Light in the Darkness

in 40th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Anita Piotrowska

In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia presenting an ideal vision of society based on perfect social order and religious tolerance. Today, 500 years on, we need utopias more than ever, especially when the world is facing the threat of terrorism and growing intolerance towards refugees. The Thai director Pimpaka Towira, in her second feature film, depicts the atmosphere of threat and uncertainty we’ve been experiencing nowadays. At the same time she creates her own utopian island where dreams and fantasies about a better world have already come true.

The Island Funeral (Maha samut lae susaan) begins like a road movie, although during the whole journey from Bangkok to the southern Thai province of Pattani, the road becomes more and more intricate. We never know where it may take us, sharing the perspectives of the three protagonists: two boys and a girl heading towards the turbulent South to visit the aunt of two of them (who left their village for the city many years ago). At the beginning of their trip the contemporary urban youngsters seem completely unconscious of what may happen to them on the way and the violence that is being inflicted even as they travel. Towira recreates the restless climate of contemporary Thailand in her film, and masterfully handles the geography and space to present the political situation in the country which has been struggling with serious ethnic and religious tensions since 2004. We see how much the insurgency of Muslim separatists from the Pattani region has degenerated into jihadist-style terror. To make the plot more psychologically complex, Towira and her co-scripter, the well-known Thai film critic Kong Rithdee, have made two of the main characters Muslims.

Watching The Island Funeral is a dream-like experience, sometimes bringing into mind the mysterious and intriguing mood of films by another Thai director, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, with their poetic imagery, slow contemplative pace and the spiritual touch. The hypnotic night trip to the island may recall Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Moreover, Towira ends her film with a quote from Herman Melville. Despite all these references from Western literature, the director indubitably tells her own story. The film becomes a feminine voice—subtle and strong at the same time—against violence and social inequalities. Such an approach might have determined her decision to choose a woman as the main protagonist in the film. This is Laila, a Thai Muslim girl (played by Heen Sasithorn), who insists on taking the long journey to rebuild the close relationship with her aunt. The female protagonist is also the one who is most committed to regain her identity.

Towira seems to believe in universal religion that operates on the interpersonal level.  In The Island Funeral she recognizes femininity as the power that may help to resist political disturbances and hostility among people. Thanks to this human perspective we finally see the light in the tunnel while watching this dark and uneasy film, in which divided Thailand may serve as a metaphor of the contemporary world.

Edited by Stephen Teo