Dramas of the crisis
Thai television dramas are a unique guide to popular mood. The channels compete hard for viewing numbers and ad spend. They succeed by reflecting their audience’s fears and aspirations. In the boom, the dramas were all about new wealth. What do they tell us since the bust?
In the early stage of the crisis we were promised some real nationalism. Raya was set during the second world war. It imagined a small group of Thai resistance fighters dressed in modishly torn jeans defeating a major portion of the Japanese army on an island in southern Thailand. The Japanese officers were marvellously hateful. The maquisards talked about ‘saving the country’ in nearly every speech.
But this nationalism was clearly targeted in the wrong cardinal direction. Rewriting the history of the second world war to include an American invasion of Thailand was a little too challenging. This trend of historical allusion never got off the ground.
Next came a search for scapegoats. Soi Pratthana set the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire among declining aristocrats and new immigrant Chinese in 1950s Thailand. The final tragedy is triggered by the unruly sexual energy of the young immigrant male. Around the time Soi Pratthana appeared, many liked to blame Thailand’s crisis on the unruly entrepreneurial energy of the Thai-Chinese business dynasties. The metaphor was intriguing. But the message seemed rather one-sided. Again this drama turned out to be a one-off rather than a trend.
Since these early attempts, the messages have been delivered not through plotline but more through setting, casting and theme
Hospitals. Of course, these are a favourite setting for soaps around the world. But last year on almost any evening, riffling across the channels during drama time would turn up at least one hospital scene. Sometimes the invalids are old and decrepit. Much more often, they are young heroes and heroines laid low by misfortune - a car accident, an incurable disease, or a fiendish curse. The metaphor is obvious. The economy is in the ICU. We are invited to sit at the bedside, to sympathise or mourn. The possibilities of a cure seem remote. The wonderful dramatisation of the life of country singer, Phumpuang Duangjan, played this theme to perfection. The western-style doctors prescribed expensive medication and radiated about as much sympathy as the IMF. The local spirit-healer offered self-reliant cures with lots of flagellation and holy water. We all knew the ultimate tragic ending anyway.
Competing women. Over the past year, drama after drama has portrayed strings of beautiful young women competing for the attentions of one man. Of course the man is always attractive, usually rich, and sometimes painfully vulnerable. The women cover the full character range. The rich bitch. The one with the ambitious mother/father. The one who is truly sorry she is more attractive than her older sister. The tomboy. The poor but clever one who will probably turn out to have a car accident or incurable disease (see above). The backstop who represents good family values, and who emerges to comfort the hero after the hospital scene.
What is going on here? Over the boom years, female roles in these dramas had become stronger and self-assertive - running their own businesses, carving our independent careers, taking over corporations. Now they have been reduced to competitive man-chasers. Perhaps the production companies have a surplus of underemployed young actresses, and lure viewers by stuffing as many as possible into one show. But here maybe is the meaning. Unemployment has hit especially badly at women. More have been forced back into home-based roles. At worst, many have been forced back into the traditional safety-net of prostitution, competing for the attentions of men with money.
But maybe this many-women/one-man motif has another meaning beyond gender. Wealth has become much more scarce. The search for it is more competitive. And the end-results more uncertain, more illusory. Many of the dramas on this theme ended with the hero dying or his wealth disappearing.
The new luk kreung. The mixed-race look has been fashionable among singers and stars for at least a decade. But in the last two years, the look has changed. Before, the ideal was to look basically Thai, but with some borrowed features - extra height, a neat nose, wider eyes. These add-ons had to blend in well with the Asian base, and the overall mix should look 80/20 or 60/40 at most. The new-wave stars break these rules. Some reverse the mix to 20/80 or 40/60. Some look totally farang but prove their nationality by command of language. Some have western features (brilliant blue eyes, prominent noses) which don’t blend at all with the Asian base but create a deliberately wonky overall effect.
What do these new creations mean? Are these Thais who are gradually metamorphising into farang? Is the fad for dyeing hair into any colour but Asian-standard black part of the same trend? Is this a collapse of cultural self-confidence, a capitulation brought on by the economic disaster? Asian capitalism is being obliterated, and Asian looks too. Or is there something more subtle and reflexive going on? Perhaps these new hybrid creatures should be seen as farang who have been captured, converted and civilised into Thainess. Is this a message of defiance rather than surrender?
There are two minor sub-types in this new wave who seem to support this second interpretation. The first are real farang who appear in the dramas trying to be Thai. The second have 100 percent Thai looks, but speak Thai with an accent which betrays long years away. These are repatriates who have returned to the motherland after years of misadventure or exile.
These dramas tell an eloquent story about the popular reaction to the crisis. The crude nationalism of Raya, and the search for scapegoats in Soi Pratthana, got no long-term popular response. Instead, the viewing nation has gathered together round the bedside of the stricken economy. The saline drip is the prop of choice. Everyone accepts that wealth has become more scarce, the search for it more competitive, the prospect of success more remote. Women are being forced back into roles from which they had begun to escape. The fascination with mixed-up identities suggests confusion but also a quiet underlying defiance.