Today, when we hear dubbing artists, our first thought goes to the ones who make anime and movies available to movie lovers around the world by translating media into a native language. However, Nonzee Nimibutr’s Once Upon a Star brings to us a culture from Thailand where dubbing artists toured the country in buses and used projectors and mics to show movies and dub with their voices. Often used as a tactic to sell items, this was a very popular culture in Thailand during the ’50s and ’60s. Starring quite a few popular actors in Thai cinema, here’s a detailed review of the latest Thai release on Netflix, Once Upon a Star.
Plot Synopsis: What’s The Movie About?
Manit, Kao, and Uncle Man are a three-man team working for a company that sells medicines, but to attract customers, they’ve got a rather unique way. In Thailand in the late ’60s, traveling cinema was a big hit, where dubbing artists would go from city to city and offer dubs to famous Thai movie screenings, played on projectors. Manit, the leader of the theater group, saw himself capable of making dubs for cinema the proper way in real theaters one day, while Kao dreamt of becoming an actor for real. Old Uncle Man was a superstitious guy who spent his earnings drinking egg yolk with alcohol and buying lottery tickets. On other occasions, he drove around the battered and beaten company bus as Manit voiced both male and female characters, and Kao handled the projector. However, competition arrived in the form of the Kampanat group, led by a highly talented set of artists who possessed top-of-the-line equipment and even female artists, whereas Manit couldn’t stop coughing from using his voice so much. The group was getting desperate to find an alternative when, one day, they found an exceptionally pretty woman while driving by.
The woman, Kae, aspired to become an expert with the typewriter and, in the meantime, wanted to be a dubbing artist to collect enough money. She also claimed to have ended her marriage with her lousy husband, who gave her syphilis, but that was probably her go-to response when dealing with men so that they wouldn’t take advantage of her. We could see her painting her arm with red paint to resemble sores, so it’s okay to guess she was healthy. Her first outing with the team was a success, and the audience loved to hear a female voice for real. The group sold quite a few bottles of medicine, but the issue arose when the manager, Mr. Wichian, dropped by, and Kae had to be hidden.
The manager had strict rules about not allowing anyone but employees on the tour bus, and women weren’t allowed. The attempts of three men hid Kae from the manager for a while, but it remained a looming threat they needed to watch out for. After a string of successes with the added help, Kae took the guys drinking, got especially drunk, and passed out. Manit and Kao confided to each other that both of them had feelings for Kae but promised to let Kae choose the one she liked, and they wouldn’t let it impact their friendship. She started helping Kao become a good dubbing artist, and on other occasions, Kae helped Manit with the dubs.
However, trouble crept in when the rival Kampanat company set up a show right beside where Manit’s group would be performing, and thanks to their superior equipment and resources, Manit was beaten back. Additionally, Kae was slighted to find her ex was the lead dubbing artist of Kampanat, and the group faced utter humiliation. Kao noticed Manit getting strangely close to Kae and that he had gifted her a typewriter. Frustrated that his boss called Kae his wife before an army general so that she was kept safe, Kao gave an exceptionally bad performance during a dubbing and later confronted Kae.
Kae turned him down flatly and left, but she found out later that Manit and he were arguing over Kao’s boss dishonoring their pact. Angered that the men used her as a piece of a pact and that nobody tried finding out about her feelings, Kae smashed Manit’s typewriter and left. Sadly, she was bringing it back to him because she felt guilty having taken it from him. With Manit being forced to re-do all the dubs alone because Kae was out smoking and Kao decided to leave, his chronic illness flared up. Manit fell sick, started coughing severely, and was burning up with fever when Kao, Man, and Kae rushed in to help. Kao remembered how his boss had saved his life after he was bitten by a snake, and he apologized to Manit after he got better.
Three months later, the group was back together, with Manit, Kae, and Kao dubbing together. They also got to meet the most respected actor in Thai cinema of the ’60s, Mitr Chaibancha, and Manit couldn’t believe he was shaking hands with the man whose voice he dubbed. Mitr meant a lot to the cinema lovers, and dubbing for him had become a passion for Manit and the group. This passion helped make better dubs, and customers flocked in to buy medicines, and the group was doing great until Mr. Wichian arrived suddenly and found that the group had employed a woman. Manit owned up to his mistake of not telling the bosses of his decision but chastised Wichian for having conservative thoughts, which were holding the company back. The manager gave them an ultimatum that they’d get just the last batch of medicines to sell before turning their bus in for good. This would be their last trip. As if things couldn’t get any worse, a radio announcement informed everyone that Mitr Chaibancha had fallen to his death while doing a stunt from a helicopter. Everyone was heartbroken in Thailand, and that was the first time Kae saw Manit cry. He’d truly admired the actor, and knowing he was no longer there made him break down as if he had lost a member of his own family. With Mitr’s death, did it completely alter the lives of the traveling performers? Did the manager take away the truck they used for shows? Watch Nonzee Nimibutr’s Once Upon a Star to find out.
In the age of Netflix and so many other streaming platforms, the concept of using dubbing artists to voice movies that play on projectors seems ancient. However, Nimibutr’s movie brings to mind a culture that has been traditional in Thailand since after World War II, and it’s definitely something the rest of the world could learn about. Its a hard work to make sounds of special effects just by the mouth in the absence of any of the technological gadgets of today. Dubbing for hours straight is definitely a difficult job. This is why Weir-Sukollawat Kanaros, in the role of Manit, is able to showcase the skills the artists of a forgotten art had to possess, and it’s impressive.
The movie, by itself, can seem rather slow at times, and it also appears a little repetitive. The runtime feels exceptionally long, and it can feel like a drag more than it was needed. The saving grace is the acting skills of actors like Kanaros, Noona-Nuengthida Sophon, Samart Payakaroon, and others, and how they can make their expressions come alive on the screen. The movie offers homage to the tradition of cinema dubbing and dedicates its love to the late great Mitr Chaibancha, one of the greatest actors Thailand has ever seen. That being said, unless you are a fan of world cinema and aren’t particularly interested in Thai culture, the main premise of the movie might not be of interest to you. Many watchers might go in without knowing Mitr, which may humble the experience a tad bit. However, if you wish to find out about a dubbing culture that was all the craze in the South Asian country in the previous century and a little bit of humorous fun, check out Nimibutr’s Once Upon a Star this week.