These days there seems to be lighter than usual traffic on many Bangkok roads on Monday and Tuesday nights because people rush home to watch Channel 3's sensational soap opera, Raeng Ngao.
The craze is so phenomenal that some even mockingly call those two days of the week Wan Raeng Ngao Haeng Chart (National Raeng Ngao Day) to mimic Wan Raeng Ngan Haeng Chart (National Labour Day).
The juicy drama draws huge numbers of viewers who watch it together in dormitories, pubs and restaurants in the same way that they would follow a world-stopping football match. Instead of cheering Spain or Italy, they either support mia luang (the wife) or mia noi (the mistress) and her twin sister as the two sides take revenge on each other. Such is the national pastime that we all seem to enjoy.
Based on Nantana Weerachon's novel, the series revolves around a governmental director, Jaenphob, whose wife, Nopnapa, keeps a close eye on him through his secretary, who has to report back to her on his suspicious behaviour.
After learning of her husband's extramarital affair, Nopnapa assaults the new mistress, Mootta, sending the poor girl rolling down the stairs at a government office in front of a crowd of civil servants.
The scene has become the talk of the town. And we watch on as the wife's action is followed by a gripping payback.
In despair, Mootta returns to her home town and later hangs herself. Her body is discovered by Moonin, who embarks on an avenging mission against those who harmed her twin sister. Moonin's victory includes fighting Nopnapa with forceful hair-pulling and face-slapping (realistic indeed) that has the wife reeling down the same staircase.
Nopnapa is played by Tanyaret Engtrakul, while the twin sisters, Mootta and Moonin, with two contrasting personalities are portrayed by our "cherie du jour", Janie Tienphosuwan. Another of the show's characters is a woman who's branded a nok song hua (a bird with two heads), who pretends to be prim and proper when she's in fact bad girl and a con artist. With these three characters hatching devilish plans, it shows how far women will go to get what they want. Beneath the surface of man-eating hysteria, this soap actually emphasises strong female characters. Male viewers may then be more careful about their relationship with the fairer sex, as well as not chasing mia noi which could destroy them as well as their family.
The soap definitely relates to women, and some female viewers may put themselves in Nopnapa or Moota/Moonin's situation.
As for me, watching Raeng Ngao has me suspicious of any nok song hua in my workplace but that won't have me emulating Moonin by kicking a back-stabbing colleague from the top of the staircase for shocking office drama.
Characters in soap operas have often been criticised for setting bad examples. The charge of negative influence and media emulation raises the question: who copies who?
A clip of teenagers in a real catfight over a boy, circulating online, came under the label "Real life Raeng Ngao". But it can't be said that they copied the series' characters when sadly these catfights happened in society long before the series was on air. Women competing for men is a common theme for Thai soaps, which are considered a reflection of society by some people. Others take them as absolutely senseless lakorn nam nao _ soap operas that smell of putrid water.
Anyway, Raeng Ngao comes with a viewing guidance warning that it contains sexual and violent content unsuitable for those under 18.
The mia luang versus mia noi warfare, however, is not the only element that boosts Raeng Ngao's ratings.
The story encompasses family, workplace and social issues involving good and bad characters that a mass audience can well relate to, and viewers are waiting to see where their kharma will land them. To entirely dismiss something that's a phenomenon is to dismiss a chance to take a look at its cultural and social meanings.
After all the heated retaliation between Nopnapa and Moonin, ultimately it cools off with ahosi kharma as the two ask for forgiveness from each other _ a typical ending of Thai soaps.
So bear with Raeng Ngao's contrived melodrama, and through the putrid water you may clearly see the law of kharma that affects everyone.
Kanokporn Chanasongkram is a feature writer for Life section of the Bangkok Post.
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- Writer: Kanokporn Chanasongkram