Teen TV series takes mask off Thai society

A girl emerges from the cubicle in her school's male loo after a quickie with another student. Boys bond over drags of cigarette in an unused classroom. On the streets near their school, rival teenage gangs pummel one another with fists and sticks.

Delinquents?

Not quite. These are scenes from Thailand's hit television series Hormones, about the life of middle-class students in a Bangkok high school.

The 13-part drama, which was aired on satellite TV from May to last month and is slated for a second series, has set Thai society abuzz with the frank portrayal of life as lived by Thai youth today.

Although the show has rankled some officials for alleged indecency, it was not censored. Instead, it gained such a huge following that GMM One channel, which initially made the episodes available on the Internet after they were screened, aired the latter half of the series simultaneously on both platforms. It has chalked up more than 87 million views online.

Firms from Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and even China have knocked on the doors of its distributor GMM Thai Hub, in the hope of bringing some of the Hormones action back home.

"It takes the mask off Thai society," says youth researcher Apinan Thammasena from the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre.

While mainstream TV dramas offer a blend of genteel protagonists and overwrought villains - often with a dash of sorcery thrown in - Hormones features a cast of identifiable characters negotiating the trials of adolescence and more.

There is Dao, a sheltered girl forced to buy an emergency contraceptive pill after being tricked into having sex with a boy. Phai is drawn over and over again into vicious fights with a rival school gang over a past grudge.

Sprite has casual sex but refuses to do it without condoms. Puu is homosexual but grapples with his attraction towards a girl. And then there is Khuan, the squeaky clean class monitor who starts to question her existence after discovering her father has a second family with another woman.

Social media is omnipresent in their lives; comments uploaded one instant go viral the next. The series has won over youth like Ms Tulyada Ratanamornkulchai, 18. "I don't normally watch TV, but I made a special effort to watch this," she tells The Sunday Times.

Director Songyos Sugmakanan, who co-directed the 2003 hit film My Girl, slips in the occasional social commentary.

In one scene, Dao, when watching TV with her mother, asks why images of smoking need to be pixelated when the audience is fully aware that smoking is taking place. This is in reference to censorship of scenes involving drinking, smoking and nudity common on free-to-air TV.

The show has perturbed some officials, with National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission member Peerapong Manakit in July questioning the decency of it, especially the scenes that suggest the students were having sex or buying birth control pills.

Yet the true picture is stark: Thailand has the highest teen pregnancy rate in South-east Asia after Laos, with 54 out of every 1,000 live births from girls aged between 15 and 19, according to a Reuters report. This is 10 times higher than Singapore's.

The country representative of the United Nations Population Fund, Mr Caspar Peek, notes that the number has not declined as would be expected when a country develops. A 2011 survey of Grade 8 students by the Ministry of Public Health found that they started having sex on average when they were 12 years old.

In the same fashion, the gang fight scenes in Hormones mirror the violence that has plagued Thailand's vocational schools for years, where inter-school rivalries are settled with machetes and homemade grenades, and which terrorise commuters on bus routes frequented by these students. In 2010, a nine-year-old boy was shot dead on a bus after being caught in one of these fights.

Public response to Hormones has been "phenomenal", Mr Songyos tells The Sunday Times. "I thought I would get only negative feedback.

But I had people telling me Hormones made them start watching Thai drama again." The second series will be screened next August. The director, not forgetting his core audience, says it will be timed with the school term, so that the youth can spread the word in class.

STARK REALITY

- Thailand has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in South-east Asia after Laos, with 54 out of every 1,000 live births from girls aged between 15 and 19, according to a Reuters report. This is 10 times higher than Singapore’s.

- A 2011 survey of Grade 8 students found that students started having sex on average when they were 12 years old.

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