There are so many movies being produced these days that the premiere of most films hardly merits a second look. But in Laos there is cause for genuine excitement. Thirty-three years after the communist government overthrew the king and seized power, the south-east Asian nation has just produced its first privately funded movie, Good Morning, Luang Prabang.
The plot is simple enough; a Thai photographer visiting Laos falls in love with his beautiful Laotian tour guide. But much more remarkable than the plot-line, is that the communist government, having for years seen cinema as nothing more than an opportunity for propaganda, has given its support to the movie. As such there are hopes that Good Morning, Luang Prabang, which recently premiered at one of the country's two cinemas, might be the first of many.
"We aim at presenting Laotian culture, our beautiful scenery and cities," said Anousone Sirisackda, a Lao video producer who was involved in making the film with the Thai director, Sakchai Deenan. "Although Thailand and Laos have similar cultures, their differences are the charms that would draw people to see this movie."
Under the communist Pathet Lao group, the only movies produced in the former French colony were crude propaganda films and a handful of patriotic films funded by the government. Now, the authorities believe that allowing filming in Laos and helping develop the country's film industry could be a vital source of income for the country.
Not that everything has suddenly become easy. A member of the government was on the set every day to ensure that Laotian culture was portrayed appropriately and the team behind the movie cut a number of scenes they believed might be controversial. They also deliberately chose a plot that would not challenge the authorities. "We wanted a soft storyline so it would not be too hard to get approval from the Lao government," said Sakchai.
Starring Ananda Everingham, a Laotian-Australian actor, and the Laotian actress Khamly Philavong, the movie also represents a means of strengthening ties between Laos and Thailand. Relations between the Western-backed Thailand and the communist government of Laos have not always been easy. The two countries fought border skirmishes in the late 1980s.
And movies have previously not helped matters either. Two years ago, the Lao national football team were ridiculed in the Thai comedy Mak Teh (Lucky Losers). The film's release was cancelled after Laotian diplomats complained that it made fun of the country and its people. And last year, the Thai soap opera Mekong Love Song was pulled after similar complaints from Lao authorities. Apparently the scene deemed the most offensive included a Thai actor dropping Laos's national flower, the frangipani, in a river as he pined for his lover.
Having premiered in Laos's capital Vientiane and shown in Thailand, the producers are hoping to organise open-air screenings so that more people in Laos – including those in the Unesco World Heritage city, Luang Prabang, which gives the film its title – will be able to see the movie.