Veteran Thai filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang turns to TV with "Folklore: Pob", his episode for an upcoming HBO Asia horror anthology
In an era where many of us are choosing to consume our entertainment on our personal devices, it comes as little surprise to see some of the biggest names in filmmaking turning their talents to making content for television or streaming services. Despite the pressure from cinemas and the decision taken by a few of the major film festivals to ban films without theatrical distribution from playing in competition, others are welcoming them with open arms and even rewarding them. A case in point is Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”, which in September became the first Netflix movie to win the prestigious Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.
The recently ended Toronto International Film Festival, one of the biggest film events in the world, introduced its Primetime programme in 2015. This a special showcase for cinematic television, defined as television series made with cinematic quality that can also be presented on big screen. For the first time this year, television from Southeast Asia was recognised in the Primetime segment with “A Mother’s Love” and “Pob”, two episodes of “Folklore”, a new horror anthology by HBO Asia produced by award-winning Singaporean film director Eric Khoo and directed by Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar and Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang respectively. Anwar, who enjoyed recent success across the region with his latest film “Satan’s Slave”, was unable to make it to Toronto to attend the premiere of his work, but Pen-ek and Khoo were both on hand to meet the audience after the screenings.
PenEk Ratanaruang’s episode for HBO Asia's anthology horror series “Folklore”, focuses on the famous Thai ghost “Pob”. /Photo courtesy of HBO
“Eric emailed me to say he was producing a horror series for HBO Asia,” Pen-ek tells XP. “I’ve never directed horror before, except for ‘Nymph’, which is not really a horror film. He told me it was a TV film and there needed to be a ghost in it, so I asked Eric to give me a week to make a decision. The concept was to assign every filmmaker in the project to make a television film about a famous ghost in their own country. And Thailand is spoilt for choice with its krasue, krahung, pob and Mae Nak ghosts.”
After consulting with veteran producer Soros Sukhum and asking him to work on the project, Pen-ek decided to make a film about the pob ghost. Pob, which feeds on human intestines, has appeared in many horror-comedies, among them the “Baan Phee Pob” film series between 1989 and 1994. In those films the pob ghost is presented as an old woman who chasing humans for their intestines. Pen-ek’s pob, though, is different. “It’s the story of a ghost who enters a man’s house to find something to eat only to discover that the house is inhabited by a farang (foreigner). The ghost can’t speak English so is unable to communicate with the farang, and the farang thinks the ghost is a kind of beggar. Soros and I wanted to make our ghost the victim of the farang because he’s afraid of speaking English. I told Eric about our idea and he approved it,” Pen-ek expains.
In Pen-ek Ratanaruang's latest work “Folklore: Pob”, an episode of a television series for HBO Asia, he tells the story of Pob ghost (Parama Wutthikornditsakul) who goes into a house of a farang with whom he can’t communicate./Photo courtesy of HBO
The film shows how the pob ghost loses confidence after failing to communicate with the farang and gets so frustrated that he kills him. Later the ghost meets a journalist and confesses the murder.
“I wrote a seven-page treatment and sent it to the HBO team. I received some feedback but I decided not to change anything. Although I have no experience of the horror genre, I did learn from one of my previous works that having a lot of producers on board is confusing. At first I thought it could be great to get comments to help me make a better film, but it didn’t work out that way. Those who commented are all excellent producers but their comments confused the images in my head. I was questioned in much the same way as at film school – the motivation of the characters, stuff like that. But I am not that kind of director. I am not that kind of screenwriter. Everything is visual in my mind, and I combine all the visuals into a story.”
“After I received comments, I didn’t feel comfortable. I sat down for a whole day in front of my computer and replied to each comment one by one. HBO replied that they believed in my vision, so I started writing the screenplay right away,” Pen-ek says.
“Pob” is made in black and white, which is unusual for television, and some channels, HBO among them, normally don’t allow anything but colour.
“HBO learned that the film was being shot in black and white while we were shooting and told me this wasn’t allowed. I pointed out that I had written a note in the script stating that the entire film would be in black and white except scenes 14, 27 and 36. They replied that they had misunderstood. I still filmed it in black and white and when HBO sent someone to check on the production, they asked me to stop the filming and go back to talk.
“The lighting for colour and black-and-white is different and we’d used camera effects for the scenes in which the ghost appears. We’d already shot all this and it was far too late to change. But I have to give credit to HBO for finally allowing me to do it my way. I finished the production and the editing and sent the rough cut in black and white. Now everybody likes it in black and white.”
Pen-ek’s films normally feature well-known Thai actors but here again, he has veered from convention. The main characters in “Pob” are Nuttapon Sawasdee, Parama Wutthikornditsakul and Thomas Burton Van Blarcom, all of them new to film. “All my films used stars, which is a condition for marketing, but for this film, there’s no such condition as it is a television film. I will never agree with that kind of condition again. The guy who plays the journalist is a friend of an artist friend and the person who plays ghost is an extra in Thai films.”
The director has in fact made two versions of “Folklore: Pob”, one the 53-minute version for HBO Asia, and the other a 61-minute version, which was the one screened in Toronto.
“All the scenes are intact but I trimmed some of them down. The executives at HBO prefer the 53-minute version,” Pen-ek says.
“Folklore: A Mother’s Love & Pob” were well-received at Toronto, and the series starts screening on HBO this month. Pen-ek’s episode will premiere on October 28 but the fate of the 61-minute theatrical version remains uncertain.
“It’s HBO’s film,” Pen-ek says with a shrug.