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Making it to the Top

Oct 13. 2011
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A new movie portrays the entrepreneurial struggles of Thailand's teenage seaweed-snack tycoon


Only a few brands rise to the kind of fame where their names become synonymous with the product. Internationally, of course, there’s Google and Facebook, while here in Thailand, Mama is interchangeable with instant noodles, Fab with laundry detergent and, more recently, Tao Kae Noi has become the byword for seaweed snacks.
 Today, Tao Kae Noi is the leading seaweed-snack brand, with a market share of 70 per cent. The goods taste great but perhaps its greatest claim to fame is that the founder of the brand, Aitthipat “Top” Kulapongvanich, was scarcely out of his teens, when the snacks were introduced to 7-Eleven stores.
Now his life is being brought to the big screen in “Top Secret Wairoon Pun Lan”.
But viewers shouldn’t expect a Mark Zuckerberg-like story as recounted in “The Social Network”.
Director Songyos Sukmakanan says that the success of Tao Kae Noi isn’t down to Top being a whiz kid, or even a visionary guy who used his assets to make money.
He is, however, smart. Top was a reckless youth who played online games rather than studying. And then he found he could make money from his obsession. In fact, he earned more than Bt100,000 a month from online gaming. While studying at the Thai Chamber of Commerce University, he set up a business selling roasted chestnuts and made his first million.
“What’s on his mind when he is doing any business is ‘if I sell that product, I can get money from it’,” says the director.
Top will be 27 years old this December and is already a billionaire. His Tao Kae Noi products are available in many countries as well as through 
“What intrigued me is his stance. I wanted to know what pushes him to be successful. He is fearless and has never given up,” Songyos says.
Unlike his ancestors who struggled through hardships before becoming rich, Top, like many other boys from Chinese-Thai families, was born in an age when people have many choices in life. 
“I found it interesting to see a young guy who worked hard to make the seaweed snack successful. It’s an odd picture, because today we tend to see people working at computers rather than learning how to bake a seaweed snack,” says Songyos.
The idea came from producers Jira Maligool and Wanrudee Pongsitthisak, who were looking for a new approach to films about teenagers. 
Most of GTH’s movies are youth-oriented and tend to portray stories about music or entertainment, such as the recent hit rock ’n’ roll movie “SuckSeed”.
“Top Secret” takes a slightly different path, straying into the world of big business.
“I accepted the project because I’m interested in Top’s life. It’s a teenage story that attracts me, mostly because it’s not a typical teenage story,” Songyos says.
Making a biopic is no easy task, especially when the character is alive and kicking. The filmmaker risks criticism from all sides, but Songyos says he’s not too worried.
“Fortunately, I don’t have that problem with Top. He read the script and has watched the rushes.
“But at the end of the day, when you’re making a movie about the real people, it’s still from the director’s standpoint. It’s important to remember that we’re not making a documentary, so the movie is adapted and adjusted from the real story to make it more emotional and convincing for the audience. People shouldn’t carp about what is true or false. This is a movie: it’s fictionalised,” Songyos says.
“Top Secret” has been a new experience for the director. He adds that when making his previous films like “Fan Chan” or “Dek Hor” (“Dorm”), he was able to spontaneously change ideas when facing problems on the set. This time, the need for accuracy made things less flexible.
“I ended up using my instincts to solve the problem by just going with the essence of the idea I wanted to portray,” Songyos says. “In any movie that’s based on a real life character, I believe that how the story comes out depends on the attitude of the director towards the character. David Fincher makes his own Mark Zuckerberg in ‘The Social Network’.”
Casting the protagonist was no easy task. Songyos searched for five months before settling on Patchara “Peach” Chirathivat, the scene-stealing young star of “SuckSeed”. As a scion of Central Group retailing clan, Peach would seem to have quite a lot of common with the businessman he’s portraying.
However, unlike Top, Peach has never experienced the hardships of early entrepresneurial struggles.
“But I like his attitude toward everything. Peach loves challenging himself even though it’s tough for him. And he worked hard. Many scenes required a lot of takes,” Songyos says.
Other cast members include veteran director Somboonsuk “Piak Poster” Niyomsiri, who plays Top’s partner in the roasted-chestnut business. Piak got his start back in the 1970s, making the same kind of teen-oriented flicks GTH now makes. Now at age 80, he’s making his debut as an actor.
Though “Top Secret” is the story of a successful young businessman, it’s still a teenage movie.
“Like my previous movies, I finally made it as a subliminal coming-of-age film. As we follow Top through the story, we can see that the character has lost some innocence at the end, just like the real Top. In my opinion, Top at high-school age and today as a billionaire, are different people,” Songyos says.
“Top Secret Wairoon Pun Lan” opens in cinemas next Thursday.
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