The Holy Man (Lunag Phi Teng) was a film that I did not originally plan to pay Bt120 (US$3) to watch. It makes no difference whether one sees it in a luxurious multiplex or pays 50 cents for a VCD rental a few months later. But finally the film got me to shell out for a seat twice. The first time was in a downtown theatre where high-end customers mostly enjoy Hollywood blockbusters. In order to observe different audience groups, I also tramped down to a multiplex next to my suburban home, one often visited by the workers in my mother's factory.
This surprise hit bewildered the Thai film circle with unexpected takings of US$3 million in 18 days. It is now climbing into the topten list of alltime Thai film gross. Why is such a B-grade pic for the working-class pulling off multi-million-baht from multiplex filmgoers? Yes, by my definition, it is nang tang-jangwat (up-country flick), not nang khon-muang (city film). But multiplex filmgoers are scattered around Bangkok and its outskirts. Audiences are then classified into two groups the highend and the lower middle-class. Suburban theatres are mainly the home of The Holy Man 's target: Thai migrants who have moved from rural areas to work in the city. Again, I was astonished that this group is really willing to invest more than half of their daily income just to see a movie. Contrary to people's beliefs, the daily minimum wage in Thailand is an unimaginable Bt175 (US$4.375).
As I had anticipated, The Holy Man has no arthouse spirit nor is it of good commercial quality. This nonsensical tale of a bad-boy-turned monk trying to bring back the Buddhist faith to villagers would never stir the hearts of Apichatphong Weerasethakul 's fans. Nor the foreign filmgoers of spectacular Thai kickboxing Ong Bak . The film has no style; this deflated my hope that the film might not be that bad given the involvement of the director's young son with the production. He is young and maybe could have brought some cinematic awareness, while his comedian-cum-director Note Chernyim, also a co-actor, might have paid a tribute to acting. The gags might have conformed to the rules of comedy. But no. They are so-so cheap that they did not trigger laughter from my other city pals. Only one 7-year-old boy often burst out laughing, ironically jerking the adults' comic chemistry to his naivety.
But when I was walking out of the theatres at the end, I clicked to what was happening! There I saw a mixed crowd of youngsters, as well as fathers and mothers, holding their kids' hands. These are not the faces that we usually see at the cinema. These are the people who usually stay at home and watch TV comedy. For the first time they are going into the cinema theatres and for several reasons.
Firstly, they are following their stars. Film analysts once accounted for the death of the stars in Thai cinema. No stars can guarantee big box office. But The Holy Man twisted this hypothesis. Here they show their power in this case, Theng Terdtherng. However, the stars in 2005 are no longer cool-looking men, cute girls, or pop singers, but rather comedians! Theng is one of them. He acts in several TV comedy or series. The monk' role finally drew his fans to follow his new character.
The Holy Man also released with super-good timing. It opened in the first week of March, right after the start of summer school holiday, when all students, from kindergarten to university, stay home for two months. No Hollywood blockbusters. No children flicks. Only a few arthouse or Oscar awardwinners. The Holy Man was the only available option for light relief.
Last but not least, the film has a strong sense of community. We city dwellers are far removed from this kind of life. We forget that in a small village a temple is always the center of everything. An abbot is a man of great respect. And suburban people still retain this kind of sentiment. Everyday, along the 20-km stretch between the city and my home, I pass rundown second-run theatres where blue films are showing, a few open-air theatres where merit-makers pay bribes to God for the fulfillment of their requests, and temple fairs which I often used to visit with my mother's maids. The Holy Man reminds people of this simple lifestyle that they once knew well but which is now disappearing. It is simply nostalgia.
All these exist behind The Holy Man 's pop culture. The production company, Phranakorn Film, is only too aware of these forces. This newly-established production company was originally a northern region distribution company. They know the game, and then make the film bankable.