Thai director pays tribute to film noir in 'Samui Song'

Ratanaruang only makes movies with elements he likes. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Ratanaruang only makes movies with elements he likes. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

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KUALA LUMPUR, April 9 — Samui Song, the latest feature by director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, is ultimately a modern satire of the Thai upper class.

Viyada Beaufoy (Cherman Boonyasak), a soap opera actress in her 30s, feels trapped in an unhappy marriage to Jerome Beaufoy (Stéphane Sednaoui), a rich foreigner.

While Jerome is deeply devoted to Buddhakaya, an alternative religious sect founded by a powerful figure named the Holy One (Vithaya Pansringarm), Viyada doesn’t share his beliefs.

Along comes Guy Spencer (David Asavanond), a slick drifter with a shady past, who proposes a radical solution that could free her. The two strangers soon become accomplices in a crime that pits them against violent, influential men.

“Though nominally a noir film, I wanted it to be surprising and unexpected — an ode, if you will, to cinema itself,” said Ratanaruang, who was at a media screening for Samui Song in Kuala Lumpur last week.

The inspiration for this movie came while Ratanaruang, 56, was grocery shopping in his home country. He spotted a Thai actress with her European husband and for some reason was drawn to them.

“Without their knowledge, I followed them around the shop to see what they bought, and no, I was not stalking them, just curious,” said the Bangkok-born writer-director who is thought of as a major pioneer of the Thai new wave cinema.

“Eventually, we paid for our items and went our separate ways.”

A few days later, while swimming, Ratanaruang thought about the couple and how her beauty and his distinguished stance made them look perfect.

He imagined them eating, going about their lives and by the time he finished his swim — he had the woman wanting to kill her husband.

Ratanaruang, who studied at Pratt Institute in New York said the audience saw the movie as representing many things including women in a society predominantly run by men, the rise in cross-cultural marriages and the rapidly growing alternative religions in Thailand but to him, as a film-maker, it’s about cinema as much as other messages.

“It’s putting into one film as many types of cinema as I could and see if I could get away with it.

“Using Hitchcock as a starting point, the film serves as homage to the kinds of movies I enjoy, from Buñuel to Thai retro cinema from the ‘60s,” said Ratanaruang , whose films Last Life in the Universe, 6ixty9ine, Mon-rak Transistor and Headshot were Thailand’s official submissions to the Best Foreign Language Oscar category.

Asavanond, who is of French-Thai heritage, plays a drifter with a shady past in ‘Samui Song’. — Picture by Golden Screen Cinema
Asavanond, who is of French-Thai heritage, plays a drifter with a shady past in ‘Samui Song’. — Picture by Golden Screen Cinema

While there are several mind-boggling twists in Samui Song, Ratanaruang hopes viewers will stay with the emotions of the characters and enjoy his experimentations.

“I try these naughty stunts because I don’t want to do normal things and to see if I can pull it off,” said Ratanaruang, who is especially fond of his 2007 movie Ploy.

Raising funds for projects is also getting harder as he continues to create non-commercial movies.

“When I was younger, people saw I had potential or thought my style would change, but after 20 years, funders realise that is not the case.”

Based on the budget, his producers try and raise 50 per cent of funding in Thailand and the balance in Europe or from film financing agencies, all of which can take up to a year to acquire.

When Ratanaruang started in the industry, one had to be about 35 years old to direct a film because it was technically very difficult, but now, 21-year-olds are making movies and sending them to festivals, so the funding pie has been sliced thinly.

On Samui Song being accepted as an interpretation movie, he said it was well received at international festivals but Thais in general never seem to like his movies.

Sounding as noir as his films, Ratanaruang said, “I am not the most confident person in the world, it hurts when my countrymen have negative comments about my films. So, I tell myself, ok, next time, I am going to make something really conventional.

“When I write a new story, I keep the negative comments in mind, I keep saying ‘I’m not going to let it happen again, I’m not going to let it happen again’ and write it carefully.

“But the moment I start making the film, I forget the comments and the movie goes down an unconventional path again — once you are a thief, you are always a thief, you can’t become the police, you know,” Ratanaruang said before adding,

“If you cannot be good, you be as bad as you can possibly be.”

Ratanaruang’s movies tend to have elements of the things he likes, which includes, filming people in moving cars, husbands, and wives, people shopping in supermarkets, actors dressed in jeans, alcohol, and sex.

Asked if he found satisfaction from following his heart, he said, “I am very happy when writing a story, making a film with my friends, editing and doing the music score — that’s because the negative comments are not out yet.

“But once I hand it over to the producers, regret and guilt set in.”

Yet, Ratanaruang said he cannot change and remains off the beaten path.

* Samui Song is in cinemas now.

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