Rehashed ghost story lures Thai audiences


This month’s column is very much focused on Thailand, but for good reasons, as a number of interesting developments in the country superseded the relatively tranquil situation in other regional markets. Most notable is perhaps the rather unexpected success of the umpteenth remake of a famous local ghost story, which since the late 1960s has spawned about a dozen feature films, at least one animated feature and even a couple of TV soaps.

Pee Mak Prakanong (loosely translated as Brother Mak from Prakanong) has since its release on March 23 raked in an astonishing $16.2 million, with local movie fans flocking to theatres like lemmings. This almost helped Pee Mak Prakanong to unseat Thailand’s commercially most successful movie of all time, period drama Suriyothai (2001), which had enjoyed roughly $17.3 million in box-office earnings. The continued local fascination with a rehashed ghost story is difficult to fathom for foreigners and it also seems incomprehensible that a full dozen cinematic remakes would still manage to keep audiences interested. However, Thais are generally very superstitious and the ghost story in question, which emphasizes the concept of eternal love surviving beyond the grave, holds a special place in their hearts.

Yet the spooky folk tale on which the current movie is based is a simple one: Some 200 years ago, a young warrior named Mak goes to war against Burma, leaving his pregnant wife Nak behind in the village of Prakanong. While he is away, Nak dies during childbirth. Unwilling to abandon her husband, she returns as a ghost and starts wreaking havoc on the village. When Mak eventually comes back from battle, he is so blinded by his love for Nak that he dismisses the villagers’ warnings that his wife is actually a vengeful specter. It takes a few more twists and turns before he must finally accept the fact. The local abbot banishes Nak’s spirit into an earthen pot, which is sealed and tossed into a nearby canal.

Pee Mak Prakanong was produced as a horror comedy with slapstick humor aplenty, as fleeing villagers (plus a rather dim-witted quintet of Mak’s fellow warriors) fall over one another in heaps while Nak lays waste to the hamlet.

Pee Mak Prakanong also turned out to be very profitable in other regional countries, particularly Indonesia, with combined takings of almost $13 million.

Thai Film Associations Predict Bright Year

In the wake of Pee Mak Prakanong’s commercial success, the National Federation of Thai Film Associations (NFTFA) has projected a bright outlook for Thailand’s movie industry in 2013, turning around a situation that has been somewhat flagging in recent years. Although in 2012 a staggering 64 domestic movies were released, only one of them, romantic comedy ATM: ER Rak Error, managed to cross the threshold of 100 million baht (approx. $3.6 million) in ticket sales. As a result, overall box-office revenues dropped by 20% from 2011. However, NFTFA president Visoot Poolvaraluk was quoted in local newspapers as saying that 2013 should mark a significant rebound as—besides Pee Mak Prakanong—several potential blockbusters are scheduled for their screen debuts. Among these is Tom Yum Goong 2, the second installment of martial-arts action flick Tom Yum Goong (2005), as well as the fifth and supposedly final episode of an epic historical drama about a medieval warrior monarch, King Naresuan Part 5.

However, Visoot conceded that Thailand’s film industry suffers from two key problems: inconsistent quality and repetitive remakes, causing domestic output to be less diverse than productions from other regional countries like South Korea, and therefore also meeting with comparatively little audience interest abroad.

SFX Cinema Chain to be Fully 4K-ready
SF Corporation, one of Thailand’s largest theatre chains, announced it expects to have completed upgrading its more than 200 screens nationwide to 4K digital projection capability by May 2013. Utilizing Sony’s latest SRX-R515P digital projection system, SF Corporation will be Thailand’s first operator to be fully 4K-compatible. The company already pioneered digital screening in Thailand in 2003 when it fitted its SFX cinemas with an early digital projection system. In 2011, it began installing the first seven units of Sony’s 4K-capable SRX-R320SP system in select Bangkok theatres, eventually increasing this figure to over 100 screens by also incorporating locations outside the capital. The firm’s remaining screens will now receive the newer, more sophisticated SRX-R515SP unit.
“4K is the future of cinema [in Thailand]… It is today’s sharpest digital projection technology [available] and gives everyone a truly different viewing experience,” said SF Corporation president Suwat Thongrompo in a press release.

Banned Documentary Permitted For Screening
Thai-produced documentary Fah Tam Paendin Soong (Boundary) received accolades at this year’s Berlinale, where it was screened in the International Forum of New Cinema section. It also was warmly received as the opening film at the recent Salaya International Documentary Film Festival in its home country. However, censors at the Film and Video Sub-Committee attached to Thailand’s Ministry of Culture were not nearly as impressed. Citing national security issues, as well as deeming it “a threat to [Thailand’s] international relations”, the sub-committee banned the documentary from public screening on Apr. 23, triggering a storm of protests on social-media websites.

The film depicts the story of a Thai soldier who participated in the 2010 military crackdown on a local political group’s occupation of an important business district of Bangkok that lasted several months and caused enormous economic damage. He eventually makes his way to an ancient Khmer temple on the Thai-Cambodian border, where he gets involved in a bitter territorial dispute between the two countries over 1.8 square miles of temple-adjacent land. Several scenes in the documentary consist of YouTube footage showing fighting between Cambodian and Thai troops, as well as some Cambodian soldiers making negative comments about Thailand.

A surprising turnaround on the ban occurred just three days later, when the Film and Video Board (which has authority over the sub-committee) explained the earlier decision away as a “technical and procedural mistake,” cleared the documentary for theatrical release and gave it an 18+ certificate, meaning it can only be viewed by audiences aged 18 and above. Introduced in 2010, Thailand’s seven-step movie classification is not only complex, but also controversial, because it still allows censors to ban any film outright.

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