Interracial love, religious cults, hi-so culture (Thai high society) and an appetite for raw offal enrich and distract Thai auteur Pen-ek Rataranuang’s classic noir about a marriage turned murderous. Mystery and danger percolate in “Samui Song” all the way till the elliptical ending, which leaves audiences with a sense of lingering disquiet. However, there’s a certain spark missing both from the characters and the overall muffled tone. Heading to Toronto after opening the Venice Days section, the film should pique buyer interest based on the enduring popularity of the writer-director’s mid-career work, “Last Life in the Universe” and “Invisible Waves.”
Viyada (Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak), or “Vi” for short, is hitting a snag in her professional and marital lives. A daytime soap opera queen who specializes in playing super-bitches, she longs in vain for an arthouse project to give her an image makeover. Her French millionaire husband Jerome Beaufoy (French visual artist Stéphane Sednaoui) is unable to perform in bed, and retreats to his pottery atelier to mould clay phalluses. He’s also knee-deep in a religious cult led by a guru called the Holy One (Vithaya “Pu” Pansringarm, “Only God Forgives”).
Ratanaruang, who also wrote the screenplay, has said that the film grew out of his curiosity about mixed-race marriages in Thailand (which isn’t terribly new, since the mercenary factors informing similar relationships have been explored more bitingly in the Laotian horror movie “Dearest Sister”). In fact, Jerome, with his trophy Asian wife and fascination with eastern mysticism, is so stereotypical of the farang (Thai slang for white foreigner) that one wonders if it’s intended as parody. One way or the other, his domestic violence towards Vi is no joke, and Ratanaruang devises a supremely creepy scene in which he makes a gift of Vi to the Holy One.
As resentfulness swells in Vi, who cannot divorce Jerome without losing all financial security, a solution presents itself in a chance meeting with Guy Spenser (David Asavanond) in a hospital car park. After sharing a pack of cigarettes, they swiftly progress to sharing a meal. Guy is half-Caucasian, half-Thai, and his mother is gravely ill. His smoldering eyes suggest he wants to come on to Vi; turns out his proposition is less sexy, but more practical: He offers to help her make Jerome “disappear.”
All this happens in flashback, starting from a car crash Vi has in the forest (shot in black-and-white), which paves the way for her fateful encounter with Guy at the hospital. The non-linear narrative structure heightens the suspense, recalling “Double Indemnity,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and other films noir of that ilk, though the script plans to subvert Vi’s femme fatale persona later on.
The buildup to Guy’s enactment of their deal, laced with clever visual ellipses by editor Patamanadda Yukol, is the most gripping portion of the film. The helmer’s characteristic dry humor also seeps out in unexpected places, as when monks from the cult blast out a song waxing lyrical about devouring liver, or when Vi’s agent trashes an arthouse film that cinephiles will recognize as “Invisible Waves.”
A confounding lull sets in when the plot makes an abrupt detour to the eponymous resort island of Koh Samui, where a single mother (Palika Suwannarak) of a young boy lives with her female lover. DP Chankit Chamnivikaipong shoots the sunny, scenic tourist paradise in a jittery style with morose, dark lighting, as if transporting us into another place, another film — at least, until Guy and the cult’s cohorts resurface. Then things get very gory and nasty, before the script pulls the rug out from under the audience at the end.
There’s no denying the cleverness of this twist and what it suggests about woman’s position in Thai society, or the inextricable links between crime, religion and patriarchy, but still it doesn’t intrigue as much as the more straightforward first half.
Boonyasak gives an assured performance conveying Vi’s desperation under a veneer of icy confidence. Asavanond, speaking fluent Thai, retains a continental suaveness even at his shiftiest and most down-at-heel. Pansringarm, who has become the go-to guy when it comes to casting shady police chiefs and mafia dons in Thailand-set international productions, can play 50 shades of sinister. Here, he conveys not only authority and menace, but also gives audiences plenty of room to imagine what’s on his mind. Despite fine performances from a well-chosen cast, the characters aren’t furnished with much psychological depth, and their motives remain patently simple. Perhaps they just lack the existential anomie that makes protagonists in Ratanaruang’s other films so alluring.