Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Music in Thailand - the entertainment black hole

One of the strange quarks about living out here is the flow of fashion from the entertainment world. I've lost count of the numbers of times friends in the UK have asked me "So what do you think of movie/singer/celebrity/band then?" only to be met by my blank stare. I miss my days of being on the cutting edge of the metal and heavy rock scene. These days I have to collect my information from kerrang.com and my friends in the UK. That's not to say that Thailand doesn't have its own thriving entertainment scene, indeed it does, but not as we know it...............

Entertainment in Thailand is a mixture of home grown, Japanese and western talent (I use that final word loosely).


Some western movies can arrive in Thailand more than a year after their release, others can be shown here before they screen in the US. "Madagascar" and "Garfield" are examples of the former , "Collateral" the later.

Japanese and Korean movies and TV soaps can be a big hit over here. Thais seem to find such movies attractive since they have only a minor cultural bridge to cross, appeal to many of the same ideals and are more professionally done. Western (both geographically and thematically!) movies are also a big hit.

And how about the home grown "big screen" affairs? Well, from a foreigner's point of view they can be very hit or miss, but - forgive my harshness - far more "misses". To be fair , the Thai movie making industry is far less mature and financed than even their Asian counterparts. However, the plain truth is that a huge proportion of Thai movies are appalling. So many local movies display signs of professional naivety. Often, the films will try to be all things to all people - featuring terrifying zombie who suddenly starts doing a hilarious dance, followed by the entrance of a kung fu teenager who will perform all kinds of stunts and then be courted by a pretty young girl, followed by the entrance of another hilarious fat ladyboy. Such a heterogeneous mix would challenge even the greatest directors,let alone the local producers.

Whilst awareness seem to be improving, the number of howlers is not dropping. Thai comedies continue to turn out endless tripe, usually full of the same repeated gags : ladyboy jokes, Laos and Isaan tribes behaving stupidly, and fat men falling over. Action films strain to emulate their American contemporaries but lack the funding. I recall one movie last year that featured a gang of Thais saving the world from a Burmese(Thailand's traditional enemy, as opposed to the Laos who provide comical gaffs) terrorist squad armed with a nuclear missile. The "missile" in question was clearly a piece of painted over car meal.

There is one hope on the action scene: a young start known in English as Tony Jaa. This young kid has tremendous martial arts talent and carries off the Jet Li style "innocent but dangerous" character very well. Sadly, Tony (pictured right) seems unable to speak English and all too often has to carry the inept performances of his peers on his shoulders. The hit "Tom Yanng Goong" is a perfect example. Switching between Thailand and Australia, the movie was designed for Tony Jaa to produce action that would open western eyes to his potential. Sadly the producers clearly didn't realise that their usual cast (nearly all Thai films use the same very limited draft pool of actors) couldn't actually speak the language of the script. thus an unintelligible scrip coupled with inept performances produced another disappointment that didn't achieve the US success it wanted.

There are some noted exceptions. "Fan Chan" ("My love") is a good movie. It features the childhood memories of a Thai man and draws some wonderful nostalgic feelings amongst Thais. Too bad they don't make more movies based around their own culture. Historical movies are something the Thai industry can do well, and some of the romantic movies can tug on the heart strings nicely. "Warrior of Ayuddhaya" , "The Letter" and "Dear Dakanda" are my recommendations.

The music world runs along similar lines. Whilst certain western bands have become rooted in local psyche - you'll be hard pressed to escape The Eagles, The Scorpions or Santana over here - more modern bands tend to come and go, but some can miss out altogether.

Japanese pop, known as 'J pop' is popular - again the cute Asian look appeals to the Thais for obvious reasons - and the Thais provide plentiful talent in their own right.

Like many countries, Thailand's cultural development and idiosyncrasies can be seen in its music (and TV). Thai folk will readily acknowledge that traditional Thai music can be hard for foreigners to appreciate, it consists of highlighted singing with subtle changes of tone that can sound to untrained ears like mine as endless wailing. Since bus drivers , restaurant staff and village headmen will happily share this music at full volume with all and sundry, it can be a little trying, even for fellow countrymen.

Modern pop music is comparable to the west. The biggest Thai star is Tata Young. Tata is marketed on her half Thai roots and thus her white skin and ability to sing in English. Whilst paying lip service to Thailand's culture and values, Tata sings about subjects such as sex and boyfriends ala Britney Spears and Chsritina Aguilera. Whilst such topics would be almost expected in the west, they are still controversial enough to make more publicity for the local star. On the rock scene, Thailand has many local bands , of which a fair number can produce some quality tracks. My personal favourites are Ebola (picture left), Silly Fools and Endorpine.

There are plenty of local concert venues, and international stars do play in Bangkok on occasion. Usually this is done when more fashionable venues have already been played. The exception to this was the big festival last year featuring Placebo, Oasis and Franz Ferdinand. Whilst all the above turned out a good gig, frequent reports cited great upset amongst fans and musicians alike at the unprofessionalism of the concert organisers. Lack of stage management, lack of scheduling and lighting exposed organisers' inexperience at handling a true music concert. No further festivals have been announced.

As for the TV, well don't expect too much variety. On the plus side, there is quantifiable news coverage and good sports shows. However, with all but one of the channels owned by the government and the army, it's very much big brother (the 1984 version) on the box. All channels turn out endless soap operas featuring innocent women, wicked parents, a bad boyfriend, a kind boyfriend, an utterly incorruptible police man and a hilarious ladyboy. Most shows consist of the characters screaming at each other inside their large houses complete with swimming pools at the back. In the end the bad person dies and the girl ends up with the kind guy, thanks to assistance from the lovely policeman. Then next week, the same actors take up different characters and do it all again. Don't believe me? You don't live in Thailand.

The light of hope is in ITV, having been hit with a huge fine for illegally cutting its own concessions (courtesy of the Thaksin government who wanted to control the independent station), ITV faces an uncertain future but one hopes to see some media reform set in place.

So all the above sounded negative right? Well I'm just being realistic..There are bright points: some good movies , talented bands, good sports coverage. It's also a massive plus that all these things are cheaper ere. A trip to the newest cinema to see the newest movie won't set you back than 150 baht (about five dollars or two pounds) , music CDs and movie DVDs are half the price they are in the west , even cheaper if you choose to be bad and buy on the ubiquitous and immensely popular black market.

Entertainment in Thailand is a developing industry and it's difficult for a westerner not to compare it against standards they have already known, I've no doubt that Thai music and movies will continue to improve and will turn out some excellent examples of local culture mixed in to excellent art in its own right. I just hope I'll still be lucky enough to live in the land of smiles when that happens.


I hope everyone had a great Christmas. Personally, I had a great time letting Dylan play with his new toys. Blog wise, I'm planning to write a piece on controlling and reconciling with difficult students in the classroom. I'm also planning to write a piece on the western sponsorship of the Khmer Rouge on my political blog. That's all to come i the next couple of weeks I hope.

1 comment:

Richard Zwack said...
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