'The Island Funeral' ('Maha Samut Lae Susaan'): Film Review

The Island Funeral still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Extra Virgin Co.
A beautiful genre-bender.

Pimpaka Towira's second feature, charting three young urbanites' journey into rural Thailand, will make its European bow in Rotterdam after its prize-winning premiere in Tokyo.

"There are no sides for us," says one of The Island Funeral's characters, discussing how she will define herself on Thailand's fragmented ideological spectrum. This could easily have been the film's director, Pimpaka Towira, talking: With her first fictional feature in 12 years, the Thai indie cinema stalwart has delivered an atmospheric, intriguing piece transcending conventional aesthetical and political norms.

Tracking three young city-dwellers search for a missing relative in the heavily militarized south of Thailand, The Island Funeral incorporates and reinvents generic tropes from road movies, paranormal thrillers and documentaries. Meanwhile, characters are also allowed to move beyond the cliched social binaries tearing the southeast Asian country apart in recent years, with their journey eventually ending at a haven where class, ethnicity and religion no longer matter.

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Beautifully shot on 16mm by Phuttiphong Aroonpheng — whose work was last seen on Pimpaka's single-take, 15-minute short The Mother from 2014, and also Jakrawal Nilthamrong's equally ethereal Vanishing Point last year — The Island Funeral's procession through the international festival circuit will now begin in earnest with bows at Rotterdam and then Goteborg. The film premiered last October at the Tokyo International Film Festival, where it won the top prize in the Asian Future section.

The Island Funeral begins with its three protagonists traveling through the conflict-ridden Thai province of Pattani, where Muslim siblings Laila (Heen Sasithorn) and Zugood (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk) — accompanied by the latter's friend (Yossawat Sittiwong) — plan to visit their hometown and an aunt whom they haven't seen since childhood. Penned by Pimpaka and well-known Thai film critic Kong Rithdee — who, like the siblings, is a Muslim living in Bangkok — the screenplay introduces these pretty young things with a succinct airing of their petty cosmopolitan traits: Through cocky and barbed exchanges, they reveal their worldview in which maps (and the roots they represent) are archaic, mobile phones are essential and the countryside a strange land lurking with menace.

The acerbic humor shaping their initial conversations quickly gives way as the trio grow increasingly anxious about their surroundings. The headstrong and sassy Laila, dressed in a sleeveless top and skinny-fit jeans, visibly flinches when the two young men taunt her by saying she should "blend in" with the local population by wearing a veil. Zugood and his friend, in turn, fall silent as they watch online news clips or listen to radio news bulletins about political violence spreading across the country, as shopping arcades go up in flames, anti-government protests rock Bangkok and shoot-outs erupt in the south between the army and separatist insurgents.

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Terror finally catches up with them during their first night on the road, as Laila stops the car to search for a chained, naked woman she insists she had seen sprinting across the road. While she returns unscathed, having found nothing, the Pandora's box of fear and self-loathing is already open. The siblings' bubbly friend's lively demeanor disintegrates as he blurts out that Laila and Zugood are putting him at risk in a land of menacing Muslims — a comment that reveals his suppressed prejudices, something that surfaces again the next day as he and Zugood offer different takes on the history of a local mosque.

The friend, who remains unnamed throughout the film, is only a cipher. Just like in Pimpaka's previous films — in stories about an abandoned wife (One Night Husband), a persecuted activist (the documentary The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong), or a widow trying to scale the social ladder on the Thai-Burmese border in the in-development project Malaria and Mosquitoes — The Island Funeral places its emphasis on women struggling in and overcoming uncertain and unforgiving circumstances.

Here, this concern is manifested in Laila's contemplations about her gender and ethnicity, such as how the sequence of her praying at that small-town mosque in a chador is punctuated by still images of her existence as an urban yuppie in Bangkok. But Pimpaka is not peddling the scaremongering discourse of religion (or Islam, specifically) as merely a symbol of conservatism: in the film's finale, the protagonists discover, deep in a dense jungle on a far-flung island, a land of "romantic idealism," where baroque toccatas, abstract art, hijabs and sarongs co-exist in what its residents describe as an "impossible utopia" full of personal freedom and possibilities.

With Thai society — and especially advocates of diversity and free thinking — subjected to increasingly draconian social controls in recent years, The Island Funeral packs a powerful political punch. And it's an artistically rewarding one as well. Pimpaka's message comes packaged in a film rich with mesmerizing imagery and witty subversion of genre-cinema iconography: female ghosts, dark forests and a boat ride closely resembling Charon's crossing abound. Just like her fellow Thai New Wave auteurs, Pimpaka reworks rather than rejects popular culture, and The Island Funeral is a thoughtful allegory about the importance of being able to make informed choices out of the social and creative options on offer. 

Production company: Extra Virgin Co.
Cast: Heen Sasithorn, Aukrit PornsumpunsukYossawat Sittiwong
Director: Pimpaka Towira
Screenwriter: Pimpaka Towira, Kong Rithdee
Producers: Pimpaka Towira, Chatchai Chaiyon
Director of photography: Phuttiphong Aroonpheng
Production designer: Vikrom Janpanus
Editors: Harin Paesongthai, Benjarat Choonuan, Uruphong Raksasad
Music: Inspirative, Ngopanan Panicharoen
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival
Sales: Mosquito Film Distribution

In Thai

No rating, 105 minutes