BANGKOK — Hijabs fluttering in Chao Phraya breeze during a passionate conversation, cooking beef soups from halal meat, and romance scenes with absolutely no romantic touching between men and women are featured in what is thought to be Thailand’s first Muslim romantic comedy.
“Ruk Na, Soup Soup” opens Thursday in theaters nationwide, a rare mainstream Thai film about Thai Muslims with a plot revolving around the ethnic Melayu cuisine in the Deep South, no less.
“I’m so happy that I get to represent being Muslim, such as how we dress and our culture,” leading lady Sasanee Weecharat said at the film’s press premiere Wednesday night. “Usually we never see good images of Muslims in Thailand; it’s all the scary South and bombs.”
Indeed, the film’s name is a play off of the common phrase, “ruk na, jub jub” (love you, kiss kiss). And instead of kissing in the film, there’s soup-stewing.
“So this film is different in that it’s a cutesy, delicate movie about Muslims being cute, not terrorists,” Sasanee said.
Audience member Supaporn Chuensiri, a 34-year-old Bangkok Muslim woman, said she was “excited to see a film about the South, and marginal people.”
Supaporn said that sometimes her Thai Buddhists friends aren’t aware of basic Islamic rules.
“Possibly, this film can help with this since it’s not a religion-focused, proselytizing film, but it’s about the lifestyle,” Supaporn said.
Official records say 5.4 percent of the Thai population is Muslim, or around 3.7 million people. Many of them are in the southern region, where they make up almost 30 percent of the population.
But much of what Bangkokians would hear from that region on the news is the spate of separatist violence that broke out in 2004 and has killed thousands of people so far, mostly civilians.
Directed by Thai Muslim director Kriengkrai Monwichit, “Ruk Na, Soup Soup” is a joint production of Monwichit Studios and M Pictures. The film centers around Minnie (Sasanee Weerachat), the descendant of a palace chef during the Sultanate of Patani, an independent nation annexed into Thailand in the early 20th century.
Although she’s a bad cook, she goes to work at Hunsas Restaurant, a fine-dining restaurant with one Muslim Star but accidentally causes the restaurant to lose the ranking. Minnie must gain back the star for the restaurant by finding her great-grandfather’s lost recipes.
Islam is interwoven into the film: we see as greetings of As-salamu alaykum, an Islamic funeral, and a scene when Minnie prays while in a prayer outfit. Spoiler alert: the secret to the legendary beef soup is by using meat from Qurbani, or meat ritually sacrificed during Eid-al-Adha.
“The animal was killed correctly, without fear and full of mercy, and surrounded by loving people and sent back into the loving arms of the Father,” Minnie says.
Romance between Minnie and male lead, restaurant owner Hunsas (Hussawee Pakrapongpisan), is barely depicted; Minnie was a tsundere for most of the film, and no confession of feelings made. More action is seen with the B-couple, the head chef (Pitisak Yaowananon) and sous chef Feaya (Suttide Kasemsan Na Ayutthaya) – although couples have private time alone, there is never any touching or kissing of any sort.
Cooking scenes in the film serve as a bare introduction to Melayu dishes such as beef soup, Southern style rice salad with Budu fish sauce, and nasi dagae, the local version of nasi dagang. Dagae in Melayu means “outlander,” referring to how foreigners brought the dish to the area.
Both Minnie and Feaya wear fashionable, yet modest clothing such as a frilly white blouse over wrist-length sleeves, ankle-length dresses, pants under skirts, or sunglasses and stacks on stacks of false eyelashes while strolling through the Narathiwat Airport.
Thai Muslim actors Amadkuciasree Doloh, Adull Bosuh, and Hakim Donlapavijit provide comic relief in the film, usually via use of Southern dialect jokes. Adull, for example, has a couple of scenes where he rants at a Budu fish sauce fermenting plant and sells Southern style sweets from a cart.
By no means is this film festival material – loose plot threads, confusing cuts, slapstick and toilet humor, and soap opera acting still abound in “Ruk Na, Soup Soup,” much like most mass films in Thailand. To a foreign eye, the film is about the quality of a B-movie or Netflix holiday film you might put on in the background.
But award-winning films aren’t those watched by the masses in Thailand, much less screened on a mass scale. For what it hopes to do, “Soup Soup” may actually succeed in bringing small elements of Muslim Melayu culture to the Thai masses.
Films about Thai Muslims are also rare: “I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype” (2019) a short film by Hesome Chemamah about a Muslim girl from Southern Thailand who gets bullied at school, won Best Southeast Asian Short Film at the 30st Singapore International Film Festival.
The military’s Internal Security Operations Command sponsored the production of “Latitude No. 6” (2015), a film about the Deep South unrest that painted the military in a positive light.