a formidable presence: a badass personality with millions of followers on Facebook. An unlikely style icon and eccentric influence, he reportedly makes millions from selling cosmetics to his fan base, and he sometimes stars in small roles in Thai movies, exploiting his rough, fearsome look to good effects.

After the pictures from Cannes went around, responses came pouring in. Most people praised him for representing Thailand in a movie selected in the prestigious Official Selection; others, not unpredictably, looked down on his “disrespectable” looks and questioned the film for promoting the dark side of Thailand (the film was shot with approval from Thailand Film Office).

After the screening on Friday night, Keng was seen crying as the audience gave the cast and crew a standing ovation. On his Facebook, he regularly updated his Cannes activities which received thousands of “likes”. In one, he wrote: “Thank you, destiny, for having brought me to this point,” referring to his Cannes presence. In another, he posed his latest purchases from Cannes’ luxury store: a fancy belt and a pair of of Gucci shoes.

In an interview with the Bangkok Post, director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire said that he came to Thailand to cast the film by talking to several prison convicts. One of them showed him a list of his Facebook friends, which is mostly ex-prisoners, and Keng was one of them. Sauvaire met Keng and cast him in the film.

His role is small but recognisable, but never mind. Now the man with the thousand tattoos is basking in the Cannes limelight, a strange victory for someone who once went through the hell of Thai jail.