'Nakorn-Sawan': Film Review | Filmart 2019

Courtesy of Purin Pictures
'Nakorn-Sawan'
A deft mix of profound emotions and stylistic experiments.

Thai filmmaker Puangsoi Aksornsawang's debut, a docu-drama hybrid revolving around her late mother, bows in Hong Kong after screenings in Busan and Berlin.

Life and death, separations and reunions, reality and fiction — these are just some of the binaries Thai director Puangsoi Aksornsawang sought to merge in her first full-length feature. Backed by South Korean and German funds — Puangsoi studied in Hamburg between 2014 and 2018 for her master's degree — Nakorn-Sawan is at once inventive, intriguing and introspective in its meditation on mortality, memories and the challenge of transforming personal grief into poignant art.

The latest in a long line of barrier-breaking, bifurcated features coming out of Thai art house cinema, Nakorn-Sawan unfolds by skipping between two parallel threads revolving around the death of a mother: there's the raw home-video footage of Puangsoi's interactions with his parents before her mother's demise, and the polished and highly stylized scenes about a fictional filmmaker's return home to attend to her mother's funeral rites.

Bolstered by a structure which unpeals the enigma and emotions with poise and purpose, the film is primed for festivals dedicated to breakout talent or experimental documentaries. After stops in Busan, Berlin and New York (as part of MoMa's Doc Fortnight program), Puangsoi's debut will next be seen in Hong Kong, where the film features at both the city's international film festival and also as a market title at Filmart, where it is being repped by Mosquito Films Distribution.

The film begins with Puangsoi returning from abroad to visit her hometown of Songkhla in southern Thailand, where her parents earn a living from a modest rubber tree plantation. As the young director-to-be chats and laughs with her mom and dad, all seems well: they appear to be in robust health and good humor, as they gently poke fun at their daughters' schoolwork and share anecdotes from their seemingly colorful past. Belying their parochial appearances, Puangsoi's parents are hipsters of a past age, as they talk about Woodstock, Bali and Europe with ease and wit.

And then the first jolt: after minutes of such conversations, the film suddenly switches to a more solemn mode in the shape of a family and some monks traveling along a river in the city of Nakorn-Sawan (literally "Paradise City") to conduct a religious rite. At the center is film student Aoey (Prapamonton Eiamchan), who is back in Thailand to mourn her recently deceased mother. Grief-stricken  but taciturn, she engages in curt conversations with her father (Yuwabun Thungsuwan), exchanges which resemble Puangsoi's happy banter from the "real" part of the film.

It's more than obvious that Aoey is a figment of Puangsoi's imagination, and is most probably the filmmaker's onscreen proxy. Rather than following her predecessors by repeating the same situations with the same actors in different locations — a mode of storytelling Apichatpong Weerasethakul first brought to prominence with Symptoms and a Century, and that has since been a mainstay in the work of young cinephile-turned-filmmakers in China — Puangsoi stirred and adapted her real joys and vivid traumas into a fictional character's gloomy, uncertain future.

While the documentary segments convey how things were like in Puangsoi's family before that crucial watershed — that is, her mother's sickness and death — the fictional parts deal with the agony brought about by a loved one's departure from this world. Aoey finds herself mired ever deeper into her misery as she struggles to reconnect with her father, whose first interaction with her is in a banal discussion about the name of a Bavarian lake. More devastating is a meet-up with an ex-paramour (Bhumibhat Thavornsiri) who finds it difficult to empathize with Aoey's pain: a mild bickering over their past ensues, leading to a heated discussion about the difference between "sadness" and "sorrow" (the former is a fleeting feeling while the latter leaves a permanent scar, Aoey says) and, finally, a moment of (mild) violence.

Playing with the differences between reality and its adaption, Puangsoi goes beyond the personal to also contemplate what an artist could do with remembrances of the past, something her co-producer Anocha Suwichakornpong examined with the immensely powerful By the Time It Gets Dark. Running at just 77 minutes, Nakorn-Sawan is at once a compact nugget of emotions and an entrancing cinematic puzzle, with Boonyanuch Kraithong's camerawork (for the "fictional" sequences) helping with the former and Lee Chatametikool's editing crucial in giving shape to Puangsoi's dual-tracked storytelling.

Production company: Purin Pictures
Cast: Prapamonton Eiamchan, Bhumibhat Thavornsiri, Jarunun Phantachat, Yuwabun Thungsuwan
Director-screenwriter: Puangsoi Aksornsawang
Producers: Anocha Suwichakornpong, Parinee Buthrasri, Puangsoi Aksornsawang
Director of photography: Boonyanuch Kraithong
Production designers: Manop Cheangsawang
Costume designer: Rujirumpai Mongkol
Music: Jitivi Banthaisong
Editing: Lee Chatametikool
Casting directors: Tippawan Narintorn, Soifa Saenkhamkon, Wassaya Boonnudda
Sales: Mosquito Films Distribution
In Thai
77 minutes