Interview: 'Love Sick' director Rachyd Kusolkulsiri

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Stars of Love Sick

Jason Ng talks to director Rachyd Kusolkulsiri about a Thai television juggernaut tackling coming-of-age issues and homosexuality 

If parents in Thailand are looking for their teenagers on a Saturday or Sunday night, they needn’t fear they’re up to no good. Chances are they’re in their bedrooms watching Love Sick and humming its catchy theme song. Now in its second season, the series is more than a hit drama – it’s a cultural phenomenon that has taken east Asia by storm, and showbiz suits by surprise. 

Love Sick is not your everyday run-of-the-mill soap opera. Based on the online novel The Chaotic Lives of Blue Shorts Guys, it’s a boy-meets-boy romcom set in an elite private school in Bangkok. The delicate subject matter of teenage sexuality and same-sex romance has done nothing to hurt its appeal to audiences of all stripes.

Rachyd Kusolkulsiri, who also goes by the name Andy, is the man behind the taboo-breaking hit show. He directed the first season and now acts as a consultant to the programme. Currently, he is shooting a teen movie starring some of the same actors from Love Sick.

We sit down with Kusolkulsiri at a café in Paragon, an upscale shopping mall in Bangkok where several cast members are bringing to a close a media event that has drawn nearly a thousand screaming fans, mostly teenage girls and some boys.

“Thailand is an accepting country,” states Kusolkulsiri. “It’s not uncommon to find openly gay and transgender students at high schools and universities, especially in a big city like Bangkok. It probably has something to do with us being Buddhists. Thai people may get worked up over certain things, but we get over them quickly. I guess it’s different in Hong Kong and China?”

A drama like Love Sick is unheard of in sexually conservative Hong Kong. Gay and lesbian characters in mainstream media rarely go beyond hackneyed stereotypes, written only for comic relief or as a distraction in a minor subplot. Ray Chan, the city’s first and only openly gay lawmaker, observes, “LGBT roles in local dramas are either serial killers or victims of gay bashing, both of whom will end in death or tragedy. The message is clear: we don’t deserve happiness.” Chan thinks that having schoolboys fall madly in love and living happily ever after on primetime television would likely cause a riot.

Kusolkulsiri is quick to point out that Thailand is not immune to prejudice or social conservatism, but believes there are ways around this. “The trick is to avoid equating ‘gay’ with ‘sex’. A love story can move people without nudity. We prefer to focus on universal themes like love, friendship and acceptance.”

In Hong Kong, people crave what they cannot get back home, which explains the show’s cult following outside Thailand. After each episode is aired, self-organised armies of netizen translators – devoted fans who have knowledge of the Thai language – go to work and prepare subtitles in various languages, complete with footnotes to explain puns and pop culture references. 

Love Sick is currently the number one Thai show on Youku – the YouTube of China. The reception in the Chinese-speaking world has been so overwhelming that Boy Sompob, the Thai singer who wrote the show’s theme song, recorded a bonus Mandarin track for his album to please Chinese fans. The cast is set to tour Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei in the coming months.

“We are all surprised by the reception overseas, especially in China,” Kusolkulsiri enthuses. “There’s a market for wholesome love stories, whether they are gay or straight, Thai or Chinese.” Kusolkulsiri attributes the positive response to an evolving televisual culture. “Viewers are tired of the same old TV soaps with characters slapping each other and plotting evil plans. They are too dramatic for people to relate to.”

Audiences in Hong Kong feel the same. For decades, cookie cutter TV series have been beating the dead horse of epic family feuds. “We can’t rely on these old formulas any more,” Kusolkulsiri tells us. “We need to experiment with new ideas to stay ahead of our competitors.” In 2013, another teen drama, Hormones, was hailed by critics for breaking the mould and wading boldly into the unchartered waters of teenage pregnancy, drug use, bullying and homosexuality. Such original programming is necessary in Thailand where there are over 25 channels available via the remote.

Competition is precisely what Hong Kong lacks. TVB’s dominance in the free-to-air television market has stifled innovation and discouraged risk-taking. Recent events like HKTV’s failed bid for a broadcasting license and ATV’s financial turmoil have allowed the monopolistic TVB to tighten its stronghold on the airwaves even further.

We ask ‘Andy’ what advice he would give directors in Hong Kong who want to attempt something similar back home. “Just do it!” he smiles. “Do it from the heart and see what comes of it. If nobody wants to be the first, nothing will ever change.”

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