×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Samui Song’

A Thai-style 'Double Indemnity' with a mordant meta-fictional twist.

Director:
Pen-ek Rataranuang
With:
Chermarn Ploy Boonyasak, David Asavanond, Vithaya Pu Pansringarm, Jerome Beaufoy, Palika Suwannarak. (Thai, English dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6596796/

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.

Film Review: 'Samui Song'

Reviewed online, Vancouver, Sept. 5, 2017. (In Venice, Toronto film festivals.) Running time: 108 MIN. (Original title: “Mai Mee Samui Samrab Ter”)

Production: (Thailand-Germany-Norway) A Samui Song JV presentation of a Bluering Co. production, in association with Cinema22, in co-production with Augenschein Film Produktion, Tenk.TV with the support of Ministry of Culture Thailand, World Cinema Fund, Sorfond. (International sales: Urban Distribution Intl., Paris.) Producers: Raymond Phathanavirangoon, Rasarin Tanalerttararom. Executive producers: Thanawat Lertwattanarak, Chayamporn Taeratanachai, Srirat Chuchottaworn, Pichai Chirathivat, Chaichat Boonyarat, Perapol Suwannapasri, Karn Promayorn. Co-producers: Anuree Sriruk, Maximilian Leo, Jonas Katzenstein, Frode Sobstad.

Crew: Director, writer: Pen-ek Rataranuang, based on the story by Rataranuang, Phathanavirangoon. Camera (color/B&W, HD) Chankit Chamnivikaipong. Editor: Patamanadda Yukol. Music: Koichi Shimizu.

With: Chermarn Ploy Boonyasak, David Asavanond, Vithaya Pu Pansringarm, Jerome Beaufoy, Palika Suwannarak. (Thai, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Donald Trump Chucky Childs Play

    'Child's Play' Stars on New Chucky's 'Creepy' Resemblance to Donald Trump

    At Wednesday night’s world premiere of the “Child’s Play” remake, it was obvious that evil doll Chucky — the star of seven films over three decades — had a little work done. And now he bears a striking resemblance to Donald Trump. “Oh, you caught that?” Aubrey Plaza asked Variety on the black carpet outside [...]

  • Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Opening

    Academy Museum Opening Delayed Again to 2020

    The opening date of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has been delayed again, this time to an unspecified date in 2020. The museum, now under construction at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, has long been beset by delays and cost overruns. In December 2018, the Academy announced that it would open [...]

  • Bradley Cooper speaks at the 30th

    Producers Guild Shifts 2020 Awards Show to Hollywood Palladium

    The Producers Guild of America will hold its 31st Annual Producers Guild Awards at the Hollywood Palladium, shifting the site from the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The PGA had already announced that the show would take place on Jan. 18. The organization, which represents more than 8,000 producers, announced Thursday that it has launched a new [...]

  • Adam Driver appears in The Report

    Amazon’s ‘The Report’ Gets U.K. Theatrical Release Ahead of Streaming Launch

    Amazon Studio’s “The Report” will be released theatrically in the U.K. three weeks before it lands on the Prime Video streaming service. The Scott Z. Burns film tells the story of Daniel J. Jones, a U.S. Senate staffer who worked to reveal that truth about an “enhanced interrogation” program run by the CIA in the [...]

  • Elton John performing at Earls Court,

    Elton John Has a Message for Struggling LGBTQ Youth: 'Be Proud of Who You Are'

    Elton John isn’t at a loss for words when asked if he has a message for young LGBTQ people who are struggling with their sexuality or gender identity. In an exclusive interview with Variety at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, just hours before the world premiere of his long-in-the-works biopic “Rocketman,” John spoke candidly about the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content