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Spirits and the soul

Dec 02. 2015
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Wisit Sasanatieng talks about his new drama "Runpee" and explains why a consultative working process is the way forward for the Thai film industry

AFTER A hiatus that has lasted more than five years, Wisit Sasanatieng, one of Thailand’s most talented directors, returns to cinemas today with a teenage romantic thriller titled “Runpee”.

It’s something of an unexpected return and one that almost went entirely unnoticed, as Wisit refused to allow his name to appear on the movie poster.

“I didn’t want my name there,” he says bluntly. “I felt that given my history of directing films that haven’t made a profit, my name would be more of a turn off than an enticement to watch. I really believe my name would push audiences away from the cinema,” says the director.

Wisit is one of very few Thai directors – the others are Nonzee Nimbutr and Pen-ek Ratanaraung – to have written a new chapter in Thai movie history. His directorial debut, 2000’s “Fah Talai Jone” (“Tears of the Black Tiger”), was the first Thai film ever to be selected by the Cannes Film Festival for its Un Certain Regard category and also won the Dragons and Tigers Award for Best New Director at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

His next outing, 2004’s “Citizen Dog” about two rural folk who come to Bangkok to find work and fall in love, was also adored by the critics, particularly the international ones, but failed miserably at the local box office.

Two years later, he directed the low-budget horror film “Pen Choo Kab Phee” (“The Unseeable”) and came up with such incredible visualisation of the ghost that the movie was hailed one of the best Thai ghost movies ever made.

Then came 2010’s superhero adventure “Insee Dang” (“Red Eagle”) on which Wisit suffered so much interference from the producers that he vowed never to work with a studio again. He did however change his mind when the M39 Film Studio approached him to do a project.

“Runpee” is set in a girl’s boarding school and is centred on a young student (Ploychompoo Jannine Weigel) who has a special gift for sniffing out the spirits. That gift leads her to meet the mysterious spirit of a boy who is wandering through the school. Their relationship gradually develops as they take a journey to investigate a murder case that took place in the school 50 years earlier. The cast also features a number of veteran actors including Sa-ard Piampongsarn, Piatip Khumwong, Kara Ponlasit and Pornpan Kasemasu, a top actress in the 1980s who hasn’t made a film in decades.

“It was originally a story about injustice. When someone is judged guilty even though he was innocent and executed, he still wants justice,” he says.

That original idea, though, was toned down so that the film would attract a wider – and younger – audience and now focuses more on the romance between the girl and the ghost, something along the lines of the “Twilight Saga.”

However, Wisit does give a new spin to the spirit, moving away from Thailand’s much-loved traditional ancient spirits, karma and Buddhism beliefs, to a ghost universe as a form of energy.

While the correlation between spirits and energy has long been acknowledged in scientific circles, introducing it in the context of a Thai ghost in Thai film has been something of a challenge. To make it believable, Wisit has created what he hopes will be a credible spirit world.

“Runpee” in fact evolved from the detective series Wisit had been thinking of writing for much of the four years. A couple of years ago, M39 asked if he would be interested in directing their remake of the melodrama “Prisana” only to shelve the idea when “Khoo Kam” flopped at the box office. They asked Wisit if he had any ideas for a new project and he mentioned his detective story.

M39’s producers, who are also filmmakers not just investors, were interested and the working process gradually took shape. “It was very thorough. I’ve never worked in a system like that before,” he says.

This time, he adds, even the script development was done through brainstorming with every department from marketing to production having a say. The film was also screened for the project’s focus group to evaluate its potential for success. “We even had to reshoot certain scenes on which the focus group commented. It was a brand new experience and I feel it is the right filmmaking process if we want to build a strong film industry,” he says, pointing out that often only the director, writer and producer are involved.

“Times have changed. The era when the director did everything from writing, producing and directing has come to an end and a big name director is no longer important to the film’s success. The audience wants content they can relate enough during the two hours they are in the cinema. That’s why it’s vital for several people to be involved, to brainstorm on ideas in every part of the moviemaking process and to check with their target before releasing the film.”

These days Wisit works full time with the Transformation Films Company. He is the creator, a position that throws out ideas for young filmmakers to develop a project. A good example of a creator is Hungarian-American film director, screenwriter and producer Frank Darabont, who came up with the concept for “The Walking Dead series.”

“Directors of my age are out of date. We trapped in our own era and don’t realise that we are so outdated. We shouldn’t make any more films because they won’t be successful anyway. The useful skill we have is experience and this we can use to help filmmakers create films that relate to their generation,” says the director.

But while he says he will probably never make another mainstream film, he admits he is still working on his personal movie project “Suriya”, a biopic of the boxer Suriya Lukthung.

“It’s very personal project and it is not easy to find money to do it. I have partial funding from the Culture Ministry and still on the road show of film festivals to get more investors,” he says.

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