It may be hard to believe this, but once upon a time, Thai cinema was actually thriving.
It may be hard to believe this but just over a decade ago, the Thai film industry wasn’t just all about the rom-coms, cheating husbands, and high school teeny boppers that we see today. It was so much more than that.
It was about family, it was about youth, it was about history and culture. There was more…artistry
But all went down before the golden age of social media so many of these movies flew under the radar.
To get you up to speed, here are five films you should watch in celebration of Thai cinema:
Fan Chan/My Girl (แฟนฉัน), 2003
Fan Chan is a charming coming-of-age film that takes you on a nostalgic look back to the friendship of young Noina (Focus Jirakul) and Jeab (Charlie Trairat), as they grow up in a small, quaint provincial town in Thailand during the 1980s.
The story is told in flashbacks, where the present day Jeab, as a young man working in Bangkok, learns that his long-lost childhood sweetheart, Noina, is to be married. Jeab then travels back to his hometown. When in his car, Jeab starts listening to the musical hits of his childhood, and all the memories of his youth come flooding back.
Fan Chan, with its simplicity and candor, has the power to leave you both in tears and laughter, simply by reminding you of what it felt like to be young, innocent, and, most of all, carefree. At heart, Fan Chan is really a movie for the adults. It allows us to reminisce the wonders of childhood, and how no matter what, it will always be a part of you. Fan Chan was released to wide acclaim and is one of Thailand’s biggest commercial successes to date. It was the highest earning domestic film at the Thai box office in 2003, earning over 140 million baht, and went on to sweep numerous awards in the same year.
Fan Chan was the directorial debut of six young Thai screenwriters-director, who were all classmates as film students at Chulalongkorn University. It was made on a small budget, based on a true story of one of the directors.
Nang Nak (นางนาก), 1999
Nang Nak is a Thai supernatural horror film about a female ghost’s undying love for her husband based on the popular Thai legend and folklore — Mae Nak Phra Khanong,
Set in a rural village by the banks of Bangkok, the story chronicles the life of teenage wife, Nak (played by Inthira Charoenpura in her feature film debut) and her devotion to her beloved husband, Mak (Winai Kraibutr). Mak, after being conscripted, was forced to leave the pregnant Nak alone in order to fight in the Siamese-Vietnamese War (1831-1834), and was gravely wounded. Upon his return from war, Mak is eagerly greeted with his wife and new child. But there is something missing. Little did Mak know that Nak had died from a difficult childbirth, and was now living as a ghost.
Nang Nak is both terrifying as it is tragic, and is really just a tale about holding onto love, of a woman who longed for a happy life with her partner. The movie also serves as an important homage to Thai folklore, history, and culture.
Nang Nak was a huge commercial success, and became the first Thai film to earn over 100 million baht at the box office at 149.9 million baht, the highest grossing film of that time. It was directed by Nonzee Nimibutr, one of Thailand’s leading “New Wave” directors of the late 90s, in his best known film to date.
The Tin Mine (มหา’ลัย เหมืองแร่), 2005
Based on a true story, The Tin Mine is a Thai biographical drama film directed by Jira Maligool about the life and times of Thai National Artist Ajin Panjapan (1927-2018). It was adapted from a series of autobiographical short stories written by Ajin himself during his younger days while working in a mining camp in Kapong District of Phang Nga Province from 1949 to 1953.
Set in 1950, Ajin, an engineering student at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University, finds himself expelled from school and dumped by his girlfriend during his sophomore year. With no prior work experience whatsoever, he was sent to work in a remote rainforest in Southern Thailand, a location that didn’t even “rate a spot on the map.”, at a tin mine, full of strangers and unfamiliar faces. After constantly being mocked by the other mining laborers and even its chief of staff, John, for being a “Bangkok Boy” who didn’t know much and wasn’t up to the task, Ajin later proved himself to become a respected member of the company, and one of the family, working as a surveyor.
The Tin Mine is another understated, intimate movie that will teach you about life and character building. It was the official entry from Thailand for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards.
The Iron Ladies (สตรีเหล็ก), 2001
Another critically-acclaimed film based on a fearlessly true story, The Iron Ladies is a sports movie following the true events of a Thai national volleyball team, composed mainly of gays and transgenders, and their march to success to the male national championships in 1996.
Directed by Youngyooth Thongkonthun in his directorial debut, the film follows the lives of two trans volleyball athletes, Mon and Jung, who were constantly overlooked and judged by coaches because of their appearance and sexual orientation. After a new coach, Bee, joins the team and has a new tryout, Mon and Jung were finally selected, but it caused most of the other “macho” team members to resign. Mon and Jung, in a desperate attempt, were forced to enlist the help of their fellow gay and trans friends who they used to play volleyball with in university.
The Iron Ladies is the right balance of humor and sentimentality. With its clever casting, screenwriting, and antics, and pretty much like what happened in real life, the film won the hearts of many, and was the first Thai film to be released commercially in the United States. It also won praise and accolades from both Thai and international film festivals alike. It won a total of 10 awards, including the Thailand National Film Association Awards, Toronto International Film Festival and reader award of German LGBTQ magazine Siegessaule at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The Love of Siam (รักแห่งสยาม), 2008
The typical teenage high-school romance we were all waiting for, but with a little twist. Written and directed by Chookiat Sakveerakul, Love of Siam is, at first glance, a love story; but it really is a multilayered drama film about love, friendship, family, and loss.
Two neighbors, the effeminate and outgoing Mew and quiet Tong, befriended one another and grew fondly close during their boyhood. They were separated soon after, however, when tragedy struck Tong’s family after his older sister, Tang, disappeared during a jungle trip in Chiang Mai. Believing she is dead, the devastated family moves away to Bangkok. Six years later, Tong’s dad had become a severe alcoholic due to grief, with his mother trying to keep the family afloat. Tong and Mew, now teenagers, were reunited again after a chance meeting in Siam Square, where we learn that Mew had become the lead singer of a boyband. Mew was, as a singer, was struggling to find inspiration behind a new love song, and has a new assistant manager, Ying, who uncannily looks like Tong’s missing sister, Tang. Tong later hires Ying, his missing sister look-a-like, to pretend to be Tang in order to save his alcoholic father. The two boys, as they maneuver their confusing growing pains, soon realize that they have feelings for one another.
The Love of Siam, in its brilliant subtlety and boldness, initially received backlash as audiences felt misled by its gay romance storyline, which were notably not evident in the movie’s initial promotional materials. But that’s also what makes Love of Siam remarkable and real, as it courses through the realities of life and love in a rigid society. The film was both a commercial and critical success, and dominated Thailand’s 2007 awards season, winning Best Picture in all major film categories.