The Ghost in the Machine: An Interview with Pakpoom Wongpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun.
(By: Robert Williamson)
These days, Asian horror movies are so ubiquitous that it seems unlikely that there are any original ideas and stories left to tell. However, when a Thai horror movie outscored comedies and historical epics to top the domestic box office chart for 2004, it was obvious that something interesting was going on. The Shutter, directed by two first-time feature makers, Pakpoom Wongpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun, both of whom were barely 24 when they started making the film, breathes new life into the genre just as it seemed about to expire. The film’s premise is simple enough: after running down a young girl in a hit-and-run car crash, a photographer’s pictures start to show traces of a ghostly presence. Though the ghost’s reasons for tormenting the photographer seem simple enough at first, further investigation leads the photographer’s girlfriend to uncover a more gruesome backstory.
Meeting Pakpoom and Banjong is an intriguing experience, if only because they are such dissimilar types. Banjong is much the more talkative, Pakpoom seemingly more reserved. Though both had made well-regarded short films before The Shutter – some of which had screened at film festivals in Europe – neither’s work had shown much evidence that they might be horror experts. Pakpoom’s intricate, thoughtful shorts tended to focus on childhood, featuring young characters coming to terms with vices such as greed and sex, notably in Luang Ta (2000), about a boy living in a temple and witnessing the corruption of everyone from his greedy father to the dishonest senior monk, and In The Eyes (2002), which he describes as “a coming-of-age story about a boy who lives with his mother and, when his mother’s beautiful friend comes to stay, experiences sexual feelings for the first time.” Banjong’s earlier work, in contrast, is more dreamily romantic, focusing on quirky relationships: “My most recent short film, Colourblind (2002), is about a TV repairman who cannot see the colour red. It’s something like a metaphor for someone who cannot see love. There’s a girl who keeps sending him red roses but, because he can’t see the red, he doesn’t understand the gesture. But when he meets her he begins to see things differently as if he can at last see the red colour. Before that I made one called Plae Kao (2000) about two people having a conversation despite being in two different places. They can feel the connection although they are in different places; they can reciprocate the conversation and interact with each other.”
It seems that both Banjong and Pakpoom realised that films of this kind might not be easy to develop in to a marketable feature, thus they began thinking about more dramatic, generic ideas. As they explain it: “We were colleagues at Phenomena, a production house making TV commercials, working as assistant directors. The company initiated a programme for staff with experience of short filmmaking to move into features. We proposed projects to Phenomena executives and The Shutter became their first feature. Originally we didn’t intend to make a horror film. First we thought about a project about reincarnation – a drama-thriller. But while doing the research we found a book containing an old photo, ostensibly of soldiers in uniform, but in the photo there’s clearly some energy, some spirit. And we realised that there are no movies which capture this phenomenon of mysterious old ghost photos. At the time there were so many horror movies from other Asian countries, so we tried hard to find an approach which was fresh and new and not like those other films. We tried to find an individual style of storytelling which would distinguish our film from others.” That they have succeeded here is much to do with their skills as scriptwriters (along with collaborator Sophon Sakdapisit). Though the staging, lighting and design are all top-notch, the film’s strength lies in its script which motivates events in a plausible way, skilfully avoiding any clunky horror movie moments in which characters are endangered by their own daft decisions to hide in the creepy, abandoned house or wander through the door-which-must-never-be-opened.
Nonetheless, their lack of on-set experience called for a lot of support. Banjong is quick to praise the other crewmembers. “Our crew are all from the commercials team at Phenomena so we had worked with them all before. They are all experienced and very professional. They helped us a lot because production values are very important if this kind of film is to be a success.” Still, the directors’ control remained such that they were able to impose their own personal vision on the film, even if they didn’t always agree on everything. Recognising their very different but strangely compatible personalities, Banjong concludes that “We are so different in terms of everything – style, approach – but that seems to be why we worked so well together. We didn’t split up the jobs at all, but we always discussed everything and tried to come to agreement on the best way forward. We both love horror movies, so we both wanted to find the best way to tell the story; we had the same goal – to frighten the audience.”
In this respect they hit the jackpot as terrified viewers spread word of mouth which contributed to a domestic box office take of over 100 million baht, over 30% more than nearest rival The Bodyguard. More than that, the film performed well across Asia, opening well in Hong Kong, Taiwan & Malaysia and becoming the most successful Thai film ever in Singapore, where it ranks below only Ring and the two The Eye films in terms of horror hits. The film is now set to open in Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia. As first-timers, one has to ask whether, in the face of such results, the directors can contain their expectations of future success? As usual, they are modest and pragmatic. “We were surprised both about the box office – we’d have been happy with half the gross – and to get so many good reviews and award nominations,” says Pakpoom, with Banjong adding that “There’s no pressure on us because our next movies will be completely different. Maybe if we did another horror film there would be high expectations, but we want to move into other genres. And we will work individually so it will be like being first time directors again. It’s like starting again from zero. Luckily we don’t have to continue working in the same genre because GTH [GMM-Tai-Hub, the co-producer/distributor of The Shutter] is quite open to a range of projects as long as they are based on good concepts and preparation.”
Both directors have lined up interesting projects for their solo debuts, each based on a true story. Banjong will adapt the story of ‘Kaew’, a girl who found she was HIV+ and started to write an internet diary on Thailand’s most popular website: www.pantip.com
. He says he was attracted to the story because “she told us things about her life which revealed a very special optimism considering she was going to die.” While Banjong intends his film as a comedy-drama, Pakpoom has something even more ambitious in mind: an historical political drama based on the life of So Sethabutr. “It’s based on the life he lived in the political landscape of 1932, amid the move from absolute monarchy to democracy in Thailand. He was an intellectual on the side of the monarchy. He was jailed, but during his imprisonment used his knowledge to write the English-Thai dictionary which all students and Thais still use to this day. The definitions which make up the dictionary reveal hidden meanings about the politics of his time and his life experience. Not many people are aware of this so the story works as social and political history.”
So what of the longer term? How do Banjong and Pakpoom hope to establish themselves in a conservative film industry in which relatively few directors have been able to carve out solid careers. Here, Pakpoom is the more opinionated of the two: “We do hope to become established as confident and professional filmmakers, though in Thailand filmmaking is still not necessarily a stable arena in which to make a career. That said, I am quite positive about the development of the industry. These days the audience is much more open to a range of films, just as long as they are well-made with good stories. In this sense, viewers are selective and smart: if films aren’t good, people won’t go. But purely artistic films will take longer to break through as both the audience and producers must develop more. But it’s good to see that producers with money to spend are now looking at investing in more artistic films.”
The future looks bright for these two young filmmakers. And although they are moving ahead with their solo projects, there is much life left in The Shutter yet: theatrical sales in Europe and America are a real possibility, and Hollywood studios are rumoured to be offering big money for the remake rights. The directors’ position can be likened to that of the six young co-directors of Fan Chan (My Girl, 2003), each of whom are also working on solo debuts. Although they suggest otherwise, expectations of their forthcoming films will be high, but so far neither has let his relative lack of years stand in his way. If Pakpoom and Banjong (and the Fan Chan team) can deliver mature and accessible works in the future, Thai cinema may have a rich future ahead of it.