Anucha Boonyawatana is the director of the Thai film Malila: The Farewell Flower, one of the films in competition at the Singapore International Film Festival 2017 (SGIFF). She won the Silver Screen Award for Best Director at SGIFF 2017 and the Silver Pheasant Award for Best Director at the International Film Festival Kerala 2017.
In this film, the director allows us to observe the intimate relationship between two men, Shane and Pich. The movie doesn’t hesitate to delve into the spiritual and the emotional realms, often seamlessly moving from one to the other. Malila is also an exploration of Buddhist philosophy, and the ancient ritual of Bai Sri.
The World of Apu is delighted to present an interview with Anucha, who patiently typed out her replies to our questions. This is an edited version of the transcript.
How did your career in film begin? Some would say dreams do come true; have you always wanted to make movies? Or did you fall into it by chance and didn’t want to leave? We would love for you to speak to us about your journey so far.
When I was in the university, I made the medium length film called Down the River. The film told the story of a gay teenager, combined with Buddhist Philosophy. I think it was very successful back then; it has been shown in several film festivals and distributed via DVD in the US. But when I graduated, I didn’t have a chance to make any more films. Because at that time, movies about gay people were not so popular in Thailand. I tried to propose some projects to investors, but none could be made into a film. So I set up a production company with my friends, we focussed on doing TV commercials instead. My dream of making a movie was gradually fading away…I still made some short films though. Luckily, almost 10 years later, my short film Erotic Fragments No. 1,2,3 was selected for Berlinale Shorts Competition and that brought an opportunity to me. I received funding from a TV channel to make a short version of The Blue Hour. With some support from my production company, G Village, we were able to finally make a feature length film. And now we have Malila.
What/Who would you call your inspiration and influence as a film-maker?
I grew up with Hollywood cinema. When I studied in university, I had a chance to watch international movies. Old school Asian cinema by Akira Kurosawa, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Satyajit Ray are a big influence on my work. I also adore the work by David Lynch and Peter Greenaway.
Several years ago, I began to have an interest in the art of perfumery, and started collecting many vintage perfumes. Some inspirations came from the composition of these vintage scents. My first feature, The Blue Hour, is named after an iconic perfume from Guerlain, L’Heure Bleue. This scent gives you a feeling of being in-between – between day and night, dream and reality, and also a melancholic feeling.
Like Malila, it means jasmine flower in Thai. This is one of my favorite scents. Lately, I have begun to visualize my films by comparing them to a note in perfumery. Malila, the film, is about an earthy element, a texture that makes one recall the trees, soil, wood. It resembles the composition of the classic perfume Chypre. Most chypre perfumes will have oak moss, vetiver, patchouli as the main ingredients, paired with some dark animalistic scent. All of these elements resemble my film Malila.
What are some things you find to be unique about the film culture (both making and watching) in your city/country? What about it pleases you and bothers you?
It’s unbelievable that Thailand has no international film festival – I mean a full-scale festival that’s not just a film showcase but has events like film market, workshops, party with people in the film industry. I think a film festival is very important to help develop Thai film industry and culture. It should have some support from the government.
Any filmmaker(s) from your country whose work you love or get inspired by?
I have always loved Apichatpong’s films. I mean, his views on many subjects and objects, that I never think can be made into a very beautiful film – he can do it in exceptional ways. His films broaden my ideas of visuals and storytelling.
What was the inspiration for you to make Malila? What sparked the idea?
I began to have an interest in making a film about the Thai flower arts. I think this is a very humble art. Normally, people will just pass by without giving it another look. I had a chance to study the Thai flower arts and found that it is actually very hard and time-consuming. This art is very different – we use fabricating technique, almost like an embroidery. And it’s all gone so fast – it will wither in one day. Then I started realizing that this art is not only a thing of beauty, but it is also absurd. That was what interested me so much. It made me wonder what is the meaning of life and love.
What were you hoping to say through this film? Did you mean to break any misconceptions about your people and country?
Though Malila: The Farewell Flower has some culture, and it does reflect Thailand’s beauty; it is not my intention to talk about this. I’d love to hear the audience’s interpretation of my film. And I’d like to answer this question from the place of a normal viewer, not as a director. I’d say that this film makes people discuss about their beliefs. We don’t know whether the belief can solve our problems or not, but we still live with it.
The initial portions of the film are shot aesthetically, showing the making of a bai sri. The later portions force the viewer to stare at a decaying corpse, almost pushing one to look away. How did you choose the cinematographer for a film with such strong visuals? What was his contribution to the film?
[Note: The bai sri is a ceremonial ornament that is said to nourish a person’s spirit in all the journeys he or she undertakes.]
My cinematographer is the same one I had for The Blue Hour, his name is Chaiyapruek Chalermpornpanich. My producer said that when I work with him, it’s like we are gradually learning about each other. I mean, we fight a lot and sometimes we didn’t see the same visual in our minds. Because he is so masculine, I think that he tries to understand and create the homoerotic and delicate textured visual that I want.
Somehow, the image has to have some balance between the sensual and the meditative, between beauty and uncertainty, from his point of view. If you notice, my film was shot almost fully with a static camera. We took inspiration from Yasujiro Ozu’s films, which feature low angle shots, the Tatami shots, always static but also balanced and elegant. My cinematographer and I had Ozu in our minds when we started scouting for locations. We found out that there is almost no furniture in my film, my characters are always sitting on the ground or laying on the ground just like that. So he tried to communicate that idea of transience – everything has to return to the ground and soil. He attempted to do this through his low-angle shots.
My cinematographer has a very precise eye. I mean, he already frames the image in his head. When he sets up the camera, almost nothing has to be changed. The shot is always balanced and calculated. So it helps a lot, because we often shoot in an uncontrolled, natural environment; we have a very tight schedule and busy shooting days.
Trivia: There’s a place in the forest where the monks take shelter from the rain in the film. That’s a spot where people dump real corpses! They even have a signboard saying, “Don’t dump corpses here!”
You mentioned during the Q&A session at SGIFF 2017 that you have been a monk before. If you do not mind, could you tell us more about it? How has it influenced your filmmaking?
It’s considered a norm for Thai guys to be in monk-hood once in their lifetime. Though I am a transgender now, technically at that time, I was still a man. Why not, I thought. I mean, some effeminate LGBT people will feel so scared to become a monk, especially in temples that have very strict rules. And in a temple, you are placed in a very conservative and male-dominated environment. I chose to be a monk in a very strict temple with very tough practices. At first, I was judged by a senior monk for being too effeminate. He said I cannot be a monk, I can only be a novice. But I think when men become monks, they have to be very indifferent. They have to tone down their behavior to a peaceful manner. Finally, they will become another gender called monk-gender. In the end, I can become a monk the way I want.
So in my experience as a wandering monk – I had to practice a lot of meditation, living in the forest, sleeping with the skeleton. These practices made me understand the mentality of monks very well. Definitely, I used some of my observations in Malila. You can say that almost half of my protagonist’s inner feelings come from me.
Trivia: Sumret Muengput, a popular Thai action hero, plays a monk in the film. Anucha saw him at an awards ceremony and felt that he walked like a monk. Anucha knew the way monks walked because he’d been a monk himself.
What do you think would be the average filmgoer’s reaction to the subject of your film? Is public sentiment largely for or against homosexuality, within both mainstream and esoteric groups?
We haven’t released the film in Thailand yet. But I think the overall feedback for the film is very positive, at least from publication materials and what I’ve heard. I think there will be some negative feedback of course. But technically, we didn’t do anything that breaks the perceptions of those 227 monks. Surely, the film will raise a lot of discussions about the Buddhist religion and gay people. My actor’s reputations and many awards from international film festival are vital for the first impression of my film, so that people don’t bash the film from the very beginning, I think they will wait and see. After that, we still don’t know what they will say.
Do you hope to change commonly held views with your movies? Thailand (especially Bangkok) is often regarded as a haven for sexual proclivities by those looking at it from outside. There are plenty of jokes and popular culture references that reinforce this idea. Would you say that this is indeed the case for someone living and working in Thailand, or is this largely a stereotype propagated by tourists?
I don’t think my film can change that point of view towards my country. Maybe it can show different aspects about the culture, religion, and life here. It doesn’t matter what other people think. I once had a boyfriend who is a sex worker. We had a very normal relationship. I mean, he did his work as a sex worker, and I did my work as a filmmaker. My attitude towards this is very simple, I look at him as a normal guy.
Did you face any difficulties in completing this film? With regards to location, cast, permission to shoot.
As an independent film maker, we face difficulties all the time – from funding to distributing. For me, I think the most difficult process is editing. If you see, my film has many elements that need to be handled and balanced – flowers, monks, corpse, relationships, Buddhist philosophy, homosexuality and the body. All of these elements normally do not get along with each other. We have to connect them and find the point where everything can shine beautifully and work in harmony. That is why we had 3 editors.
More pictures from behind the scenes:
All images have been provided by Anucha Boonyawatana. They may not be reproduced without permission.
- For more information on Bai Sri:
Asian Culture and History. Vol 6 No. 2 (2014). Bai Sri Su Khwan: Spirit Blessing in North-eastern Thailand.
Available at http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/ach/article/view/36412/21103 Accessed on Jan 4, 2018.