Real and imaginary worlds commingle in “The Forest,” an elegantly composed fantasy-drama about an idealistic schoolteacher whose posting to a remote Thai village upsets the local status quo. Intertwining the teacher’s story with that of a mute student who lives in a nearby forest that’s said to be haunted, Bangkok-based British helmer Paul Spurrier crafts an intriguing and visually beautiful tale that taps into universal childhood experiences while painting a realistic picture of life in a community suffering severe economic and environmental hardships. Festival programmers should take a look. After winning the NETPAC prize at BiFan, “The Forest” is scheduled for limited local release in late 2016.
The first westerner to direct a Thai-language feature, Spurrier has stepped up impressively from his debut, “P” (2005), a supernatural drama set in the Bangkok go-go bar scene. Working in close collaboration with his wife, Jiriya, Spurrier’s second feature combines fantasy and reality to much more satisfying effect.
Audiences will immediately warm to Preecha (Asanee Suwan), a softly spoken, morally upright educator who wants to experience real life after 10 years in the monkhood. Arriving at a poorly equipped school in a dusty unnamed village, Preecha is told by jaded headmaster Somphong (Pongsanart Vinsiri) that the hamlet is slowly dying from the effects of persistent crop failures and the exodus of young people seeking a better life in the big smoke. The message from the humorless senior man is clear: don’t create waves, and abandon any hope of making a difference to young lives.
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After taking charge of his class, Preecha immediately feels compelled to help Ja (Wannasa Wintawong), a mute 10-year-old girl who lives in the forest with her morose father (Ramphai Wintawong). Commonly referred to as “the retard,” Ja is subjected to relentless bullying by mean girl Waan (Natpatson Lhakkum) and her gang. Preecha’s attempt to discipline Ja’s tormentors brings him into conflict with Waan’s father, Vithaya (Vithaya Pansringarm), a local bigwig whose powerful position is accorded a fawning obsequiousness by Somphong.
The only friendly face in Preecha’s sight is Miss Nittaya (Thidarat Kongkaew), a kind young teacher fed up after five years of frustration and planning to quit the profession. As the appealing rapport between Preecha and Nittaya slowly turns to steamy passion and complex emotional consequences, the screenplay switches its central focus to Ja.
On her way home through terrain others are too scared to enter, Ja meets Boy (Tanapol Kamkunkam), a youngster who claims to live in the forest. Initially scared of Boy’s warrior-like posturing and verbal boasting, Ja eventually builds a strong friendship with the stranger. The question of whether Boy is real or a figment of the common childhood “imaginary friend” phenomenon is played gently at first. The stakes are raised considerably when several villagers who’ve taunted Ja meet grisly ends. Ja’s fantasy-tinged adventures in a lush Garden of Eden-like environment and Preecha’s existential dramas on the baked red earth of the village are brought together in a suspenseful final act that packs real emotional punch.
Little-seen since his acclaimed performance as transgender fighter Parinya Charoenphol in “Beautiful Boxer” (2004), Suwan delivers a finely controlled performance as the conflicted idealist. Spurrier elicits wonderfully natural and convincing turns from the non-professional juveniles. Leading Thai actor Pansringarm (“Only God Forgives,” “The Last Executioner”) nails it as the smiling heavy. Spurrier’s lensing of majestic caves and sun-dappled streams in Ja and Boy’s domain is simply ravishing. His original score is a lovely mix of strings and traditional Thai flute. Apart from a couple of wobbly gore effects all technical components are top-notch on a modest budget.