Directed by Nonzee Nimibutr and currently streaming on Netflix, “Once Upon a Star” is an idyllic depiction of the intertwined joys of life and cinema. In its bucolic setting and unwavering optimism, this Thai film paints the universal appeal of cinema while championing the golden age of Thai cinema. The titular ‘Star’ in the film refers to the legendary Thai actor Mitr Chaibancha. Written by Ek Lemchuen, the story of “Once Upon a Star” is a poignant tribute to the cinematic world of 1970s Thailand.
Mitr Chaibancha was one of the nationally adored heroes of Thai cinema. The actor was one of the key figures responsible for bringing the Thai audience to the cinema, especially after the devastation of the Second World War. Mitr’s inspiring life story (a literal rags-to-riches story) and his cinematic appeal introduced the magic of cinema to people from a multitude of strata. Admittedly, all of these had been unknown to me before I watched this film. “Once Upon a Star” does a fantastic job of portraying the hitherto lesser-known aspects of Thailand’s cinema history for the unaware.
One such unique aspect of Thai cinema of the 1970s, especially that of Mitr Chaibancha, is the unique role of dubbing. The talkies, or the cinema with dialogues and sound, were available but an expensive affair at that time in Thailand. Many, like Mitr, acted and made films that were primarily without sound. In those cases, these films relied on live performers who would provide the voice and sound for the moving pictures. These dubbing artists, or vocal performers, would pour their soul into transforming the images into something more. Their undeniable contribution is shown to be recognized by Mitr himself in the film.
These voice artists often formed a team or company and traveled from place to place, screening Mitr’s films with their own voice performances. Such traveling cinema troupes made cinema accessible to everyone, from monks to military colonels. “Once Upon a Star” revolves around one such traveling cinema troupe. Manit (Sukollawat Kanaros), with Kao (Jirayu La-ongmanee) and Man (Samart Payakaroon), has a traveling cinema troupe that earns money through pharmaceutical advertisement. Manit would pause the film to advertise a certain medicine so the audience would buy it. Unlike YouTube, you cannot skip them. For the Cinema cum Pharma company to work, Manit must keep the audience engaged. It’s only after a grand show can there be grand remuneration.
Sadly, Manit was struggling to provide a grand show. He was great at dubbing for Mitr, but he alone had to dub for all the other characters. The lack of female artists was affecting the company. Manit, Kao, and Man find the perfect solution at this juncture. A girl, Rueangkae (Nuengthida Sophon), walks into their company and asks to be part of their team. She offers to dub for the female characters in the film screening.
This simple yet delightfully charming premise sets “Once Upon a Star” for a beautifully cinematic journey through the rural locales of Thailand. Director Nonzee Nimibutr opens the portal of a new world of cinema. It is the cinema devoid of elitism, the cinema for everyone. Being from India, this setup is familiar to me. The godly aura of cinema stars like Mitr resembles many of our Indian superstars. Mitr’s funeral reminds me of Bengali Superstar Uttam Kumar’s funeral.
“Once Upon a Star” is also a tribute to vocal artists and the voice performers of our cinema industry. Sukollawat Kanaros and Nuengthida Sophon show how important and authentic voice acting is. Kanaros and Sophon are the heart of the film, while La-Ongmanee and Payakaroon provide excellent support. Teerawat Rujintham’s cinematography is as idyllic as the films wanted it to be. Whether it is the colorful cinema truck against the lush green tropical countryside or the beautiful extravaganza of the cinema, all the frames are pleasing to the eyes.
Add to that the whimsically delightful background score that kept on popping up whenever the leading quartet was embarking on any adventure. Overall, “Once Upon a Star” is truly an adventure – a grand cinematic one where we learn a thing or two about another country’s cinema while reaffirming some of the hopeful aspects of life.