Thai movie stars once exerted considerable gravitas while representing certain social and cultural values, but where are all the 'real' superstars in today's Thai showbusiness?
There was a time when a tall, herculean hero ruled the theatre marquee along with his perfectly-coiffured, doe-eyed heroine. He was Mitr Chaibancha, now dead for 35 years, she was Petchara Chaowarat, still alive, old and almost blind. At their height in the 1960s, they dominated Thai cinema with such indisputable authority as two deities, their gravitas so irresistible that audiences flocked to their movies not to see the movies but to see them. They were Thai showbiz's first superstars, in a bygone age when that word hasn't been overused and trivialised.
After Mitr there was Sombat Metanee, another tall, muscular hunk, and after him there was Sorapong Chatree, arguably the best Siamese actor to ever grace the big screen. In the female league, Aranya Namwong was pitched as Petchara's heiress apparent and she pulled it off to good measure. Other names that still ring with fond memories are Pitsamai Wilaisak, Kanchit Kwanpracha, Pawana Chanajit, Yodchai Meksuwan, Jatupol Puapirom, Jarunee Suksawat, and more. Our last on-screen couple eligible for the superstar pedestal were Santisuk Promsiri and Jintara Sukapat, who kept the cinematic wheel turning excitedly in the 1980s.
They were the last because after them, it's perplexing - if not shocking - that the local film industry has failed to produce any single real superstar, and by this we mean one who can draw people to the theatre just because they see his/her name on the bill, one whose charisma, more so than talent, sustains the enchantment and magic of the movies, one who sucks the audiences into his/her orbit like the sun does to its planets, one who's idolised, who will be remembered, like we still remember Mitr and Petchara and Sombat and Sorapong.
Not a single one during the past 20 years. The obvious question is, why?
Stars are important for a number of reasons, culturally and economically. Their presence can easily guarantee the prosperity of the film industry (think Hollywood), and add tangible value to the filmmaking business (think Korea). By attracting huge audiences, stars validate the existence of cinema in a time when television screens and home theatre systems keep getting bigger and louder. Above all, stars are suppliers of happy myths to a society hit by harsh reality; they embody the quality the masses yearn for but never quite possess.
"Superstars like Mitr and Petchara were mirror images of something larger-than-life," says film historian Dome Sukwong.
"In the old days Thai people saw movies as they would see traditional likay dance: they wanted something unreal, something bigger or smaller than what they experienced in everyday life. They looked for a dream. Mitr and Petchara rose to fame during the dictatorial governments, and they provided real escape to the people."
It helped that Mitr was a giant, a full-bodied, 1.9-metre-tall fellow, whereas leading men in modern Thai movies are skinny boys who get by with that hokum-sounding "metrosexual appeal". It also helped that no audience had ever heard Mitr's or Petchara's real voices - all Thai films in the 1960s, even the 35mm ones, were dubbed - and thus the screen god and his goddess were removed even further from the plain of reality.
This perception of superstars as mythical was accorded by the total absence, in those days, of what's flooding our every waking hours nowadays: gossip news, often disguised as "entertainment reports". Several observers agree that the most significant factor that renders superstars an extinct breed is their over-exposure in today's media outlets that only perform the great disservice of diminishing their god-like aura.
The tabloid culture that feeds on people's hunger to peep into the private lives of celebrities has shortened the shelf life of those celebrities themselves. You can't gossip about the gods. Mythical beings have no personal lives. When they do, they cease to be a myth.
"In his long career, I think Mitr appeared on television only twice," says Dome. "Of course, television wasn't as widespread as it is today, but he hardly gave any interviews to anybody anyway. He worked 30 days a month. There was no way that ordinary people could spot him in person, and that happened only when he allowed, like when he travelled to the provinces to promote his new movie.
"He knew that it's important to keep people in the dark about what was reality and what was not. Mitr knew that he should let the audiences know that the only place they could see him was on the screen. Only up there did he exist. Something like that is impossible for film actors and actresses today."
Bona fide superstars exude an enigma that seems to grow in its intensity as time passes - think Mitr, Bogart, Bacall, Grant, Connery, Deneuve. But when the tabloids splash unflattering photos of caught-off-guard celebrities for the world to see on a daily basis, it manifests the clash of the real with the make-believe, fuelled by the lust of modern viewers who claim the right to "view" everything.
"We have to accept the fact that the age when we can revere movie stars is over," says Prawit Tang-aksorn, film lecturer at Chulalongkorn University. "We used to feel special when we saw our favourite actors on the cinema screen, but such feeling doesn't exist any more. The media bombard us with celebrity news with such relentlessness that we get bored easily, and we are unable appreciate any actor with the kind of wide-eyed excitement like before."
The invasion of tabloids is probably an offshoot of the shift in the status of film stars in regard to the society that they serve. At some point, around the 1970s, people watched movies and no longer yearned for fantasy but for representations of reality. In Thailand, Dome cites the political turmoil of the early '70s that culminated with the bloody incident on October 14, 1973, as a turning point after which the audience began to look at movie stars more as reflections of real life, real persons.
Mitr was dead by then, and Sombat Metanee and Aranya Namwong had moved in to acquire the position of new screen deities. But soon the public saw the emergence of another charismatic actor, Sorapong Chatree, who preferred roles of struggling poor people or country migrants lucking it out in Bangkok. His characters were not the idealised state of human beings, but just human beings.
It's impossible to imagine how movie stars today could climb the ladder of fame by playing such dusty roles, but Sorapong did because he represented something the audiences identified with in those days. (In Hollywood, too, the 1970s was the time when glamorous stars gave way to serious actors like Robert De Niro).
Still, the period of soul-searching was short, particularly so in this country. The 1980s saw the first rays of Thailand's economic boom, and that brought with it a new class of movie-goers, younger, richer and with a much shorter attention span - they didn't want to see the same stars on the screen over and over, they wanted new "superstars" fashioned for them in every new movie.
Santisuk Promsiri and Jintara Sukapat became teen icons and the last specimens of megastars. But then came the gloomy stretch of the Thai film industry in the late 1980s to mid 1990s, and a sudden drop in production meant superstars, real ones, became endangered.
"The domination of television is another factor that prevents the emergence of real superstars," adds Chulalongkorn lecturer Prawit. "Because there aren't that many Thai movies getting made each year [in Mit's time there were 200 productions a year, now the number is around 40], Thai actors are forced to make a living by playing in TV series.
"But on TV you can't feel the same kind of magic you feel when you see someone on the big screen. Television is more accessible, and something that's easily accessible doesn't have a special value; it doesn't lend the aura of mystery to the stars. It's not so difficult becoming a celebrity these days, but then it's not difficult for the audience to easily get bored with that celebrity either."
Prawit doesn't want to believe that Thai actors are no longer competent enough to secure a loyal fanbase who would eventually erect them on a pedestal of superstardom. Compared to other countries, the extinction of genuine superstars may not be unique in Thailand, though the situation is obviously more acute here. Hollywood may have only one Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn, but the industry always manages to groom up surefire crowd-pullers, like Cruise and Pitt and Hanks and Roberts and more.
In Hong Kong, the popular heat of Chinese cinema may have long cooled, but superstars like Tony Leung and Andy Lau continue to "open" movies with a bang - not only in their own countries but in other parts of Asia as well. It's a cinch that they both are on their way to becoming legends.
Korea, too, apparently realises the fortune of having megastars in circulation, and in its serious attempt to conquer the world with entertainment products like it once did with electronic goods, the country has pushed young stars like Bae Yong-jun or Jun Ji-hyun to make a headway with international audiences.
Our last observer ponders the dearth of Thai superstars and offers a sound class-conscious explanation. Wisit Sasanatieng, director of Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger) and Mah Nakorn (Citizen Dog), who's also a big fan of Mitr and Sorapong, says it's all about the attitude of people in the acting business, in the past as opposed to today's. "During Mit's time, stars respected their profession, they devoted their whole lives to it because it's all they did for a living. They loved their job, and they were ready to sacrifice anything for it," he says.
"Great stars like Mitr, Petchara, Sombat and Sorapong all came from a working-class background. They were poor people who knew they had to work hard and gave it all they got. Acting was traditionally regarded in this country as a lowly profession, and only people who really loved it would want to take it seriously.
But that's not the case in today's show business. People whom we call `stars' nowadays mostly have a wealthy background. Many of them simply want to become famous, they don't really love what they're doing. It's all superficial. Some even become `stars' just because they have no other skills to make a living. Wealth is not enough for them, they want celebrity status too.
"In short," Wisit concludes, "they don't respect their profession, so it's hard for the audience to respect them the way we did respect stars from the old days."
Such words are harsh, but Wisit grants an exception in the spectacular rise of Jaa Panom, aka Tony Jaa, a poor Isan boy who's become internationally known from Ong-bak and Tom Yum Goong. "He seems grateful that he's been this famous this soon," Wisit says. "That's a good sign."
And hopefully there will be more stars like Jaa. In this age when PR machines and force-fed entertainment news ensure that a "star" is born every day, it's easy to forget how genuine movie stars once had a cultural and social significance.
When the connection between the audience and the personalities on the screen has been severed, so-called supertars, like everything else, have become a commodity, cheap and dispensible. There's nothing magical about that at all.