Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Review: Phrae Dum (Black Silk)

  • Directed by Ratana Pestonji
  • Starring Ratanavadi Ratanabhand, Tom Wisawachart, Seni Wisaneesarn
  • Released in 1961; available on DVD from the Thai Film Foundation
  • Rating: 5/5

Made in 1961, Ratana Pestonji's Phrae Dum (Black Silk or แพรดำ), is film noir -- Thailand's first -- with a Buddhist perspective.

The main characters cannot escape their karma.

Phrae is a young widowed woman who lives in a traditional-style Thai wooden house along a canal. She weaves silk and tends to her fields. She still wears black, long after her husband has died. She has a boyfriend, Tom, and it's through him that Phrae becomes caught in a web of deception and murder. Phrae repents for her part in what happened by becoming a Buddhist nun.

Ratana cast his own daughter, Ratanavadi Ratanabhand, as Phrae, who wears the black clothes of a mourning widow heavily. And when the time comes for her to shave her head, there's no skin wig -- it's the actress' real locks who fall under the razor. Such sacrifice for art.

To go into the elaborate scheming by Tom's greedy boss, the nightclub owner Seni, would be to spoil the fun of this drama. Briefly though, the plot involves a dead twin brother, a murder, a faked death, a kidnapping, another faked death and ultimately betrayal, prison and execution. Oh sure, there's a hole or two in that plot, but I still couldn't help but look on with amazement as the events breathlessly unfold.

Bleak as all that sounds, Black Silk is enlivened by music and dance -- a trademark of Pestonji -- and it's unabashedly colorful. Also, the sights and sounds of Bangkok of the early 1960s are captured, with streets scenes of the old tram, the Grand Palace and life along the canals.

It remains an influential and amazing film, with shades of Phrae Dum cropping up in the works of contemporary filmmakers Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Wisit Sasanatieng.

I'm thankful that the film has survived the years, and has been released on DVD by the Thai Film Foundation for everyone to enjoy.


  1. It's great that the Thai Film Foundation is continuing to release these classic films but a word of warning about purchasing via their website. In August last year I ordered two DVDs from their website and, as per instructions, made payment into their nominated bank account and then emailed and faxed a copy of the bank deposit slip to them. Long story short: I never received the DVDs and also never heard from anyone at the Thai Film Foundation despite several emails and attempted phone calls about my order. The amount I lost was only 500 baht and I've effectively written it off as a donation to a worthwhile--if very unprofessionally run--cause but I certainly won't be buying anything from the Thai Film Foundation again...at least not unless it's via direct sale and I'm guaranteed of getting the goods straight into my hands.

  2. Brett, I'm sorry to hear about your troubles with getting your DVDs from the Thai Film Foundation.

    Myself, I've never had any problems with them -- and I've done an order in the past with them just as you describe, with the money transferred to their bank account and then they send the DVDs to me (postage free, by the way, within Thailand) -- except I actually received my order.

    I've seen the folks from the Foundation go out of their way to get DVDs to people who want them.

    I don't know what happened with your order, but I do think if you tried to contact them again about this, they would send you the DVDs.

    If direct sale is what you're looking for, keep an eye out for events organized by the Foundation, like the Short Film & Video Festival, other special screenings and functions at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center -- they'll usually have the DVDs and other merchandise on hand right there.


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