Why Netflix’s Korean series beat Thai series hands down

Thai soap operas are doing the rights and plights of Thai women no favours…it is time the industry grows up and leaves the tropes and clichés behind.

By | Wed 6 Oct 2021

On Netflix now are the Korean-made Squid Game and Thai-made Bangkok Breaking series. Squid Game is premised on the story of 456 financially struggling South Koreans, shunned by society, who volunteered to compete in six brutal survival games, organised by a mysterious corporation. The last person literally left standing wins the grand prize of $39 million. Simple premise, right? What makes this K-series great (9.4/10 online rating) is its underlying dark undertone. After the first deadly game, the remaining players voted to leave the game to return to their old lives. But, as we found out, the real life is just as harsh and brutal as life inside the game. The crushing economic reality; the bitter disputes with loved ones; the legal/illegal debt they must pay. In the end, they returned to the game. That’s a powerful narrative.

By contrast is Bangkok Breaking (6.5/10). Because there’s so much new content on Netflix, I have neither time nor patience to watch the entire series unless the first episode can hook me in. While the Thai series has an intriguing storyline about the dark side of a local ambulance foundation (yes, it involves corruption), it fails to deliver the right punches. I found many parts in the first episode drawn out and confusing. A female staff reporter called her boss editor “Pa” (which connotes ‘sugardaddy’ in Thai.). Trust me it wouldn’t end well for both if a US female reporter calls her boss “daddy.”

I stopped consuming Thai entertainment 30 years ago. Why? In 1991 Thai soap operas, you see a mistress (mia noi) slapping her rival’s face over a man. In 2021, you still see them slapping one another. Both have the obligatory gay character, serving as comical relief.

So why can Thai series not compete against K-series? Simple economics. (1) Lack of imagination and incentive from producers (the supply-side). Thai dramas and movies typically center on ghosts, love/cheating, or glorifying ancient Thai kingdoms. (2) From the demand-side, Thai consumers enjoy ghosts and love stories. Thus, producers produce what they believe will be profitable. With that profit, they make similar movies/series, which, in turn, reinforces consumers’ tastes, and so on, in a vicious loop. There is no incentive in making original series to escape this loop. No angel investors or government-funding to take more risks on novel content.

To be sure, Thais are good at love comedy, slapstick comedy, and especially ghost stories. These are a staple of our entertainment diet. (Thai ghost-theme and horror genre computer games are worth exploring.) But they won’t make the cut on the global stage without Thais learning about foreigners’ mindset and preferences.

Many foreign men I know find Thai women super-jealous and prone to playing ‘mind games’ on them. It’s because for the past 50 years, Thai women have been addicted to Thai soap operas, featuring love triangle, jealousy, gossip, and backstabbing. This then shaped their opinion of men in real life. They see men as untrustworthy, unfaithful, and up to no good. I was once accused by my Thai ex-girlfriend of unfaithfulness when I was away for a three-day meditation course.

You think Facebook and Instagram are detrimental to female teens’ mental health? Thai soap operas are doubly lethal. Fifty years of these shows have made many Thai women insecure, emotionally vulnerable, and powerless, which encouraged them to mistrust, backstab, and sabotage. What they really need is professional counselling. Not another love-triangle soap opera.

To be fair, some men are up to no good some of the time in the land of smiles, or indeed anywhere in the world. (It didn’t help that the late military dictator and coup leader Sarit Thanarat had over 100 mistresses. The battles for his inheritance were nasty and legendary.) But is it worth it for women to get paranoia 24/7, losing sleep and appetite, wrecking their mental health?

Here is a typical lakorn plot. A naïve country girl moves to big bad Bangkok. There, she is confronted by devious men. Alas her high-school male friend, who was dirt poor but now a rich charming prince, saves her. She manages to win over her hi-so psychotic mother-in-law. And they lived happily ever after. Throughout the lakorn, our charming prince and she only hold hands. In the Thai media bubble only naughty girls and bad men have sex. For the morally upright couples, babies magically fall from the sky. Compared this to my formative years watching Seinfeld and The Simpsons, which are witty, smart, and imaginative. And you have two consumers, worlds apart in their mentality and outlook.

Back to Korea. Does Seoul have flesh-eating zombies prowling the street? No. Zombies aren’t even part of their cultural folklore. Yet K-zombies have become internationally recognised like the Kingdom series, where zombies are weaponised for political purposes in the ancient Joseon dynasty. Why can’t Thailand produce a zombie series in the ancient Ayutthaya or Sukhothai kingdom, harnessing its ‘soft power’, if done right?

Just last week, thanks to the smart move by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the band BTS was invited to perform at the UN General Assembly, garnering over 24 million views on the UN YouTube site. That’s smart leadership. Can you imagine a Thai celebrity performing at the UN, recognisable and accepted by the world? Not a chance.

“Lisa Blackpink” I hear you say. I’m going to be frank. Although born in Buriram, she is the product of Korean entertainment culture and belongs to a Korean company, who profits from her fame. Thailand doesn’t earn a dime from her directly. We are a nation of exporting raw agricultural cheap products to rich countries, who then, add-value, market, then sell them back to us at hefty price. The huge profits are captured at the value-adding component. Lisa’s real economic value is captured by the South Korean entertainment industry. We say to ourselves, smugly, “She’s one of us”; the Minister of Culture thumping his chest proclaiming “We’re proud of her!” Meanwhile money flows to the South Korean economy.

Of importance is that we have a lot of potential “Lisas” right under our noses. But we lack marketing genius, vision, and open-mindedness to add-value to them. Instead, we ban them from making money on OnlyFans site, citing hypocritical conservative values. With their income source blocked, are we surprised they end up being “taken care” by a Thai sugardaddy?

Like I said in my past writing, poverty drives women into the flesh trade. OnlyFans isn’t a brothel. It’s a consensual platform where users are willing to pay for exclusive content from their creators. Content producers must have the freedom to create their own content, build relationships with audiences, and profit from their work, without government interference. With the income earned, they will spend more on the local economy, and won’t ask for government handouts.

China is flexing its muscles on soft-power. It has landed on the moon and sent rovers to Mars – worth applauding. Crucially, it has produced a science-fiction film The Wandering Earth which garnered favorable ratings. Are the Chinese still making kung-fu movies? Not much. Their films are increasingly exploring science and futuristic frontiers. My point is that their media industry has evolved much faster than Thailand’s.

There is political drama House of Cards, which Obama enjoyed; there is legal drama Suits. Both are sophisticated series on Netflix. For Thai series, not everything needs to be about love and jealousy. Once Thais get out of the oppressive pyramidal system, they will realise how big the world really is. And how far the world has moved on.

Edward Shinapat Kitlertsirivatana: Taken at Salad Concept Nimman branch. This place serves fresh salad and locally grown produce, superfoods, plus a variety of all-day meals. Please check it out and support local SMEs.