Smuggling Thai culture by film

The opening ceremony of the Thai Film Festival, at the Shanghai International Film Festival, in Shanghai, last Saturday. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

A group of Chinese fans of Thai actress Davika Hoorne shouted her nickname — “Mai! Mai!” — as she slowly walked out from the gate at the arrivals hall of Shanghai International Airport. They had prepared bouquets of colourful flowers and a large bunch of 999 red roses for the admired star of Phi Mak Phrakanong and 20 Mai U-Turn Wai Huai Jai Return (Suddenly Twenty).

Not far from her was another group, from the Chinese fan club of Nittha “Mew” Jirayungyurn. They too had flowers, LED nameplates in heart shapes and a poster showing her portraits. Mew’s fan club trailed her to the car park.

The Thai celebrities, attending the Shanghai Film Festival (SIFF) last weekend, had broad smiles on their faces. They didn’t think they would receive such a warm welcome.

“I felt delighted that when I flew from Thailand to Shanghai I was not alone. I am with my fans,” said Nitha.

“My fan club makes me feel like China is my second home,” said Davika, adding that she was glad Chinese people like her from her movies and television series.

Nitha and Davika were in Shanghai last weekend to promote the Thai Film Festival, organised as part of the 2017 Shanghai International Film Festival, from June 17-26. The event is one of the largest film festivals in Asia.

Other well-known Thai people joined the event. They included muay Thai fighter Buakaw Banchamek and film directors Bin Bunluerit, Chartchai Ketnust, Kriangkrai Vachiratamporn and Pantham Thongsang, the latter of whom was also a representative of the National Federation of Motion Pictures and Contents Associations.

The popularity of Thai movies has increased among Chinese, said Thailand Foundation director Theeratep Promvongsanon.

One of the indicators is that the festival had more slots for Thai films to be on-screen, from 18 rounds last year to 27 this year.

The eight movies selected were either romantic comedies or action films. They were Pohn Jak Fah (A Gift), inspired by the royal compositions of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej; the romance From Bangkok to Mandalay, a Thai-Myanmar co-production; Thongdee Fun Khao (Legend Of The Broken Sword Hero) played by Buakaw Banchamek; Wanon Koo Fud (Monkey Twins); Mr Hurt; Fan Day (One Day), 20 Mai U-Turn Wai Huai Jai Return (Suddenly Twenty) and Mue Prab Samphawesi (The Lost Case).

The Thai Film Festival is a joint effort of the Royal Thai Consulate-General Shanghai, the Thailand Foundation and the Information Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Thailand has been part of SIFF for seven years, said Parichat Luepaiboolphan, consul-general of the Royal Thai Consulate-General Shanghai.

“We support the event because promoting Thai films will bring benefits to our country’s creative economy, including tourism and cultural goods and services,” she said, adding that Thai movies could also bring in more Chinese tourists.

The Film Mart. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

The Chinese government has a quota of 34 overseas films per year, of which 14 are required to be either 3D or large-format. There is a very thin chance for movies from small countries like Thailand to beat Hollywood movies in order to be on screen in China.

“The SIFF does not have the quota for foreign films. This is the chance for Thai movies to be able to show on the silver screen every year,” she said.

In addition to the Thai Film Festival, there was a Thailand booth in the Film Market. The booth had about 15 production companies from Thailand promoting their services. So far, some Chinese filmmakers were interested in shooting locations in Bangkok and Phuket.

According to Busadee Santipitaks, director-general of the Information Department of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Thai movies could also help promote understanding of Thai culture, the country’s image, the popularity of Thai celebrities, even the Thai language.

“Thai film is soft-power diplomacy. It can encourage international audiences to try Thai food and travel to Thailand, and can show the capacity and creativity of Thai people,” she said. The department supports Thai films to be on screen in international film events in many countries.

For this year, there will be at least four events. First was the Osaka Asian Film Festival organised in early March. Five Thai films were selected to join the event to promote the 130th anniversary of Thailand-Japan diplomatic relations.

The second event was the Thai Film Festival in Kuala Lumpur in April. The event was organised to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Thailand-Malaysia diplomatic relations. Another set of five Thai movies were on screen and could attract over 3,000 viewers during the two-day event. It was the first time for Thailand to host the Thai Film Festival in Malaysia during the past decade, she said.

Davika Hoorne takes a selfie with her Chinese fans. Photo © Instragram of Davika “Mai” Hoorne

Third was the Thai Film Festival at SIFF. Seats were fully booked during the premier of Pohn Jak Fah (A Gift), Thongdee Fun Khao (Legend Of The Broken Sword Hero) and 20 Mai U-Turn Wai Huai Jai Return (Suddenly Twenty).

The fourth event will be the Cinemalaya 2017 in Manila, the Philippines, in August.

The selection of films to be shown in every international festival is different. But this year Pohn Jak Fah is the key movie chosen for every international festival.

“It is because we want to express the remembrance of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and to honour the late king’s talent in composing music,” she said, adding that the movie also told a story that people from all walks of life can relate to.

The Information Department expected that thousands of Chinese would attend the Thai Film Festival, paving the way for other possibilities.

“We also received an invitation to join an international film festival in South Africa from a representative of the event who visited our booth,” she said. The event is the Cape Town International Film Market Festival, kicking off in October.

“We will consider the offer, because every stage is an opportunity to promote Thai films and Thailand,” she said.

The chances for driving Thai movies to an international level is quite slim unless there is a devoted body to support the development of a film industry, according to Pantham Thongsang, a film producer, director and the assistant secretary-general of the National Federation of Motion Pictures and Contents Associations.

“The film industry is a high-risk business. It needs strong support and incentives from the government to become strong and successful at the international level,” he said.

He said Thai movies were at their peak in the international film market almost two decades ago. The first Thai film given international recognition was Nang Nak (1999), a classic Thai ghost story, directed by Nonzee Nimitbutr. This success was followed by a series of films such as Ruang Talok 69 (1999), which received two regional awards; Bangkok Dangerous (2000), which won international awards at Asian and Canadian film festivals; and Sud Sanaeha (Blissfully Yours; 2002). That was the first Thai film to win the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. The international audience also knew Tony Jaa (Tatchakorn Yeerum, formerly known as Jaa Phanom) from Ong-Bak (The Thai Warrior; 2003), and watched horror movie Shutter (2004).

“While Thai movies were in their golden era, there was no other push to create momentum. The ball did not roll out like a snow ball; it just shot up and fell down,” he said.

A film needs a good script. It is like running a company. If the company wants to have a quality product, it needs to invest in RD. A filmmaker needs to invest in creating quality script writers, he said.

“There are many organisations that want to promote Thai movies, but none is the host to support the development of the film industry,” he said.

The Film Industry Promotion Agency should be founded as a public organisation. It should also be funded by the government. It will be the organisation that sets up a system and offers incentives including funds for Thai filmmakers.

The project is still in the drafting process. It must also receive the cabinet’s approval before getting started.

“If the government understands that the film industry can be a tool to promote other heavy industries in Thailand, like the Korean government did when they have heavily supported and promoted movies, TV series and songs a decade ago to build the country’s image. Today people worldwide do not mind having Samsung mobile phones or driving Hyundai cars,” he said, adding that the Korean government made people worldwide accept its culture, people and products.

“If only the Thai government can learn it from those who’ve succeeded, the film industry will have its glory again.”