BANGKOK — As hidden-camera pranks go, this one was as devious as any Jackass stunt.
Saranae, a Bangkok prank comedy trio, swept an unknowing Thai actor into what appeared to be a junky cab. It was, in fact, a high-octane car driven by a stunt driver in disguise. After punching the meter, the driver blasted off on a pants-soiling joyride involving wheelies, roadside bombs and a head-on collision with a noodle stall.
Though the gag started off plenty cruel by American standards, it ended in a most Thai fashion. When actor Mum Jokmok finally spilled from the taxi — spewing what must be a record-breaking torrent of Thai curses per second — the pranksters emerged with clasped hands, bowing to their victim. Some nearly prostrated on the asphalt in apology.
Such is the delicate balance of Thai-style pranking, Saranae said.
The Borat-Jackass-Punk’d prank comedy genre has proven that Western moviegoers can delight in jokes at a stranger’s expense. But in Thailand and much of Asia, non-confrontation is hard-wired into the culture.
Each prank must be executed with care, said Saranae founder Willy McIntosh. Even their film posters read, in Thai, “If we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t tease you … if you weren’t laughing, we wouldn’t pick on you.”
“We’re pretty much good at heart,” said McIntosh, who is half-Thai, half-Scottish and a former soap opera heartthrob. “We don’t dispose of our feces in a Home Depot. We don’t electrocute people. We just want to see someone we really love in an extremely candid situation.”
Apparently, so do millions of Thais. After 11 years of producing television comedy, the group has released the film “Saranae Hao Peng,” Thailand’s first cinematic contribution to the prank genre. (The word “Saranae” can be loosely translated as “meddlesome.”)
Produced for only about $438,000, the film has earned upward of $3.2 million at the box office — a small miracle by Thai standards. It even beat out “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in Thai ticket sales.
In “Saranae Hao Peng,” there are no Jackass-style pain stunts, i.e. disguising male private parts as a mouse and tempting a hungry snake. There is no Borat-style ambushing of strangers, i.e. drawing racist comments out of Americans by pretending to be a Kazakh TV crew.
Saranae’s pranks are more akin to an elaborate mind game. They exhaustively research a celebrity target to draw out — and prey on — their victim’s vulnerabilities in view of well-disguised cameras.
“With Jackass, where you're just shooting a tennis ball into someone's face, you don't really need to research anything,” said Saranae member Kiattisak “Hoi” Udomnag. “We'll even investigate the person's father and mother.”
Still, Saranae has a code. Frightening celebrities is fair game. Injuring their reputation or causing them to “lose face” is mostly forbidden. (No exposing dark secrets, such as sexual proclivities, or even an embarrassing smoking habit.)
The movie’s thrills are multi-layered. Filmed over two years, it casts two good-hearted, geeky interns as the chief prank perpetrators. While it’s amusing to watch celebs get stung, there’s a richer pleasure in watching two well-raised Thai young men squirm as Saranae forces them to violate social norms. The line between pranker and prankee is often blurred.
In the film, the interns are ordered to somehow shave off the iconic mustache of singer Ad Carabao, a Springsteenish rocker known to roll with rowdy bikers. After being pushed around and even shot at by his gang (who are secretly in on the joke) the interns meet the rock legend — and beg with whispery deference for his whiskers.
“We just had a feeling these boys were good people inside,” said Saranae member Nakorn “Ple” Silachi. “That makes it more fun to watch.”
One of the interns, Pongpit “Starbuck” Preechaborisutkul, said his traditional Chinese-Thai family has shown concern over this “frivolous” behavior. They were particularly upset to see their son trapped in a small tent with a grumpy tiger. “They might get the humor, but they don’t like it,” he said. “They would prefer I work in business.”
Cultural do’s-and-don’ts aside, there’s one huge plus to pranking in Thailand: It’s a far less litigious country than America. Saranae is free to kidnap celebrities, scare the hell out of them and simply apologize their way out of repercussions.
Though livid, Mum, the actor tricked into the taxi hell ride, later accepted Saranae’s flurry of apologetic bows on Thai television. There were conditions: Mum forced them to edit some of the cursing that made him appear “low class.” (In Thailand, public displays of fury are quite taboo.)
“We knew he’d never sue us,” McIntosh said. “Of course, in America, I would be sued. I’d lose my company. Actually, I’d probably go to jail.”
Saranae’s rules are also shaped by trial and error. Targeting strangers was ruled out after a wayward TV stunt in which the pranksters acquired a public bus and picked up unsuspecting commuters. When elderly passengers boarded, they’d run the standard route. But when younger passengers would board, the comedians would feign bombings.
“We thought we’d put a little rainbow color in their life,” McIntosh said. Instead, the outcry nearly forced them to shut down the company.
Energized by their surprise domestic success, Saranae has decided to submit the film to the Cannes Film Festival and possibly market it internationally under the title, “God Bless the Interns.”
Meanwhile, Saranae prankster Hoi has been creeping into theaters to soak up Thai moviegoers’ reactions. Between fits of laughter, many will mutter that the comedians are “evil” or call them monitor lizards, a rather poisonous Thai put-down.
“At first, I thought, ‘Wow, maybe we really are evil backstabbers,’” Hoi said. “But wouldn’t you believe it? Pretty soon our front desk was crowded with people applying to work for us. They want to prank people too.”
Read more on Thailand:
Teachercide in Thailand
The pageantry of the "Third Gender"
The week's other crackdown: the Karen