Friday, March 18, 2005

The Holy Man is the holiest

One of the biggest homegrown hits at the Thai box office this year is The Holy Man, which last week celebrated earnings of 80 million baht (about US$2 million) and has kept rolling, with the Bangkok Post now reporting earnings of 100 million baht. The film has done better in the provinces and suburbs, rather than central Bangkok.

Kong Rithdee has more on the funny phenomenon:

Directed by comedian Note Chernyim, The Holy Man is a low-brow, folksy flick ... starring TV funnyman Teng Terd-teung as an ex-thug turned eccentric monk with a stock of hilarious one-liners. [T]he film presents both cultural and marketing case studies that our social structure, as reflected in the movie-going habit, has become ever more complicated. And as major Thai film studios step up their campaigns of exporting local movies and going global, the jackpot scored by The Holy Man shows the glaring reality that Thai viewers may still crave the simple fun that does nothing more than tickle.

The film, which is basically a series of gags about the misadventures of Monk Teng, also prove that the Thai movie market, notoriously unpredictable, still has a place for cornball titles whose rustic appeal seems to have been inherited from the sentiments of the era of village-dwelling and outdoor cinema.

"As long as Thai people still like to eat nam phrik [shrimp paste], we believe they will continue to like this kind of low-brow comedy," says Tawatchai Panbhakdi, general manager of Phranakorn Film, which financed and distributed The Holy Man. "Some of us may develop a taste for spaghetti, but at the end of the day it's the shrimp paste we always come back to."

As it happens, taste is a great divider -- and money is a great leveler. At the rate the film's raking in revenue, The Holy Man is likely to move past the 110 million baht made by last year's box-office champion, the smart, international-flavoured ghost flick, Shutter.

Holy Man is the latest from Phranakorn Film, a small studio that started up three years ago. It had a big hit with its first film, Pee Hua Khad, or Headless Hero, barnyard slapstick about a buffalo-riding ghost looking for his severed head. It was the biggest box-office earner in 2002. Last year, Headless Hero spawned a sequel even as the first film continues to gain a cult following on the international DVD circuit. Other titles from the studio are Duk Dum Dui (about Thai comedians in Africa), Khon Pee Mah, and Pee Chong Air. Owned by Thanapol Thanarungroj, the studio is an extension of the Thana Cineplex, a theatre chain that mainly operates in Thailand's northern provinces.

Some of the company's films were flops, others generated a decent return, and it didn't bother anyone at the company that no film festivals abroad extended an invitation to these homespun pictures.

"This is a time when we cannot predict which Thai movie will make money," says Kraiwut Julaponsathorn, noted film critic and editor of the much-read Bioscope magazine. "In the case of The Holy Man, I think it's the influence of Teng, the lead actor, that successfully draws people in. And this further confirms the fact that comedians are the real stars of Thai cinema today."

Chalida Eubumrungjit, film scholar at the Thai Film Foundation, says that the film presents a strong case that Thai cinema needs middle-of-the-road movies like this one in order to iron the audience's confidence. "What we must make clear is that The Holy Man is of acceptable quality, though it doesn't come from a major studio," she says.

"The film doesn't resort to the usual hit-and-run approach -- tricking the audience to fill up the theatre in the first weekend by using heavy promotion -- and even though it didn't set any high ambitions, it does its job fairly okay. It's difficult, however, to pinpoint why this particular film has made such a lot of money while other titles in a similar vein -- low-brow, simple entertainment -- didn't perform as well. Perhaps it's the timing, but then, well, there might be many things else too."

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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