Director Wisit Sasanatieng brings more scares to the big screen with a new film about possession
Director Wisit Sasanatieng returns to Thai cinema screens on Thursday with not just one movie but two. It’s an unusual situation and not one Wisit was particularly prepared for, especially as the press reviews were also organised for the same day and saw the director scurrying across the street from Paragon Cineplex to Scala Theatre.
The two films in question are his latest full-length feature “Singsoo” (“Reside”) and the anthology “Ten Years Thailand” on which he worked with three other directors.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard that my two projects were coming out on the same day, but there it is,” says Wisit, who made his name with his debut feature “Fah Talai Jone” (“Tears of the Black Tigers”) back in 2000. He has made a few films since, the latest being “Runpee” (“Senior”), which was released two years ago. And it looks like he will remain in the spotlight for the near future at least following the announcement by Netflix last month that Wisit will co-direct with Sittisiri Mongkolsiri the first of the two original Thai series “Oubatikaan” (“Shimmers”) for the streaming service.
“Singsoo” is set in a house that serves as the headquarters for the cult known as Jit Asongkhai (Infinity Spiritual Centre). Madame (Tarika Thidathit) and her apprentices Dej (Ananda Everingham), Prang (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee), Soy (Ploy Sornarin), Kruea (Jarunan Phantachat), Krit (Teerawat Mulwilat) and Nop (Peerapol Kijreunpiromsuk) are gathered around a dead body, chanting as they call on a spirit to come to the body. But things don’t go quite as planned and a group of vagabond spirits attempts to come inside and possess the cult members. Matters are further complicated by a massive storm and flooding that leaves them trapped, even as they try to fight off the spirits and discover why they are so determined to reside in their bodies.
Wisit says he was inspired by the idea of possession and also by parapsychology, or the study of situations that can’t be explained scientifically such as paranormal and psychic phenomena, telepathy and psychokinesis.
“I’m interested in what happens when someone’s personality suddenly changes like in the movie ‘Primal Fear’ where Edward Norton switches in seconds from a good person to a scary person,” he says, adding that “Reside” is neither a Thai style black magic nor a ghost movie, but a hybrid horror tale with a nod to the Hollywood possession genre.
He compares the notion of possession to the Thai dislike of Rohingya asylum seekers and other refugee groups, and how they use hate speech to express their fear.
“Perhaps they forget that the land they are living on belonged to others before they were born. Many of them are Chinese descendants, so why don’t we have more compassion for them and tone down our overprotection of our country?” says the director.
The fear of refugees is similar to the framework for the fear in the film. “In ‘Reside’, the spirits want to inhabit our bodies forever not just possess them temporarily. The spirits will attack those who are afraid and once they take control of the body, they will live like a normal person forever.
But for all that, he is quick to point out that this concept is not overly obvious in the movie. “Reside”, he says, is essentially an entertaining horror film with the scares coming from the fierce spirits and tethered together by how each character’s background leads them into the situation.
There are shades of an Agatha Christie drama too, with the story of each character revealed through the tense situation.
“Cinephiles will recognise the tribute to great horrors films like ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Shining’ or ‘The Evil Dead’. It’s not like ‘The Unseeable’,” says the director, referring to his 2006 cult horror release.
In many ways, “Reside” came about quite by accident. Earlier this year, Wisit, who now works as a content creator at Transformation Films, realised that the team would be unable to finish their project “Sang Krasue” this year, meaning that Transformation would have no 2018 release. To fill the gap, Wisit offered a few ideas and the team eventually chose “Reside”. As the idea for the film came from him and he had already written the script, Transformation decided he should also direct.
Time and budget constraints presented challenges and there were times when Wisit wondered how he could create a horror film in a single location without using visual effects. The answer lay in the skills of the actors and creating the atmosphere through production design and storytelling.
Performance artist Teerawat Mulwilai helped Wisit with the acting while Natthaweeranuch and Ananda conjured back up the same chemistry that made such a success of “Shutter”.
Ploy Sornarin, left, plays Soy while Silpathorn artist Jarunan Phantachat portrays her aunt Kruea./Courtesy of Transformation Films
Ploy is a rising star who picked up the Subhanahongsa Award for Best Supporting Actress in “Siam Square”.
“She’s brilliant as Soy,” enthuses Wisit of the actress who bears a strong resemblance to veteran screen star Jintara Sukkhaphat.
“Teerawat has really helped me on this project especially in the way we show the spirit taking over a body. He blends performing art with his acting,” he says.
And indeed performing art plays a major role in the film, with the actors drawing on butoh techniques to demonstrate the act of taking possession. It also celebrates the coming together of three Silpathorn artists –Wisit, Teerawat and Jarunun have all been recognised with the prestigious award in the fields of film and performing arts.
Wisit is known for casting actors of yesterday in his films, such as Sombat Methanee in “Fah Talai Jone” and the long-retired Pornpan Kasemmatsu in “Runpee” (“Senior”).
He does it again with “Reside” bringing in the veteran actress of the late 1970s and 1980s Tarika Thidathit as Madame. “She is one of my favourite actresses. I was thrilled when she agreed to play a prostitute role and shaved her head for real in the 1978 movie “Nua Kwa Rak,” he says.
Wisit knows that fans are keen to see a horror film like “The Unseeable” but insists he is not interested in repeating what he has done before.
His films are often received critically acclaimed but fail at the box office. “Guess the audience prefers to see them on TV or pirated DVD,” he says.
Director Wisit Sasanatieng on the set of his latest horror film “Singsoo”./Courtesy of Transformation Films
And he is probably right. “Tears of the Black Tiger” was the first Thai film ever to be chosen for the Cannes International Film Festival but flopped back home. “The Unseeable” is often held up as one of the best Thai horror flicks of all time but only became popular when it was shown on television.
“As a filmmaker, it doesn’t matter as long as our works are being seen by a wider audience though it doesn’t benefit for the investor or the movie as a whole.”
And while film fans will no doubt be hankering for more from Wisit, he prefers to stay in the background.
“My energy has run out and despite still having plenty of ideas, I can’t do it on my own. As a content creator, I can share my ideas and my experience with the younger generation who still have energy to do it,” he says.
“Singsoo” (“Reside”) and |“Ten Years Thailand” open on Thursday. “Reside” is on wide release meanwhile “Ten Years” will have a limited run at Major Cineplex, SF Cinema, House RCA and Bangkok Screening Room.