Saturday, May 21, 2016

SIFF ’16: Island Funeral

Muslims make up less than five percent of Thailand’s population, but an Islamist insurgency still decided it deserved to run the (nearly 95% Buddhist) country. Laila was raised in the Islamic faith, but as a hip, well-educated Bangkokian, she is psychologically and geographically removed from the southern insurgency. A road trip to Pattani potentially holds cultural and political revelations for her, as well as the hint of supernatural mysteries afoot in Pimpaka Towira’s Island Funeral (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival.

Laila seems to be the only member of her family that remembers her Aunt Zainub and even that is a distant memory. Nevertheless, for some reason the young woman had an urge to reconnect with her distant kin, who seemed to be expecting her call. Although she is a modern independent woman, Laila’s father insists she travel with her brother Zugood (whose college buddy Toy tags along for reasons that soon escape him).

Frankly, the old man had reasonable cause for concern, given the rising insurgency activity and the national government’s corresponding military deployments. However, none of those big picture conflicts penetrate past Laila’s windshield. They have more pressing concerns. The trio is as lost in Thailand as Xu Zheng and Wang Baoqiang, but the atmosphere is definitely eerier, especially when Laila insists she saw a naked woman in chains run across the highway. Zugood and Toy try to convince her it was nothing, but everything means something in a film like this.

There are times in the first two acts we are keenly aware we are watching Laila drive around in circles. Yet, the third act is something radically different, marked by a strange vibe that suggests some sort of paranormal business is happening just outside our field of vision. Zainub’s ancestral home and island village are also quite a distinctive setting, like a tropical Shangri-La inhabited by elder Muslim women.

It is hard to formulate a clinical reaction to Funeral, because it is an immersive kind of film that insists viewers acclimate to its rhythms. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to just surrender and go with it, thanks to Heen Sasithorn charismatic performance as Laila. Without question, she is far brighter and much more proactive than her brother and his ambiguous roommate. In contrast to Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk and Yossawat’s almost intentionally meek performances as Zugood and Toy, Pattanapong Sriboonrueang is silently fierce and steely as Surin, the mysterious loner who guides Laila to her aunt. Kiatsuda Piromya also has a grand presence befitting Zainub. She makes quite an entrance, amply paying off all Towira’s build-up.

Funeral is a meditative film that doggedly maintains its ambiguities, yet we also get a sense of Towira playfully riffing on gender stereotypes of both East and West. The bits involving Laila constantly getting lost and Zugood compulsively asking for directions at rest stops could have almost been lifted from a Honeymooners episode, but the scenery sure is different. You can just feel the tropical humidity throughout the film. Again, Funeral is a tricky beast to render critical judgment on, because it will feel highly accessible and motivated to those who see a fair amount of slow cinema at festivals, but it will still frustrate viewers who don’t know “Joe” Weerasethakul from Joe Sarno. Recommended for admirers of the former, Island Funeral screens tomorrow (5/22) and Friday (5/27) as part of this year’s SIFF.