Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Wisit's influences

In surfing for information about film conservation in Thailand, I came across an article about Tears of the Black Tiger (and now Citizen Dog) director Wisit Sasanatieng, who got his start making television commercials.

The article mentioned Dome Sukwong, head of film conservation at the ambitious but underfunded Thai Film Archive. Dome gave the sobering and saddening statistic that some 70 percent of all Thai films of past have been lost to official indifference and climate-accelerated decay.

Nonetheless, Khun Dome's center provided inspiration for Tears of the Black Tiger (or Fah Talai Jone, which is literally translated as Heaven Strikes the Thief).

Whenever the Film Archive screened an old film," Wisit said, "I'd be there. Usually, I'd be the only one there. Most Thai audiences dislike Thai movies, especially the old ones, which they consider nam nao ["stinky water," i.e., stagnant and cliched]. But what I saw in them was a way to stay true to the spirit of those old styles of Thai filmmaking, as well as a way to make them new again. And none of the older generation of filmmakers impressed me more than Rattana Pestonji."

Rattana, the leading Thai filmmaker of the 1950s, was born to Persian parents and educated in England. He produced and directed a series of color-coded but at first blush creakily archaic melodramas on a limited assortment of minimalist sets. As it turns out, Rattana's films were in fact satires of still more archaic and impoverished Thai films of an even earlier generation.

No wonder Wisit took note. "For me, Rattana is our greatest filmmaker," admits Wisit, who funded his passion for film history by convincing Wrangler jeans to finance a television ad that served as the stylistic trial run for his film's vibrant visual design. "I knew all along that I wanted Tears of the Black Tiger to be more than just an old-fashioned film. And the first thing I knew was that the action scenes would have to be a lot faster and more cleverly choreographed than they were in the old days."

Another article makes the Rattana connection and also cites the Thai action films of the 1960's (known locally as 'Bomb-the-mountain, burn-the-huts' movies) as an influence.

The Bangkok Post recently included film preservation in its annual Holiday Time roundup of worthy causes. Thailand needs an independent body to preserve the Kingdom's old films as national heritage.

To help, contact Khun Chalida Uabumrungjit, National Film Archives c/o Thai Film Foundation, PO Box 6, Phutthamonthon Sub Post Office, Nakhon Pathom, 73170. Tel: 66 2 800 2716. Fax: 66 2 800 2717. Bank info: Kasikorn Bank Phaholyothin branch, account name Thai Film Foundation, savings account number 799-2-42333-6.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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