A surprise hit, according to The Nation's Parinyaporn Payee was Hoam Rong (The Overture).
If ever a film was doomed to failure, it was this tale of Thai society in transition, as told through the rivalry of two players of the ranad-ek, or traditional xylophone.
Directed by Itthisunthorn Wichailak, it screened for almost empty theatres for the first few days and was about to be withdrawn when, almost overnight - thanks to the website pantip.com and its Chalermthai chat room - it reached cult status.
The Education Ministry got in on the act and started promoting the movie as a must-see for anyone who cared about Thai culture. Banks and mobile-phone companies offered tickets in special promotions. “The Overture” stayed in the cinema for three months, grossed 52 million baht and even had youngsters swapping guitars for ranad-ek at its peak.
A bigger surprise was Shutter, a debut film by two young directors. But the bump-in-the-night ghost story scared audiences out of their wits and grossed 110 million baht, making it the biggest financial success of the year. However, this is modest compared to 2003, which saw the two top-ranking movies raking in 120 million and 145 million baht (the martial arts hit Ong-bak and the kid flick Fan Chan, respectively), points out the Post's Wut Homcheun.
Controversy came in the form of I-Fak (The Judgement). Critics panned it because it was considered disrespectful of its source material, the SeaWrite-award-winning novel Kham Phiphaksa by Chat Khobjitti. Previews billed the film as a kind of screwball sexy comedy. And audiences flocked in for the erotic interpretation of the love scenes. Overall, it was actually a charming film that deserves more international recognition. Unfortunately the only headlines it made were when an anonymous tip about the cutting of a nude scene erupted into a conflict between leading lady Bongkot Kongmalai and the entertainment giant GMM Grammy. Later on, some nude still photos from the set were posted on a popular local online forum with the suspected poster arrested. The charges against him were later dropped.
Thailand's film industry got a big boost in May when Tropical Malady won a Special Jury Prize in the main competition of the Cannes International Film Festival. Ironically, the attention was lavished on an indie director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has had to work outside the Thai studio system to get his films made. And, when the movie finally returned home to Thailand, it played in a limited engagement for a few weeks at only a couple of theaters. Another of Apichatpong's films, The Adventure of Iron Pussy, a low-budget parody of spy films and old-time Thai melodramas that featured a transvestite as its lead, finally was screened in Bangkok (albeit in an also limited engagement) after rolling around the film festival circuit for nearly a year. Still, both films did quite well, considering their limited screenings. But Tropical Malady remained ignored by the government, which embraced bland melodrama of The Overture and submitted to the Academy Awards for consideration as the Best Foreign Language Feature.
Writes Wut Homcheun:
Above all, the studios' prevailing attitude -- perhaps characteristic of businessmen following the doctrine of Thaksinomics [and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra] -- is to make quick bucks, with a focus on short-term goals, relying on the belief that a marketing blitz can make up for poor quality product. Investors pay attention to which type of films they should make (horror, comedy, action, historical drama) but not to how a film should be made (Is it original? Does it have a good script?). Thai cinema has become just a giant screen television.
True, we've come past the point of accepting that show business is a business, but that doesn't necessarily have to mean a total sacrifice of art and creativity.
That's why horror and comedy continue to be bankable genres, and no matter how fatuous films are it's okay -- if they fill the theatres for a few weeks. A prime example being the second highest-grossing movie of 2004, The Bodyguard, starring TV comedian [and Ong-Bak sidekick] Petthai Wongkamlao, which took 75 million baht. Meanwhile the fifth-highest earner, Sai Lor Fah (47 million baht), proved that a cool ad could be much smarter than the film it plugged.
Fortunately, quality mainstream films were not entirely absent. Early in the year, The Overture energised the industry, as this xylophone flick bounced back from poor first-week earnings to gross 52 million baht, ranking it third in the earnings league table. In June, The Letter, burst the floodgates holding back viewer's tears with its emotional narrative, coming in fourth when it bagged almost 50 million baht. But fate was much harsher to other films with strong vision but smaller promotional budgets. First-time director Chookiat Sakweerakul made the smarter-than-average horror Khon Pee Pisaj, an impressive debut that took only about 10 million baht, while Wisit Sasanatieng's Mah Nakorn (Citizen Dog) was the year's most strikingly visual film but earned only a meagre five million baht.
Citizen Dog's failure at the box office made Five Star Entertainment, one of Thailand's oldest film studios, struggle even harder. Things weren't going smoothly over at Sahamongkol Films either; it may remain the biggest local studio, but it sustained a major setback when its flagship movie of the year, the daredevil Kerd Ma Lui (Born to Fight), didn't break any records. However, a new player going from strength to strength is GTH (a company formed by GMM Pictures, Tai Entertainment and Hub Ho Hin). Last year the studio hit the jackpot with Fan Chan and repeated the feat this year with Shutter. This is the company to keep an eye on.
In general, the situation has been more upbeat on the experimental/independent film scene. The success of Sud Pralad is a boost to the morale of the indie crowd, long frustrated by the dominance of mindless studio flicks. Apart from his Cannes-award winning movie, Apichatpong had another film released. His campy The Adventure of Iron Pussy (co-directed with Michael Shaowanasai) is the year's most hilarious movie. And the fact that the Rotterdam International Film Festival, a major European film fest, selected four local short films to screen next year means Thai shorts may have more of a future than the long ones.
Here's a rundown of the box-office stats for the year, from The Nation (figures are in Thai baht):
- Shutter - 110,000,000
- The Bodyguard - 74,000,000
- The Overture - 52,000,000
- The Letter - 48,000,000
- Sai Lor Fah - 48,000,000
- Spicy Beauty Queen In Bangkok - 42,000,000
- I-Fak - 38,000,000
- The Extern - 33,000,000
- Garuda - 32,000,000
- Born To Fight - 23,000,000
- The Sisters - 22,000,000
- Art of the Devil - 20,500,000
- Bangkok Robbery - 20,000,000
- Sagai United - 18,500,000
- The Commitment - 13,500,000
- Siam Renaissance - 12,900,000
- Six - 12,600,000
- Headless Hero 2 - 12,000,000
- The Lizard Woman - 11,000,000
- Xtreme Limit - 9,500,000
- Evil - 9,000,000
- Bangkok Loco - 8,200,000
- The Sin - 8,000,000
- The Story of X-Circle - 7,000,000
- Sar Wars - 6,500,000
- Zee-Oui - 6,100,000
- Siamese Outlaws - 6,050,000
- Citizen Dog - 6,000,000
- Unhuman - 5,500,000
- Jumbo Queen - 5,100,000
- My Space - 4,800,000
- Cholestoral...Love - 4,000,000
- The Grone - 2,500,000
- Woak Wak - 2,300,000
- Formalin Man - 2,000,000
- The Meteor - 1,900,000
- Pad Thai Story - 1,350,000
- Tropical Malady - 1,300,000
- The Adventure of Iron Pussy - 1,000,000
- Be True - 800,000
- The Shadow Lovers - 620,000
- Mon Rak Roi Ran - 430,000
- Curse of The Sun - 280,000
(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)