Last month the cinemas saw a sleeper hit -- and don't be surprised if your cultural radar didn't beep. The homemade Isan film Thi Baan The Series attracted huge crowds not to Bangkok cineplexes, or not at first, but to theatres in Si Sa Ket, Khon Kaen, Maha Sarakham and elsewhere across the Northeast. Scoring big with regional tastes, the small, Isan-speaking film, made by a group of friends for 3 million baht, has now made over 20 million in box office -- 70% of it on its home turf, the rest in the capital.
A new case-study in pop-cultural marketing and regional advocacy is present here.
"The film has a feeling of the real Northeast, about the changing way of life and the influence of the city lifestyle," said director Surasak Pongsorn. "But it's a film by northeasterners made for everyone, not just northeastern viewers."
The filmmakers are from Si Sa Ket, and their original plan was to do a TV series (thus the counter-intuitive second half of its title) that didn't require much investment. But the pre-sale buzz was enthusiastic, and when local investors eventually trusted them with the budget of 3 million -- small even for an independent production -- the team scaled up and made a feature-length film.
Casting friends and mostly local amateurs, the filmmakers mixed a romantic-comedy formula with mild commentary on the state of provincial Thailand. In one storyline, a plain-looking man sets out to hit on 100 women, while his friend returns to Isan from Bangkok with the plan to open a 7-Eleven, only for his father to tell him to go back to farming.
When it became a hit in Isan, cinemas in Bangkok approached the filmmakers to screen the movie in the capital.
"It's not all comedy. I think the film worked beyond our expectations because we have characters that are very real," said producer Avirut Akabutr. "The film did well in Isan but also in Bangkok, where we made around 7 million baht, because Isan people now live everywhere and want to support something that has a genuine Isan spirit."
Thi Baan The Series isn't the first northeastern film to break into the mainstream -- and yet it reinforces the idea for the need to decentralise pop-cultural production and support regional creativity. Three years ago the film Phu Bao Tai Baan became a phenomenon in the Northeast, drawing huge audiences and prompting Bangkok cineplexes to begin showing it. A sequel came out last year and another is on the way.
Last week, another Isan film opened across the region. Hak Man -- or In My Hometown -- has been made by a Worawut Lakchai, a full-time secondary-school teacher and part-time filmmaker in Udon Thani. Like Thi Baan The Series, Hak Man was funded by a local businessman -- owner of a water park in Udon -- and secured distribution from northeastern distributors.
Phu Bao Tai Baan. Photo: Uten Sririwi
As in other Isan films, Worawut's characters speak in Isan dialect and Lao (close but not quite the same) as well as central Thai and some English, since one of the characters is a white man who lives in a rural area. The film's premiere was chaired by the governor of Udon Thani. Prior to release, Hak Man, which is a romantic comedy about young people, also won Best Picture at the International Film Festival of Prayag in India.
"There's a unique appeal when we northeasterners make film about the Northeast," said Worawut, who enlisted his students as crew members in making the movie (for less than 500,000 baht). "We tell the story from our own experience, and if you do it right, it can feel very special."
In the past, regional filmmaking was common in most parts of the country, mostly with small filmmakers doing crude, low-budget action films targeting regional audiences. Then in the past 20 years, moviemaking has become a centralised industry, with its creative and financial wellspring in Bangkok. But with the success of Phu Bao Tai Baan and Thi Baan The Series in the Northeast, and last year's Terd -- made by a southerner -- high hopes for regional filmmaking may be justified.
Besides the business side of the phenomenon, the issue of cultural representation is at play. For years, the Northeast has been portrayed in film and television as an impoverished place populated by farmers and plagued by heat and drought. In the 1970s and 1980s, that was the reality. Luk Isan (Son Of The Northeast; 1985) was a social-realist portrait of a people battered by weather and injustice. The classic experimental film Thongpan (1976) showed a bleak image of the region lacking in development.
But a recent crop of northeastern movies insist otherwise: they're films about young, fashionable Isan people, and while farm life and rural existence are still part of the narrative, the focus is no longer just on the misery or plight of farmers. Instead, Phu Bao Tai Baan, Thi Baan The Series, and Hak Man are all love stories focused on young adults -- film as entertainment, not necessarily as social reflection.
Thi Baan The Series. Phot ocourtesy of SEUNG channel
"Luk Isan is my favourite film. I must have watched it more than 100 times," says Worawut of the classic film by Vijit Kunawut. "Isan has other things. There's the miserable part but also the prosperous part. I'm interested in presenting the culture, not the trouble. I feel bad when I see how movies often make Isan people maidservants -- that's perpetuating a stereotype."
For the filmmakers of Thi Baan The Series, the idea is to make the Northeast feel "funny and warm".
"We think the film shows the contemporary life of young Isan people," says producer Avirut. "And we're lucky that the northeastern distributors agreed to show it. They told me, 'We're Isan people, and if we don't show Isan films in Isan, what's the point?'. That's the spirit."