Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Billionaire / Top Secret (วัยรุ่นพันล้าน / Wai Roon Pan Lan)

Tout to Success!

It's an open secret I admire the slate of films put out by Thai production house GMM Tai Hub, or GTH as it's also known, from its horror films to its recent efforts to be more complete through the tackling of other film genres, with a degree of success I must say, with Suckseed being one of my favourite films of the year 2011. Pachara Chirathivat, who had a breakthrough role in Suckseed, continues his streak with GTH's biographical film Top Secret / The Billionaire, playing Top Ittipat, the teen businessman whose company Tao Kae Noi's product, the seaweed snack, proved to be such a hit, it made him one of the world's youngest billionaire. All thanks to the humble snack done right.

Films that chart the rise and/or fall of real businesses also pique my interest, such as David Fincher's take on Facebook with The Social Network, and my recently reviewed film on Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, or fictional ones such as films like Wall Street, or Margin Call. While we may marvel at Top's success at bringing something quite insignificant, and making it a top seller, the story behind his product and company has enough juice to power a feature film. Obviously dramatized, it still made for an engaging watch as we chart his path to eventual success through the school of really hard knocks, which provided natural themes such as determination and perseverance that hold so through in his really remarkable journey.

As a student, Top doesn't have much success, preferring to spend his time playing online games, and finding it a lucrative offline business when hard to come by artifacts that his avatar possessed can be traded for real cash. Seduced by the quick buck, his semester performance becomes indirectly proportional to the cash he makes as a online game artifact trader, so much so that he succumbs to the false sense of invincibility, thinking that such an activity is sustainable in the long run. Despite his parent's best intentions to keep him at school, he constantly rebels against them through his financial independence the creation of more businesses, even relenting to do something dispicable as stealing an amulet from his dad to fuel his obsession. Things aren't as rosy at home, and soon Top discovers that his family is in a debt of millions, hence resolving to pull through this ordeal and to make it his personal mission to clear his family debt.

But for all his street smarts and demonstration of keen business acumen, what Top doesn't possess is luck, and being a greenhorn in the business world, gets swindled and bullied at every available opportunity that others glaringly exploit. It's painful, but I suppose what doesn't kill you, or bankrupt you, only makes you stronger, and more experienced to see the next neon Danger sign a lot quicker. Following Top's adventures in the business arena made it look like How to Do Business 101, with examples in tow so that any aspiring businessman in the audience could learn from and avoid similar pitfalls in the real world. But what director Songyos Sugmakanan steered clear of is to make this film a boastful one, after all in real life success has already been achieved, and the film rightfully centered around, and more interestingly so too, the struggles of one teenage boy and his fledging company.

It's not all work and no play in the film, where it's easy to be all serious and grim. Writer Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit ensured that there were enough lightly comical moments in the story through Top's early days as a wannabe seller of DVD players, to a Kao Lak (Water Chestnut) pushcart hawker - well actually his partner in crime (played by Somboonsuk Niyomsiri who was greatly endearing in a rather paternal role) did most of the work while Top supervises - and how he develops his business skills mostly by chance, or from blatantly asking and learning the ropes from others, to observing how other successful businesses operate. What I liked about the story as a tale of never giving up, is how easy one lose hope when the going gets tough and rough, with the filmmakers quite constantly having Top communicate with his parents who either ask him about his schoolwork (which he had abandoned for work), or to give everything up and join them in China.

Pachara Chirathivat's charisma is what carried the film through, and if he's not already hot property after Suckseed, this film, clearly his vehicle, should seal the deal quickly and cement him as one of the rising Thai movie stars to watch. With his windswept hair, he's a natural either when goofing about, or being earnestly serious in wanting to do things the way he's visioned to, as we see the stubborn, determined businessman slowly emerge from within.

Perhaps the only weak spot is the romantic subplot that Top has with Lin (Walanlak Kumsuwan), inevitably having to be put into the film because it's her introduction to the seaweed that provided him the catalyst of an idea to go for broke with the product, dabbling in a little bit of research and development, and pouring all the last drop of resources he has into production and marketing. Lin's presence provided the teenage businessman with another need to sacrifice something a lot closer to the heart, but somehow the romance itself wasn't strong to begin with, so the hurt here didn't make much of an emotional impact than it had set out to try and achieve.

With great all round production values and themes that are easily identifiable and applicable across various life scenarios, I know it's early in the year, but this film writes itself into the shortlist of being one of the best so far for its inspirational message. Highly recommended!


And the first thing I did after coming out of the movie, is to hit the nearest 7-11 and hunt down a packet of Tao Kae Noi made seaweed snack. I enjoy the occassional seaweed snack but never really paid much attention to the brand. Now I will, and what could possibly be my first conscious crack at a Tao Kae Noi product:

And the verdict: it's really yummy, with a considerable portion packed into an average sized package. And like the characters in the film, I too found myself licking my fingers.

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