First things first, a brief disclaimer: I didn’t realize until after the DVD had been delivered from Cornell’s library that it didn’t have English subtitles. Since I don’t speak a word of Lao or Thai, I found a couple articles about the film and followed along as best as I could. Here are the links to those summaries:
“Good Morning, Luang Prabang—and Hello to Laos’s Film Industry” by Andrew Buncombe
“Thai & Lao Culture in ‘Sabaidee Luang Prabang'” by Sirinya Pakditawan
A Tale of Two Countries
Directed by Sakchai Deenan of Thailand and produced by Anousone Sirisackda of Laos, Good Morning, Luang Prabang was actually a joint production between the two neighboring countries, and the first commercial release in Laos since 1975, when the country adopted communism.
The film begins in Bangkok, as Thai photographer Sorn prepares to travel to Laos to visit his grandfather. His culture shock as he begins his travels is evident. As Pakditawan observes (and as Sirisackdan confirms, based on Buncombe’s article), the film highlights differences between Thai and Lao culture—between, for instance, bustling Bangkok and comparatively quiet Laos. In another example of the contrast between Thailand and Laos, Sorn tells his (English-speaking) mother on the phone while in Pakse: “The weather’s nice, but the food takes some getting used to.”
But Good Morning, Luang Prabang also emphasizes how Lao culture differs from Western culture. When a white tourist asks to have his picture taken with the female lead Noi (a Laotian tour guide), he puts his arm around her. She tells him multiple times not to do this, signaling the inappropriateness of such physical contact, especially between strangers, in Laotian etiquette.
A Break with the Past
At first I thought to myself, “Wow, this film isn’t exactly heavy on plot.” But then I realized how ridiculous it was of me to think that; since I don’t speak Lao or Thai, about 90% of the film’s plot—any lines not spoken in English and anything not captured in meaningful glances or the musical score—is essentially lost on me. That’s why the plot summaries provided in the links above were so essential to me as I prepared to watch the movie.
Even so, based on what I can tell, and corroborated in Pakditawan’s essay, the film is essentially a tourism film—a more benign form of propaganda than standard Laotian media. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the primary goal mostly seems to be the promotion of tourism. The movie highlights the historic sites and tourist attractions of Pakse and Vientiane as well as the title city, three of the most culturally significant cities in Laos.
That said, Buncombe notes in his article that Sakchai himself admitted that “We wanted a soft storyline so it would not be too hard to get approval from the Lao government.” Furthermore, the Laotian government had some control over the film’s portrayal of their nation, redacting any content they found offensive. To be fair, though, their concern was not completely unfounded; Buncombe describes a history of Thai films ridiculing Laos and Laotian culture. With its vaunted release, Good Morning, Luang Prabang signaled a strong break from that tradition.
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