Siamese cinema enters its mid-year mark with dispiriting news: Jira Malikul's Mahalai

Naysayers have it easy that the film is a bust because it's not good enough, a rap that's much too harsh though not entirely inaccurate.

The Tin Mine is so far the biggest project of 2005 and came from the director of the much-cherished 15 Kham Duan 11 (Mekhong Full Moon Party). Adapted from the serialised stories by National Artist Archin Panchaphan, the movie chronicles the author's life when, as a young man in the 1950s, he was kicked out of a famous university and sent by his dad to work as a labourer in a southern mine. Combining comedy and idealism to awkward effect, Jira's movie nevertheless champions values such as hard work, integrity and perseverance, and although the film's too mild-mannered to leave a long-lasting afterthought, one can sense the sincerity of the filmmakers in every frame.

It was a tough movie to sell, admitted the film's executive even before its release. The target market was difficult to pin, and Thai audiences are notorious for avoiding a movie about which they can't form a preconception _ we prefer to have a clear idea from a poster if a movie is going to make us laugh or cry or excited, and anything in-between is chucked. The Tin Mine's ambiguity, its lack of an identifiable image, works to undermine the heavy marketing artillery that promoted it as a proud film that Thai people should be proud to see.

At the economic level, the movie's failure emphasises the unpredictability _ the chronic instability _ of the Thai film industry, which is moving into the second half of the year with one shaky foot. But culturally speaking, is it possible that The Tin Mine was defeated by general ignorance because its governing sentiments are simply out of sync with the rest of society? Is it possible that the idealism, as promoted by the movie, of working hard to earn one's life lesson is no longer valid among youngsters?

In the political climate when the mantra of get-rich-quick predominates, the film's worship of sweat and honour might seem outdated, even naive, among young people surfing the heat of Thaksin-era capitalism. For most people, the real benefit of modern education is to help them avoid the prospect of lowly hard labour, and perhaps the film's notion that such hard labour _ a form of honest self-examination _ is the source of a man's true worth has become too alien to chew.

It's interesting to compare notes between The Tin Mine and another movie ``with a message'', Hoam Rong, or The Overture. That movie, about a traditional Thai musician released last year, initially suffered a trifling box office receipt but orchestrated a stunning turnaround when the theme of nationalism, finding its metaphor in the dying art of traditional music, was pushed to the fore. The Ministry of Culture even came out to endorse it. Thus cinema may generally be a liberal art, but it seems that in Thailand it's often a tool of conservatism _ and nationalism, often blind and shallow, is now a trump card when a Thai movie labours to find a valid ``message''. In their last bid, the backers of The Tin Mine tried to rally support in the similar vein of The Overture, but without the goosebump-inducing sensation of ``Thai culture'' the audience didn't buy it.

The Tin Mine's poor reception will affect the course of Thai movies of the next 12 months in a significant way. Hard as it already is for directors to pitch their content-based projects, the situation will get even more sticky for them. We'll definitely see more ghost movies and comedies, surefire formulas for quick cash _ and though that's not a bad thing in itself it means the industry will have to forfeit the merit of variety. Much effort will be spent on creating the ``image'' of movies rather than on the movies themselves. And even if studio bigshots maintain an inkling of faith that a well-meaning film, perhaps with a subject matter that's not entire appealing to the masses, is still worth making, The Tin Mine's flop has heavily eroded that belief.

Playing into that hand is the fact that the top-grossing movie of the year so far is the B-grade slapstick Luang Pee Teng. An OK movie in its own fashion, the film's now beaming in the top-5 list of the country's all-time highest earners, and that confirms the truth that in Thailand the function of art is still purely to entertain. For artists who believe otherwise, they'll have to bite their lips and go back to toil hard labour in their own creative tin mine. Perhaps idealism has stopped working both on and off the silver screen.

Kong Rithdee Muang Rae (The Tin Mine), probably the most anticipated movie of the year, has become a casualty at the local ticket booths after tilling in a mere 25 million baht for its reportedly 70-million-plus cost. Such dreary performance of a well-meaning, content-based film draws ensuing questions: Is this simply a case of misjudged marketing on the filmmakers' part? Is it an ultimate proof of Bangkokians' movie-going waywardness? Or, to stretch it further, is the flop of this seemingly likeable movie a looking glass into the complex situation of cultural appreciation and even the country's social climate?




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