By Parinyaporn Pajee
It takes a brave producer to make a biopic of a sports personality or famous athlete in any country and even more so in Thailand where such documentaries are usually of little interest to the filmgoing public.
But Sa-nga Chatchairungruang is willing to take the risk, pointing out that the life of Ariya Jutanugarn, the only Thai professional golfer of either gender to earn the World No 1 ranking, was interesting even before she shot into the public eye.
“Pro May Atchariya Tong Sang” (“Pro May”), which is scheduled for release on August 15, is, he says, a story in determination.
“She started training when she was five and her path to success has been like a roller coaster ride. Sometimes she was successful but on many others she failed to even make the cut. But she just kept fighting back and eventually became the first Thai golf player to reach the very top,” says Sanga, who not only had to work long and hard to convince Ariya to approve the deal but also battle his friends who were determined to make give up the project.
Hataya Wongkrajang, left, returns to the screen after 25 years to play Ariya's mother Naruemon, right.
“It is a story about family and how the father Somboon worked to realise his goals. When he started, other golfers laughed at his dream of building his two young daughters so they would eventually be in the world top 10,” he adds.
Somboon, who ran the pro shop at a golf course, even went so far as to arrange the education of Ariya, aka May, and her elder sister Moriya or Mo to accommodate their pursuit of golfing. They would finish their classes by noon then practice for five to six hours every day, with no time for shopping or hanging out. The whole world of the sisters revolved around the family and golf. And as their careers developed, the expenses grew, forcing Somboon had to sell their house and cars to fund their way to tournaments.
“Everyone thought that he was mad. But he achieved it finally,” says Sa-nga.
“Pro May” spares few details in telling the story of Jutanugarn family and their sometimes-tortuous road to the top. Thaneth Warakulnukroh plays Somboon, Atchareeya Potipipitanakorn star as Moriya while Ariya is portrayed by Kritsiri “Kristie” Suksawat. Hataya Wongkrajang plays the girls’ mother Naruemon.
Ariya was at first reluctant to have her story told, saying she was as yet too young to be portrayed in a biopic. She was also heavily focused on her professional career and didn’t want the distraction. “But when we told her that we wanted to tell her story to inspire young people, she said yes,” Sa-nga explains.
Producer Sa-nga Chatchairungruang
None of the cast had ever played golf so the first hurdle was getting them to learn.
“Fortunately, even though the story is about the most successful golfer in this country, golf is only the background to the story. The focus is on the family and showing how they achieved an impossible dream,” Sa-nga says, adding that when Ariya agreed to he project, she made it clear that she didn’t care how much her story was fictionalised as long as it inspired kids never to give up on their dream.
“When I was young, I always thought no one understood me. But after watching the trailer, I realise that everyone involved in the film understands exactly what I was going through,” says the young golfer.
Tanawat Aiemjinda, who has years of experience in making TV commercials, says he accepted the project for his directorial debut after reading the story.
“When I first heard about the project, I thought it was about another May – the badminton player Ratchanok Intanon who also reached the No 1 spot. The only thing I knew about golf was the name Tiger Woods,” he laughs.
But he admits he was shocked at the intensity of the story. “I think audiences will be divided over what the father did to his young daughters,” Tanawat says.
“You have to ask yourself if it’s right to push your kids that hard. And if you don’t, would they have the chance of making it to the top?”
In the early stages of the film, both Sa-nga and Tanawat thought seriously about downplaying Somboon’s strict rules for fear it would ruin his reputation. Ariya, however, insisted that there be no compromise, pointing out that it was her father’s actions that turned her and her sister into the successes they are today.
Mum Naruemon agreed, saying that she believes that there is no right or wrong in the way the parents treated their kids.
“It’s true that he was tough with the girls but that’s the way it was. From what I’ve seen in the trailer, I think they’ve done good job of portraying our lives,” she says.
Somboon and Naruemon have since divorced. He has moved back to Thailand and has a new family while the siblings live with their mother in Florida.
“Golf and tennis are the sports that can make you rich if you reach the top. The Jutanugarn family was not rich at the start but their success in golf has made their life much better,” says Sa-nga.
The director adds that seeing how they reached success should inspire both children and parents.
“Their father saw what could happen and made plans to ensure it did. It’s up to the viewer to judge whether it was luck or destiny but there can be no argument that their success came from what they did everyday for 18 years,” says the director.
Casting the film was a challenge and Tanawat says he chose his actresses based on their personalities rather than their appearance. Mo is the planner and organiser and May is carefree. “When I talked with the two actresses, I found they shared the same traits as Mo and I,” says Ariya.
The biggest surprise, she adds, came when she saw Thaneth who looks very much like her father Somboon.
“The first time I saw the photograph the film crew sent to me, I wondered what my dad was doing there. They look so similar!”
Kristie, Atchareeya and Thaneth all worked hard both on and off the golf course to get their characters right. Atchareeya remembers crying during the casting, so inspired was she by Ariya’s life. “She is such a great fighter and her story really inspired me to be in this project,” says the actress.
“Somboon is the person between their success. Everyone says he is crazy. I’m kind of crazy too so I tried hard to portray how hard he pushed his children to accomplish his dream,” says Thaneth. While Hataya adds that she was interested in how mum Naruemon sometimes disagreed with what Somboon was doing to the kids. “The character is challenging and that’s why I decided to return to acting for the first time in 25 years,” she says.
“One of the benefits of being an actor is that it opens our minds to the way another person thinks. It’s interesting to learn about an ordinary man who vows to turn his young daughters into the world’s top golfers and stands up to the pressures that come from being laughed at. The way he trained his daughters was tense and uncompromising. But their lives are an inspiration not only for children but also for parents to learn how to raise their kids to achieve success. I don’t want to portray only that dimension of the father because I believe that he has a sentimental side as well,” says the actor.
“Atchariya Tong Sang” will be in cinemas on August 15 though Ariya won’t be attending – she’ll be playing at a tournament in Scotland at the time.
The producer came under fire recently when the Thai Media Fund announced the movie had received Bt16 million. Sa-nga has been quick to defend himself, explaining that the money was given to cover the costs of a special campaign and not for production.
“Ariya’s story is a good inspiration to kids and so we want to reach out as much as we can. We can’t do nothing as movie tickets are too expensive for many kids. We will use these funds for a campaign with schools across the country to bring students to see the movie. And we are also working with Major Cineplex on special ticket prices,” he says.