Black Silk (Prae Dum)
01/01/04 (By: Robert Willamson)

Director R.D. Pestonji stands as perhaps the most influential Thai filmmaker of the Twentieth Century. Despite starting his career at the most basic level of production – shooting in his own house and doing all his own processing – Pestonji’s ambition drove him to become a leading technological pioneer: most notably, he was the first filmmaker in Thailand to shoot on 35mm with synchronised sound recording. His best-loved film remains the 1957 comedy Country Hotel (Rongraem Narok), but equally interesting is his first colour film, Black Silk, a crime drama made in 1961.

The story opens with unscrupulous club owner Seni being visited by local rival Wan who demands the repayment of an outstanding loan. Shortly afterwards, Seni receives news that his long lost brother, Sema, has fallen ill. He and his two loyal employees, Tom and Pon, visit the sick brother but find that Sema has died before they can reach him. Seni realises that he can use this unfortunate situation to his advantage. He buries Sema’s body in the forest, then pays a visit to Wan. A fight breaks out during which Seni and Tom kill Wan and his deputy Sin. Sin’s body is put in Seni’s car and the car pushed over a cliff and set on fire. The police are persuaded that Sin killed his employer and fled with the missing loan money, and that Seni has been killed in the car crash. Seni then takes on the identity of his dead brother and resumes his business free of the pressure of his debt to Wan.

At this point the focus of the story switches to Tom. Tom is in love with widow Prae and wants to marry her, but she is still mourning her late husband: she has worn only black for the past two years – the black silk of the title. She is also struggling to care for her sick infant. The film becomes an exploration of the extent to which Tom will manipulate and neglect Prae in order to keep Seni’s favour and cover up their crime, and of the psychological effects suffered by the fragile Prae. Seni orders Tom to stop seeing Prae and makes Tom collaborate in elaborate stunts designed to drive Prae to the edge of insanity. Eventually she seeks solace in a Buddhist temple leaving Tom to care for the sick child, at which point he is forced to take a stand against Seni, with tragic consequences.

Black Silk is a vibrant, colourful production shot in the grand cinemascope format. It is very much another ‘home-made’ film: Pestonji performs almost all the major tasks himself, acting as writer, producer, director, cinematographer and editor, and even casts his daughter, Pannee Trangkasombat (pseudonym - Rattanawadii Rattanaphan) , in the role of Prae. In some respects the lack of resources shows through, but Pestonji makes the best of some very basic sets, and the cinematography is consistently excellent. The acting is generally good, especially Seni Usaneesan as Seni, and there are some entertaining musical numbers. However, some of the fight sequences look a bit clunky by modern standards (the fact that no sound effects have been added to the fist fights being the most distracting problem).

Thematically most significant is Prae’s retreat into devout Buddhism. Taking on a life of abstinence and having her head shaved, Prae’s attempt to cleanse herself spiritually has tragic repercussions for Tom as she is unwilling to cover up the details she knows about the murders of Wan and Sin. Significantly, though, her religious conviction gives Prae the strength to put her own well-being before that of others for the first time.

Pestonji’s films remain popular in Thailand and still provide occasional inspiration to younger filmmakers – Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) is in part a celebration of classic Thai films such as Black Silk. And Black Silk remains an important landmark in Thai cinema: until Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe (2003) was chosen by the Venice Film Festival in 2003, Black Silk was the last Thai film to play in competition at a major international film festival (at Berlin in 1961). With this in mind, Pestonji’s films should be recognised critically as well as popularly, and Pestonji retrospectives at film festivals in Singapore and Bangkok have begun to familiarise audiences with these rarely seen works. If good quality DVD releases can be arranged (as is currently being proposed), Pestonji’s films may finally find their rightful place in the critical history of Asian cinema.

1961/ 129 minutes/ 35mm colour
Production Company - Hanuman Films
Producer - R.D. Pestonji
Director - R.D. Pestonji
Screenwriter - R.D. Pestonji
Cinematographer- R.D. Pestonji, Adele Pestonji
Art Director - Sawat Kaesamran
Editor - R.D. Pestonji
Sound - Pong Atsawinikul
Music - Preecha Mettrai
Cast - Rattanawadii Rattanaphan, Tom Wisawachat, Seni Utsanisan, Thawin Worawiboon, Sarinthip Siriwan, Jameunmanphonrit, Phichit Saliphan, Jurai Kasemsuwan

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