Last month, “Morrison” (2023), the latest film by Venice Film Festival winner Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, hit cinemas in Thailand starring singer Hugo Chakrabongse as Jimmy. The story follows Jimmy, a 40-year-old singer turned engineer who was sent to renovate the mysterious, rundown Paradise Hotel. As he traverses through its historical corridors, Jimmy explores the lasting scars of the Cold War and revelations of his family’s past.
In the early 2000s, the actor and director crossed paths on the set of a Thai horror flick, 999-9999, with Hugo as the lead and Phuttiphong as art director. Shortly after the project, Hugo pivoted to a music career, singing for the Thai rock country band Sib Lor (wheeled truck), before signing to Jay-Z Roc Nation. This outing marks his first acting role in nearly a decade, so BK sat down with Hugo on how his interest in history, human nature, and music culminated in his return.
Photo: Hugo Chakrabongse at Lost & Found Bar in Bangkok / BK Magazine
What inspired you to take on this role? 
The script was probably the most interesting script I’ve ever been offered. It reminded me of a couple of films as I was reading it—”The Shining,” “Barton Fink.” I liked that it really had only one thing to say. That this hotel is a metaphor for the country and a microcosm of the lasting effects of the Cold War, particularly the Vietnam War, on Thailand—not just on a geopolitical level but on a cultural, personal, psychological level. 
Enclosed with the script was also a copy of the director’s last film “Manta Ray.” I watched it and it’s beautifully shot, not like anything I’ve seen. There was no good reason to say no. It was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to promote, even if I’m not involved in it.

Photo: Morrison / IMDB
This is also your first film in nearly a decade. What was your favorite part of being back on set again?
I obviously liked the crew. It’s sort of a communal vibe. I don’t particularly enjoy acting, but I did want to see this film made. So the nice thing about it is actually getting to spend time in Chanthaburi. That’s the main location for the hotel. It’s a great town, great food, nice part of the country, an hour or so from Rayong. It's always interesting being in a certain location that you wouldn't be able to go to if you weren’t shooting a movie. There’s a sequence where we’re in a flooded mall in Banglamphu, we got to shoot there and that’s quite cool. I liked the mirrorball and the director’s nighttime lighting. That’s the thing about Thailand; it’s a very different place at night, and it’s sort of a separate nocturnal character that I think he captured well. 

The film relates to the themes you’ve been personally exploring in your music. Could you elaborate on that?
The last record I released is Ruer Sum Rarn Ra Tree A Ma Ta. It’s sort of my theory on Thailand's tourist industry, and the seemingly rigid hierarchy in it. I’m very close to the hospitality business. I’ve been playing at bars, clubs, restaurants, and hotels. I’ve traveled a lot in Thailand at all different levels, so I’m pretty familiar with what was going on. 
To narrow it down, there are two kinds of people, there are guests and there are staff, and at any given time, you should be aware of what you are. There are times when I’m going into a restaurant and I’m a guest. But when I’m working, I’m staff. And you see things differently, you enter the building from a different entrance. It’s a completely different reality, like two movies happening at once. 
I think there’s a case to be made that guests are ignorant children. They don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes to make them happy, and the real talent is really invisible. Sometimes I’m playing a show, and you can just tell that a crowd or a certain table is just not into it. You have time to reflect as you’re playing, like, “Ah that’s interesting.” You hired this band and yet you’re just looking at your phone or whatever. That’s a very guest thing to do. 
Photo: Hugo Chakrabongse at Lost & Found Bar in Bangkok / BK Magazine
Were you also drawn to the musical aspect of the film?
You know, I love all that music. I felt like investigating or at least touching on Laem Morrison, a certain kind of aesthetic of Thai rock and roll and the fact that it came about to entertain US troops. Thailand was on the American side in the cold war and was supporting and giving bases for the bombing and the continuation of the war. Think of that what you will. It’s hardly a blameless position. So the reason it’s even here is kinda dark.
What was your experience working with the band Solitude is Bliss for the soundtrack? 
I think originally they wanted me to do something with the music, but they just needed a band that could produce music on their own. I’ll definitely take credit for recommending them, but I didn’t really work with them. I just think they were really appropriate for the sort of Thai psychedelic throwback 60s-70s rock and roll thing. They’re just the best at it right now. They’re really confident, really stylish, and totally fits the sort of Doors-y, Jefferson Airplane-type band. 
Photo: Hugo Chakrabongse at Lost & Found Bar in Bangkok / BK Magazine
What was your reaction after seeing the finished film?
I was really impressed, even though I’ve only seen it once. You’d think a really arty, weird, vibey film would have a lot of improvisation and a lot of things made up on the fly, sort of a lack of structure. But actually, it was very rigorous to the page, to the letter. All the scenes looked sort of like how I imagined them to be in my head. 
What is the main takeaway of this film?
That…the past is always around. You can’t escape it, and you should look at it, come to terms with it, and investigate it. It’s sort of like the tsunami. When history comes knocking along, it comes, and when it goes, it goes away again. And you’re sort of left with the inheritance. 
I think especially with Covid or the protests and the political things that are pressing on people's minds, you can draw a straight line from anything you see structurally in Thailand back to the Cold War. It’s the same apparatus so I think it’s always worth looking at. And if it can’t be explored directly, it’s probably best explored artistically.
Photo: Hugo Chakrabongse at Lost & Found Bar in Bangkok / BK Magazine
Why should people go see this movie?
Really simple reason you should go see it is to support non-mainstream culture.  Support someone with a different vision and talk about things that everyone else isn’t talking about. If you are one of these people that complains about mainstream art, pop art, or cultural output that’s being the same, or corporate, then that’s reason enough to simply encourage and spread awareness on things that aren’t like that. 
So what’s next for you?
I’ve finished part two of Ruer Sum Rarn Ra Tree A Ma Ta. Part one had six songs so I have another six songs coming out. I also have a six-song English EP that I have recorded, and I’m just waiting to figure out where and when to put that out some time this year. Yeah, plenty of music. 
You can watch Morrison today at House Samyan
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity