More excellent works with high market potential are about to emerge thanks to an innovative approach to addressing universal themes found in diverse Asian cultures
By Huang Jiangqin
During the 12th Beijing International Film Festival, a market screening session for the “ASEAN Guest of Honor” Project included the Thai comedy Get Him Girl!, which brought riotous laughter to Beijing Yanqi Lake International Conference Center, venue of the event. Fast & Feel Love, another production from Thailand directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, was also screened during the festival and competed for the Tiantan Award, the main competition unit, along with 15 other films.
When attending the screening, Natthira Krasaesarn, Minister-Counsellor of the Embassy of Thailand in Beijing, told China Report ASEAN that through co-productions, streaming cooperation, and participation in film festivals, Thailand and China have cultivated a close cooperative relationship in the film industry.
When it was released in China in 2017, the Thai film Bad Genius became a hit and earned 271 million yuan (US$38.6 million) at the box office, marking a milestone for commercial films produced by Thailand. But it was not the first Thai film production to find success in China. Since 2006, Thai films including Seasons Change, The Love of Siam, Hormones, Best of Times, and Bangkok Traffic Love Story have attracted a growing set of Chinese fans. A Little Thing Called Love, a 2010 romantic comedy film from Thailand, was rated 8.5 out of 10 on douban.com, one of the most influential entertainment review websites in China. A user on douban.com hailed the film as “a superb display of beautiful campus life.”
“Contrasting Chinese films and TV shows, works from Thailand usually focus on the lives of ordinary people,” opined Rungdet Liu, vice chair of the Thai-Chinese Economic Policy Working Group at the Office of the Prime Minister of Thailand. “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Thailand received over 10 million international tourists every year. Their first-hand experience of the scenery and culture of Thailand helped nurture a keen interest in Thai films and TV shows.”
Thailand has also become increasingly attractive to Chinese filmmakers. Recent Chinese blockbusters set in Thailand include Lost in Thailand, Detective Chinatown, and Operation Mekong. Placing popular Chinese actors in hot travel destinations such as Bangkok, Pattaya, and Chiang Mai offered viewers a fresh experience and visual treats from the charming Southeast Asian country.
China-based Artop Media has focused on the production and distribution of Chinese and Thai films and TV dramas since 2001. “In addition to sound infrastructure, low filming costs, beautiful scenery, and open culture, the Thai film industry also has a large pool of professionals,” noted Zhang Dong, founder of Artop Media. “More and more Chinese film crews have chosen Thailand as a filming location, especially in the past two years, triggering the emergence of a group of film production personnel versed in both Chinese and Thai languages.” Encouraged by constantly expanding China-Thailand cooperation in economics and culture, a growing number of Thai youth have been studying Chinese for better career development, and many young Chinese are choosing to study in Thailand. Artop Media is committed to talent development through organizing training programs in cooperation with local universities in Thailand to cultivate film production professionals familiar with Chinese and Thai languages and cultures, Zhang added.
Alongside copyright exchanges and film shooting, co-production is also an important area of China-Thailand cooperation in the film industry. During the 2019 Shanghai International Film Festival, a ceremony marking completion of principal photography on the Sino-Thai co-production Start It Up was held. Shot in China and Thailand and starring actors from both countries, the film presents the natural beauty of China and Thailand as well as food cultures of the two countries.
“To attract foreign companies to shoot and perform post-production in Thailand, the Thai government has introduced preferential policies on taxation and financial support,” explained Rungdet Liu. “Investment from China such as those for large film and television studios and tourist sites like Hengdian World Studios in China is particularly welcome in Thailand because such projects help create new job opportunities, increase income of locals, and promote economic cooperation and cultural exchange.”
According to Thai newspaper Post Today, in 2021, the Thai cabinet approved a draft memorandum on cooperation between the Ministry of Culture of Thailand and China Film Administration. The agreement covers film co-production, co-hosting film festivals, information sharing between filmmakers and industry associations, and broadcasting of film and television works on each other’s TV networks. “There is a renewed effort from Thailand and China to boost the productive value of the film industry in the two countries, which is breaking ice for further bilateral cooperation on the digital economy,” declared Ratchada Thanadirek, deputy spokesperson for the Office of Prime Minister of Thailand.
Artop Media has been playing an active role in introducing Thai TV dramas to China. The Maid from Chicago aired on China Central Television Channel 8 (CCTV-8) in 2003, the company’s first attempt. Following that initial success, Artop Media introduced an array of Thai TV series including Battle of Angels, Lassoing Love Cupid, Love Flower by the Edge of the Road, Glass Encircles Diamond, Sea of Greed, and The Envy Code, which were all well received in China. Among them, Battle of Angels was one of the top ten rated TV shows in China during its run.
Encouraged by successful efforts to import Thai TV productions and distribute Chinese TV dramas in overseas markets, Artop Media began remaking popular Chinese TV series in the Thai language. Productions such as Fleet of Time, In Time with You, and Prince Frog were aired in both Thailand and China. The Thai remake of Fleet of Time was rated 8.0 out of 10 on douban.com, and it was also broadcast on Malaysia-based Dimsum video streaming platform and reached audiences in Brunei and Singapore.
The first remake of a Chinese TV drama adapted from a novel, the Thai version of Fleet of Time succeeded in resonating with viewers from China, Thailand, and other countries thanks to dynamics between the theme of youth and the Thai director.
“TV series tackling universal themes are highly suitable for remakes,” opined Zhang Dong. “Fleet of Time is a good example. The show tells a campus love story around 2000, and the story could happen in any country. TV productions with delicate storylines and moving portrayals of shared feelings can impress viewers from any background.”
Proper adaptation of the original work is indispensable for the success of a remake. Compared with the dubbed-version of TV dramas, remakes need to take cultural and aesthetic differences into consideration. Improper localization can lead to a deviation from the original setting and a loss of essential features. It is important for investors and producers to perform a comprehensive investigation of the shooting environment and preferences of target audiences.
A highlight of Chinese film and television productions, costume dramas such as Justice Bao, Romance of Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and My Fair Princess enjoy immense popularity in Thailand. According to Zhang Dong, Chinese immigrants introduced Chinese clothing and architecture styles, food culture, and language to local communities when blending into Thai society. Many Chinese classics have been translated into the Thai language, which paved the way for the popularity of Chinese costume dramas in Thailand.
Noticing growing demand for video streaming in Thailand, major Chinese video service providers have entered the Thai market. Internet giant Tencent, for example, launched WeTV, as its international platform for video streaming. Rungdet Liu predicted that the expansion of China-based video service providers into Thailand would help Chinese TV dramas of different genres to go global and reach a wider range of viewers.
The quality of films and TV shows is often measured by international standards after they are distributed globally. Mostly defined by countries and languages, such standards sometimes fail to identify high-quality works and hinder international exchange in the film and TV industry. Zhang Dong noted that a new consensus is now being forged in the industry, underscoring overcoming language barriers and maintaining a more open mind when assessing film and television works produced by foreign countries. Good stories, regardless of country or language, should be adequately recognized and rewarded, Zhang added.
“Today, some Chinese investors and film studios’ strategies are shortsighted,” Zhang Dong told China Report ASEAN. “When a Chinese film on a particular theme is a hit in the domestic market, other studios will make something similar seeking high returns at the box office. Such low-quality development of film is not only a waste of resources, but also a major obstacle impeding more Chinese films from going overseas.”
Thai films have become more diverse in terms of themes and cultural background. Bad Genius contains a trip to Australia, while One for the Road, produced by well-known Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar-wai and directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya, tells a story set in Thailand and the United States.
“Thai filmmakers are providing inspiring examples of theme development for their Chinese counterparts,” opined Zhang Dong. “We should open our eyes to a more diverse range of themes. Refreshing change can be realized in the Chinese film industry if practitioners are willing to break new ground based on market demand. More excellent works with high market potential will emerge if Chinese filmmakers take more innovative approaches to addressing universal themes in diverse Asian cultures.”