Thunska Pansittivorakul and Panu Aree were both born in 1973, and they both started making movies in 2000. And, from what I saw of their work over last weekend in their joint retrospective, Inside Out, Outside In at Ver Gallery, they have sort of the same documentary approach to filmmaking.
The differences are that Thunska is more participatory and personally involved, while Panu is more detached and impartial. But both take on subject matter that is refreshingly heartfelt and earnest.
Thunska says as much in a quote for the Daily Xpress:
I and Panu have something in common. We like the same styles of films - shorts, experimental and documentaries - however, our films are different. I approach film from inside human beings to reflect the outside, while Panu portrays things from the outside in order to look inside."
On Friday, running late from work and getting lost in a taxi, I caught part of Panu's Once Upon a Time. It is actually an old family home movie, shot at the now-defunct Dan Narimit amusement park in Bangkok some 30 years ago by Panu's father. Panu has laid in some narration over the top of it. Another of his works simply follows the daily routine of a manager or owner of a convenience store, following him from opening in the morning until closing time.
Saturday, I had the chance to see Panu's newest work, In Between, which is a profile of four Muslim men who live in Bangkok. A school teacher, a software writer, a news translator and a professional musician, he follows them through their daily lives as they talk about the struggles of growing up in Bangkok, where Muslims are a minority, the "pork pranks" they faced when they attended non-Muslim schools and the prejudices they still face in a country where usually the only thing people hear about Muslims regards the violent and deadly separatism that is occurring in Thailand's three southernmost, Muslim-majority provinces.
Most of Saturday's program was devoted to Thunska, and his two features, 2002's Voodoo Girls and 2004's award-winning documentary, Happy Berry. Both take a similar approach, with Thunska, or Poon as he's called in the films, embedding himself in the lives of his subjects.
Voodoo Girls follows three young woman as they get ready to embark on new stages in their lives. Close friends of the director, they are shy on camera at first -- they are self conscious about smoking and drinking for their parents' sake, but they go ahead and do it anyway -- they talk about their boyfriends, or lack thereof. The action mainly takes place in the girls' apartments, where they hang out with their boyfriends, talking, smoking and drinking. When one of the trio has to go away to England for schooling, they all say goodbye to her at the airport. The title is explained in a poem at toward the end, saying love and heartbreak had pierced each of their hearts, like stick pins in a voodoo doll.
Happy Berry (not to be confused with Girly Berry) feels more epic and sprawling. Even if it is centered mostly on the clothing boutique in Siam Square where the film's four subjects work, with frequent forays to a karaoke parlour, the film covers more ground and gets more intimate with the characters.
There's Gack, who has a magnificent mane of curled blond tresses that dominate her tiny figure. All four of the Happy Berry figures are striking, but Gack is easily the most eye catching. There's Koi, also with bleached blond hair, who has a boyfriend, a famous model-singer named Nicky 99 Degrees. Nicky creates some drama of his own, as he poses nude for a magazine layout. And there's Joe, a big lug of guy and an enthusiastic partner in the business. Finally, there's the somewhat quiet Third.
Following the rise in fame of the Happy Berry boutique, the film gets into the lives and loves of its subjects, with some sexually explicit dialogue that wouldn't fly if the film were to be mass released in Bangkok's multiplexes. The film is refreshing in that it doesn't shy away from the topic of sex and sexuality -- it takes it on with a matter-of-frankness and bawdy gusto, illustrated by cameraman Poon reaching into the frame to grab onto the waistband of a young guy's shorts, and give a firm downward tug.
The film takes a bit of crazy turn when Happy Berry's celebrity threatens to alter the fashion line, as Joe, Noi and Third are briefly signed by RS Music as a boy-girl band act. They are the whole package, with fashion, music and "the look" all in one, rapping away in bouncey music videos as they wear their fluorescent, Barbie-doll-inspired outfits. Gack didn't take part in that brief flirtation with superstardom, holding down the boutique for the other three to return to when their record contract didn't pan out.
Happy Berry won the Grand Prize at the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival in 2004 and the film had a limited run at House cinema in Bangkok in 2005, for which Thunska made a short-film sequel, Happy Berry: Oops I Did It Again. It catches up with the foursome two years after the first documentary had been shot. Nicky is still hanging around, still causing Noi and the others to groan. Gack has found a farang boyfriend, Jesse, and the shop was getting ready to move to the CentrePoint area of Siam Square -- which is now closed for redevelopment. I don't know where Happy Berry is now.
Thunska, meanwhile, is working on a feature film, Stranger's Paradise, and he's still got another feature to do, Heartbreak Pavilion, a collaboration with Sompot Chidgasornpongse (currently away studying at CalArts), produced by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which won a cash award from the Pusan Promotion Plan in 2005.