Feminism, ancient history and lessons about loyalty. It sounds more like an excruciating afternoon at school than a TV show. Yet current mega-hit “Love Destiny” is a highly addictive cocktail of fascinating themes, fine acting, smart screenplays and eye-candy settings.
Many Thai readers will be hooked already, or at least familiar with the action. But for those who haven’t seen it, take “Back to the Future”, “Regarding Henry” and “The Host”, and sweeten the mix with a dash of romantic comedy. There you have “Love Destiny” (“Bupphesaniwat”), more or less.
The ratings are phenomenal, Ayutthaya’s tourism is benefiting immensely and the fan fever sweeping Thailand is making headlines overseas.
The show has been trending constantly on the social media. Football commentators have been talking about the characters. Online viewing figures from YouTube and Channel 3 suggest that TV viewers form only the tip of a much bigger “invisible” audience.
For Thai drama fans, a romantically fearless heroine, clumsy but with a good heart, being thrown together with a rigid hero who keeps his feelings to himself, is always a winning formula. “Love Destiny”, however, is more than that. Without being preachy about human rights or women’s liberation, the series spells out cultural and gender differences between now and the era of King Narai the Great, four centuries ago. Viewers are never force-fed moral lessons, but in wry and sometimes comic scenes we learn plenty about how feminism has evolved in this country.
In King Narai’s day, a woman could trigger scandal merely by accidentally brushing against a man. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was definitely out of the question. Strict protocol dictated the way ladies could eat and when they could talk to men or their seniors. Female behaviour commonplace today would have been considered obscene or outrageous back then – which is somewhat ironic given that our ancestors didn’t even wear underpants.
The thing is, the era was not backward or primitive. And this point is underlined in the source novel and the series, without patronising us while doing so. They do a great job in making Thais proud of a period in their history that featured slavery, forced marriage and other practices that confined women.
Ten government ministers can ask Thais to wear national dress to mark a special occasion, but no persuasion is more powerful than a good TV series that presents our heritage in fascinating ways.
Thais overseas are watching it online in unprecedented numbers. A large number of Chinese are watching it, too, with subtitles applied soon after each episode airs in Thailand.
The actress who plays the heroine is a knockout. She’s so good in her role that practically anyone could play the hero – who spends 95 per cent of his time being uptight – and the Channel 3 show would still be massively popular. While the production values are as impressive as the acting, it’s not an overstatement to say that she has turned a “sure-fire hit” into a Thai TV phenomenon.
The historical plot thickens halfway through the series. The political and diplomatic intrigues in Siam, facing the threat of colonisation as it opens up to suspiciously friendly approaches from Western nations, come into play and blend well with the characters’ story-lines. The roles of Constantine Phaulkon and his wife Maria Guyomar de Pinha (Thao Thong Kip Ma) are historically accurate and enhance the heroine’s part in the tale.
The usual clichés of Thai drama are present. Everyone knew from the start that the heroine would eventually melt the rigid hero’s heart and win over other characters along the way. The strengths of the series lie in what happens in between, which is cleverly humorous, spontaneously informative and emotionally satisfying.
A lot of the credit has to go to novelist Rompaeng, who wrote “Love Destiny” roughly a decade ago. She created a heroine who is definitely not an idealist, but that is exactly what makes the premise work. Readers and viewers these days won’t suffer being spoon-fed ideology; stories that flow from the heart stand a better chance of lasting the distance.
As a TV series, “Love Destiny” has succeeded on many fronts, treating history, Thainess and Thai culture with great respect but also with wit and humour. Its real fans are thus dismayed that the show is beginning to be exploited to score political points, associated with politically unhealthy words like nationalism and xenophobia.
So, what’s the moral of “Love Destiny” then? Here’s my two cents: Travelling through time can make destinations blurry, but destiny crystal clear.