Saturday, June 15, 2013

Prae Dum, aka Black Silk (Thailand, 1961)

Ratana Pestonji’s Prae Dum has been described as Thailand’s first film noir. The fact that it kicks off with a monk lecturing us about karma might also make it the first Buddhist noir. Typical of Pestonji’s work, the film, while modest, is still technically miles ahead of most of what was coming out of Thailand at the time, thanks to the director’s insistence on using 35mm film and synch sound, both of which, even in 1961, were far from the industry standard in that country.

The movie focuses on working stiff Tom (Tom Wisawachart), who is in love with Prae (played by Pestonji’s daughter, Ratanavadi Ratanabhand), a young widowed mother who has been in mourning garb so long that her neighbors have taken to calling her “Black Silk”. Tom strikes one as not being the sharpest tool in the shed, and is so fixated on financial gain that he seems incapable of thinking outside the master-slave relationship he enjoys with his boss, the nightclub owner Seni (Senee Wisaneesam). As such, he readily goes along when Seni recruits him in a plan to take care of two hoods to whom Seni is indebted, and even agrees to Seni’s suggestion that he bring Prae along as subterfuge. In the event, the innocent Prae ends up paying witness to Seni’s violent murder of the men and is traumatized as a result. Seni then complicates matters further by faking his own death in order to pose as his twin brother and collect on his own insurance policy. Sharing in the spoils, Tom and Seni live swell for a while, until Seni starts to fear that Prae will not maintain her silence, at which point the two enact a cruel scheme to kidnap her infant child.

As with many old Thai films, most of Prae Dum takes place under the bright sunlight -- something that it appears is in no short supply in that corner of the world -- with those few times it does switch to a nocturnal setting marking a dramatic transition. Pestonji directs with such a cold matter-of-fact-ness that it becomes its own form of stylization. The manner in which he shoots his sets is doggedly symmetrical, stagey and straight on, often with his subjects crowded into one side of the frame. The lead actors perform with a flatness of affect that suggest automatons marching through the story’s karmic paces. Furthermore, the director shows a fixation with process that has him maintain an unblinking camera where others would cut away (at one point, the reading of a trial verdict might fool you into thinking you’d stumbled onto a Thai version of CSPAN). All the while, Pestonji employs the uniquely sedate rhythms of classic Thai cinema, leaving plenty of room for silence, stillness and contemplative space.

At Prae Dum’s conclusion, karma does indeed come calling for Tom, at which point the opening’s Buddhist monk returns to give us a final admonition about the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own actions (something Tom, who continues to insist he was only following his boss’s orders, seems constitutionally incapable of doing). This emphasis on moral instruction would seem to put Prae Dum at odds with the fatalism of classic film noir, which is by no means meant to suggest that the film’s merits are dependent upon it being shoehorned into a familiar genre. In fact, Prae Dum went on to be one of the first Thai films to see international release, playing at the Berlin Film Festival in 1961, and is today considered one of the touchstones of the country’s national cinema -- with Tears of the Black Tiger director Wisit Sanatieng calling it “the film that remains my single major influence”.

Yet, for an outsider viewing it today, Prae Dum seems to assert its authority more through hypnosis than audaciousness. It’s something of a strange ride, alternately haunting and sleepy, and like a lot of classic Thai cinema, seems to be grabbing hold of you, ghost like, through the ether. At the same time, in a world where steady wage slavery is no less promoted as a desirable trade in for personal integrity, its simple lesson is nonetheless worth heeding.

1 comment:

Wise Kwai said...

Black Silk was also a huge influence on Pen-ek Ratanaruang, in like, everything. Headshot is the most obvious, but really, all of Pen-ek's films pay homage to Ratt Pestonji.