Soap deviates subtly from norm, showing a rocky marriage not fairy tale

Is it possible for a lakorn to paint a realistic picture of a rocky marriage? “Padiwarada’s” subtle yet major deviations from the usual soap fare shed a new light on Thai women and marriages.

“Padiwarada” (ปดิวรัดา) aired from January through February 2016 on Channel 3, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 20:20-22:50. This soap opera adaptation is the first of a novel originally published in 1968 by a writer with the pen name of “Saranchit.”

Now it’s easy to criticize lakorn, especially if it’s the ninth remake of the same story or if it overtly pushes the views of its writer. Especially from a Western perspective, or from someone who watches primarily US or UK-produced series, it’s easy to scoff and dismiss Third World soaps as lacking in polish or straying from global cultural norms. However, Cuban director Julio Garcia Espinosa has described Third World cinema by another name—”imperfect cinema,” where the goal of the piece is not to compete with First-World TV’s state-of-the-art camerawork and special effects, but instead to relate to local audiences and provoke thought. Think what you like about Thai soaps, but it’s hard to argue against their sheer power as a vehicle of mass communication.

While at first glance “Padiwarada” is easy to overlook for its familiar format and content resembling other primetime soaps, this first-time remake of an anonymous paperback romance written in the late sixties contains subtle yet important differences from the soaps we normally see, portraying a couple’s rocky first year of marriage instead of a love-at-first-sight fairytale.


Rin, travelling to the South to meet her new husband, district deputy Saran

Rin (Ranee “Bella” Campen) is an orphan girl left at the doorstep of the noble Bamrungprachakit household as a baby, who has been raised along with the noble’s other two daughters Baralee (Pimthong Wachirakom) and Buranee (Arda Aryawut).
 
Meanwhile, Saran (Jirayu “James” Tangsrisuk) is a deputy district officer who has fallen on hard times: his millionaire father fell into debt and committed suicide and his lover, Duangsawat (Natwara Wongwasana), has rejected his proposal. Saran’s mother decides to call on the Bamrungprachakit family to fulfill an old promise: her deceased husband had made a deal with the head of that household that they would marry their children off to each other. The socialite Baralee and bookish Buranee are crushed at the possibility of leaving their urban lives to become the wife of a provincial civil servant, so in order to fulfill the promise made, the matriarch sends Rin in her daughters’ place to be Saran’s wife on the Southern frontier. 
 

Value of Women's Work


 

Saran’s job as a district deputy in the south is to defeat the bandits that are currently plaguing the area. However, this bandit subplot is as prominent as, if not more than, Rin’s own efforts to cultivate the area in her own way as a frontierswoman. Through her hard work, she transforms the anonymous government housing into a home, cutting down the overgrown jungle to create a garden, cooking complicated dishes, perfuming clothes using flowers and herbs, and crocheting the edges of curtains. 
 
Saran, who knows that Rin is an adopted child and not a real Bamrungprachakit, at first ridicules her hard work as “silly servant’s work done to tempt him” (to which she replies: “You conceited idiot! I did it for myself, so I won’t go crazy being away from my family!”). Rin and the women in the series give value to women’s domestic work, which is often viewed as being less valuable than men’s work outside the home.
 

 
“There is great power in little things like this,” says Saran’s mother, holding the edges of the curtain. “By her own effort, she made this house a home.” On their wedding day, Rin’s adoptive mother says that Rin, as a wife, is also a “world creator” (ผู้สร้างโลก), with the ability to create their coming domestic life. Like the eponymous character in Sarah, Plain and Tall, Rin leaves her familiar home, bound by duty, to cultivate a home on the frontier.
 

NOT just the two of us

While Western understandings of the self may be based upon an independent, autonomous individual, other societies, like Thai, are based on interdependence where each person realizes that their behavior affects and is affected by others’ feelings and actions (Marcus and Kitayama 1991).  Indeed, interdependent duty as opposed to individual passion is one of the main themes of the soap. While run-of-the-mill lakorns may show a couple drawn to each other solely through emotions, “Padiwarada” more realistically shows Thai interdependency, and how a couple’s relationship affects much more than just the two of them.


The older characters often have didactic monologues. In this one at Rin’s wedding, her adoptive mother  talks about how in her time, people did not marry for love but for duty, and with the determination to work on the marriage and its problems (Source)

Saran and Rin are brought together by a seemingly-outdated remnant of pre-modern Siamese society — an arranged marriage, which Baralee and Buranee shun, being modern city women. “Padiwarada” gives importance to following duty instead of emotion, which includes entering an arranged marriage to fulfill their parents’ wishes. “The heart is fickle, and feelings change all the time. However, one’s duty does not, so it is better in the long run to follow it,” says one of the parents to the young couple.

Again, Rin’s dedication to duty and not her passionate feelings, are lauded. “Padiwarada” means “a loyal and faithful wife,” not a loving one. On their wedding night as near-strangers, in order to deter him from touching her, she says “You’re no different from an animal if you follow base urges and passions. Humans have the choice to exhibit self-control and follow duty. It’s up to you.” (“Padiwarada,” happily, does not include rape!)


(Source)

Passion and romance, the main focus in many lakorn, is shown to be overrated here. Duangsawat, who comes to try to get back her ex-lover Saran, is shown as selfish, since she is motivated by personal passion without regard for others’ wishes. “Passion” alone is not enough justification to ruin someone else’s marriage, says the soap, and neither is “love” enough to single-handedly sustain it.

James Dean, or Elvis
 
Rin and Saran’s new marriage is tested by long distance, jealous exes, and misunderstandings, and initially the love between them is scarce. “In marriage, love and hate go hand in hand,” says Saran’s mother. 
 
Rin and Saran building their friendship by exchanging skills: cooking and self-defense (Source)   
 
Over time, however, they start to build the foundations of their relationship based on respectful companionship and friendship, getting to know each other while chopping vegetables together. Both of them come to respect each other’s work and communicate with each other—the crucial yet mundane parts of a relationship that are rarely ever shown in lakorn. Saran comes to realize that a house without Rin is not a home, and Rin goes with him to the villages for their bandit-catching work. “I’m not a brawling fighter like you, but helping the villagers is our work now. I’ll do what I can.” 
 
 
The audience is also treated to uncomfortable (yet juicy) scenes of domestic spats: “We aren’t going to sleep until we’ve had it out!” says the new wife to her sullen, silent husband. As their new marriage progresses they learn to resolve conflicts directly, and slowly, patiently cultivate what they mean to each other.
 
Once Rin trusts him enough for them to sleep side by side, he asks her, as they lie untouching:
“Before you met me, what did you imagine your husband to be like?” 
 
“Like James Dean, or Elvis,” Rin replied, smiling at her girlish fantasy, and the pair fall asleep peacefully.
 
Towards the end, Rin has transcended the role of padiwarada, but has also come into her own self: emotionally, financially, and sexually. She fixes misunderstandings between her and Saran (namely the issue about her keeping her adopted status a secret). She inherits a large fortune and deters any pouty feelings on her poorer husband’s part by putting her foot down: “We’re going to live here, in my big house. I won’t switch back and forth between being this and a kitchen maid to please you.” The blushing, innocent girl riding on a train to meet her husband has become, by the year’s end, a mature, confident woman fully comfortable with the art of seduction.
 
An innocent nang-ek (leading lady) from just several years ago wouldn’t be caught dead doing this. 
 
No matter one’s opinion of lakorn, the impact of their massive reach cannot be denied. And if that reach delivers something that’s less of a slapstick fairytale and more of a realistic marriage, then such subtle, yet significant changes in mass soaps may be worth keeping an eye on.