Last night the battle for audience ratings pitted Channel 7's Luk Mai Lark See against Channel 3's Manee Sawart and Channel 5's Khu Kam. In some households there might have been family fights for possession of the TV remote control, and what to watch: a heavy drama, a suspense fantasy, or a cross-cultural World War II romance between a Thai woman and a Japanese soldier?
Occupying prime time slots for decades, post-evening news soap operas, or lakorn, on the telly have acquired a cult following and are seen as a national obsession. We Thais grew up watching them, and our children will continue to do so. The soaps' ability to engage viewers are legendary _ the scriptwriting has a kind of home-grown mastery that, even though far from the calibre of Downton Abbey or Homeland, can hook viewers for up to two hours at a stretch.
And once hooked, as in the case of last year's mega-hit Raeng Ngao, the mass audience is glued to the tube with the intensity of an addiction, watching the fights between mia luang (wife), mia noi (mistress) and the tangled romance and emotion often expressed in maximalist fashion. The recent anger against the controversial ban of Nua Mek 2 also testified to the cultural importance of soap operas to the public.
Raeng Ngao's dramatic plot as well as other lakorn portraying mia luang-mia noi clashes and feisty love-bickering stories are likely to celebrate good ratings even though they may be stereotyped as insubstantial nam nao _ literally stinking water, but the phrase is used for trashy melodrama.
But still, the artistry in constructing plots and stories that can command the attention of the whole nation is something not to be dismissed lightly.
Kantana's head of scriptwriters, Lalita Chantasadkosol, says the industry has come out of stagnant water and stepped ahead by offering a variety of soap operas to entice Thai viewers.
"Some people may still perceive Thai soaps as nam nao because they haven't really watched what is screened on TV today. The variety includes action, suspense, thriller, fantasy and sci-fi.
"However, these productions may not receive ratings as high as plots regarded as nam nao," said Lalita, who has written television drama scripts for almost three decades.
Kantana specialises in action and suspense thrillers that are aired nationwide on Channel 7. Its latest production, a sequel to Suea Sung Fah (2011) which premieres tonight, offers action as good guys try to beat bad guys who rely on black magic.
"Suea Sung Fah features Thai-style heroes. The mass audience, particularly upcountry viewers, want to watch something that relates to them. With that in mind, we create the script and its twists for an entertaining and easy-to-follow story," said Lalita.
"We have to understand the nature of the target audience, and like how they would eat at a noodle shop rather than an Italian restaurant, we give them a good lakorn with a local flavour."
Meanwhile Sirilux Srisukon, script director at TV production outfit Exact, observes that today's viewers tend to be impatient as they have more options than watching TV.
"The script has to be concise and stimulating, otherwise, with the remote control, viewers can promptly change the channel to see another soap.
Wan Nee Thee Ro Koy
"Dissatisfied with what's showing on free TV, they can switch to watching Western series on satellite TV or play a CD of a series or a movie," said Sirilux, who's a fan of American programmes such as The Tudors, Camelot and Vampire Diaries.
Even though Western series offer grander production and gripping scripts, she doesn't regard them as a benchmark in making Thai lakorn.
"People have a preference for food and they may want to eat Thai, Korean, Indian or Western dishes. As for watching TV, the mass audience still wants to consume spicy Thai soap operas, which share some similarity to Korean shows because of the Asian culture. But if we do something like The Tudors, it may not work at all," she said.
Marketing-wise, Western shows appeal to a smaller and urban audience while Thai lakorn are targeted at a mass audience across the demographic, but particularly women.
Thus love triangles, wife-and-mistress sagas and family conflicts never fail to attract this group of viewers, while suspense thriller or political drama may not fare as well in the ratings.
"We have tob-joob _ slap and kiss _ drama or romantic comedies which are not the norm in Western series. A romantic scene in a Thai soap can make viewers pinch their pillow in excitement, and they may shed tears along with the characters in a distressing situation. That doesn't normally happen when watching a Western series," she noted. "Viewers get emotionally involved while watching a Thai lakorn whereas a Western series gets them rationally following the story. Western shows maintain a distance from viewers who don't get to develop that kind of emotional attachment."
The emotional impact can continue off-screen as actresses have to be careful when appearing in public. There have been incidents _ it was more frequent in the past _ when emotionally-involved viewers who hate the on-screen character show hostility towards the actresses playing them. The joke, based on a true story, is that they may be at risk of having a spiky durian thrown at them when going to a fresh food market.
"No matter how sensational the soap opera, once it ends, the emotion dries out and viewers move on to next story, so that they can join in the discussion," she said. "Lakorn is a hot topic along with fashion, shoes, and make-up that Thai women like to talk about."
Sirilux would probably like hear a buzz about Khu Kam and Buang Wan Warn, currently airing on Channel 5. Both productions happen to be two of the remakes lined up for this year with other Exact remakes including Phaen Ruk Phaen Rai, E-Sa and Phab Artun.
Lots of reproductions are also planned for Channel 3 and Channel 7, from Porn Phrom Onlawaeng and Thong Nuea Kao to Arya Ruk and Wan Nee Thee Ro Koy.
And this parade of remakes tends to lead to the thinking that Thai soaps are stuck in the same old nam nao pool of stories and not going any further in terms of creativity.
"We do remakes so that a new generation of viewers can appreciate classics like Khu Kam [Ill-fated Couple]. They can watch stars from their generation fulfilling the roles once played by actors from the previous generation," said the Exact's script director. "The classic novels such as those written by Tomyantee provide elements that make for a charming lakorn that cannot be found in newly written novels. The task of the TV scriptwriter and producer is to give the story a new flavour while delivering the original essence of the story."
The sixth and latest TV version of Khu Kam has veteran scriptwriter Thip-dhida Satdhathip working on the classic, which is something that she has long been waiting for. Thipdhida is also a scriptwriter who came out to criticise the banning of Nua Mek 2.
"Like an actor's dream to play Shakespeare's Macbeth, I dream of doing Tomyantee's Khu Kam and how I would narrate the story in my own way," said Thipdhida. "It's not easy and I have to keep the dialogue because those who have read the novel can remember it.
"Still, the classic challenges the art of scriptwriting in keeping viewers following the lakorn, and in the case of Khu Kam, the young generation may not be able to relate to history and what happened in Thailand during World War II." In her view remakes can be well-timed, and usually bring the excitement of guessing who will be the next actor to play the protagonist. Reproductions don't necessary mean that the TV industry has run out of lakorn material. Each year there's actually a good mix of original scripts and remakes with modern production that advances the industry.
The veteran scriptwriter is also heading a team of young scriptwriters which is offering something relatively new to Thai viewers and can compare to scripts of Western series.
They are working on The Sixth Sense Season 2, based on a series of five new novels about five girls using their different sixth sense ability for mysterious ghost-busting. Produced by Chollumpi and aired on Channel 3, the first season was a huge success and the sequel is expected to be equally successful.
"The Sixth Sense is something new to scriptwriters too because for the first season, we had to weave three novels into one story. The second season is based on the remaining two novels while using some elements that weren't used from the first three novels," Thipdhida explained. "We can read the five novels again and again, and flip back and forth through the pages to completely capture the story. Viewers however cannot do this and the script has to be well written in order to deliver a clear picture of the story." She emphasised that scriptwriters can't make The Sixth Sense too complicated as it likely won't appeal to Thai viewers.
"There's a simple recipe to writing a good script. Keep it simple but with lots of flavours, because Thai viewers like spicy and colourful stories, that's all," she said.
Buang Wan Warn
Suea Sung Fah 2 Payak Payong
The Sixth Sense
About the author
- Writer: Kanokporn Chanasongkram