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‘The first metrosexual’

By Lim Li Min 23 February 2006 13:46
Screen legend Sombat Metanee will be honored tomorrow night with a lifetime achievement award. Reflecting on his busy past, the heartthrob says he isn’t done yet – he wants to be a senator.

The cool, dim interior of Sombat Metanee’s Lat Phrao house contains many testaments to his once feverishly busy life. On the walls, the super-saturated colors of 1960s movie posters. A battered, peeling dinosaur of a movie camera sits on top of some cabinets. An oil painting shows him at perhaps 40, broad-chested, handsome, apple-cheeked. On a table is a forest of film trophies.

Soon there will be yet another trophy to add to that table. This one won’t simply capture a single moment of his long career, it will represent its entirety. Tomorrow night, Sombat will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bangkok International Film Festival (BKKIFF) for his work as an actor, producer and director.

A hugely prolific worker, the screen legend once made it into the Guinesss World Book of Records for having starred in more than 600 films. In his heyday during the 1960s and mid-70s, he was regarded as the Charlton Heston of Thai cinema. “His work is tremendously important,” says Manotham Theamtheabrat, a film critic.

Brawny and attractive, with slicked-back Brylcreemed hair, he dominated the scene with a series of action films including Nine Dragons and The Lion vs the Lion. He was immensely popular: women and men wrote him adoring letters. “I never thought of acting, but I was good-looking, smart; I had sex appeal,” he says, his eyes crinkling, clad in a dark batik shirt.

But in the 1960s, when Sombat began his career, working round the clock was hardly unusual. No trade unions existed; a small clutch of big-name stars were always in demand. His predecessor, Mitr Chaibancha, Thailand’s first action superstar, had averaged 50 films a year; Sombat kept up the pace with an annual output of 20 movies in the 1960s, increasing to 40 in the 1970s. However, when Mitr died in a helicopter stunt in 1970 at 36, Sombat, the same age, was ready to step into his rather large shoes. He went on to court Mitr’s favorite co-star Petchara Chaowarat, a 1960s siren, with more than 40 screen appearances to her credit.

It so happened that Sombat was in the right place at the right time. The 1970s were a fertile period for Thai cinema; at its peak up to 200 films were produced. Toward the late 1960s, unwieldy 16mm films that had to be live-dubbed later were being phased out: 35mm film had arrived, allowing for sound synchronization. This brought about a resurgence in film-making, a proliferation of cinema halls and bigger audience numbers.

Films during that time were mostly low-budget action flicks, romances and comedies; Sombat dabbled in all genres, hamming it up with a bevy of fresh-faced beauties, yet ever aware that his looks were the main drawing card. “I was the first metrosexual,” he laughs. “Even now my wife helps me with my beauty regime.” He played a variety of character parts: a trigger-happy cowboy in The Reluctant Gunfighter (Mue Peun Khia), a thuggish mobster in Louie, a foot soldier in War Lord or Khun Suk. He plays alongside the foxy Aranya Namwong in Chain of Love, thick with mustachioed villains and pendant-wearing playboys. Yet he has always been more comfortable with action films, for which he learned a variety of skills, among them muay thai, sword fighting, and marksmanship.

Growing up, he was always athletic, playing basketball, and rugby, practicing judo and buffing the body that would later feature prominently in many of his films. “I was not James Dean, more James Bond,” says Sombat, who peels off various latex masks in his undercover role in Man with a Thousand Masks. Long before Tom Yum Goong’s Tony Jaa was doing his own stunts, Sombat was already pushing the envelope. Even the news of Mitr’s untimely death didn’t deter him, he says. “I was not afraid. I had been in those kinds of films before, and besides, I was young and energetic then.”

Sombat was also blessed with a professional singing voice. In the 1960s and 1970s he produced three albums containing 200 of his songs culled from the soundtracks of his movies. He throws back his head and sings, “If I had the words/they wouldn’t come in an easy way/round in circles I go/longing to tell you/I let my golden chances pass me by/soon you will leave me in the mists of day.” His voice is a surprisingly rich, velvety baritone.

Today, at 69, Sombat may be a little stiffer in gait and more jowly. He is slightly deaf in both ears, a result of having shot one too many guns without taking adequate precautions in his movies. But he still has a full head of jet-black hair and exudes life. Shuffling around distractedly, he brings over yellowing cuttings and pictures of him receiving his many awards. With two hands, he grabs a gold statuette he received from HM the King for his work in The Battle of Bang Rajan. “It was the greatest moment of my life,” he says as he plonks it down on the table. Although Sombat says he doesn’t work at the same frenzied pace as he once did, even this must be taken with a pinch of salt. After the interview, his wife reveals, he’s due for an all-night TV series shooting that will end at 5am.

Sombat’s three-story house is populated by his wife, Karnjana and five children. Ranging from the ages of 17 to 36, some of his children have become famous in their own right. Sirakup is a race car driver, Aey is a TV show presenter, and the youngest boy is a DJ and singer. His wife, who was his manager and producer at Metanee Film, a production company he started, has known Sombat since they were kids in the same neighborhood. “He’s a good man,” she says. At Metanee Film, Sombat directed 23 films.

His film roles have tended to mirror this nice guy persona. “Even if he plays a bad guy it must be a bad-good or good-bad guy,” says Dome Sukvong, founder of the National Film Archive of Thailand. In Nak Leng Computer (Gangster Computer), he plays a mafioso-type boss who operates a remote-controlled robot assassin. But even this tough guy has a soft side: instead of ordering a girlfriend to sleep with other men to spy for him, he pleads with her. He cites Kiettisak Taharnsear as a favorite film because it goes on about different types of love: brotherly, maternal, God and country.

In between shoots, Sombat has found the time raise a family and develop a parallel life. He has a BA from Rajabhat Walailongkorn University, a Masters in Public Administration from Eastern Asia University and is working on a PhD in PA.

Ultimately, he says he wants to phase himself out of show business. What is his ultimate dream? He would like to become a senator.

“I’ve been very lucky. People have loved me and I would like to pay my country back for everything it has given me,” he says.

In the meantime, though, he continues to do the occasional film, these days, mostly comedies. He hasn’t heard of art house maverick Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but he has seen Tom Yum Goong and liked it. “Tony Jaa is a young Sombat,” he says, “but he wouldn’t have been able to make it back then because those days just focused on your looks.”

The Bangkok International Film Festival has been screening seminal Sombat films at Siam Paragon. Two remain:

The War Lord (Khun Suk, 1976) in which Sombat plays a soldier who fights off enemy troops. February 23, 11:30am, Ultrascreen 1.

Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah Talai Jone, 2000). Wisit Sasanatieng’s homage to the Thai-Western melodramas of that era. February 25, 7pm, Siam Paragon 7, followed by a Q & A session with Sombat.


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