Tired of boys in blue shorts and stories about engineers falling in love with doctors? Look no more! A Tale of Thousands Stars (ATOS) is perhaps the most refreshing and original BL story to come out of GMMTV since He’s Coming To Me. Interestingly, it is also directed by P’Aof, the director of He’s Coming to Me (and also Dark Blue Kiss).
Tian is a young man who likes cars, racing and gambling. His dad is a powerful government official and he enjoys a pretty privileged life. But not all is party and games in Tian’s life, as he suffers from a deadly heart condition. Hundred of miles away, Torfun is a young women who lives a life of sacrifice. She is unloved by her aunt but finds love and a purpose at a small mountain village where she teaches the young children from the local tribe. She also befriends and falls in love with the local forest ranger. One fateful night, as she is back in Bangkok to visit family, she dies in a car accident. Her heart is transplanted into Tian, replacing his damaged heart, and giving him a new take on life. When Tian learns who the donor was and the kind of life she lived, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery, sacrifice and forgiveness.
Because this is GMMTV, the quality of the cinematography is impressive, the sets are elaborate, and the OST does not disappoint. Acting is also above average, and Director P’Aof manages to get Earth to emote, which is in itself a giant undertaking compared to Earth’s acting in Theory of Love or Waterboyy. P’Aof also takes great care in how he portrays life in a rural village, attempting to be as realistic as possible. The series is shot on location, somewhere in Chiang Mai. The house in which Tian lives in the village was made on-site, just for this series. However, like Oxygen last year, ATOTS white-washes and sanitizes rural life. OK, perhaps not to the extreme Oxygen did but it still feels disingenuous. On the positive side, at least the attempt was made to make it credible: the villagers speak Northern Thai, they grow tea, believe in the super natural, and dress in clothes that resemble clothing worn by hill tribes in the area. By the way, if you are a fan of Drake Laedeke or Khaotung Thanawat, this is a good chance to hear them speak in their native dialect, as they are both native speakers of Northern Thai. [NOTE: I have been told by some of you, that Drake claims that Khaotung had to take some accent coaching or language classes as he is not a native speaker. I can’t confirm if this is true or an exaggeration, though Khaotung and Drake were roommates, so maybe the director wanted Khaotung to practice his Northern Thai? What I do know is that Khaotung at least went to high school in Northern Thailand and he spent a few years in Chiang Mai University, also in Northern Thailand]
The first half of the series was great. I enjoyed the development of Tian as a character. Seeing White Nawat play Tian’s best friend was also another plus. As you know, I am a big fan of White since his Lovesick days and I enjoy seeing him on screen. Earth played Chief Phupa, who was a much more flat character, but still Earth managed to make Phupa likeable and less stoic than your typical Thai Tsundere. Unlike other GMMTV BL series, ATOTS does not spend a single minute in pointless side stories or secondary couples. Thus, we get to know both male protagonist pretty well.
[WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW]
I was really excited at first because I thought this story would be more about Tian’s internal struggle of coping with the guilt he feels when he finds out that his father used his influence and power to put him at the top of the transplant list, so that he could get a heart right away. Tian’s dilemma is that he was given another chance at life, but he doesn’t feel he deserved it. To make matters worst, Tian also feels guilty for Torfun’s death (it was his car which ran her over). Thus, the potential is there to tell an interesting story. However, like many BLs from Thailand, this one veers off in the wrong direction about 3/4 of the way into the story.
Following Torfun’s footsteps, Tian goes to a village to teach little kids how to brush their teeth, how to drown in the river, and how to write in Thai Abugida Script. The villagers are portrayed as folksy and extremely dumb. They don’t know that they are being taken advantage of by these gang of thugs who buy the villagers tea crop but underpay for it. Since the dumb villagers do not know how to read a scale, the gang tricks them into thinking they have less tea leaves. Tian discovers this, which angers the gang of thugs. He gets into a fight with one of the thugs. What is incredible to me is that the villagers are not thankful at all to Tian for discovering that they are being taken advantage of. Instead, they are upset at Tian because the thugs no longer want to buy the tea. Later, these same thugs try to hurt the villagers by burning the school.
Eventually, Tian falls for Phupa and Phupa falls for Tian. But the heart that beats inside Tian, which is Torfun’s, is not the reason that Tian and Phupa fall in love. Thankfully, their love is not based on supernatural phenomena, or at least it is not the main premise of the series. Tian never tells the villagers or Chief Phupa that he had a heart transplant. In fact, the villagers don’t know that Torfun is dead. Towards the end of the series, we learn that Tian feels guilty for Torfun’s death and thinks he is the cause of her death. In the big dramatic climax, he reveals to the villagers the truth: that Torfun died because of him, and that he has her heart, but he never tells them about the diary. Tian had Torfun’s diary, but he kept this from everyone. In the diary, Torfun talks about how she liked Phupa and how she believed in the legend of a thousand stars. If one counted one thousand stars in the sky at Phapandao Cliff, one could wish for anything. Based on the accounts in the diary, Tian surmises that Torfun wanted to count the stars at the cliff one night so she could wish that Phupa will find love. Obviously, she expected that Phupa’s true love would be her. Thus, in the end, Tian goes and counts the stars (or tries to), makes a wish, and that wish becomes true, as Phupa and Tian live happily ever after. The end.
Why do I think ATOTS is not as good as some people say it was?
While, I provided a very succinct synopsis of the series above, I left two crucial details: First, before Tian goes up to the cliff to count the stars, Phupa gets shot and Tian gets hurt. Remember the gang of thugs that Tian confronted earlier in the series about taking advantage of the villagers? The ones who burnt down the school? Well, those same guys are trafficking something, and Tian sets to find out what it is. In the process, he brings Longtae (Khaotung) with him. Because, you know, he is going somewhere pretty safe and he is dealing with folks who have been nothing but murderously friendly. Of course, Longtae decides to follow Tian because at this point in the story they are like, I don’t know, best friends? Tian and Longtae do find the gang and they uncover the contraband. I can’t remember what they were trafficking, probably because it wasn’t really important to the story, but it wasn’t tea or coffee. Anyway, the bad guys find out that Tian had been following them so they welcome him with open arms. Kidding. What do you think? They shoot at him but Phupa appears and takes the bullet for his man.
Keep in mind that just before this, Phupa had found out about Tian, the diary, and Tian’s heart transplant. Earlier in the day, Tian had told everyone how he had been at fault for Torfun’s death. Phupa was really upset. Phupa getting shot is the cliffhanger at the end of one of the last episodes. Thus, as viewers, we watch in horror thinking that perhaps the producers will kill off Phupa (There was some false foreshadowing early on in the series, when Phupa talked about these birds who mate for life. Misdirection).
This brings me to the second thing I left out of my very short summary. While Phupa doesn’t die, he does have to go to the hospital. At the hospital, while convalescing, Tian’s father tells Phupa that Tian’s mom really misses him. Good Chief Phupa can’t refuse an order given to him by Tian’s dad, who is technically his superior in the military, I mean, the forest rangers, which makes Tian’s dad the Secretary of the Interior, head of forest service or Smoky, the bear, I am not sure. In any event, Phupa presses Tian to quit and tells him he will ask the foundation to bring another teacher. I guess that school superintendent is also part of his job description. Tian eventually leaves the village.
Internal Forces vs External Forces: The conflicts that break up Thai BL couples
Before I tell you why this particular plot point made me upset, let’s first talk about why couples usually breakup in most Thai BL dramas, which usually falls under two categories: internal and external conflicts. Noh and Phun have multiple fights over the course of two seasons but they technically only breakup once, and it was because Phun had taken Aim’s virginity and he needed to stay with her. This an internal conflict: no one is “forcing” them to breakup, and in fact it is Noh who decides that Phun can’t leave Aim. In Make It Right, Book and Frame take a break (but do not formally break up) because Book is depressed and doesn’t want to be near anyone. Again, this is an internal conflict. Fast forward to present day BLs and you will find that a great majority of them use external forces to create the conflict that breaks the couple: An evil ex in Tonhon Chonlatee, jealousy over an imaginary girlfriend in 2Gether, the need to catch the evil Lhong in TharnType, the dad in Oxygen, the BL industry itself in Lovely Writer, and in ATOTS, it is the dad who forces Phupa to then push Tian out of the village.
Contrast this to Gameboys, in which the conflict that breaks up the main couple is just simply the fact that they have to live far from each other, which makes Cairo decide that they must break up. One could say this is an external force (because it is the mom who forces Cairo to move out of Manila with her), but the mom did not tell her to breakup with Gav. The decision to break up is 100% on Cairo, who can’t see a future for him and Gav living so far from each other. I liked this because so many couples do have to go through this tough decision: stay together but live far from each other, or break up and give your partner the opportunity to find happiness on his own.
ATOTS to me is a wasted opportunity. Why force the dad to break the couple up when they could simply have Phupa be upset that Tian lied about the real reason he came to the village? I think internal conflict can help us learn so much about the couple. I have always felt that Noh truly loved Phun because he was willing to let Phun go so that Phun could do the “right” thing for Aim. Cairo was willing to suffer because he thought he was doing right by Gav. Frame was despondent watching Book suffer alone and in silence but he stayed away as long as Book needed to mend his broken self.
Imagine if Tian would have left because Phupa told him “I don’t know who you are. Can I even trust you? Can the villagers trust you?” and then told him they are done. Instead, we get Phupa telling Tian to leave because Tian’s dad tells him Tian’s mommy misses him very much. So now Tian gets upset and cries and pouts and complains to Phupa, but Phupa goes all full-mode Tsundere and gives him the cold shoulder. Lack of communication is always a big issue in Thai BL. In the end Tian leaves because I guess the love for the kids is not really why he is there, even when we all believed at one point that he had really changed and wanted to be a teacher. All that self-discovery he did was worth nothing. Back home, his mom is nowhere to be seen. Didn’t she miss him? Why are they distant? It is never explained.
Tian tell his mom he want to be a teacher. Yes, the same guy who left his teaching job because his boyfriend told him to leave, is now saying teaching is what he is passionate about. His mom is more horrified about him being a teacher than she later is about him liking boys. It is weird.
What set ATOTS apart from other BLs…
Besides the fact that it is among only a handful of BLs that are set in the Thai countryside, ATOTS is unique among most Thai BLs in many respects.
This is only the second Thai BL I have seen in which most of the actors speak a language other than Central (Standard) Thai. The first one to do so, as far as I know, was Thank God Its Friday, in which some (or maybe all?) of the actors spoke Isan. There are more L1 Isan speakers than L1 Norther Thai speakers, so one should also point out that ATOTS was a much bigger gamble anyway.
This is the only Thai BL series that I have ever watched in which there was no female character with a significant role. Torfun was pretty much reduced to “the dead girl” and although we got to know her a little bit through flashbacks, I don’t think her role was prominent enough.
Almost every Thai BL ever shown on TV has been set in college or high school, which means almost every Seme that has ever existed up to this point, has been a high school student or a college student. Here the Seme is a forest ranger.
Neither the Uke nor the Seme suffer the typical existential crisis which occurs when they find out they are gay. In fact, it seems that both Tian and Phupa already know they are not straight and act as though falling in love with a man is not something unexpected to them. Tul (Tian’s friend played by White) does give Tian a little speech about “you love who you love”, but in the end no one seems surprised that Tian likes boys except his mom. In Phupa’s case, his friends act like they know that Phupa likes boys. The only one who seems to have doubts about it is Tian himself.
What did I learn about Thai culture watching this series?
In Thailand, forgiveness is much more easily handed out. As I pointed out earlier, the director of ATOTS is the same one who directed He is coming to Me. One thing both series have in common is the way in which characters often quickly forgive and are forgiven. Perhaps it is the director but perhaps it is something cultural. It seems that in Thai culture, forgiving others who wrong us is important. Tian’s parents are forgiven (by Tian) for using their power to put Tian ahead in the transplant list. Tian is forgiven by the villagers for ruining their relationship with the thugs, and later he is forgiven for “being responsible for Torfun’s death” (his words). Phupa quickly forgives Tian for lying to him and the villagers. The parents of the kid who almost drowned also forgive Tian relatively quickly.
Thai people believe in ghosts. This is especially true for folks in the countryside. There several scenes in the series that show this to be true. If I hear a sound in the middle of the night in my house, my first concern would be that it is an intruder, but my husband who is Southeast Asian, would probably wonder out loud, “is it a ghost?”.
Bottom line: Why is ATOTS far from perfect?
ATOTS undoubtedly has among the best production values of any Thai BL series ever made. The music and set design alone are award worthy. Also, there is no doubt in my mind that the director did an amazing job in getting his actors to emote. If we compare Earth’s performance here to his performance a couple of years ago in Theory of Love, it is like he is two different people.
But this series is far from perfect. The “white washing” of the villagers, the very weak reason for the breakup, the fact that Phupa and Tian break up because of Tian’s dad (something that Phupa never reveals to Tian), and the fact that Tian patches things up with Phupa but Tian still leaves (and they don’t explain why), is to me enough to bring this series down a notch.
The last scene, with Tian and Phupa at the airport, didn’t get me in the feels like it was supposed to do, because I kept thinking about all the reasons why they should not have broken up on the first place and all the reasons they should still be together. So the scene lost its magic for me.
I still would rank this series as one of the better series I have watched (top 10-15), but I would not rank this higher than I rank Gameboys, Lovesick, MIR, Boy’s Lockdown or He’s Coming To Me.
Overall, would I recommend this series? Yes. In the saturated BL market of 2021, this still stands out, not just because it is a GMMTV production, but because it is different, refreshing and romantic, and because it has a great message about forgiveness and love.