Touted as the first real Lao movie in 33 years, 'Sabaidee Luang Prabang' could prove the launch pad for a cultural revival
The country was once an ambiguity. Now it's a hot bed of fascination, a place with an oddly magnetic pull, so close yet so far, so similar yet so foreign. Forever landlocked but no longer shell-shocked, the Lao People's Democratic Republic has shrugged off its enigmatic past and looks set for a present full of hurly-burly. Nowadays, Bangkok hipsters find few cities cooler than Luang Prabang; our new foreign minister plans a visit to Vientiane next week; the nation will host the next SEA Games; the R3A highway now links Thailand and China via Laos, touted as the new golden economic triangle.
Suddenly remembered after years of being forgotten, Laos is also now ready to have some fun. So how about the first "real" Lao movie in 33 years?
Principally a curiosity, but hopefully a seed of cultural revival, Sabaidee Luang Prabang is going through the final phase of post-production in a Bangkok editing room. The film bears the Lao flag, but its true lineage is a heady cross-pollination of different personalities and cultures: Sabaidee Luang Prabang is co-directed by Kiev-educated Laotian Anusorn Sirisakda and Thai filmmaker Sakchai Deenan (who's originally from the province of Surin in the Northeast), and stars red-hot Bangkok-based Laotian-Australian actor Ananda Everingham and Vientiane beauty queen Khamlek Pallawong.
The money came from both sides of the Mekhong with Lao Art Media, a major record label in Laos, making its first foray into moviemaking together with its Thai partner, Sparta, a production house in the Laos-bordering province of Ubon Ratchathani. So, to be precise, it should be called the first ever Lao-Thai film.
After adopting communism in 1975, Laos virtually ceased its moviemaking activities. The three films made in the past 33 years - Thung Hai Hin, Bua Daeng and Krua Payachang - were funded by the Lao and Vietnamese governments, and invariably told nationalistic stories of communist victories over foreign enemies.
"We think of Sabaidee Luang Prabang as a Lao feature film, the first to be privately funded since 1975," director Anusorn says on the phone from his Vientiane office. "We wrote the story together [with Thai director Sakchai], and the main market will be Thailand. What we want to do is show the beauty of Laos, and of course the film will greatly benefit from the growing fame of Luang Prabang.
"It's part of government policy to encourage more productions of movies and TV series, to play a role in improving the economy."
It's not just the famous city, a World Heritage site, that features in the film. Sabaidee Luang Prabang is a road movie that spans the north-south stretch of Laos, from the delta of Pak Se to the capital Vientiane and magical Luang Prabang. Ananda, seemingly the busiest actor in Thailand, plays a character loosely moulded after himself. Sorn is a Bangkok-based Laotian-Australian journalist who travels to Laos and develops a special feeling towards the country of his father (in real-life, Ananda's father is Australian, his mother Laotian) and especially towards his female guide, called Noi.
Initially planning to leave right after completing his assignment, Sorn calls his Lao dad and is told to visit his home village in the northern region, so he and Noi hit the road together in a cross-country voyage to find his roots.
From the trailer, Sabaidee appears to have the sweetened air of a romantic story, and if there are any particular Lao elements in it besides the location, they don't come across in the promo reel.
"I'm an Isan guy," says Thai co-director Sakchai. "I've been to Laos several times, and I really like the place and the people.
"Originally I wanted to make a soul-searching story about a half-Laotian character who goes to Laos for the first time. But, well, that sounds boring. So in the end Anusorn and I made it into a love story. But still, I believe that having Ananda in the lead role gives the film a certain depth."
A certain depth, as well as a boost for marketing prospects and cultural authenticity. The 25-year-old actor, who appeared in four films last year and has five more waiting to open in 2008, says that despite dozens of scripts landing on his doorstep over the past year, he was exceptionally eager to play Sorn because of his own Lao connection. Reputedly one of the most expensive stars at work in the region, Ananda slashed his fee to almost nothing and came on board as one of the film's producers.
"It gave me a special energy to be in a production like this," says Ananda, who was born in Thailand, carries an Australian passport and visited Laos for the first time 10 years ago.
"It's a small movie," he continues. "We didn't have much money, so we hit the road and shot our scenes along the way. Sometimes we just knocked on a stranger's door and asked if we could shoot a scene in their house, and wherever we shot it became an event for the whole town.
"As a half-Laotian, I feel a connection to the country and I want to know more about it. This film is very personal to me. In my mind, I want Sabaidee Luang Prabang to become more than just a movie: I want it to become something that can represent Laos, something that the country can be proud of. As a matter of fact, a lot of Thai people still look down on Laos, and it stings me sometimes to think about that."
LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR
It has stung quite a number of people, actually. In the brutal hierarchy of post-colonial snobbery, Laos seems to occupy, unfairly, a lower rung of the ladder. As Thais complain that Westerners look down on us, so Thais in Bangkok look down on Thais in Isan, and many Thais, maybe out of habit rather than malice, view Laotians as an inferior class. Despite being sensitive to the way Westerners portray us in film, we've demonstrated on more than a few occasions how we can be so insensitive in the way we portray our neighbours on film.
Two years ago, the Lao ambassador to Bangkok came out to criticise the way his countrymen were caricatured in the film Mak Teh (Lucky Losers), a simple comedy in which the Lao national football team are portrayed as a bunch of gullible clowns. The case sparked a furore among Laotians and prompted an intervention from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The filmmakers issued an apology, erased the Lao national flag from jerseys of the characters, and re-dubbed every reference to Laos as a new, fictional nation, Awee.
Then last year, just when Sakchai was proposing the idea of Sabaidee Luang Prabang to Anusorn and Lao Art Media, a group of Laotian women complained about about the Thai soap opera Pleng Rak Song Fang Kong (Love Songs Across The Mekhong), which featured a love story between a Thai man and a Lao girl. The protesters claimed that the portrayals of Laotian girls as men-baiting seducers were detrimental to their image.
To shoot a movie in Laos, a company needs to submit the script to the Ministry of Culture. In part because Sakchai and Anusorn were aware of recent controversies, their script, in a way, had already been self-censored, and they got the approval with only minor changes - or "comments", as Sakchai puts it.
"Though we're close neighbours, a film that involves both Thai and Lao characters can be sensitive," says Sakchai. "But we got the permission all right. On the set, there were Lao officials present - not to supervise us but to give suggestions, and their comments were very useful in our attempts to accurately depict Lao culture. It's the same when a foreign production comes to shoot in Thailand, we have an official accompanying them."
"We're telling a good story here," adds Anusorn. "So there was no problem at all."
In Vientiane there are only two movie theatres, which mostly show Thai films. When they set out to make Sabaidee Luang Prabang, both directors knew that the main market would be Thai audiences. And with some luck, the movie may travel internationally - if the tag "first Lao film" carries any weight among festival programmers. At the moment, Sakchai is pondering a few options, but it's yet to be decided how and when the movie will be distributed in Thailand.
"It would be impossible to make the movie by relying on a Lao audience," Anusorn says, laughing. "At least not right now."