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Tea Leaves

How a film shaped and captured restless Thai generation

A decade on, nothing has matched GTH's penetrating 'Dear Galileo'

"Dear Galileo" is one of the iconic films released by the now-defunct Thai studio GTH. (Photo by Pim Wangtechawat)

Although the anniversary may go largely unnoticed, 2019 marks a decade since the release of "Dear Galileo," one of the most iconic films made by GTH, a now-defunct studio that changed the face of the Thai movie industry.

GTH was formed in 2003 by GMM Grammy, Thailand's biggest movie and entertainment conglomerate, and two smaller Thai media companies, Tai Entertainment and Hub Ho Hin. It is probably best remembered for its popular first film, "Fan Chan" ("My Girl"), a nostalgic story of a childhood friendship, directed by Vijjapat Kojiw and released the same year.

The studio went on to conquer mainstream Thai cinema with innovative productions such as "Phror Arkad Plian Plang Boi" ("Seasons Change") in 2006, "Kuan Muen Ho" ("Hello Stranger") in 2010, "Pee Mak," a 2013 adaptation of local folklore that is the highest grossing Thai film of all time, and the 2004 horror film "Shutter," which was remade in English in 2008 by Twentieth Century Fox.

But the film that best captured the studio's perfect blend of heart, substance and entertainment was "Nee Dtaam Galileo" ("Dear Galileo") a reflective, Indie-tinged project written by Sopana Chaowwiwatkul and directed by Nithiwat Tharathorn, which appeared in 2009.

In some ways "Dear Galileo" was a departure for GTH since most of the films that followed "My Girl" were heavily polished teenage romances or comedies. "Dear Galileo" offers a personal travel diary: Two female best friends -- one suspended from university, the other trying to get over a relationship breakup -- leave Thailand to live, work and travel in England, France and Italy.

Instead of GTH's usual polished sequences set to melodramatic pop tunes, "Dear Galileo" focuses on quiet character moments. The two friends argue heatedly in a tiny London flat; one huddles in a telephone booth holding back tears as she calls her father in Thailand; both get lost in strange cities while trying to find jobs or places to sleep.

In true GTH fashion, the film cannot resist adding a romantic element: During their stay in Paris one of the girls develops a tentative relationship with another Thai expat. But unlike most Thai teenage films "Dear Galileo" examines the delicate transition from adolescence to adulthood by making the girls reckon with who they are, their place in the world and what it means to take accountability for their own actions.

The brilliant and confident Cherry, played by Chutima Theepanarth, places the blame for her suspension from university on the professor whose signature she forged instead of on herself, but her steadfast belief that she is always right is severely tested when it puts her best friend in jeopardy. Toey, played by Jarinporn Joonkiat, must learn to grow out of her childish tendencies and embrace what it means to be independent.

At its core "Dear Galileo" is a story about friendship. But it is also a thoughtful, contemplative exploration of what life is like for Thais living abroad. It is not just a portrayal of homesickness but of being displaced, especially in the West, and the unique and intense loneliness that accompanies it.

Thais who have had similar experiences can easily relate to the characters' cluelessness in the different cultures in which they find themselves, and the sense of community they develop. One of the most memorable images is of two characters standing in the middle of a busy Parisian sidewalk, holding up a sign in Thai that says "Raise your hand if you miss home." They draw greetings from Thai strangers who happen to be passing by.

The film also touches on the immigrant experience of "otherness" -- the sense of being different and distinct in a society made up of people who dismiss or judge you based on what you look like or how well you speak their language. Whether you are being refused service at a pharmacy or you are a Thai chef who has to make a run for it every time the immigration authorities appear, the sense of foreboding is always deeply felt: When we're living in their country, we must always watch our backs.

The experiences portrayed in the film are significant because they are unique to people of color who have lived or been forced to exist in "white" spaces. It is difficult to make sense of this reality for those who have never experienced it, or never will. The issue is easily trivialized. But that ignores the subtle otherness that can be laced into the simplest of gestures and scenarios -- a word, a look, a glance or a lack of engagement. What "Dear Galileo" shows is something more profound than a simple yearning for home -- a sense of never quite belonging that demands an answer to the dreadful question: "Where is home for me now?"

The breakup of GTH in 2015, due to internal conflicts over a stock listing, was received with shock in Thailand, and in the wider film world. One prominent Thai newspaper dubbed it "undoubtedly the most powerful and successful film studio of its era," while Variety, the American entertainment journal, said the studio had been "instrumental in shaping the landscape of Thai cinema."

Some of the creative figures behind the studio went on to establish a new entertainment venture named GDH, while others branched off to do television work. One former GTH director, Songyos Sugmakanan (co-director of "My Girl" and director of "Dek Hor," or "Dorm," in 2006), founded Nadao Bangkok, the studio responsible for "Pidtermyai Huajai Wawoon" ("Hormones," 2008) and "Lueat Khon Khon Chang" ("In Family We Trust," 2018) -- two TV shows that gained popularity in Thailand for their bold portrayals of teenage and family drama.

However, much of GDH's film output consists of glossy, mainstream teenage experiences designed as star-vehicles for contract players. Some have been commercially successful, such as "Nong, Pee, Teerak" ("Brother of the Year," 2018) and "Homestay" (2018). But none has come close to the groundbreaking "My Girl," or illuminated social conditions quite as delicately and powerfully as "Dear Galileo."

Pim Wangtechawat is a Bangkok-based writer.

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