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Realtime >> Friday May 16, 2008
Remembering the master

As the Thai film industry prepares to celebrate the work of the late Ratana Pestonji, we look back on the life of a true pioneer


Ratana Pestonji was born on May 22, 1908 and died of a heart attack on August 17, 1970 while giving a speech urging the government to recognise the importance of the Thai movie industry. That the man died publicly defending the integrity of his art was a bitter coup de theatre that capped the career of this filmmaker whose visions stretched the frontiers of Siamese cinema from a provincial pastime to treasured artefacts.

Ratana was an experimenter before experimentalism had even arrived on these shores; New-Wave when there was no old wave; a pioneer despite reluctance for anyone to follow him to new-found lands.

By any standards he was one of our greatest artists, and he's long been forgotten. Yet this is a time to remember Ratana, as the hundredth anniversary of his birth is coming round next Thursday, May 22. To mark the occasion, the National Film Archive plans a memorial ceremony at its compound in Salaya, Nakhon Pathom, near the Film Museum which houses a life-sized wax figure of Ratana and his Mitchell camera.

One of Thailand's greatest artists, Ratana Pestonji.

A retrospective of Ratana's oeuvre, the films he directed and worked on as cinematographer from 1949 to 1964, will be put together later this year, probably around July. The Thai Film Foundation will also stage other activities and functions to help reignite interest in the legacy of the director who passed away 38 years ago.

"It is quite shocking that my father would have been 100 years old," says Santa Pestonji, one of Ratana's two sons. "He was a kind father. What I remember best about him is how he told us that no matter what we wanted to do in life, just put our hearts into it and give it all we've got. He told us to be honest with ourselves in everything we do. He valued that above all things."

"Khun Ratana was a filmmaker through and through, and that's very important," says Pen-ek Ratanaruang, a well-known film director who credits Ratana as one of his major influences.

"Technically, he was brilliant. But more importantly, there is dignity in all the films he made because he loved what he did and not what it brought him. Today, we make about 40 movies a year in this industry; how many of them can claim to have such dignity?"

It's more than 40 actually. In a time when everyone can wear a phoney badge of cool and claim to be a director by making mediocre YouTube videos, Ratana's spirit of professionalism, honour and artistic quest is urgently necessary. Like all great filmmakers, he made films because cinema was important to him, a simple truth that has been sabotaged by today's cult of superficiality.

Born in Bangkok to Persian parents, Ratana (pronounced "Rutt", and invariably referred to as "Khun Rutt" in Thailand, or RD Pestonji abroad) went to Assumption College on Charoen Krung before moving on to study in India and then England. He graduated with a bachelor's in engineering, though the young Ratana had always nurtured a passion for still photography, a quality that was evident in the films he directed and shot.

Ratana with Hitchcock and Alma Reville at a competition in Scotland.

In 1950, he founded Hanuman studio in Phloenchit (in a soi opposite what is now the Swissotel Nai Lert Park) and started making movies, many of them revolving around the tragedy of doomed love. Ratana directed only five features in his career, but they are regarded as the legendary collection in the history of Siamese moving images for their bold aesthetics: the drama Tukata Jaa (Dear Dolly, 1951); the absurdist-thriller Rongram Narok (Country Hotel, 1957); the musical Sawan Mued (Dark Heaven, 1958); the poignant Prae Dum (Black Silk, 1961); and the romantic Namtarn Mai Wan (Sugar Is Not Sweet, 1964, made when Ratana was suffering from diabetes).

Rongram Narok, an exhilarating mix of black comedy and suspense, was shot in black-and-white, while the rest used a stunning prism of vibrant colours shot on 35mm with direct sound, a technical anomaly at a time when Thai moviemakers generally preferred the 16mm format with no sound, and thus required live dubbing at each screening.

Before these features, Ratana made a short movie in 1937 called Tang, which won a prize at a competition in Scotland. A photograph preserved by the film archive shows Ratana receiving the trophy from Alfred Hitchcock, both men smiling. The film print of Tang has been lost, and what's left is a single black-and-white photograph of a peasant woman looking down at a dead dog, composed in the style of sturdy, elegant realism almost like a Gustave Courbet painting.

Ratana's contribution as a cinematographer is equally celebrated; he was the first Thai lensman who believed that visual formation was inherent in storytelling. His first job came when he shot a historical drama, Pantai Norasingh (Oarman Norasingh), for Prince Bhanu Yukol in 1949. But his greatest achievement came with the film Santi Weena in 1954, another doomed-love drama that was the first Thai film to compete at an international film festival, in Berlin, and the Siamese underdog went on to win three prizes at a festival in Japan.

Santi Weena's behind-the-scene fracas was symptomatic of how this country sometimes misunderstood its artists. Upon returning to Thailand from Japan, the state wanted to charge Ratana a hefty tax on the 35mm negative print of the film as well as on the new Mitchell camera he had been awarded. The government also blamed him for failing to submit the film to the censorship board, since he edited the movie in Japan (Thai labs couldn't process 35mm film in those days). This is where things became shrouded in mystery: some reports say Ratana decided to ship the print to England instead, and it was lost somewhere along the way; others say the print resurfaced, somehow, in Russia and China in the late 1950s. All the same, Santi Weena was lost to Thailand, perhaps forever.

Chuafah Dinsalai, (or Forever Yours, 1955), was another masterpiece that still haunts the consciousness of modern Thai filmmakers. Shot by Ratana for director Khru Marut - unlike today, most film directors in the 1950s came from traditional stage careers - the film about illicit lovers who were handcuffed until death is as classical as it is provocative and as tragic as it is disturbing. There have been many reports about contemporary Thai directors wanting to remake the film, but so far nothing has happened.

"The story of Chuafah Dinsalai is so strong and the design and cinematography just pull you into that world," says filmmaker Pen-ek, whose recent movies include Invisible Waves and Ploy.

"When I first saw it I really couldn't stand the performances of just about any of the actors, but 30 minutes into the film I was totally taken. The contrast between the outdoor landscape in the first half of the film and the claustrophobic room in the second half was brilliant. That film was almost directed by its cinematography."

But of all his works, Prae Dum (Black Silk) is the movie that manifests Ratana's curious mix of brave avant-garde and Buddhist serenity. A film of surreal beauty, it tells the story of a widow who's always dressed in black silk (played by Ratana's daughter, Pannee) and her troubled relationship with a village thug. In this story about murder and emotional manipulation, Prae Dum also has the existential light-footedness that resembles the French New Wave.

"Prae Dum is the film that remains my single major influence," says Wisit Sasanatieng, director of Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog. "It's the crown jewel of all Thai cinema. It shows that Khun Ratana was not simply a master storyteller, but that he knew how to use colour, art direction and camera angles to create subtle nuances and charge the movie with strong emotions."

"If I could choose, I would love to remake Prae Dum," adds Pen-ek. "It is so, so, so atmospheric and film noir. The shot when the camera pans from the coffin to the pair of sandles on the floor still gives me a chill. That shot would have made Hitchcock proud."

During Ratana's time, Thai movies had acquired the image of rowdy entertainment for the masses, a gaudy distraction that was effective but that didn't qualify as serious art. Ratana believed that cinema could give more, could reach higher, and it took a long time before the seeds he sowed would take root.

Meanwhile, his struggle to convince the government that movies were culturally significant doesn't seem like mere nostalgia, for filmmakers today are carrying his torch and continue to petition the state.

"Ratana's movies were not big successes at the box office," says film historian Dome Sukwongse of the National Film Archive. "He made a black-and-white film [Country Hotel] while everybody else had gone colour. And he used sound on film, while the audience in those days wanted to hear live dubbing - the dubbers were the stars, and each province had its own famous film dubbers. Khun Ratana did things in an idealistic way because he believed in it, and that was his greatest quality."

A scene from Black Silk.
Dark Heaven is a vibrant, tragic musical-melodrama.
Theatre of the Absurd in Country Hotel.

On the day of his death in 1970, Ratana, who had stopped directing movies because of disillusionment, and had been shooting TV commercials, stepped on the stage of a ballroom at the Montien Hotel on Surawong Road. The room was thronged with Thai film producers, and the economics minister, Bunchana Atthakorn, was in the audience. Ratana was the last speaker of the night. He began his speech by recounting his first job shooting the film for Prince Bhanu Yukol, his investment in a studio, how he had to shoot commercials to make money to survive, and how the "foreign film distributors have been preying on Thai cinema...".

Then his voice trailed off. His last, unfinished sentence, was "I... feel... that..."

What did he feel? Probably disappointment. Or maybe frustration. Or maybe, knowing he was running out of life, he just wanted to say he felt the joy and agony of making movies, the happiness and the hurt that accompanied his journey. For us, however, it's simpler: We just feel gratitude.

A taste of Khun Rutt

Ratana Pestonji films that are available on DVD include:

- Rong Ram Narok (or Country Hotel), an idiosyncratic example of Theatre of the Absurd shot in black-and-white on 35mm. The movie takes place entirely in the Paradise Hotel (the Thai title means "Hell Hotel") where its strange inhabitants create a senseless ruckus before the tone shifts into suspense in the second half.

- Sawan Mued (or Dark Heaven) is a vibrant, tragic musical-melodrama that Ratana adapted from a play written by his friend Suwat Woradilok. The movie stars Suthep Wongkamhang as Chu, a working class man who falls in love with a homeless woman, played by the sweet-faced Suebnuang Kanpai. They live in destitution, and fate compounds their misery when Chu is drafted to fight in a war and loses his eyesight.

- Chuafah Dinsalai (or Forever Yours). Ratana worked as a cinematographer on this film directed by Khru Marut. A timber tycoon lives with his young wife in a remote jungle outpost. There the wife, Yupadee, begins an affair with her husband's nephew, called Sangmong. When the tycoon catches them, he handcuffs the two lovers together, forever chaining their fates into one inseparable tragedy.

- The Thai Film Foundation released VHS versions of Ratana's other films in the late 1990s, and this year they plan to release the DVD of Prae Dum (Black Silk), Nam Tarn Mai Warn (Sugar Is Not Sweet) and probably Ratana's first feature debut Tukata Jah, which was shot on 16mm film with no sound (the DVD will need to be dubbed). We will keep you up to date on the releases, as well as on the retrospective of Ratana's work.

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