Stars: Heen Sasithorn, Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk, Yossawat Sittiwong, Pattanapong Sriboonrueang, Kiatsuda Piromya, Anake Srimor and Wanlop Rungkamjad.
Writers: Pimpaka Towira and Kong Rithdee.
Director: Pimpaka Towira.
Reviewed at Melbourne International Film Festival; screened Sunday August 7 at Palace Kino Cinemas, Melbourne.
A character-driven road movie slyly disguising a powerful allegory for Thailand’s shifting, violent socio-religious framework, The Island Funeral signifies a triumphant return to feature narratives for Pimpaka Towira. After more than a decade navigating strictly monitored censorship guidelines via short film and documentary works, the auteur has delivered arguably her best longform film, a thoughtful, challenging and evocative arthouse moodpiece.
The central protagonist of the script penned by Towira and esteemed Thai film critic Kong Rithdee is Laila, a modern, determined Thai woman of Muslim faith, despite no outward, day-to-day acknowledgement of her beliefs. Her soulful strength yet composed presence is captured beautifully in an award worthy performance by the compelling Heen Sasithorn, a future superstar of international cinema.
Laila is led astray by her travelling companions, mopey brother Zugood (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk) and his college roommate, Toy (Yossawat Sittiwong), as they meander south through Pattani, a region of Islamic resistance. Their plan is to eventually reconnect with her Aunty Zainub. an almost-mythic family figure in the remote township of Al-kaf. Towira deftly conveys the risk connected with journeying through a country in conflict - radio broadcasts offer coverage of rebel bomb attacks; armed soldiers patrol (in menacing slow motion) jungles and abandoned buildings in seemingly random inserts; Toy grows fearful that his non-Muslim beliefs will ultimately prove fatal.
The spectre of the unknown and a general unease soon permeates the trip when Laila, driving late into a stormy night, swears she sees a chain-clad, naked woman run in front of the car. Increasingly disoriented and their modern devices useless (mobiles cease working; none of the group can read a map), they are forced to reconnect with humanity via a chance meeting with local motorcyclist Surin (a charismatic Pattanapong Sriboonrueang). His enigmatic demeanour aside, Surin proves invaluable, leading them to their increasingly mysterious destination, an island only accessible by a lone boatman (Kiatsuda Piromaya, his presence further enhancing the understated paranormal atmosphere).
A utopia of sorts described by the matriarch as being “neither a part of Thailand, nor beyond it”, Towira and her longterm DOP Phuttiphong Aroonpheng (shooting on 16mm) highlight the fractured reality of Al-kaf with stunning camerawork; long, languid, dialogue-free passages capture the trio’s journey along estuaries and through thick undergrowth until the village emerges from the darkness, lit by flickering torches and intermittent surges of generator power. Aunty Zainub (Kiatsuda Piromya) proves a soothsayer of profound wisdom, engaging with her niece on matters of personal freedom, nationalism and the idealistic hopes.
There is no convenient conclusion to The Island Funeral; the didactic narrative, which veers effortlessly into a dream-state, almost non-linear realm does not lend itself to a pat denouement. Instead, Towira offers a thoughtful lament; a muted, meditative plea for her nation to cling to an ancestral spirituality in spite of a future led by those that try to deny it. The Island Funeral is a film in which a woman strives to restore faith and bring understanding through respect for the past; in modern Thailand, that constitutes a subversively confronting notion.