A crop of fired-up, little-known, self-funded Thai indie filmmakers will present their works of diverse colours at the World Film Festival of Bangkok next week
THE LOVE MATRIX : Time slips, realities shift and lovers sob in A Moment in June, the debut feature by Nathapon Wongtreenatrkoon that will have the honour of opening the World Film Festival of Bangkok on Friday, October 24. The young director had largely kept his project low-profile until the film was picked to play at the recently-wrapped Pusan International Film Festival, Asia's foremost cine-event, and now he's equally excited and anxious to reveal his cinematic firstborn to Thai audience.
Unsurprisingly, Nathapon anticipates flowers and flak. Like a number of newcomers who were inevitably entrusted with the task of carrying the torch lit by the first batch of Thai new-wave of the late 1990s, Nathapon bears the weight of expectation as he strives to blur the line between personal vision and market appeal, between unpolluted aspiration and necessary restraints.
A Moment in June is a love story featuring a cast of well-known performers, but it's also framed in a complex structure with multiple narratives and intertwining realities mirroring one another. In Pusan some praised his intelligence, while others wondered if his ambition, at least for now, was bigger than his skill.
On his part Nathapon, who glows with positive energy, is ready to hear all camps of comments. "It's the most simple of stories told in a not very simple way, and some people will find it difficult," he says.
"I made the film because I want to tell a story, but I also see filmmaking as an experiment. What's the fun of walking into the set and knowing exactly what the outcome of the day's shoot will be?
"I wouldn't want to do that. That won't be fun for me, for the actors, and for the audience."
Nathapon studied filmmaking in California and theatre directing in London; his thesis short movie, Jakrayan Kab Tan-fai-chai (The Bicycle and the Batteries) drew notice when it used professional actors and high-value production. Yet Nathapon's dual interests only found their union in A Moment in June, a film that has the startling habit of slipping into a play.
Six main characters tread three storylines that swerve into and away from each other. At the centre is the semi-autobiographical role of a theatre director (played by Shahkrit Yamnam) who's rehearsing a play while lamenting the departure of his close friend (Napasakorn Mitr-aim.) The play that Shahkrit is putting together, meanwhile, has Krisda "Noi" Sukosol and Sinitha Boonyasak as the leads; the two stars play both the characters in the play and in the film. Seasoned actors Suchao Pongwilai and Duentem Salitul complete the cast as two senior lovers separated by fate years ago.
Though love is all around, A Moment In June wasn't an easy sell. When Nathapon pitched the script to Thai studios three years back, he was shooed away as if what he'd written was a plague.
"They said it was an art film," he recalls, laughing. "For me it's not! It's illiberal to divide everything into either 'art' or 'entertainment' - and it's not productive for the audience. Shouldn't we try to erase that dividing line? Art needn't be depressing, and entertainment can come in various guises."
Perhaps Nathapon's attempting to erase another line when he attempts to fuse theatre and film - like other mavericks, say, Baz Luhrmann or Julie Taymor, have done successfully before. Nathapon, who directed two fringe theatres in London, feels that theatre audiences are more ready to be pushed into unfamiliar terrain than film audiences, but that film also offers him the opportunities unavailable in a play.
"In a play, things are more continuous, and the actors are free to build their performance over two hours," he says. "Film is more like an observation, but at the same time the director will hover around every action of the actors. In theatre you can just have the actor announce 'I'm hungry', but in film you have different ways to show that.
"My experience with theatre helped me the most in dealing with actors. It has become a cliche to snub that Thai actors do too many TV soaps that they can't develop into a serious mode, and that shows when they act in a movie.
"Maybe that's not entirely true. Sure they do a lot of TV soaps, but they also look for offers to do something different. You just need to trust them enough to make those offers."
A Moment in June was funded by "private investors" - as well as from Nathapon's own pocket. The film is set to go on release early next year, though the director is not enthusiastic about the prospect of the returns. Like all filmmakers, he's grateful enough that the film will finally be seen, first at next week's festival.
"A lot of things could go wrong in a director's first film," he says, smiling. "But I've got to start somewhere. This is where I begin."
THE GOTHIC MONOLOGUE
Paisit Phanpruegsachart's visualisation of the postwar Siamese-Gothic short story Kuen Wan Nueng Tee Thanon Talangkang (One Night at the Talaenggaeng Road) simmers like an inextinguishable fever - the movie is a literal effort to transpose not the narrative but the texture of the prose. Self-obsessed to the degree of existential horror, the story was written by Manas Chanyong (1907-65), the writer whose prodigious output covered nearly all possible genres. To pick this one to film is admirably bold - if not crazy.
One day over 20 years ago Paisit, then just arrived in Bangkok, found a copy of Manas's book at the old book market at Sanam Luang. "This one story is like no others in the collection," he recalls with enthusiasm. "What can I say? It's so full of charged anger."
It also has the Victorian occultism of Edgar Allan Poe and, strangely, the hallucinatory verve of the Beat writers. Roughly, the story is a first-person monologue by a heartbroken man who's drowned himself in moonshine whisky, moaning the loss of his red-lipped lover, while wandering the streets of 16th century Ayutthaya on the night a coup is being hatched. Paisit mulled it over for years before it finally dawned on him how to film the story: he asked the actor Saranyu Wongkrachang to read the text, in an appropriately chilly intonation, and he shot the actual places described in the story, four centuries later.
"It's just so unusual, this story," says Paisit. "Reading it, you feel yourself on that street with the narrator. You can feel his obsession. You feel that the man is a lost spirit drifting around the city and wallowing in his sorrow. That's the feeling I wanted to visualise."
Paisit is no newbie; he's been working as a sound specialist for Thai movies for over a decade and making a few experimental shorts along the way. The 40-minute Talaenggaeng was premiered at the Thai Short Film and Video Festival last month, and the screening at the World Film Festival will hopefully help raise the profile of this filmmaker with a flair for unusual stories. The movie was made with the support of the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture.
It could come across as self-mocking - only that it's not: "Since it's so hard to make films that theatres want to show, I think I should make movies that schools want to show," says Santi Taephanich. "Schools have auditoriums and screening halls, right? So I hope they'll want to accept my film. When I was a student I wished I could see something like this, so, well, I've made it."
Santi's new movie, Tua Ku Khong Ku (roughly meaning, "Me and Mine") is a portrait documentary that looks at the lives of five artists that the young generation hails as their prime inspiration: dancer Pichet Klanchuen, photographer Thada Varich, rock band Modern Dog, filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang, and stand-up comedian (and Santi's own brother) Udom Taephanich.
These are the "cool" personalities that help define the country's contemporary pop-cultural landscape. But Santi, who made a documentary about Isan workers in Bangkok called Crying Tigers three years back, is out to offer a countermyth rather than straight idolatry. "I don't know if the doc is exactly about 'inspiration' - that's such a banal term," he says. "In the movie, I talk to those people about their failures, their disappointments, their insecurities. I want to show that 'successful' people have also seen failure, and failure is the ground from which they build their experiences.
"I hope this is more useful to young viewers - to students who have been misled by celebrity news that success comes easily."
The film's title Tua Ku Khong Ku is a Thai expression that bears the connotation of pride and ego. "The people in the movie admit that they have an ego," says Santi. "And they acknowledge that ego is important to their creativity - but that it's also dangerous. That's another worthwhile lesson to me."
Originally, Santi's self-funded doc was over three hours long; but he has cut it down to a normal feature length for the World Film Festival. The fantastic five he's interviewed represent only the first group of inspirational figures that Santi would like to film. He has a list of another dozen names, "But let's get these five out first and see if I would have the energy and money to do the rest!"
And after the festival, Santi's immediate task will be to pursue his original goal: getting the movie into colleges and schools.