It has been seven long years since Thai director, Pen-ek Ratanaruang's previous theatrical feature “Headshot”; far too long between films for a talent such as he. As such, my anticipation for “Samui Song” was so large that I included it on my list of most anticipated films of 2018. Whilst initially I expected to have to wait until MIFF this year for a possible chance to see it, I was pleasantly surprised when it received a blu ray release in the US just the other week, giving me a chance to finally catch up with “Samui Song”. I wanted to go in without any baggage and preconceived expectations as to what I was going to get, and thus only watched the film's trailer the once. This was a good thing because “Samui Song” is a thriller bordering on noir, that is full of twists and turns that are better experienced than ruined.
The basic story of “Samui Song” is about a soap opera actress named Vi, who is feeling increased pressure from her French husband, Jerome, to commit to the religious cult that he has found himself a part of. She has no interest in it, only going from time to time to appease him, but Jerome's demands become so regular and threatening that she starts fearing for her safety, but knowing that divorce is not an option as it will leave her totally broke, she feels trapped in a life she cannot escape. This sets the scene for a dark story involving hitmen, murder, intimidation, rape, blackmail and revenge, with a small smattering of love, of both the romantic and familial kind.
As I mentioned above, there are a lot of twists and turns in “Samui Song” that are better left experienced, but in saying that, there is no way for me to comment on parts of this film without spoilers, so I suggest that if you want to go in fresh, please read this review only AFTER you have seen the film. Early on, it is easy to see that Pen-ek Ratanaruang is still at the top of his game with his storytelling abilities and his creation of mood. All of his films seem to have an atmosphere of melancholy attached to them and “Samui Song” is no different. It is about people who are not content with their lives, trying to escape them to something better, but making the wrong decisions in doing so. There is always a feeling that this is never going to end well. As a thriller it is continually building, sometimes not in a linear fashion, both in suspense and intrigue. Vi ends up meeting, by chance, a man who appears to be able to give her an out to her situation. This man, Guy Spenser, is also desperate in that he is low on funds to afford the medicine his very sick mum needs to survive. Thus he proposes a solution to Vi which sees both their needs sorted; she will be free from her situation and he will be payed for it, thus being able to continue to look after his sick mum. However being as Guy is less of a professional and more of an opportunist, his attention to detail at completing his task is less than ideal that leads to their situations becoming more dangerous than before.
While the religious cult is a major aspect in the story, it is treated more as a background to the main story being told which is really about both Vi and Guy attempting to better their lives. In regards to performances in “Samui Song”, it is a bit of a mixed bag. Cherman Boonyasak (in her first film for Pen-ek since their earlier collaboration in “Last Life in the Universe” from 2003) plays Vi and she is fantastic in the role; she is the anchor to the film and owns every scene she is in. She expertly portrays a woman unhappy in her life, but is never over the top with it; she is calm, but willing to fight to get what she wants. Amusingly when we do see a snippet of one of Vi's performances on her soap opera she is completely over the top and ridiculous. Her presence is so impressive that when she is not onscreen, which happens later towards the end, the film is worse off for it. David Asavanond on the other hand, who plays Guy, isn't as convincing in his performance to be believable as the “heavy” he is trying to portray, although he is much more successful in the scenes with his mother where he gets to show his more caring and humorous side to his persona. I wouldn't say that his performance was poor, but it certainly doesn't carry the same weight as Boonyasak. The other main role is that of Jerome, Vi's husband, who is played by French artist Stephane Sednaoui who performs his role entirely in English. This was such a strange choice because Vi always replies in Thai, so it gives a jarring effect to the relationship between the couple. I'm not sure if this is a deliberate tactic by Pen-ek to show that communication is already tough enough even without the cult's involvement, but I thought it was an odd choice.
Visually, “Samui Song” looks magnificent (like all of Pen-ek's films). His regular director of photography Chankit Chamnivikaipong returns once again and fills the screen with beautiful autumn colours such as yellows, oranges, dark greens and browns. His shot selection also leans heavy on the noir aesthetics too and are just stunning and fit the mood perfectly. This is such a handsome thriller, and appeared set to be a new classic for Pen-ek Ratanaruang. However there is a meta quality to the film that I have yet to mention that, for mine, seriously undercuts the goodness in this film because, after admittedly only one viewing of “Samui Song”, I think it just does not work at all. Throughout the film Ratanaruang is at pains to remind the viewer that they are watching a work of fiction. Most of these are minor, and could be missed, but they are there in the background. The first instance of this is when the cult leader is being interviewed on a television screen in the background, bemoaning the idea of prayer and saying that most people use it as wish fulfilment. He asks the interviewer if he prays and if so what for, to which he replies that he prayed for his movie to be successful, and if so, he would offer God a pigs head for his troubles. The interviewer is Pen-ek himself, so it is an amusing meta moment that I initially thought was cute. The next moment comes when Vi is looking for work stating that she wants to work with a particular Thai director. Her agent looks back in disbelief and says that that director's films are boring and make no sense and mentions that she once watched one where a character was walking around a ship the whole film, that she feel asleep, and when she woke, he was still on the ship! This is Pen-ek having a laugh at himself and his 2006 film “Invisible Waves”. Again, this was another cute meta-moment. However the whole ending to the film is where I lost my appreciation of this meta quality and thought that it inversely affected the enjoyment of the film. Without giving away the actual ending, I will say that everything we thought we were watching may not be the actual truth and that Ratanaruang is in fact playing in a completely different wheelhouse than what is first assumed. Granted I will admit that, again, after only one viewing of the film, I haven't given the proper thought or analysis as to what is really going on or what Ratanaruang is wanting to say (and for that reason alone you may wish is discount my feelings on the ending or its effect on the film in total), but the ending left me filled with both anger and a feeling of frustration, as after committing to a story for ninety minutes, there ends up being no pay off to it all........or not the kind that I was expecting or that fit the rest of the film tonally. I understand this all has to do with my own expectations and baggage I brought to the film and not necessarily the fault of the director, but this is how I saw it. I will say though that it is a very similar reaction that I had to David Lynch's “Mulholland Dr.” after my first watch; a film that I now consider a total masterpiece, so all is not lost on “Samui Song” and my potential appreciation of it.
Overall, “Samui Song” is both a great return by Pen-ek Ratanaruang and to his growing number of stories about inept hitmen, but it is also at times super frustrating, especially towards the end, due to a meta element that is introduced into the film. For mine, it didn't work (at least during my first watch of the film), but until that moment I thought Ratanaruang was firing on all cylinders and that “Samui Song” was an excellent noir-drama. I should mention also that although the film deals with a lot of dark themes, the tone at times is quite light, even bordering on humorous. The film is very entertaining, and while it is not the absolute classic I anticipated it would end up as after its very strong opening hour, “Samui Song” is still another impressive film from this talented Thai director and I hope that it is not as long a wait for his next.