HUMANS OF HUA HIN – series by Felicitee Lawrie
Vithaya Pansringarm, Pu Vithaya or just plain Khun Pu lives in a spacious, open-air garden apartment in one of my favourite parts of Hua Hin.
The condo is beautifully decorated, but not cluttered, with antique furniture, quirky memorabilia and tasteful artwork.
It is the sanctuary occupied by two extremely busy Bangkok residents for exactly half of each week, a retreat guarded almost to the hour, dividing their work lives from their time for physical, mental and spiritual tranquillity and renewal.
In 2014, Variety magazine, the standard of the motion picture industry, labelled Khun Pu as “Thailand’s most exportable character actor”, yet I had never heard of him before embarking on this assignment at the recommendation of my last interviewee, Ox.
The best compliment Khun Pu has been paid is that he is the Thai actor who has won the heart of the international viewer. Powerful praise, indeed.
Pu has had an interesting life, with both high moments and low moments. He has graced the red carpet at the Cannes film festival, not once but twice, to standing ovations lasting ten minutes or so.
He has endured the blinding flash of the media photographers, and done the rounds of the press. It was in Cannes that he knew he had made it in the industry. He even won the Best Actor Award at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2014, edging out Michael Caine. Impressive.
With an incredible body of work to his name, Pu has featured in many acclaimed movies and series and has played roles that have caused much controversy and consternation, yet he remains a mainly private man.
His lack of anger or rancour was palpable in our discussion, even when he recounts the story about one work colleague who actively tried to break his spirit. When people have told him he would not be able to do something, he hasn’t responded in the typical “I’ll show you “ fashion.
Rather than allowing others to get under his skin, Khun Pu has the power to retain his equanimity and let his actions speak for themselves. He finds that generosity of spirit means that “people can not be a jerk to you”.
On screen, he has played some powerful roles indeed, and engaged in filming his own stunts. He recalls one epic fight scene in Only God Forgives, where he was pitted against Ryan Gosling’s character. Fortunately, Khun Pu holds a 5th Dan Black Belt in Kendo, “the Way of the Sword” a Japanese martial art dating back centuries.
He began his training in his mid-20s while living in America, captivated by both the martial art itself and the group of seemingly ordinary men and women who transformed into “badasses” when they donned the body armour and picked up the bamboo training swords.
He is responsible for bringing the discipline to Thailand when he returned after his lengthy sojourn in America studying for a degree in Graphic Arts and working in a variety of jobs to support himself. Kendo has become an integral part of who Khun Pu now is.
It allows him to be gentle and strong at the same time, to develop physical and mental prowess in a spiritual way. His involvement as a mentor and adviser to the Thai Kendo community will be lifelong, although he has now stepped down as President.
In the same way, Khun Pu never sees his involvement in the film industry finishing. While he has strength to get in the car to go to the set, he intends to keep acting. Yet, Khun Pu, while he is described on the internet as a veteran actor, is actually a relative newcomer to the industry, with his breakout role not happening until 2010, when he was already in his 50s. Pu is certain that he has yet to reach his prime when it comes to acting, though he acknowledges it is time to pace himself.
To understand Khun Pu, you need to understand his early years. Pu was the only child in a middle to lower class Bangkok family, which he frankly admits was dysfunctional due to his dad’s fondness of alcohol and his inability to stay on the AA program.
His dad worked as an accountant, his mother was the supervisor at a cosmetic manufacturing facility and Pu was raised in a religious environment that encompassed both Buddhism and Catholicism. Pu’s earliest memories of Hua Hin are of summer holidays by the beach to escape the stifling heat of Bangkok, and he recalls a picture of a chubby young boy, himself, astride a horse.
When he travelled to America to study, although he met his Kendo family and married his American wife, Fay, a classically trained ballet dancer, Khun Pu was still on a journey to discover himself. The couple married and then returned to Thailand in 1987, with Fay starting her dance studio in Bangkok soon after and Pu establishing a multi-level marketing business specialising in consumer products.
Although these jobs kept money in the bank, a roof over their heads and food on the table, Fay was concerned about her husband as he had still to find his passion in life.
The couple had their adored son, Aaron, now heading towards 23 years old, after a gruelling number of IVF rounds over 5 years. Injections, hope, elation and desolation. But Pu admits despite his delight in parenthood, there was a niggling feeling that something was not quite what it should be.
He was lacking in motivation, living in his “comfort zone” of drinking too much after work, having to take his son to school next morning hungover, out of physical shape, impatient and not being the father his son deserved.
It was not until his wife and child took a holiday and left him behind, without advance warning, that the penny dropped and Pu became aware that he was risking everything that mattered to him. And co-incidentally, his second chance came with exactly that, a 9- minute long short film called Second Chance.
Pu went into the project just thinking he would have a short film to one day show his son something good that his father had done. But this work, orchestrated by Australian cinematographer Wade Muller, was the springboard that eventually launched Pu’s movie career and saw him cast in his first feature role as the King in the Prince and Me Series by Millennium Films in 2010.
Work in the movie industry for Pu has been pretty much non-stop ever since, and he is in such demand that he often does not even go to casting calls, with producers specifying to their backers that he is the perfect match for the role.
When the rest of the industry was in Covid-induced shutdown, Pu was on the Gold Coast in Australia, filming for several months. Pu has been contracted for both an Indian and a Chinese film, which are due to start filming soon. He couldn’t tell me the specifics; else he would have had to kill me. Pu is also hopeful that a French production called Farang, due for release this European summer, could see him having another crack at an award in Cannes. Best of luck!
It is interesting to note that while Pu has appeared in Hollywood movies, he’s never been to Hollywood itself, with filming happening in different parts of the country, and indeed the world, perhaps Mongolia being the most remote location Pu has visited. He would love to travel more extensively, indicating that visiting Spain, Chile and Cuba are still on his to-do list.
Several of the roles he has played have left an everlasting imprint on Khun Pu. Although he chooses not to name favourites, his roles as Chang in Only God Forgives, Father Ananda in Mindfulness and Murder (where he also he has a script writing credit for his adaptation of the screenplay), and as Chavoret Jaruboon in The Last Executioner have been perhaps the most challenging for him, requiring him to portray great control, immense calmness and inner turmoil, in that order.
There is so much to say about this charming man but time runs short. Pu is very self-aware, and describes himself as creative, imaginative and hard-working. He paints in water colours, cooks well, (home-made pasta and chocolate brownies among his specialities) and is perfectly content with the simple pleasures such as a fried egg sandwich on wholewheat bread, with sriracha sauce.
He can browse the hours away in Chatuchak market searching for a new Buddha to add to his collection and is an awesome best friend. Unlike many others in his industry, he doesn’t play games or have such a huge ego that it gets in the way. On set, he is a model actor, taking direction without complaint, happy to do 40 takes, if that is what the director needs to be satisfied. Pu admits the money is good, and he is more than happy to work hard for it.
When I asked, Khun Pu denied any interest in undertaking the role as director himself, even though many others he admires have tried it. Rather, he sees himself as potentially becoming a producer at some time in the future, if he finds a compelling theme to challenge him.
Asked about his personal favourite movies, I gleaned that he is not a fan of horror movies, preferring an action drama above most other genres. He can’t go past classics such as Groundhog Day, Field of Dreams and The Natural. Fancy that, a Thai actor picking 2 baseball classics in his list of all-time favourites! But it comes with Khun Pu’s fascination with the indomitable nature of the human spirit, I think.
During our chat, Khun Pu mentioned to me several times about making merit and how important it is to him, whether it manifests itself in making pasta late at night to feed the cast on set the next day, or showing consideration to colleagues by bringing his own personal collection of props such as a cigar, lighter, fake Rolex, amulets, and neckties to the set, or carefully placing worn, sweaty wardrobe items back the way he found them, on their hangers or folded carefully. All these things display his respect for others, and make merit for him by creating happiness for others.
That doesn’t mean he never leaves towels on the floor at home, however. But Pu lovingly describes Fay as the Yin to his Yang and can list a dozen examples of how the pair complement each other.
He has worked in a myriad of ways supporting her work with the dancing studio, from designing posters to co-ordinating events, and they have collaborated on fashion shows and pageants, a move which then saw the pair work as mentors and trainers to the Miss Thailand World contestants, assisting in the development of team building, public speaking and choreography. Khun Pu told me of his wonder in experiencing the joy of the Cinderella story where the winning contestant found her life changed forever, on the announcement of her name.
Khun Pu’s personal growth has been no Cinderella story: he is not a woman, it has not been overnight, but it has happened, and he has become a devoted, considerate husband, a better father, and a positive role model to a nation.
Admirers send him Lego models of himself and photos of tattoos of his name, face and movie titles plastered all over their bodies. He can rest assured; he has made an impression, he has made a difference, he has encouraged viewers to ensure they respect all people, and he is going to continue to do so.