Interview with Pimpaka Towira, writer/director One Night Husband (Thailand, 2003) 27/01/04(By: Robert Willamson)
Pimpaka Towira is the first female Thai director to be noticed by international viewers and critics. Having made several noted experimental short films, her first feature One Night Husband is an ambitious attempt to combine an experimental style with an accessible narrative. The story of a woman whose husband inexplicably disappears on their wedding night, the film challenges conventional expectations of mainstream genre cinema, while exploring aspects of Thai society from a feminist standpoint. Robert Williamson spoke to the director about the trials and tribulations of being an experimental filmmaker in an industry so dependent on box office figures and profits.
Could you tell me about your background? I studied film at Thammasat University and then I worked on one Thai film production, but I found it disappointing and dropped out. Since then Iíve worked as a journalist, writing articles on film for a newspaper, and in the meantime I also made experimental short films. I changed job a lot! Four years ago I was working at The Nation, who were the organisers of the Bangkok Film Festival, and they asked me help them organise the festival, so I was the programming director of the Bangkok Film Festival in 2001.
When did you make One Night Husband? Actually it began during that festival. GMM Pictures [the producers of the film] is the former GMM Grammy company which closed for a while because of internal conflicts. They reopened as GMM Pictures in 2001, and needed newcomer directors to make films for them. I had a friend who worked at their publishing department who told me about this and advised me to talk to GMM.
Did you have a script already? Not at that time. I just talked to them and after they expressed an interest in my ideas, I started thinking about the script. I worked on the story with my friend at GMM and we brought the story together. Itís like an accident. We submitted a treatment to PPP, a sidebar of the Pusan International Film Fest for presales, and they selected One Night Husband for the final round and invited me to go there and talk to distributors. So GMM Pictures thought the project showed potential for the international market. So after I came back from Pusan, they gave me the green light to start the film.
Did they have expectations for the home market as well, or was it seen as an art film? Well, they knew from the beginning because I told them that I wouldnít desert my background as an experimental filmmaker at all. So I told them in the beginning that the film would be a combination of something I had experienced and an experimental style, and they asked me Ö actually they expected the film to be a good commercial product, like The Sixth Sense or something Ė you know, high concept Ė but I told them Iíd like to continue working in the way I had previously. So I donít know why they accepted me, but they just told me I had to follow their conditions: one was to stick to a low budget, and second I had to use a superstar in the film, because they needed a star to appeal to a wider audience. So I agreed.
Youíre referring to Nicole Seriault, the lead actress, who is a famous singer. Yes, one of the most popular pop singers in Thailand. Actually as a singer, sheís very much a teen idol, but in the film we made her look totally different. And the other girl [Siriyakorn Pukkavesh] is recognised as a proper actress and at the time was very famous because she had won three awards for Monrak Transistor.
So how long did the whole process take? I wrote the script by myself in four months. Then three months for pre-production, three months of shooting, and three months for post-production. So more than a year in total.
And how was the release here [in Thailand]? A flop! [laughs] Actually the film went abroad first. It premiered at Berlin last February . But after it premiered abroad and had been travelling around, the studio and I talked a lot about when we would release it in Thailand and the studio was quite scared because last year a string of movies flopped. So they were quite scared of my movie and they asked me to re-edit the film, to cut it down and make a short version, because they thought that the first version was too long. They didnít want to have any word of mouth going around that the film is boring meaning that people wouldnít go and see it. And we had a big argument over the re-editing, but in the end I had to cut about twenty minutes out.
Was it just cutting down that you had to do? In the longer version, thereís not very much music; the soundtrack is mostly composed of ambient sounds. Did they ask you about that? Actually because they had mostly seen the film on tape or on the editing table, they didnít really notice the use of music and sound in the film Ė they never realised at all! They just said, Ďwhy did you make it so long? Why donít you cut this out?í, just like they were watching television, you know. And itís hard to argue with that [kind of mindset]. Since they hadnít seen the film on screen, they didnít understand my approach to pacing and sound.
The long version still plays overseas. Is it exactly how you wanted the film to be? Yes, though I do agree that itís a little bit long. Berlin accepted the film before it was finished, so we had to get everything done in a short space of time, so not everything was perfect. So I went back and saw that the film was a bit long. That cut is 114 minutes, but I thought that 100 minutes would probably be enough, so I agreed to re-edit to 100 minutes, but it still wasnít considered enough. They asked me to cut it down further because movie theatres in Thailand like movies to be no longer than 90 minutes so that they can fit in more screenings. So thatís why itís become a big argument, because I donít get that reasoning.
Why did you want to write the story you did? I have many questions about my life, and everything I make comes from those questions. Actually the film was inspired by a novel. I didnít read it but my friend told me about the story: at the start, a couple have just got married and the husband disappears on the wedding night. I thought it was a good challenge for me: if I was her, what would I discover? So I plotted the film from that idea from the novel.
Thatís interesting because the beginning of the film is very enigmatic: you donít find out very much and you donít really know whatís happening. That must have been tough to get past the studio. Yeah. Actually most people thought the film would be a conventional suspense movie, but I prefer to use the suspense element and the protagonist as a tool for self-discovery. But she also confronts another woman so there is drama in the film.
So how do you judge whether the film is a success or not? I donít know. In terms of money and profit, itís OK. Itís not grossed much, but no less than other Thai films released at the same time. But from the international market, I got quite good feedback. Obviously the film is completely different from commercial films, but I got good feedback from critics and lots of people recognised me, not just for being a Thai woman director, but on the basis of the artistic achievement. So thatís quite satisfying. But I donít know really what successful is. Also I donít want to repeat myself and having made short experimental films Iíd like to make films which can balance an artistic style with the narrative form because I think feature films require a greater engagement between audience and filmmaker, so I have to balance myself a lot and I would like to do it that way.
In the future will studios in Thailand be prepared to make art films just for festival audiences? No, I think Ö actually most people here havenít had much experience of the international market or film festivals. So when one film went abroad to the festivals, they realised they had underestimated how important it can be to have your films in these festivals, so they were happy that the film went abroad.
They think itís prestigious? Yeah, though if the film got a high recommendation from festivals and then flopped here on release, they found it a real disaster! [laughs] So itís tough for people like me who want to make films with artistic value. And if we insist Ö somehow weíre like outsiders here.
Let me ask you about filmmakers who have influenced you. Does it tend to be Europeans rather than Asians? Actually I admire Yasujiro Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky and Krzysztof Kieslowski. I like Russian filmmakers like Eisenstein, and also Japanese directors like Ozu and Kurosawa Ė the old Kurosawa and the new Kurosawa! And I guess Iíve been influenced by David Lynch because when my film played in France many people told me Iím like a female David Lynch, which I didnít realise! [laughs] But I guess itís because Iím interested in the use of time and space. And Maya Deren, of course. [this last comment provokes much amused discussion among a nearby group of friends about the tendency of graduates of New York Film Academy to make films aping Maya Deren]
Were there other women making films in Thailand, or are there more since One Night Husband? Yes, there are going to be three or four female directors releasing feature films. I donít know why. There are two sisters who are famous in the world of TV commercials who just made a film after me, and I was surprised because I had heard they were going to make a film ten years ago, but theyíre just starting now, after me. Thereís also another woman [Acharawadee Wongsakol] who went abroad to study film at New York Film Academy and after she got back she made a feature film with her own money; itís called Be True. So that movie will be like Maya Deren! [laughs] [Note: Be True is in fact a formulaic mainstream romantic comedy as unlike Maya Deren as can be imagined.] She used to do TV scripts, and this film is intended to be calling card to make her name before she makes something more international.
So do you have more scripts ready to go? The next one is supposed to be a black comedy but I donít know whether I could do it yet. Iíd also like to include a re-examination of representations in Thai television drama. So the film would use the standard roles that Thai audiences have become used to in soap operas: the step-mother and the girl who is in conflict with the step-mother Ė like Cinderella. And Iíd plot the story based on these roles. And Iíd like to have some action scenes because Iím interested in that too. Itís all at the ideas stage, but not finished yet.
So this continues your interest in not only Thai society, but also the representations of it in the popular culture, like your short film which deconstructs the story of Nang Nak [a popular Thai ghost story filmed many times, most recently by Nonzee Nimibutr in 1998]. Yes, because I have questions about Ė itís a little bit of a cliché Ė the classes in our society, because we thought we didnít have a class structure at all, but Iím seeing the conflict between classes all around, so thatís what Iím interested in now.
Do you think it will be easy to get this project off the ground? Actually I hope this one will be easier, but I also have another I quite like which is based more on personal experience which is quite risky. Itís about a woman travelling with her parents to the south of Thailand during the Songran [the Thai new year festival]. During the drive, which takes about eight hours, they donít talk much but we see their memories floating around. Itís probably a little bit too unusual to find the money easily. But itís based on personal experience.
So do you think youíll need to make another more commercial film first ? Yeah, I am starting to think that if I want to continue a career in filmmaking maybe Iíll have to make something with wider appeal, but still interesting; so maybe that first project I mentioned would be more commercial.
Do you think that because of your success at festivals, you could get the money from overseas? Probably, because some producers have expressed an interest because they think I could appeal to the international market. And they told me Iím an aggressive woman, so maybe thatís what appeals to foreigners! [laughs] But I need a good producer first, and you canít find good producers here in the Thai film industry. Most work only as line producers. So I need to find a producer who can find me the money from abroad. Itís difficult.
Which other Thai filmmakers do you recommend we look out for? Of course there are Pen-ek [Ratanaruang], Nonzee [Nimibutr], Wisit [Sasanatieng], Apichatpong [Weerasethakul]. Also Surapong [Pinijkar] is good. And it is very interesting to see the six directors of Fan Chan who all emerged from the same university. Also, Jira Malikul, who directed Mehkong Full Moon Party and is also a producer, is very interested in the grass-roots of filmmaking. If you know Cherd Songsri, the director of The Scar (1977), who was a great supporter of film productionís grass-roots, Jira is like the new Cherd Songsri, because heís interested in rural people and culture.
Have these better-known directors begun to get into a routine in which they can keep on making films and not have to struggle so much? Yeah, and also because a lot of them are from TV commercials, if theyíre not making features, they can go back and get work there. Other directors are coming through from short films, like the directors of Sayew [Kongdej Jaturanrasanee and Kiat Songsanant], and Chukiat [Sakweerakul], who is only 22 and has only just graduated but has made many short films and a DV feature film. And there are other short filmmakers getting the chance to make features this year. In fact, everybody can be a director! [laughs]
It does sometimes seem that way in the Thai film industry. How long do you think it can last? About a year. I can see a coming disaster for Thai cinema. Last year we have fifty films released, but this year it will be more Ė 60, 70, some say 100. But how many make money? Maybe ten. I think last year no more than five films made money: Fan Chan, Iron Ladies 2, Ong Bak, maybe Buppahratree Ö All the others flopped. Which makes my film sound not so bad! For some reason there is a big gap between films which make a lot of money and the flops. We donít have any films in the middle. And we hear that they are going to start making a new type of expensive blockbuster film because they want to use a lot of special effects and CGI. So we expect to see three or four of these blockbuster films using a lot of special effects. But to compensate, they will make fewer films overall.