PHUKET — With Thai celebrities emerging from a huge model junk and sauntering across a pool as loud music boomed and laser beams sparkled, the first-ever Phuket Film Festival injected star-studded pizzazz to the island resort struck by the tsunami three years ago. But colors and enthusiasm aside, the ambition of upgrading this small, locally-flavored fest into an international event needs a lot of hard work.

The fest, which began Saturday (Oct 20) and runs until next Saturday, was privately-funded by the newly unveiled SF Cinema City and Jungceylong Shopping Complex in Patong, the most popular beach on Phuket dotted with posh hotels and gaudy nightlife venues.

Apparently the festival was intended as a promotional fanfare for the official opening of SF Cinema. “However, we intend to make it an annual event,” says SF’s managing director Suwit Thongrompo. “Phuket is a perfect place to have a film festival and we hope to have support from the Tourism Authority of Thailand next year to expand the scope of it. We dare not compare to, say, Pusan, but we do have the intention to make it grow.”

Observers agree that Phuket has a potential to host a key cinefest because of its lively atmosphere and the readiness of cinema facilities. But much legwork and rethinking are required.

The fest screens 40 films, but three-quarters of them are being shown on either DVDs or beta tapes, with quality leaving much to be desired. Only the six Thai movies, plus the closing film “Across the Universe” and the soon-to-be released “Surf’s Up,” are projected on 35 mm.

The opening gala saw a caravan of Thai movie stars dispatched by big studios. Royal helmer Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol also attended the gala along with his actors from the “King Naresuan” movies. After an overlong opening ceremony held under a giant canopy in the vast square of Jungceylon, the fest screened the opening film, Spanish comedy “Dance Machine,” on beta tape with only half of the theater filled.

“We go for family-oriented movies, we want to make this a people’s festival” programmer Scott Rosenberg, said. “We stay away from heavy art films or horror. After all this is a place that’s still recovering from the bad thing that happened.”

The fest costs SF and Jungceylon, which is located one-block inland, 15 million baht ($450,000).

“No doubt this is a very nice place to have a film festival, but it’s still not a complete film festival; right now it has no industry elements and international outlook,” veteran publicist Prisana Ratanakuakoon, said. “Also, we’ll have to see whether the local audience, even the expats, will supply the energy to keep the event going.”