Thailand’s exotic landscape with pristine beaches, lush rainforests, and towering limestone mountains serves not only as the backdrop for pitch-perfect Instagram pictures. Ambitious filmmakers with a way bigger budget than the average backpacker also use the scenery to their full advantage. The results are movies filled with gorgeous wide shots over vibrant landscapes all for the sake of our entertainment. However, not all movies from and/or about Thailand are also about the natural beauty. Some dive deep into the ugly underworld of Bangkok whereas others tap into local folklore with spooky ghost stories. With our list of seven movies about Thailand we try to cover as many different genres as possible. This includes the obligatory Muay Thai flick as well as the cinematic retelling of a natural disaster. We also made sure to include movies made by both Thai and foreign film studios.
So, let’s grab a bag of popcorn and open the curtain – it’s movie time!
#1 – The Impossible (2012)
The only thing that’s impossible about this movie is trying to hold back your tears during the gut-wrenching moments. The Impossible tells the true story of a family on Christmas holiday in Khao Lak. That was when on the 26. December 2004 a Tsunami of an overwhelming magnitude hit large parts of Southern Thailand’s west coast. Caught right in the middle of this disaster, the father, the mother and the three kids struggle to survive and to find each other again in the aftermath.
For the tsunami scene, the filmmakers decided to use a scaled model of the Resort in which the family was staying in. Many directors would have relied on an entirely computer-generated rendering. This decision made the scene of the impact all the more powerful and it set the standard for how relentless the rest of the movie is going to be.
The rest of the movie focuses on the family and, thus, relies heavily on the actors. Fortunately, with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the parents, the director J. A. Bayona has two veteran actors at the top of their game. A standout is also a pre-Spider-Man Tom Holland. He already showed a lot of promise years before he joined the giant roster of Marvel characters.
The Impossible by no means an easy movie to watch, but you will be swiftly captivated by this harrowing story of survival.
#2 – A Prayer Before Dawn (2017)
Speaking of a tale of survival, this movie might be even more difficult to watch. After all, being the only farang (= foreigner) stuck in one of the worst and most brutal prisons in Thailand is not our idea of traveling. But that is the basic premise of yet another true story. It revolves around a drug-addicted boxer, Billy, from England, who gets arrested in Bangkok for the possession of stolen goods and a firearm.
What follows is a nightmarish tale filled with violence, murder, rape, and drug abuse. The movie absolutely pulls no punches (pun intended) in its depiction. The little dialogue that there is, is for the most part in Thai and we quickly feel just as forsaken and hopeless as Billy.
Eventually, he finds a glimmer of hope when he starts to train Muay Thai. By doing so Billy, literally and figuratively, fights his way out of hell.
Because it is such a deeply personal story, A Prayer Before Dawn stands and falls with the portrayal of Billy Moore. Fortunately, Joe Cole, best known as John Shelby in the phenomenal show Peaky Blinders, gives a believable and terrific performance. It’s the kind of performance that, we believe, should but probably won’t get any recognition from the Oscars.
If you are currently in Thailand, A Prayer Before Dawn is available on Netflix. But as you can tell by now, this ain’t no trip through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
#3 – Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003)
Let’s stay in the realm of Muay Thai for a little longer but in a way more entertaining form. Ong Bak introduced the world outside of Thailand to the martial art of Muay Thai. The main actor, Tony Jaa, is without a doubt a true student of this art. His lifelong dedication to it is the reason why this movie is so damn good. As soon as he knocks that American guy out with one knee strike, you know he means business!
The story, as is the case with many martial art movies, is straightforward and simple. Thieves steal the head of a sacred Buddha statue from a village and Tony Jaa’s character travels to Bangkok to retrieve it. In order to do that, he has to fight his way through waves and waves of bad guys, and boy is it a joy to watch.
Ong Bak was an immediate success upon release in both Thailand and the United States. The fight scenes are incredibly choreographed and the brutal impact of every bone-crunching and skull-splitting hit makes this movie a must-watch for every martial art aficionado. Another great movie with Tony Jaa is The Protector (2005).
#4 – The Beach (2000)
Look, you have seen the movie, read the book and know the film’s various locations. So, instead of writing what every single travel blogger has already written, let’s get into some fun trivia!
- The first choice for the title role was Ewan McGregor (star of The Impossible). He has previously worked with The Beach director Danny Boyle on the classic Trainspotting. 20th Century Fox, however, wanted someone with more star power. And who better than the guy who starred in the most successful movie of all time – Titanic. And so the role went to teenage heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio.
- The movie is not that good. Even Danny Boyle admitted only recently that at one point during the shoot he realized that “he didn’t like any of the characters”. For us backpackers, the movie might hold a special place in our hearts, but compared to Boyle’s other works like the aforementioned Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and Steve Jobs, this is one of his lesser movies.
- Alex Garland, the author of The Beach novel, worked with Danny Boyle on two other movie projects as well. He was the screenwriter for the zombie-horror flick 28 Days Later… and the sci-fi-horror movie Sunshine. Years later he proved to be a great director himself with Ex Machina in 2014 and this year’s Annihilation.
#5 – Pee Mak (2013)
The story of Mae Nak is one of the most popular tales of Thai folklore. Essentially, it is about a husband, Mak, who goes to war (around the mid-19th Century), leaving his pregnant wife, Nak, behind. While he is away, the woman dies during childbirth, but upon his return, she is still waiting for him. Only after a while and after listening to the warnings of the neighbors, he realizes that Nak is a ghost. She then is up to no good when Mak eventually runs away from her.
In the last sixty years we got many horror movies based on this popular piece of local folklore. Pee Mak, on the other hand, is a straight-up comedy with some elements of horror. It has, therefore, more in common with movies like Army of Darkness or Shaun of the Dead. The premise is almost the same, but here Mak is joined by four of his friends whose lives he saved during the war. Throughout the movie, they desperately try to battle and escape the ghost of Nak, but they also have to deal with something else: their stupidity. The reason why this comedy is so hilarious is because of the character’s absolutely stupid behavior. Pee Mak also benefits from the over-the-top acting you often see in Asian movies. It’s almost like a modern Thai version of The Three Stooges.
Pee Mak does have some surprisingly emotional moments, because there is still the romance between Mak and Nak. Despite her being, you know, a ghost. But in the end, the humor is the focal point of this highly enjoyable flick. In fact, people enjoyed it so much that it became the highest-grossing Thai movie of all time. The previous number one was Ong Bak.
It is available on Netflix in Thailand and we highly recommend giving it a try.
#6 – Shutter (2004)
How about a real horror movie now? I’ll be honest with you, horror movies from Asia freak me the eff’ out. Whether it’s the original Ringu or Ju-On: The Grudge from Japan or, in this case, Shutter from Thailand, they are terrifying. Funny enough, all three movies got the American remake treatment to varying degrees of success.
Shutter starts with a young couple running over a woman with their car after a night of partying. But instead of stopping and trying to help, they flee from the crime scene. Bad mistake. Very bad mistake. The man, Tun, is a photographer and after the accident, he finds mysterious shadows and blurred faces in his photos. This, already, is creepy enough, but the movie is only warming up here. The rest of this horror trip is dedicated to more frightening imagery, inexplicable suicides, and encounters with a ghost as well as some disturbing twists and turns.
For fans of the horror genre, this is a true gem. The remake, on the other hand, doesn’t capture (no pun intended) the same frightening spirit (no pun intended²) as skilled as the original. A good American alternative would, perhaps, be Sinister. But for everyone else, you may want to stick to Pee Mak.
#7 – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Here we have the definition of an art house movie, which means that some people love and praise it to death while others just hate it. It definitely is unlike the majority of other movies and the title already gives you a hint of that. The movie tells the story of the titular Boonmee who is dying of kidney failures. He spends his last days with his deceased wife who takes care of him (where have we seen that before…?) and other loved ones who appear as either humans or spirits.
Together, they venture through the jungle towards a cave on the top of a hill where Boonmee “recalls his past lives” as a simple farmer, a soldier, and husband amongst others.
It is quite the surreal and dreamlike experience. This is only emphasized by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s decision to shoot the movie in six different styles. For example, one part is like a “documentary” whereas the next could be a “costume drama”, as he explained it.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. But audience members still walked out of the theatre after only a few minutes. This is how polarizing the movie is. On which side are you on? Let us know in the comments below!
Other recommended movies include Only God Forgives, The Railway Man, and Tropical Malady, but we have yet to see them. If you think that they are worth watching, then, again, let us know in the comments. Also, are there any others we haven’t mentioned at all?
Oh, yeah… there was also The Hangover Part II. It’s fine, I guess.