Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang
SAMUI SONG B+
Thailand (108) 2017 d: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
SAMUI SONG is ultimately a modern satire of the Thai upper class. Though nominally a dark noir, I want the film to be surprising and unexpected – an ode, if you will, to cinema itself. Using Hitchcock as a starting point, the film serves as an homage to the kinds of movies I enjoy, from Buñuel to Thai cinema from the ‘60s.
Pen-ek Ratanaruang is one of the better Asian directors working today, affiliated with the Thai New Wave in the late 90’s and early 00’s, where four of his films were Thailand’s official submissions to the Best Foreign Language Oscar category, but he’s not a household name, often seen only at film festivals, though he tends to make mind-altering films that defy explanation, and this is no exception. There’s something about making films like this, which are always intriguing, where they are all the more interesting because they defy convention, becoming something else altogether, where the inherent mystery is told in such an unorthodox manner, weaving strands of abstract narrative with no explanation, that seemingly exist on another plateau, as if from another film, yet is vital in the telling of this particular story. What captured the director’s eye when conceiving this film is one of the latest phenomena’s occurring in the city of Bangkok, particularly in the upper class, where there is a prevalence of mixed marriage couples, usually Western men and Thai women, made all the more remarkable because the men speak in one language, perhaps French or English, while the women speak in Thai, even to each other, a common occurrence that captures the attention of bystanders, as it feels so absurdly atypical. While this is translated to the screen, the film opens in black and white on a darkened isolated highway at night, with a car running off the side of the road in order to avoid a body lying in the middle of the street, made even more ominous with the off-screen sound of a dog panting, all of which suggests danger lies ahead, leading to the opening credits. While the driver was mildly injured, her head bleeding afterwards, the car is inoperable, towed to the hospital parking lot where we subsequently meet the young driver, Viyada, Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak, or Vi as she’s called, a beautiful young Thai woman with some sophistication, seen smoking outdoors, joined by a mysterious man in a white suit, Guy Spenser (David Asavanond), who is half Thai, half-white, attending to his sick mother, and bums a cigarette, trying to make small talk, but before you know it, the conversation turns to murder, leaving his calling card in her cigarette pack. However, something he mentions sticks with her, as he claims, perhaps boastfully, that he could make her husband disappear.
While Vi lives in luxury, she’s little more than a trophy wife, married to a wealthy white millionaire foreigner, Jérôme (Stéphane Sednaoui, a French director, photographer, producer and actor), an insufferable bore with an obvious (though stereotypical) fascination for exotic art, obsessed with and under the influence of a local cult leader known as the Holy One (Vithaya Pansrignam), also called the Saint, where both practice Buddhist meditation every day, though Vi has nothing but contempt for the leader, believing he is little more than a fake, putting on an act to rake in the money, which her husband is more than willing to do. While Vi is a successful soap opera actress, known for her stridently mean-spirited and bitchy roles, playing the woman who wants and gets it all, though it’s clear she’s living under the domain of powerful men, allowed little breathing room, where she’s suffocating under their control. In an amusing twist, Vi openly mocks her husband’s impotency, where he weakly retreats to a pottery barn where he spends his time molding clay phalluses. When her husband treacherously leads the Holy One into her bedroom, literally offering her to him, Jérôme bides his time drinking beer and vintage wine with several monks, which turns into the most deliriously twisted scene of the film when their choice of music is revealed, loud heavy metal with bloodthirsty lyrics about eating livers. This hideous act of betrayal finally calls for desperate measures, reaching out for Guy, in a nod to Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). When entering the realms of darker impulses, Pen-ek has a way of muddying the waters, creating alternate realities, mixing the present with the past, entering dream worlds or wish fulfillment fantasies, where he has a way of steering audiences in the wrong direction, or pulling the rug out from underneath them, completely confusing matters, making a career out of creating inventive head scratchers. In truth, that is this director’s strong suit, so even when he’s less than successful, he still creates highly original works that continue to challenge viewers. Much of this veers into Blood Simple (1984) film noir territory, including a killing for hire that goes wrong, with Guy as a weird choice (and not altogether convincing) for a hired killer, where a dead body disappears, and not only the police but hired goons, protectors of the cult, are sent into the mix in pursuit of Vi, driving her out of the picture, where she disappears, taking the money with her. The actress “Ploy,” in particular, featured in an earlier film by this director, LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (2003), is exceedingly good in the role, showing a steely resolve underneath her passivity, throwing men off their game, using her guile to escape.
The film takes a stunning turn of events, with an entirely different set of characters on the remote island of Koh Samui, supposedly a film crew on location for a shoot, including a new actress, Palika Suwannarak, playing the role of a mother with a small child, also a lesbian girlfriend to boot in a seemingly idyllic relationship. This feels more like a parody of a film crew, poking fun at himself in the process, especially when one of them complains about the director, calling his films boring, trashing one of his films that is only about a man walking around a ship! — an obvious reference to one of the director’s most heralded films, INVISIBLE WAVES (2006). This steamy relationship, however, feels like paradise on earth, but it doesn’t start out that way, as the girlfriend is sexually assaulted openly in mid-afternoon, where her cries for help are met with villagers attacking the rapist, driving him off the island. Even so, their love affair feels exotic and overly dreamy, always in a state of bliss, where a single moment staring into the mirror alters that reality. Out of nowhere, both Guy and the goons on the loose from the Buddhist cult are back in the picture, with repulsive and brutally violent results, yet we learn hidden secrets that connect us back to the original story, using a Buñuelian twist to do so (the same character played by two different actresses, as Buñuel did in his final film). Even so, with a hypnotic musical score from Koichi Shimizu, the director blurs the lines of reality, using an idiosyncratic style, including an illusory film within a film, growing darker and more ambiguous until what you thought was the truth remains elusive. The beauty of the film is the quiet calm it operates under, much of it wordless, never hurried or cluttered with anything non-essential, yet there’s something alluring about the intoxicating style of this director, totally free of any fake drama or emotional manipulation, as viewers bring their own interpretations to this film, where, thankfully, nothing is ever explained. While exposing the effects of fake Buddhist religions, which are not only spiritually suspect, but can be little more than underground crime syndicates, as monks have been thrown out of the temple for committing bribery, sexual misconduct, or even involvement with drugs, yet there are passionate devotees still willing to follow them, where the fallen monks can maintain a cult status. The film also comments on the bureaucratic cesspool that is the public healthcare system, a labrynthian maze that is near impossible to navigate, but more important is the director’s comment on women’s position in Thai society, continually stuck under the thumb of patriarchal oppression, where options out of that quagmire, supposedly taking all the right steps, making the best plans, often revert right back where they started, as the pattern of abuse is so ingrained in society. Offering no easy answers, the film suggests a host of alternatives, though in this moral wasteland it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty, suggesting even in the most remote places on Earth, even an Edenesque oasis where people think they’re finally safe from harm, the past can return at any moment, forcing you to once again question everything you think you know, as some of it may come back and bite you.