My Girl, or ‘Fan Chan’, was enormously successful. It was the top domestic film at the Thai box office the year of its release and was the ninth top grossing Thai film of 2000-2010. Why was this?
To put it simply, the film is easy to watch. At the centre of the film is not its dialogue, but beautiful scenery, retro memorabilia, eighty’s pop music, emotional trinkets and culture references. These familiar devices transform old objects into emotional reminders of what was.
Amidst a sea of post-modern films such as Tears of the Black Tiger and Ruang Talok, the six directors of My Girl, Nithiwat Taratorn, Songyot Sukmakanan, Komgrit Treewimol, Vittaya Thongyuyong, Vijja Kojew and Adisorn Treesirikasem, created a world that was “a [safe] distance from [Thailand’s] crisis” (Knee, 102). My Girl’s national popularity, contrasted with the limited national success of Tears of the Black Tiger and Ruang Talok 69, suggests that My Girl provided Thai audiences with a welcome break from global realities.
My Girl’s story is presented to us through children. Locating the film in childhood separates the story from the woes of adult life and makes the film immediately accessible. As Kong Rithdee writes, film is an “effective tool in helping us remember, and the cute kid flick Fan Chan is a romantic feast of remembering.” (2003) Through Jaeb and Noi Nah’s childhood, the six young directors cast their minds back to the not so distant past, encouraging the audience to remember with them.
What perhaps makes the film most accessible is that it is overflowing with familiarity. The childhood story plays out in a non-descript provincial town with a gang of friends. Whilst all of the children have defined characteristics, they are not deeply developed. Instead, the six directors create a gang of friends that “remind [Thai audiences] more or less of [their] own pre-teen bunches, complete with the fatso, the sidekick, the nerd, the rich kid, the clueless, and the outsider trying so hard to get in.” (Rithdee, 2003) Childhood is used to take the audience down memory lane, presenting scenarios likely to spark personal memories individual to every viewer. The film brings to life every day events and childhood dramas, romanticizing stories that every one has; the school scenes which see the children singing the national anthem, the daily ‘conversations’ in English before class, outbreaks of head lice and heated football games.
The use of music in My Girl makes the audience feel even more at home. Via pop music from the eighties, strong feelings of nostalgia are generated. Through music, it is possible to “keep the viewer located somewhere else” (Sprengler, 2001, 76). Furthermore, the music that carries us through the film is happy, light and catchy, reflecting the overall mood of the film. This is again reflected using pathetic fallacy, where the weather remains beautiful for the entirety of the film with the exception of a cloudy sky when Noi Nah leaves. “Choreographing the action…to the music reinforces this fabricated and delusive harmony between the content of the song and the content of the image” (Sprengler, 2001, 77)
A multitude of cultural references also contributes to the success of My Girl. As Kong Rithdee writes,
“Stars who symbolise the 1980s like Anussara Jantarangsee, Wongkasorn Ratsameetat, and Caraboa guitarist Preecha Chanapai are cast in the adult supporting roles, obviously not because of their acting skills but because their presence smells of the not-too-distant-yet-not-too-close air of the 1980s.” (2003)
There are also references to popular music groups such as the girl band ‘Sao, Sao, Sao’ and popular Thai tv series from the 1980’s. However, the cultural references do not stop there. The directors open up the film to the rest of Southeast Asia with cultural references to the Japanese cartoon Doraemon. Doraemon appears throughout the film on various items of clothing, as well as the character of Jack who is very similar to the ‘big boy’ in Doraemon.
Whilst the film is firmly rooted in the past, the ending takes the audience back to the present day to Noi Nah’s wedding. Jaeb says that “the trip back home made me realise how much things had changed”, yet Noi Nah remains the young girl with plaits, frozen in his mind and frozen in time, just like the perceived idea of what it is to be Thai. The film’s nostalgia and bittersweet memories are representative of the ‘Thainess’ which people will not forget, but will carry with them into a Western future.
Adam Knee, Gendering the Thai Economic Crisis: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Christine Sprengler, Screening Nostalgia, 2001
Kong Rithdee, Bangkok Post, 2003