The “Venice of the East” makes a splash at the Italian city’s film festival with two movies out of competition
One of the most important events on the annual film calendar, the Venice Film Festival’s 74th edition kicked off a week ago with a programme of more than 80 films spread across all sections. Many of this year’s entries are American movies and more than a few stand a good chance of becoming viable candidates for the Oscars. They include Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing”, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” which are all generating plenty of buzz in and around the Lido.
But while Asian films have traditionally thrived in Venice, this year they are noticeable by their absence, with only two, from Japan and China respectively, making the cut for the main competition.
Thailand, though, is reasonably well represented with one feature film and one short being presented in the sideline categories.
After six years away, veteran director PenEk Ratanaruang is back with his latest feature “Samui Song”, which had its world premiere in Venice Days, the independent sidebar section that is equivalent to Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight. A coproduction between Thailand, Germany and Norway, the film stars French music video director Stephane Sednaoui as Jerome, a businessman who is married to Viyada (Cherman Boonyasak). As the marriage goes down the tubes, Jerome is left impotent and becomes a devotee of a religious cult led by The Holy One (Vittaya Parnsringam). The end for the couple comes when Jerome forces Viyada to have sex with The Holy One and she hires new acquaintance Guy (David Asavanond), a hitman who needs money to buy medicine for his mother, to kill her husband.
The trailer for the film, which was two years in the making, gives little away and the ending is not even close to what an audience might expect. A hint is given in the Thai title “Mai Mee Samui Samrab Ter”, which translates as “there’s no Samui for you” and while the end does involve an island, that island might not be Samui.
“Samui Song” will continue its journey this month with a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been slated for release in Thailand in February next year.
Another film from Thailand is the short “Death of the Sound Man’” by Sorayos Prapapan, a young director who is no stranger to the festival circuit. His “Boonrerm”, “Auntie Maam Has Never Had a Passport” and “Fat Boy Never Slim” were screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively and now he’s making his Venice debut with “Death of the Sound Man” showing in competition in the Orizzonti section.
Like Sorayos’ previous works, “Sound Man” is a black comedy that deals with social issues in Thailand and centres on a sound engineer who is badly treated by a director on the set. He later comes to realise that the sounds he has created for various films have little value to the audience, much like his voice, which is not heard by society at large. No screening dates have been fixed for a domestic release, but Thai audiences may be able to watch the short next year.
Another interesting Asian film screened at Venice Days is the Mainland China offering “The Taste of the Rice Flower”. It’s the latest work of Pangfei, a young Chinese director who has worked for Hong SangSoo and Tsai Ming Liang and cowrote Tsai Ming Liang’s 2013 “Stray Dogs”. Pangfei made his Venice debut in 2015 with “Underground Fragrance” and returns to the Venice Days section with this new work filmed in Yunnan province.
One of the very rare films to focus on the Dai people, “The Taste of the Rice Flower” follows Yenan, a mother who leaves her daughter behind when she is just a baby and returns home after several years to take care of her. Their lives are not without problems, however, and these come to a head when the young girl steals money from the sacred village temple.
In the main competition, Koreeda Hirokazu, who made his Venice debut back in 1995 with his first feature “Maborosi”, is back with the courtroom drama “The Third Murder”.
The film, which was praised by the audience and critics alike, stars veteran actor Koji Yakusho as Misumi, a murderer now out of prison after serving 30 years for two killings who is accused of murdering his boss and burning the corpse. This time, the court will almost certainly sentence him to death. Lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) is assigned to save Misumi but his job is complicated when Misumi changes his story. Shigemori later meets Sakie, the daughter of the victim, who he senses is hiding a secret that could change the outcome of the case.
While not a theme Koreeda usually tackles, “The Third Murder” is a decent crime drama that shows the dark side of Japan’s judicial system and questions the justice of judgement, by court or by jury. The film will be released in Japan right after Venice and is slated to come to Thailand soon.
The other Asian film in the main competition is “Angels Wear White” by Chinese filmmaker Vivian Qu, whose 2013 movie “Trap Street” was screened at Venice International Critic’s Week. Her second feature centres on Mia (Wen Qi), the young receptionist at a hotel in Hainan, who is so scared of losing her job that she keeps quiet about the events leading up to the rape of two young hotel guests.
Iranian director Vahid Jalilvand’s drama “No Date, No Signature”, a winner of three earlier festival awards, is being screened in the Orizzonti competition. It focuses on a forensic pathologist Dr Nariman (Amir Agha’ee), who is involved in a car accident with a motorcyclist and injures his 8-year-old son. The next morning, in the hospital where he works, Nariman finds out that the little boy has been brought for an autopsy after a suspicious death. Was he responsible for the child’s death or is the other doctor’s diagnosis of death due to food poisoning correct?
“No Date, No Signature” is the second film by Jalilvand, whose 2015 offering “Wednesday, May 9” won the Fipresci prize in Venice Film Festival.
The festival closes tomorrow night with the third and final part of Takeshi Kitano’s opus “Outrage”. Otomo, a character of ruthless Yakuza portrayed by Kitano has now left Japan to join the crime organisation in South Korea but is forced to return to the land of his birth to rectify a mistake.
While the shortage of solid Asian films particularly from the Philippines and Indonesia at this year’s festival is perhaps reflective of a general industry malaise, the selection of two Thai movies indicates that Thai cinema still has international potential. Filmmakers would do well to take note and try a little harder.