BANGKOK — Laila, a young Muslim woman from Bangkok, and her younger brother set out to find their aunt along with a Buddhist friend. Their search leads them to a remote and peculiar island off the coast of Thailand, where their assumptions are challenged.
“Island Funeral,” might be the kind of road trip movie common to the summer cinema, were it not hemmed in by the conflict in the Deep South and for the clear message at its heart. On Thursday, the film eight years in the making and shot on location will open in Bangkok, where its director hopes it will counter the media-fed narrative of violence and fear.
It’s rare to see a Thai film about the conflict in the three southernmost border provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, which has claimed thousands of lives in a dozen years. But director Pimpaka Towira chose to bring the issues to the big screen in “Island Funeral” to pose questions about the vicious cycle.
“The film represents one part of conflict in Thailand, and how we react to those problems. Even though the main characters in my film seem connected to the southern society as Muslims, in fact they’re alienated,” she said. “Soldiers are total strangers who know nothing about the province but have to be there to work.”
The 49-year-old director said she didn’t thoroughly understood the conflict prior to making the film despite having visited Pattani several times. That inspired her to explore and learn more about the province and its people, and begin researching with her script writing partner Kong Rithdee, the film critic. She talked to Muslims in Bangkok and Pattani, as well as the soldiers deployed to the south.
“From my research, I discovered that everyone involved in the resolution process now are outsiders, while local people have no participation,” the director said.
It’s Pimpaka’s second feature after the 2003 drama-thriller “One Night Husband.”
The film was shot on 16mm film and won Best Asian Future Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2015, and other awards at festivals in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
“‘The Island Funeral’ not only reflects problems in Thailand but also every country around the world,” said Sasithorn “Heen” Panichnok, who plays the female lead. “The conflicts are universal. We shouldn’t judge others or try to solve others’ problems. The minority isn’t different from the rest. The solution is just to learn how to accept one another and learn to live together.”
Having never visited Pattani prior to filming, Sasithorn said she didn’t fear going there as she didn’t think news reports reflect what really goes on. She said she was impressed by the residents and grew up along with the character she played during the three years of shooting.
Pimpaka said her film doesn’t instruct on how to solve the conflict, but she hopes it will draw people closer to the issue with something constructive to talk about.
“We shouldn’t treat the problem as something distant, like the distance between the provinces,” she said. “… We cannot use the same ideologies and perceptions to solve every problem. Instead, we should let the local people participate in the process too.”
She points to the eight years it took to make the film.
“Although my film is finished, the unrest in the three provinces remains,” she said. “Does this imply the problem hasn’t been correctly solved?”
Opening Thursday only at SFW CentralWorld, “The Island Funeral” will be shown in Thai with English subtitles.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the character Laila as being from Pattani, when in fact in the movie she is from Bangkok.