Thailand’s slide from a country known as the Land of Smiles to a land dogged by religious conflict and political violence is lamented in the elegantly composed arthouse entry “The Island Funeral.” Centered on three young Bangkok residents searching for a long-lost relative in the nation’s troubled South, the pic mixes road-movie and mystery-thriller elements with the scent of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” to produce a quietly gripping tale with its own distinctive voice. Awarded the Asian Future prize at Tokyo and now gaining traction with appearances at Rotterdam, Goteborg and Hong Kong, the film looks primed for a lengthy stint on the fest circuit. Local release is tentatively set for August.
Following a 12-year hiatus from narrative features, Pimpaka Towira makes a winning return here. Concentrating on short subjects and documentaries (“The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong”) since her 2003 feature debut, “One Night Husband,” Towira has joined the growing ranks of indie filmmakers expressing grave concern about upheavals that now seem like the norm rather than the exception in Thai life.
With local censors clamping down on movies deemed likely to incite unrest, Towira and co-scripter Kong Rithdee, a highly regarded Bangkok film critic, are careful not to pass judgment on any political or religious group. Their finely crafted screenplay nevertheless leaves viewers with a clear picture of the deeply troubled state of the nation.
The story begins as a conventional yarn about urbanites venturing into the sticks. Confident young Muslim woman Laila (Heen Sasithorn) and brother Zugood (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk) are driving through Pattani, one of several predominantly Muslim provinces involved in a long-running separatist war with the central government. With Zugood’s buddy, Toy (Yossawat Sittiwong), along for the ride, the siblings plan to visit their barely remembered hometown and visit an aunt neither has seen since childhood.
The trio are crisply established as typical city dwellers whose inability to read printed maps correctly leads to numerous wrong turns and sparks childish squabbles between Laila and Zugood. As the road gets longer these trivial concerns are replaced by unease and anxiety. Media reports of violent protests in Bankgok and gun battles in rural areas prompt Toy to question whether it’s safe to go any further. Fear ramps up suddenly when Laila is convinced she’s seen a chained and naked woman fleeing across a lonely road at night. Refusing the boys’ demands to keep driving and not get involved, Laila searches for the woman but finds nothing.
In addition to giving viewers a decent jump scare, this sequence ushers in a slightly otherworldly ambience that lingers until the travelers reach the final destination. This feeling of dislocation and disquiet is heightened by artful manipulations of sound and image by co-editors Harin Paesongthai, Benjarat Choonuan and Uruphong Raksasad. Much of the story unfolds in long takes in which dialogue from previous scenes continues to be heard. At other times, words and sound effects pre-empt visuals by a significant margin. While the film remains rooted in reality, there’s a consistent and highly effective sense that everything here may not be exactly what it seems.
Determined to carry on despite increased military presence in the area and protestations from Toy that reveal his anti-Islamic feelings, Laila and Zugood eventually give up on maps and look for a local guide. Following a visit to an unfinished mosque that’s said to be cursed, they meet Surin (Pattanapong Sriboonrueang), a motorcycle rider who barely utters a word but seems to know the way to their home village of Al-kaf. Mystery and suspense deepen when the trio reach the supposed location near the coast, only to find a battered signpost and no signs of people or dwellings. Nervously following Surin on foot, they’re delivered to an unnamed boatman (Anake Srimor) and taken to an island in the distance.
All the film’s themes mesh beautifully in the expedition’s final leg. As night falls the boat creeps along a river toward a village built in all manner of architectural styles and populated by people from many different races and religions. The long-awaited appearance of Aunty Zainub (Kiatsuda Piromya) does not disappoint. A striking figure who smokes and carries herself with regal grace and worldly authority, Zainub describes this place as a utopia that will soon crumble as a result of Thailand’s internal unrest.
Laila’s increasing curiosity about her heritage and religion (at one point earlier, she swaps jeans and T-shirt to pray in the traditional telekung worn by Thailand’s female Muslims) comes fruitfully to light in her discussions with Aunty Zainub on the topics of free will and idealism. Far from wrapping matters up neatly, Towira and Rithdee sustain the carefully controlled atmosphere of restlessness until the final fadeout.
An increasingly rare example of a feature film shot on 16mm, “The Island Funeral” is superbly lensed by Phuttiphong Aroonpheng. The performances by relative newcomers Sasithorn, Pornsumpunsuk and Sittiwong are terrific. The eclectic score by Noppanan Panicharoen and his rock band Inspirative plays an important role in the film’s success. Driving guitar rhythms, lovely piano melodies and haunting ambient sounds are perfectly in tune with the film’s tonal variations and the characters’ shifting moods. All other technical aspects are first-rate.