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Tea Leaves

TV drama shines unsettling light on Thai family values

Improbably happy endings emerge from complex and painful social dynamics

"In Family We Trust" has struck a chord with many Thai viewers.

One of the most popular TV dramas in Thailand in recent years has been the hit series "Leud Kon Khon Jang" ("In Family We Trust"). A murder mystery with both new and well-known actors, the show's focus is on the fictional Jira-anan family -- a vast and wealthy Thai-Chinese clan that is thrown into chaos when the patriarch, ah gong (grandpa), dies from natural causes and his eldest son is murdered under mysterious circumstances.

"In Family We Trust" entertains because of its exaggerated whodunit mystery. But it is its portrayal of family -- the intensity of close proximity, the secrets, the love and attention and the lack or surfeit of both -- that grounds the show in reality and has catapulted it to nationwide popularity. The intricacies of Thai-Chinese families, which can be difficult for outsiders to grasp, are on full display: How intertwined the family members' lives are; the extent to which wives are expected to blend in seamlessly with their husbands' families; the way sons are overly favored and feted while daughters are regarded as less valuable.

After portraying the pain and the damage these family dynamics can cause, the show wrapped up its 18-episode run with a string of smooth, happy resolutions. Tear-jerking scenes of family members apologizing, making amends and forgiving each other for past insensitivities and crimes dominated the last two episodes. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and audiences on social media continue to post screen-shots from the final episode, delighting in the image of a united and loving family.

Although emotionally effective, this happy ending reads more like a fantasy sequence, belonging to an alternate universe where extremely painful events -- a murder, a poisoning, years of neglect and secrecy -- are nothing more than bumps in the road, or simple morality lessons. We are immersed in a universe where every father, mother, grandparent and sibling is miraculously capable of experiencing amazing revelations about his or her shortcomings and fervently vowing to do better.

Considering how deeply ingrained the importance of family ties is in Thai and Chinese culture, this ending should have been expected. The Jira-anan family to which we regretfully say farewell in the show's finale could not have remained fractured; the formula does not allow for such a painful conclusion. It is rare to see a mainstream Thai film or TV series centered around family that does not end with everyone holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." "Hormones," another popular series by the same director and studio, follows the same pattern. When a teenage girl discovers that she and her mother are her father's "other" family, the storyline -- reflective of vital and thorny issues in Thai society -- is neatly resolved in the next episode. The father wins his estranged daughter's forgiveness simply by presenting her with a birthday cake.

This intense filial loyalty -- a sense of gratitude or indebtedness known as kwam ka tun yoo -- is a core value in many Asian societies. Much of what drives the plot of "In Family We Trust" is sons attempting to protect their mothers from heartbreak or judgment by hiding evidence and betraying the trust of other loved ones, including their girlfriends and siblings. The mothers, too, are forsaking all reason in trying to shelter their sons or preserve their inheritance.

The theme is in step with conversations now taking root among Thailand's young people about the impracticality of these values in today's society, and the harm they do. There are open discussions on social media about how this enhanced sense of obligation can leave children struggling as young adults to lead lives separate from their parents, and dealing with expectations that they will take care of their parents both financially and physically once they start to  earn their own incomes. Retirement homes in Thailand have acquired a negative image because of this expectation.

Putting the family on such a pedestal perhaps makes it harder for Thais to work through the pain they inflict on each other. Processing the damage wrought by our own flesh and blood still feels deeply unfamiliar, selfish and ungrateful. So we tend to move from conflict to reconciliation in the blink of an eye, ignoring the murkier in-betweens that might be essential to our journeys as individuals.

Perhaps this is why familial love tends to emerge triumphant in most Thai films and TV dramas, no matter how high the price. And why we seem to find such comfort in the happy endings writ large on our screens.

Pim Wangtechawat is a Bangkok-based writer.

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