Saturday, January 17, 2009

The 'Village Escapist Cinema' of Phranakorn

In an article in yesterday's Bangkok Post, Kong Rithdee introduces the term "Village Escapist Cinema" to describe the movies put out by Phranakorn Film, the makers of such contemporary classics as Headless Hero (Phii hau khaat, Headless Hero 2, Headless Family, The Holy Man (Luang Phee Teng), Holy Man 2, Three Cripples and Black Family.

The company's mind-numbing comedies and horror comedies feature generally the same cast of TV and cafe comics, doing the same schtick, running and screaming from the same non-scary ghosts in movie after movie. The plots are usually nonsense to begin with, and by the end are pretty much jettisoned, so all that is left is a loosely strung-together collection of double entendres, idiotic puns and scatological sight gags that are so bad they actually smell.

Decry Phranakorn all you want for contributing to the dumbing down of society, but neither the studio nor its target audience cares about such criticism.

Phranakorn Film was set up in 2001 by the Thanarungroj family, owners of the Thana chain of cinemas in rural central and northern Thailand. The film company's general manager is Thawatchai Phanpakdee. Here's a bit of what he had to say in yesterday's article (cache):

They call us 'the hillbilly hotshot', 'the backwoods producer', but we don't mind that," says Thawatchai, a lively man in stylish glasses. "It's true that we know what the viewers in the provinces want to see, because we've known them for 30 years. In the old days I would travel to temple fairs and school fairs in a remote district to supervise the screenings of outdoor films; I would tour the backwoods for months to show movies and collect the share. That's why we can see things from the ground level, as the viewers do, and that's why we can make films that fit with their taste. If we're a hillbilly, well, that's who we are!

"Movies by Phranakorn Film don't make much money in central Bangkok," continues Thawatchai. "We collect very little from, say, cineplexes around Siam Square and Ratchaprasong, because the audience prefers other stuff. But our movies do extremely well in Bang Kae, Bang Phli, Rama II, Ngam Wong Wan, Rangsit, all the way to Pathum Thani and Nakhon Pathom and further up - in those areas we are very, very strong. Our audience is [made up of] factory workers, vendors, guards, taxi drivers, and also office workers looking for something simple and fun."

The entire article is well worth a read for a further appreciation of the state of Thailand's movie industry.

The types of movies that Phranakorn makes have always been around. It's just that the New Thai Cinema movement (or Thai New Wave) that internationalized Thai film in the late 1990s and early 2000s was part of a resurgence of the domestic industry, which had fell into the doldrums in the late '80s and early '90s. Along with the films by the likes of Nonzee Nimibutr and Prachya Pinkaew pulling urban Thais back to the cinemas, there were also movies by Phranakorn drawing the rural and suburban crowds.

And other studios like Sahamongkol and especially RS Film are guilty of making "those kinds of movies" as well. They even use largely the same cast as the Phranakorn movies, so often I'll mistake one of the other companies' crappy-looking comedies for being from Phranakorn.

I am sometimes deluded enough to think I have an open mind when it comes to movies. But not really. Most of those movies I do not bother going to see because I know they are not made for discerning hipster-snobs like me. When I see a poster or watch a preview for a Phranakorn film, and I have no clue as to what it's about, it's humbling, and it kind of hurts -- the notion that there's movies like that, which I will never "get".

Ironically, or perhaps not, whenever Phranakorn has tried to make something to appeal to the international market, it's failed miserably. One example was last year's Hanuman: The White Monkey Warrior, which was barely watchable. Their most recent, the action-fantasy Deep in the Jungle, I thought, was probably their best film yet, which still isn't really saying much. Tellingly, it failed to catch fire with audiences in Thailand.


  1. Wise,

    Do you much about the Thai TOP Awards? Num Sornram is nominated in the Best Male actor category for "Hanuman: The White Monkey Warrior". It's so effing crazy! Of all movies, it's like one of the worst movies of the year.

  2. I never heard of the TOP awards. There are so many entertainment awards shows in Thailand. It's hard to know which ones really mean anything.

  3. I actually liked "Headless Hero" (but not the sequel....) however, admittedly my tastes ARE somewhat "lowbrow".

    For me, the opposite effect occurs, with films that friends say I just "must see" for their incredible cinematography and/or social relevance or whatever. Those ones usually put me right to sleep....

    Not that I don't watch "good" movies ever.... it's just that sometimes you just want to get amused and entertained without all the pressure of learning anything....

    That and I'm just one ditzy girl most days...

  4. Oh, I know what you mean Nekoneko. Trailers for movies like Revolutionary Road or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas just make my eyes glaze over.

    I do enjoy a fair share of trashy movies, because there's times I just want to be entertained. And I have favorite movies and shows that I like to come back to over and over, like comfort food.

    I'm not so devoid of a sense of humor that slapstick comedy doesn't make me laugh. Still, there's something about the tenor of the humor in the Thai comedies that drives me batty. I'm not sure what it is.


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