Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang looks back at his previous outings in the run-up to the release of his latest oeuvre “Samui Song”
It’s been a busy few years for Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. First there were the two years he spent making his latest film “Mai Me Samui Samrab Ther” (“Samui Song”). Then he set off on a tour of the world’s film festivals, introducing his new baby first in Venice then taking it to several other destinations before bringing it back home to show to local audiences on February 1 under a first-time distribution deal with Sahamongkolfilm Company.
The acclaimed director is also celebrating two decades in the film industry and has chosen to mark the occasion with the special event “Cinema Journey: 20 Years of Penek Films” that will see almost all his films screened in chronological order prior to “Samui Song” arriving in cinemas.
“I wanted to make an entertaining film after all these years because the Thai audience has stereotyped me as a director who makes movies that are difficult to understand,” the director said during the press conference with his leading cast members last week, adding that this film is also the least personal.
The entertainment message comes through loud and clear in the Thai trailer for the film. In the international trailer “Samui Song” is portrayed as an allusive suspense thriller while the Thai version is more black comedy and brings to mind his second film “Ruang Talok 69” (“6ixtynin9”).
Producer Raymond Phathanavirangoon, the man behind both trailers, says he originally sent the Thai version of the trailer to promote the film overseas only to have it rejected by the distributor for being a comedy. He went back to the drawing board and came up with the international version that gives it an intense “Psycho”like thriller feel.
“Samui Song” is about TV soap star Viyada (Chermarn Bunyasak) who is married to Jerome (played by French photographer and visual artist Stephane Sednaoui). Jerome, though, has a personal problem and that attracts him to the strange cult led by The Holy One (Vithaya “Pu” Pansrigarm). His fascination with the cult leader results in Jerome bringing him to their home, Viyada is less than pleased and in desperation hires Guy Spencer (David Asavanond) to kill her husband, which is when everything spins out of control.
The Thai title, which translates in English as “there is no Samui for you” was inspired by the popular drama film and TV drama title “Mai Me Sawan Samrab Khun” (“there is no heaven for you”), which has been remade several times. Samui is relevant to the plot, he explains, because Viyada has happy memories of staying there – “it is her heaven,” he days.
Penek’s approach to his films has constantly changed since he made his directorial debut “Fun Bar Karaoke” in 1997.
“For about 10 years, my films were very personal. All the questions I had in my life became a story. So making a film at that time was like therapy. For example, when I was questioning death, I made “Last life in The Universe”. I wondered why we always wasted time arguing as a couple and that became “Ploy”. It was very stressful making films that were so personal,” he says.
“Samui Song” started, he explains, when he spotted a well-known Thai actress and her foreign husband or boyfriend in a supermarket and was curious to note that she spoke to him in Thai and he spoke to her in English but they could understand each other.
“It’s about a couple’s relationship and woman’s position in Thai society. Although there is a cult and a religious element to the story, this is to set the scene for the murder’s motive,” “he says. “Using an affair is too much of a clich?.”
The cult idea came about after he heard about a monk forced to leave monkhood following a scandal yet still retaining hundreds of disciples.
He picked Chermarn to play Viyada Beaufoy because no one else was suited to the role.
“She entered the entertainment business as a youngster and while she has reaped the benefits, she’s also suffered some cruel blows. With her background, I thought that she would probably understand that suffering and transform herself effortlessly into Viyada ,” explains Penek.
And indeed the popular TV drama actress has run into quite a few fights with the entertainment media because of her aggressive and uncompromising stance. That led the media to boycott her, not interviewing her when she attended events and that, of course, affected both her reputation and her event work.
Chermarn had a cameo role in Penek’s 2003 film “Last Life in the Universe” in 2003, which starred her older sister Sinithra and Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano. She was 17 at the time.
As for “Samui Song”, she says she accepted the role without even seeing the script.
“And then I had to do 13 takes for drama scenes and 35 takes biting into a tomato. Unfortunately both parts were deleted from the movie. That fact that it took so many takes made me shudder, as I regularly manage to get it right in just five takes,” she says.
“That was especially true of the crying scene, which was cut too, but I finally understood what Penek wanted after watching the film at the Macau International Film Festival,
“I realised that he was looking for the magic moment. In fact that came in the early takes not the last one. Working with Penek has given me new energy. After 24 years in this career, I was burned out. But Penek has helped to reignite the flame of excitement in my acting again,” she says.
Vithaya was the first to be cast in the film and cheerfully admits that he’s been wanting to work with Penek for years, even more so since he started gaining fame from international productions like “Only God Forgives”.
“It is a great experience for me as Penek helps actors to create the character while in the past I had to do it alone then present it to the director,” he says. He first interpreted The Holy One as a serious though much-admired man before Penek suggested that he would be better played as a cunning if animated individual.
“He had to be someone that those who don’t believe would be sceptical about but have a character that can make the followers believe in him too,” he says.
Prior to the release of “Samui Song” – Penek’s tenth film – there will be a screening of most of his movies, both features and documentaries. The idea for the event came from discussions with concert and event producer Yuthana Boonorm and will help the director, who isn’t on the social networks, to meet the public and share his experiences.
Two documentaries were screened last weekend at Warehouse 30 and this weekend, “6ixtynin9”, “Ploy” and “Monrak Transistor” are being shown outdoors at The Jam Factory at Klong San pier. The event will also feature an exhibition by Santi Taepanich, who has worked on many of the director’s sets and will be sharing his experiences.
Saturday’s event starts with a talk with director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit about Penek’s films followed by “6ixtynin9” and “Ploy” while on Sunday, Santi will talk about Penek’s movies prior to the screening of “Monrak Transistor”. Admission is free.
On January 2728, his eight feature films will be shown at House RCA in 35mmfilm format.
Close up with Pen-ek
- For more about “Samui Song”, join the conversation at Facebook.com/samuisongfilm/
- For details of the Cinema Journey, go to Facebook.com/events/1934161300177587 and Facebook.com/houseRCA.