The Island Funeral (Thailand, 2015) [Aperture 2018]

Those who are intimately familiar with political conflicts fueled by ethnic and religious difference will immediately recognize the themes at the center of Director Pimpaka Towira’s feature film, The Island Funeral. Questions of belief, mythology, paranoia, and the uncertainty of memory, coagulate to form an explosive mixture in which fears displaces reason on a mass scale, where every experience is viewed through one’s particular lens of belief, one’s own belief seemingly incompatible with any other perspective. If you are lucky to be at a distance from such conflicts, rather than a victim, the perspective of one’s own safety hopefully lends the knowledge of seeing the dysfunction clearly.

For all audiences, The Island Funeral, is a mesmerizing and suspenseful film. Pimpaka Towira is an idealistic and inspiring director and writer. Towire and co-writer Kong Rithdee crafted three characters, young adult siblings Laila (Heen Sasithorn) and Zugood (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk), and Zugood’s college friend (Yosawat Sitiwong), natives of Bangkok, who embark on a car trip to the southern Thai province of Pattani. The mission of their journey is to visit a long-lost aunt. Yet, this is not an archetypal journey story. All three are largely static and stubborn characters, gaining little in maturity or worldview along the way, their mere accomplishment being physical safety and eventual completion of their journey without the usually requisite enlightenment.

The opening scenes of the picture establish the mood and setting of provincial Thailand, with panning shots of the bleak landscape, the lack of urbanity symbolic of the lostness and dislocation of the three. Psychologically, they exist in a bubble that insulates them from the wider knowledge of both their familial and national histories, symbolized and reinforced by their physical lostness in their own country. As residents of the “primate city” of Bangkok, exponentially larger than any other city in Thailand, the politics of urbanism has a price. Their destination of Pattani is more like a journey across cultures rather than domestic. Pattani is one of three southern provinces that are majority Malay and most recently disrupted by terrorism from various insurgency groups, compounded by the intransigence of the Thai military.

Along the way, details about the local violence in the southern regions trickles in via Laila’s car stereo and hotel televisions. The college friend intuitively falls back on a superstitious view of Muslims, despite his having Muslim friends. Zugood is largely silent and melancholy on matters of identity. Laila is wracked by a hallucination. Their deficiencies in contextualization makes them information refugees in their own country, while the friend is ironically obsessed with the information on his smartphone.

Zugood reminds Laila that their father once said, “our Aunt was scarier than a tiger.” The question of her true nature propels the plot toward its denouement. Their father, a character spoken of but unseen, denies that Aunt Zainub had visited the family in Bangkok, but Laila remembers her brief presence as a kindly woman who gave her candies.

While the main characters are unreliable, the editing and shooting styles present a picture that is blunt and disturbing. Parallel editing contextualizes the political tension and violence, cutting to shots of the military and their brutal tactics. In one compelling scene, transitioned to by a dissolving shot of a political map of southeast Asia which reminds the audience of the incongruence between political and ethnic frontiers, soldiers trek through a wooded area to find a group of Muslims relaxing at a community center. The unflinching stare of a man, direct at the camera, acts as a powerful symbol of perseverance and resistance in the face of state violence. This angularity, of the shots and of subjects, shows the societal tension unstated in the dialogue and builds the tension through anxiety of uncertainty.

In a land without a fully free press, ancient myths can to overpower critical thinking. The underlying contradiction of the trio is that while dwellers of a mega-city, their attitudes are far from cosmopolitan. A montage of still shots brings some gaiety to Laila’s character, showing an urbane young woman in her Bangkok habitat, contrasting with the present struggle and existential fear as expressed her recurring illusion of a chained and naked woman running from unknown fear. This illusion is symbolic of the shaky ground in which she understands her own life’s myths as a Muslim woman. Nevertheless, Laila’s strength is in her determination to carry on unflinchingly until she find her aunt’s village of Al-Kaf.

When the trio reach a mosque, close-up shots of a brick wall partially mortared over emphasizes the unstable foundation of comprehension. Zugood’s friend ask him if he knows the story of the Chinese goddess who cursed the mosque, the supposed reason why it was never finished. In a later scene at another mosque, the rhetoric of imagery expresses the duality of Islam identity and perceptions, first a shot of two freshly dug graves, cutting to Laila covered up in a crisp white hijab, the open air structure inviting in its shabby chic authenticity.

Eventually the trio liaise with local guides, building tension in the plot since they do not know the intention of the locals. The suspense is believable and powerful as they end up being led into a desolate mangrove swamp, unable to discern if they are being led to Al-Kar or being set up to be victims of an unknown conspiracy. Their fear turns from the existential to the physical. Shaky handheld shots and exquisite framing serve to reach a dramatic climax as the sun sets and the party finds themselves on a boat, in the dark and unsure of their fates or destination.

In the last quarter of the film the heroic figure emerges, the sole character with a credible memory and perspective, a wisdom that stems from isolation rather than engagement. Towira expresses a philosophy that is a direct opposite of the paradigm of western views of societal human development. She explores the Buddhist and Taoist concepts of abandonment of connection as a way toward enlightenment, as well as more universal idea of the possibility of utopian societies.

Aunt Zainub (Kiatsuda Piromya), upon the trio’s first meeting with her, sits nonchalantly in her stately colonial-style residence (in a nation that was never colonized), while the young trio stands at attention. The ritualized scenes in Al-Kar suggest a highly evolved alternative society, deliberately replacing the dysfunction of mainstream life. The funeral alluded to in the title is for a young man named Salama, or ‘safety.’ His silent burial is a lament for what is lost if the clarity of this utopia, many faiths living together in peace, is abandoned, for the refuge is under threat from the same soulless soldiers seen in earlier scenes.

When Aunt Zainub says, “I must look so scary. I don’t how to make people less afraid of me” the difference between her words and the image of a kind and wise woman is shocking in its dichotomy. The sadness is in how little the young trio is willing to listen, for they represent the submerged intellects of living under the Thai state. Aunt Zainub, conversely, argues of the necessity of returning to past values, of a past reality and not mere mythology.

In all, The Island Funeral is a compassionate, honest, and jarringly beautiful film that requires some contextual understand for western audiences to fully appreciate but will prove revelatory if viewers put in such effort. Pimpaka Towira is a brave filmmaker whose work is both subtle and highly rhetorical and persuasive, a delicate balancing act accomplished while working in an atmosphere of state censorship. Like Aunt Zainub’s mission to “try hard to make everyone free,” one can only wish the same fate for the filmmakers of Thailand.

The Island Funeral is showing as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival which is touring across the UK during spring/summer 2018. See the festival website for more details and screening dates.