Among the major filmmakers that burst onto the Thai film scene in the late 1990s/early 2000s, Pen-ek Ratanaruang occupies an interesting aesthetic/narrative space between elliptical, contemplative dreamscapes à la Apichatpong Weerasethakul and reinterpretations of the horror/thriller by the Pang brothers and Nonzee Nimibutr. On the one hand, Ratanaruang has for the most part cultivated a filmography that is lined with criminal escapades, which steer his characters into murky, mysterious (a)moral choices/options and encounters. On the other hand, he has at times presented his film noir worlds and cagey characters in an introspective way that, when pushed too far, the dramatic tension and viewer attention all but disintegrate. Ratanaruang has walked that tightrope between captivatingly moody and just plain tiresome and come out with evocative films such as 6ixty9 (1999) and Last Life in the Universe (2003). Unexpected moments of humour found in these films also help to strike a balance on that tightrope, and prevent Ratanaruang from taking himself too seriously. In contrast, though Invisible Waves (2006) can be considered a companion piece to Last Life in the Universe, its own attempt at generating an eerie, alluring ambience while following a man on the run ends up falling more on the side of tiresome.
With Samui Song, one is confronted with similar territory: an unlikely triangle forms between television actress Vi (Chermarn Ploy Boonyasak), her French husband Jerome (Stéphane Sednaoui) who is actively involved in a local religious group, and a stranger named Guy (David Asavanond) whom Vi befriends after she has a car accident. Her marriage now nothing more than a hollowed-out image presented to the public and she becoming subject to violence from Jerome, directly and indirectly, Vi finds herself reaching out to Guy. So a criminal plan ensues, born from Vi and Guy not as lovers but rather accomplices, to make Jerome disappear. Ratanaruang makes good on this premise-promise for the most part, building and maintaining an unsettling yet seductive air around his main characters and their burgeoning ties with each other. Admittedly, the last twenty-some minutes puncture this intriguing bubble and give the story a twist seemingly for the sake of having one. But the last minute or so breathes a recuperative, emotional air into the film that more clearly reveals the complex issues of power and female subjugation that the film has been toying with all this time.
These themes are already present early in the film, in scenes with Vi and Jerome at home, but they are more gradually coaxed into being by Vi and Guy. In true noir fashion, Vi and Guy meet through cigarettes. But it is daytime and they meet in a hospital parking lot. She has been patched up after her accident and he has an ailing mother. The moment of their encounter is respite from their respective familial/personal difficulties, but also opens up a window of possibilities. When they decide to meet again for lunch, Guy casually recounts how Vi’s marital issues remind him of his friend’s case in the Philippines. But she was lucky, he shares, for one day her husband simply vanished. And so one specific possibility comes to the fore. When Jerome essentially gives Vi to the religious leader whom he follows so that he can have his way with her), she decides to meet with Guy one more time.
Ratanaruang honours and reimagines film noir’s scenario of murder through a laconic and fragmentary approach to scenes, thereby lending them a cryptic, ominous quality. For one thing, he plays with the order of events, particularly Vi’s car accident, in order to better highlight the festering violence in her marriage and her turn to Guy to mete out retaliatory violence. The spaces/settings of scenes also contribute to a sense of the ominous, paired with contrasting use of silence/noise. Vi and Jerome’s house is located in the middle of the woods and therefore surrounded by quiet. Significantly, noise encroaches on their domestic silence frequently through the presence of what Vi considers the cult that Jerome avidly follows. The first sequence at their home finds them in front of the television set, broadcasting a talk given by the cult’s ‘Holy One.’ When the ‘Holy One’ visits their home to take advantage of Vi with Jerome’s permission, the leader’s right-hand men have Jerome play a pop song at a loud volume (presumably to drown out both the quiet and perhaps Vi’s potential screams). Such noise is in direct contrast to the hush found in most of the scenes set in the cult’s temple.
Another part of the film’s ominousness also stems from contrast: interspersing the central narrative concern of Vi’s troubled marriage – which she partly attributes to her husband’s participation in the cult – and Guy’s act of doing away with him with seemingly irrelevant, even amusing, moments, which make of Vi and Guy the most unlikely players behind a murder plot: Vi conversing with her talent agent/manager about her boredom with soap operas and her desire to make a film with the ‘director who makes movies that no one understands’*; Guy having an endlessly circular conversation with a hospital clerk about his mother’s medicine and the Kafkaesque process of prescription and payment.
Indeed, in Boonyasak and Asanavond, Ratanaruang has actors who are able to project a kind of curious, lackadaisical front beneath which bubbles unspoken desire (more existential than physical) and draw the viewer into their world. In particular, Asavanond possesses such charismatic energy in embodying Guy’s down-on-his-luckness, tenacious drive, and shadowy nature only hinted at with the mention of his Philippine friend. Asavanond’s powerful onscreen presence may explain why Vi disappears from the story/screen once the deed is done, with Guy’s post-crime journey filling in the gap. One could certainly read Vi’s disappearance as unfortunate for a female character. However, when she finally resurfaces, the film’s latent theme of structures of patriarchal power bound with religion does so as well, more strongly than if she had remained on screen the whole time.
*Her agent/manager even mentions sleeping through one of the director’s films, in which ‘a guy wanders around a ship the whole time,’ which directly references Invisible Waves and actor Asano Tadanobu playing that ‘guy.’
Samui Song was shown on November 10 and 12 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.