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'Thai wave' in showbiz poised for big splash in China

Popular film 'Bad Genius' pushes Tencent and content providers to bolster business

From left, Thai actor Teeradon Supapunpinyo, model and actress Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying and actor Chanon Santinatornkul attend a press conference for the movie "Bad Genius" in Beijing on Oct. 21. (Imaginechina via AP Images)   © AP

BANGKOK -- A "Thai wave" in entertainment has rolled into Chinese shores thanks to 2017 box office hit "Bad Genius," as this first big commercial success opens opportunities to tap the world's second-largest showbiz market.

The heist thriller involving school exams was one of six movies from outside the mainland or Hollywood that ranked among the top 100 in China last year. The distributor struck gold, paying only $500,000 for screening rights in China while the film grossed over 270 million yuan ($42.6 million).

Rave reviews on movie rating sites such as Douban and Mtime sent word of mouth spreading like wildfire in cyberspace, giving "Bad Genius" a record gross in China for a Thai movie.

Chinese companies ranging from internet giant Tencent Holdings and online video platform Sohu TV to movie distributors including Ruci Yinghua Film are bolstering ties with Thai players to bring in more celebrities, idol dramas, movies and directors of TV commercials from the Southeast Asian country. And the collaboration looks poised to deepen.

Shanghai-based Signal Pictures, which imports Thai entertainment products and holds Thai idol fan meets in China, is negotiating with GMM Grammy -- the largest media conglomerate on the Stock Exchange of Thailand -- to purchase rights to make Chinese versions of popular Thai dramas.

"Maybe we are not looking at a big scale for now, but we see the great potential," company chief Fang Yi told Chinese media.

For about three years, Signal Pictures has teamed with Thai directors to produce over 70 commercials for clients such as Maidong sports drink, Ford Motor China and Snickers chocolate bars. The company did not immediately respond to queries by Nikkei Asian Review.

Beijing-based Sohu TV reportedly intends to invest in Thai dramas to gain exclusive broadcast rights.

The Chinese public has long exposure to Thai productions of sorts, starting with TV ads going viral on microblogging site Weibo. Netizens hail this content as touching and creative, transcending borders and language barriers.

Thai cinema, famed for its horror flicks, has long been considered the most mature in Southeast Asia. These films have been released in nearly every Southeast Asian country, capitalizing on the growing multiplex scene in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, apart from the established markets of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Cultural proximity and recognizable stars also allow seamless regional crossover, a natural advantage that does not apply to Western markets.

Model and actress Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying stars in "Bad Genius," which achieved the highest gross in China by a Thai film. (Imaginechina via AP Images)   © AP

This "Thai wave" in entertainment looks ready to court China, which drew 1.62 billion cinema viewers last year and racked up 52.3 billion yuan in box office receipts.

Thai A-list actor Nawat "Pong" Kulrattanarak has been a Thai trailblazer in the Chinese market. His soap opera "Battle of Angels," which depicts bitter fights among air stewardesses for fame and men, gained regional attention in 2008 with its dramatic plot. The 39-year-old actor gained further fame in China after a domestic network, Anhui TV, aired a series of Thai dramas in which he starred.

Despite speaking little Mandarin at the time, Pong was sought after as Chinese producers said his looks, seasoned acting and Thai-Chinese descent appealed to the mainland audience. In 2015, he even took a lead role in Chinese romance drama "Love Jewelry," followed by an online series "Revive" produced by a unit of Tencent.

Some Thai TV programs have gained popularity in China as well. "Princess Hours," a Thai remake of a South Korean idol drama of the same name, last year was dubbed into Chinese and played on a video streaming platform under Tencent. Views per episode peaked at 500 million.

Chinese movie critics said audiences are growing tired of formulaic Hollywood blockbusters and need something unique that offers quality and to which they can relate. "Bad Genius" involves a simple exam-cheating plot that intrigued many Chinese who must endure the grueling college entrance exam, or "gaokao."

Sa-ngopkarn Moungthong, the first secretary at the Thai Embassy in Beijing, attributed the rise of this "Thai wave" in China to the Belt and Road Initiative, which deepened cultural exchanges between China and Southeast Asia. Record numbers of Chinese visitors to Thailand also should create opportunities for Thai entertainment to spread in China.

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