Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Seeing the Unseeable

One of the things that's always interesting about Wisit Sasanatieng's films is that there's more than meets the eye -- at least to the perspective of a Westerner like myself.

Take for example my reaction when I first saw his Tears of the Black Tiger: I thought for sure I had seen something that had taken influences from the Wizard of Oz, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone and put them in a blender.

I wasn't until much later that I learned there actually been movies like Tears of the Black Tiger made in Thailand back in the 1960s and '70s, featuring the likes of Mitr Chaibancha, Petchara Chaowarat and Sombat Metanee. Sure, those films were likely influenced by Western westerns too (much as Akira Kurosawa was influenced by John Ford), but it wasn't a conscious effort, I don't think. And for production design and acting direction, the influence of pioneering Thai director Ratana Pestonji is there too.

For The Unseeable, Wisit had a reach back into Thai pop culture history again, and what he pulled out of his trick bag this time was the works of Hem Vejakorn, an illustrator of 10-satang graphic-novel ghost stories. I was first turned on to his work back in 2004 when the Queen's Gallery in Bangkok put an exhibition of his work.

Kong Rithdee points out this influence in his article about and review of The Unseeable in last Friday's Bangkok Post. He says the Hem connection was so strong, the foundation that claims to protect Hem's works sent a warning letter to the filmmaker about possible copyright violations. Wisit had to respond that the film was not an adaptation of any one of Hem's stories, but was an homage to the overall style and tone of Hem's works.

Of course, there were Western influences as well, with Wisit looking at such 1930s icons as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to model his strong, practically all-female cast after. And the class-conscious sniping between the simple, youthful Nualjin and the hauty, upper-class Madame Runjuan could have easily come right out of a Bette Davis movie, not to mention the hairstyles.

Wisit's restraint from his usual stylizations was due to budgetary concerns, but it forced him to create something else and get back to a style of old-time movie making, so that not only were the production design, costuming and acting direction an homage to the 1930s, the entire method of making the film was an homage.

The best news, though, out of the recent article by Kong Rithdee is that Wisit says for sure he's going to be doing Armful. "It's gonna be a tribute to the Shaw Brothers films," he was quoted as saying. "They're another of my obsessions."

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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