An animated film based on the Thai King’s favourite dog, a potent symbol used by the monarch through stories to dispense advice to the nation, has this week shot to number two at the box office.
The privately-funded film has been released at a time of deep divisions within the kingdom, with anxiety high over the nation’s future due to the monarch being in poor health and an arch-royalist junta trying to push its message of unity and conformity upon a fractured country.
King Bhumibol Aduyadej, 88, is the world’s longest-serving monarch and his economic and social teachings are relentlessly promoted in Thailand.
Over the last decade his favourite dog, an adopted stray called Tongdaeng (Copper), praised for her loyalty and obedience, has been used to outline Bhumibol’s vision of how Thais should behave.
She famously went from tramp to lady status after she was taken in by the palace in the late 1990s — becoming a household name after Bhumibol penned a heartfelt book about her attributes in 2002, complete with dozens of portraits of the faithful hound taken by the king.
The book was widely interpreted at the time as a homily from the king on how Thais should live their lives and remember their place within the kingdom’s rigid society.
Books about the dog have outsold bestsellers such as Harry Potter in Thailand.
Now Tongdaeng has had a silver screen makeover.
Titled Khun Tongdaeng: The Inspiration, the film features three short animated stories about dogs by a trio of local animation studios taking their cue from Bhumibol’s book.
“The behaviour of Khun Tongdaeng has been widely recognised and renowned for her incredible loyalty, gratefulness and bravery,” Vinij Lertratanachai, the brainchild behind the film, told AFP.
The US$4.1 million budget came from corporate sponsors and the film took two years to produce.
Bhumibol is revered among many Thais but has been in hospital for much of the last two years and is rarely seen in public.
On Saturday he marked his 88th birthday but any celebrations were low-key, with no public appearance or statement issued.
However, more than half a million people are expected to take to the streets nationwide on Friday for a mass bike ride in tribute to the King organised by his son and chosen successor Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has yet to attain his father’s widespread popularity.
For much of the last decade Thailand has been rocked by political instability partially fuelled by jostling among the country’s elites for influence as the king’s reign enters its twilight years.
Bhumibol and his family are protected by one of the world’s harshest lese majeste laws making criticism of the monarchy, or public debate about its role in society, all but impossible.
The interplay between the monarchy, politics and the people is delicate and heavily shrouded by the law.
Convictions under the controversial legislation have skyrocketed since the country’s royalist military seized power last year, toppling a democratically elected government.