Netflix embraces Thainess

Supernatural drama The Stranded  becomes streaming giant's first Thai original series

A group of teens work together to retrieve a boat. (Tossapon Somwong/Netflix photo)

An island wrecked by tsunami. Over 30 teenagers left at shore to fend for themselves. Supernatural occurrences. These elements make up the basis of The Stranded, Thailand's first original series to be premiered on the Netflix global streaming platform at the end of this year.

With the success of Asian-bound originals like Sacred Games from India and Kingdom from South Korea, Netflix is gearing for more Asian content to join its growing slate. One of the exciting projects that will soon be unveiled from Thailand is The Stranded, directed by Thai filmmaker Sophon Sakdaphisit who has helmed successful horrors like Laddaland and Coming Soon. The project is developed by Netflix, GMM Grammy and H2L Media Group.

Sophon believes Netflix, available in over 190 countries around the world, is a great platform for Thai content to reach a global audience. But it also brings a great challenge in making Thai content that the rest of the world can understand and enjoy. Much of the working experience between teams in the US, Singapore and Thailand is about tuning in to each other's perspective and culture, making sure everyone is on the same page.

Details surrounding The Stranded are being kept under tight seal by Netflix. The show's premise centres on a group of teenagers left stranded on an island after a tsunami. Losing contact with the outside world, they have to work together to survive as strange incidents shrouded in myth and folktale continue to surface on the island. This is also pretty much what Sophon got in his early brief.

"They did have the synopsis ready," said the director. It then became his responsibility to develop that plot point to fit the Thai context and culture for the seven-episode series. This is also Sophon's first time directing a series.

"A series is different from films in that there are so many characters. So, one of the challenges is about making each character memorable with their individual stories, so they can be more than supporting roles in the background. We also have to find people who are unique enough to present each character distinctively that the audience can remember," he said.

Some of the cast of The Stranded include Papangkorn "Beam" Lerkchaleampote as the protagonist Kram, Chayanit "Pat" Chansangavej, Chutavuth "March" Pattarakampol, and veteran actress Sinjai Plengpanich.

"The funny thing is also that foreigners tend to perceive Asians as looking all alike," Sophon said. "Aside from making characters that stand out, we also want them to look Thai enough, since it's a Thai original series. Our leading guy [Kram] is a fisherman's son, a rural Thai islander. And looking back to many Thai actors nowadays, this kind of look is hard to find now that most people look Chinese and Korean."

To present what's local to global eyes, one of the resonating themes Sophon finds is actually the adolescents at the heart of the story. When situations call for it, they slowly reveal layers of their true colours.

"I think teenagers around the world are pretty similar, in some ways. They're all about using emotions to decide different things in life. If it's a movie about grown ups, they'd make a decision based on reasons. It's all the more fun because the series is not just about teenage problems, but also supernatural elements. So when we put teenagers in that situation, their logic won't work the same way as adults. Adults would say it's dangerous and don't go in. But teens are eager to discover things and take risks, even to do something crazy.

"As audiences, we try to find out what each character is like. At the same time, the characters are also finding out who they really are," Sophon said.

"We're showcasing a beautiful side of Thailand. The visuals. The geography. I think the geography also mirrors the emotions of the characters. They're stranded on an island, whereas emotionally they're also stranded. They need to figure out who their life rafts are, who's connecting them together, and that's where you see the character Kram comes to the fore," added Erika North, director of International Originals at Netflix.

Since the story is set in Thailand's South, the production incorporates Thainess in small details, such as choosing a local kolae boat to be featured on the island, and picking local southern fabric prints for certain characters to wear. But nothing too obvious. You won't see anyone dressed to the nines in Thai silk, the director joked.

"We're almost like cultural ambassadors sometimes," he said. "We do start with what people are familiar with, like an international school, kids from high society, and then we slowly bring everyone into our house and show them what's interesting about Thailand."

In addition to focusing on the surviving kids after a disaster, The Stranded is also nestled in mythology and folktale. It raised a question during our roundtable discussion that, as Western series like Black Mirror dive into the world of tech and science, why is Thai content largely rooted in folklore?

"In making a series or anything, you can pick any direction, whether to go scientific or supernatural," Sophon said. "We may make this for global audiences, but don't forget the story and characters are in Thailand. For the scientific way, many people have done it well, and it's believable too because they have a lot of science stuff. But imagine if we make a story about astronauts in Thailand, it's pretty contradicting to our nature […] We have our own unique things and we shouldn't look down on our own legends and roots."

North also compliments the rich tradition of mythology and history that Thailand possesses. It was important for the world of The Stranded to be rooted in that reality.

"If we're thinking about Netflix and this question of how local or how global [the content is], what we see on Netflix is the more locally and authentically grounded the story is, the better its prospect to travel," she said. "I know that might sound strange, but we've seen it on Netflix with shows like La Casa De Papel [Money Heist] from Spain, The Dark from Germany, and The Rain from Scandinavia. Those stories are very rooted in those cultures. But there's a universality to the experience of the character and genre that helps the show travel, and I believe that will be the case with The Stranded."

When looking to commission international originals, especially in the Asia Pacific region, North said the goal is to create something that hasn't already existed in the ecosystem. And what's interesting about this region is there's no one Asia, as it is a multiplicity of cultures and languages.

"Our goal at Netflix is to find great stories that currently are being told and to try and help those creatives to make the best version of their vision. That's something we take seriously in [our goal] to support the creative vision of the show," said North.

"Netflix, as a platform, is a very unique place to export great stories around the world. We've seen that through launches in Europe and Latin America, in India and South Korea as well, and we're really looking forward to Thailand having its moment with The Stranded."