Auteur Theory: Volume 3
Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng has managed to create one of the most unique and thrilling visual styles of the last decade. His career began in directing ads, and since then he has been the mastermind behind three films, echoing a love for cinema and an incredible spin on how to piece together a movie. Borrowing techniques and resources for sets and lighting from his advertising career, he has been a key figure in a new wave of cinema to emerge from Thailand starting in the late ‘90s.
Have you ever seen a Thai western? Because that anomaly is exactly what Wisit Sasanatieng’s first feature, Tears of the Black Tiger is. It’s filled with blood splattering, bullets bouncing, instant replays, some of the most magnificently colorful set pieces I have ever seen, and oozing with love for cinema. Tears of the Black Tiger doesn’t hide its influences, riffing directly off moments from Sergio Leone classics, and violence reminiscent of Peckinpah’s westerns. But it is a romance at heart, complete with childhood crushes realized, romantic tragedies, and all the melodrama one could ask for. The film looks like it was made in the ‘70s at times. Grainy and over saturated, there are even sequences that occur on an obvious sound-stage, in which the background is a large stylized mural. The colors are incredible, scenes look like illustrations in a story book. It was the first film ever out of Thailand to be accepted into the Cannes Film Festival, and toured at many other festivals as well, receiving international praise.
Sasanatieng then revisited this same pastel colored and dreamlike style in his second feature, Citizen Dog. The very quirky Citizen Dog allows reality to drift even further away than Tears of the Black Tiger, this time with a romance set in modern day Thailand. The film follows Pod, who moves from a rural Thai town to Bangkok, to try and start a life in the city. At his second job as a security guard, (his first was in a sardine factory where he lost a finger and accidentally had someone else’s reattached to his hand), he meets the OCD maid Jin, who is constantly fixating over an enigmatic white book written in a foreign language that she cannot understand. The film follows his attempt to woo her by any means, and her attempt to decode the book. The film gets its look from a radiant and unreal interpretation of Bangkok, and some CGI flourish. Bright colors, surreal story and imagery, a mountain of plastic bottles (no exaggeration, it’s an actual mountain), the film is beautiful, adorable, funny, and at times, quite sad.
His third feature, and his most recent directorial role, took an extreme turn from the feel his first two films had. The bright, vibrant colors and surreal, romantic qualities have gone, and in their place we have a traditional Thai ghost story titled The Unseeable. Here the homages stretch back to films of the 1930s. Set in Thailand in the ‘30s, the film is about a young pregnant woman who is abandoned and seeks refuge and a place to deliver her child in the home of a rich woman. And, of course, stories of a ghost and supernatural occurrences plague the property. Without the visual flair of Sasanatieng’s first two films, The Unseeable relies heavily on atmosphere and story. The atmosphere is definitely there, a yellowish tint dominates the visuals, and all of it is quite eerie, but the story feels too typical, and often fails to tie scenes and events together. It is not a bad film, so much as it doesn’t really surpass a conventional ghost movie. It is in that aspect that I found The Unseeable disappointing, as I wanted so badly to see more of the vibrancy that hooked me on Sasanatieng initially. But the film does manage to be frightening, and the sets and cinematography are excellent, so I still recommend it to fans of horror as a good Thai ghost story. It is a breath of fresh air in the wave of Asian ghost movies that were flooding the market at the time of its release.
Right now Wisit has a couple announced projects, most notably Armful, his take on the martial arts genre. Buzz about this film has been on and off since news of it originated in 2006, but there is no word on the progress of the production due to funding issues. Hopefully this will be settled soon, because just imaging his style on a martial arts movie makes my heart beat a little faster. Until then, I recommend looking up some of his ads at http://www.filmfactory.org because they are out of this world.