Thai romantic drama It Gets Better was presented with the audience award at the closing of the first Hua Hin International Film Festival (Jan 26-29) on Sunday night.

The film, comprising three interweaving stories of transsexuals in love, was well received on its gala screening on the second night of the festival.

Directed by transsexual filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit [pictured], it was a brave choice for a high-profile screening, due to its subject matter and the fact that the director’s previous film, Insects In The Backyard, was banned in Thailand.

Organised by the National Federation of Thai Film Associations and funded by private sponsors, the Hua Hin fest was initiated by local businessman and former politician Suwat Liptapanlop, who aims to raise the profile of the peaceful seaside town, a three-hour drive south of Bangkok.

Screening more than 50 films over four days, the festival had a strong focus on cinema from the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) region, with a smattering of titles from the rest of the Asia and further afield.

Noteworthy South-East Asian titles included Lovely Man, from Indonesia’s Teddy Soeriaatmadja, award-winning Filipino dramas Nino and Ways Of The Sea, Cambodian drama Kiles and the first commercial thriller made in Laos, At The Horizon.

The festival opened with Taiwanese epic Warriors Of The Rainbow: Seediq Bale and closed with The Lady, with both director Luc Besson and star Michelle Yeoh in attendance.

Other stars attending the fest included Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and director Nicolas Winding Refn, currently in Thailand shooting Only God Forgives, and the stars of Korean gala screening Always, Han Hyo-joo and So Ji-sub.

However, the star power and strong programme were partly offset by projection problems and low attendance at many screenings. Guests also bemoaned the fact that each film in the programme was only screened once.

“Hua Hin has a lot of significance and interesting aspects – it was the location of the first Hollywood movie to shoot in Thailand, His Majesty [Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej] has a palace here and lots of sports and cultural events take place in Hua Hin,” said Federation secretary general Sorajak Kasernsuvan.

“The only difficulty is attracting enough audience – we’ll see what we can do to correct that next time. But we’re pleased that we had a packed house for The Lady and had to open a second screen.”

The event, which also had a small amount of national and local government funding, is the first major film festival in Thailand since the last edition of the Bangkok International Film Festival in 2009. The Federation took over the running of the Bangkok fest in 2008, after it was hit by a corruption scandal, but has had difficulty raising government funding in recent years.

The festival’s seminar programme also had an ASEAN focus, with speakers including filmmakers and academics from the region, discussing the development of cinema in South-East Asia. Country presentations included a speaker from Burma who talked about the recent

Art Of Freedom Film Festival (Dec 31-Jan 4, 2012) which was held without any government censorship in the Burmese capital Rangoon.