Hong Kong action titles and J-horror films have helped whet the global appetite for Thai thrillers and chillers. Silvia Wong reports.

He stands just 5'6' tall but Tony Jaa is a giant of Thai cinema. As Thailand's own Jackie Chan, the gymnastic dynamo has helped to kickbox Thai action films onto global multiplex screens.

Two of Jaa's films, Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong, both directed by Prachya Pinkaew, were released in the US in 2005 by Magnolia Pictures.

The distributor has since released Born To Fight on DVD and is preparing a limited release of another Thai action film, Tabunfire, in July.

From Brazil to Malaysia, Thai action and horror films are scaring up a big return at the international box office. Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom's Shutter, a spine-tingler about a photographer who discovers mysterious shadows in his pictures, grossed more than $3m in Brazil last year. Brazilian buyers were engaged in a fierce bidding war for Ong Bak 2, directed by Jaa himself, at Cannes this year.

'The standout appeal in the better-quality Thai horror films lies in their different story-telling and visual impact - usually dealing with black magic or mystical stories and a good twist,' says Nicholas Yong, UIP's managing director for Malaysia and Singapore.

A dynamic new generation of Thai directors is also emerging to light up the international festival and arthouse scene. It is led by Nonzee Nimibutr (Dang Bireley And The Young Gangsters, Nang Nak), Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Fun Bar Karaoke, Ploy), Wisit Sasanatieng (Tears Of The Black Tiger), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Syndromes And A Century, pictured above) and Ekachai Uekrongtham (Beautiful Boxer, Pleasure Factory).

'These filmmakers know how to communicate with a non-Thai audience,' says Fortissimo Films' Wouter Barendrecht, who has been at the forefront of selling and marketing Thai films to the international industry, including Danny and Oxide Pang's 1999 film Bangkok Dangerous, and the films of Pen-ek and Nonzee.

'Some of them have studied or worked abroad which has given them a different viewpoint of Thai culture,' adds Barendrecht.

He enjoys selling Thai films, partly due to their relatively low budgets. The $2.5m budget of films such as GMM Tai Hub's Alone is considered high. 'It is easy to recoup a Thai film,' Barendrecht says. 'And easier to export a Thai film than, say, an average Korean film because of its unique film language and narrative tradition.

'It has also helped that international audiences have more knowledge about Thai films, thanks to the export of Thai cuisine and music and the fact Hollywood films such as The Beach have shot in Thailand.'