Thursday, 25 April 2019

Santikhiri Sonata

Santikhiri Sonata
Thunska Pansittivorakul's Santikhiri Sonata (สันติคีรี โซนาตา) was filmed in Thailand's northernmost province, Chiang Rai, in the villages of Mae Salong and Hin Taek, whose names were changed by the government to draw a line under their sinister legacies. Mae Salong was renamed Santikhiri ('hill of peace'), and Hin Taek became Thoet Thai ('honour Thailand'), though they were sites of anti-Communist violence during the Cold War. Santikhiri Sonata examines this violent heritage - "A lot of people were killed, including villagers" - and includes graphic photographs of victims caught in the crossfire of a 1982 military raid on Thoet Thai.

Similarly, Apichatpong Weerasethakul made several films in and around the village of Nabua, a location with an equally loaded history to that of Santikhiri, as its inhabitants were among the first victims of the anti-Communist purge. In his short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (จดหมายถงลงบญม), a narrator recalls the area's past: "Soldiers once occupied this place. They killed and tortured the villagers and forced them to flee to the jungle." The seemingly tranquil landscapes in Pachara Piyasongsoot's Anatomy of Silence (กายวิภาคของความเงียบ) exhibition also represent politically charged locations. His Nabua (นาบัว) series includes 'No Happiness Other than Serenity', whose ironic title refers to a slogan painted on the gate of a temple used as a Communist detention centre.

Thailand's suppression of Communist insurgents was a guerrilla war lasting almost two decades. A character in Anocha Suwichakornpong's film By the Time It Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง) describes how suspected Communists were "thrown out of helicopters or set on fire in oil barrels." Thunska alludes to these 'red barrel killings' in Santikhiri Sonata with a caption describing the elimination of subversives by "pushing them into a 'CXII Red Suitcase'". The Roman numerals refer to Thailand's notorious lèse-majesté law, article 112 of the criminal code, which Thunska addressed in Homogeneous, Empty Time (สุญกาล).

Santikhiri Sonata also comments on more recent cases of state violence. Military cadet Phakhapong Tanyakan died during a training exercise in 2017, and his internal organs were removed to prevent an autopsy determining his cause of death. The central characters in Santikhiri Sonata discuss a cadet "whose insides, heart, and brain were all taken out of his body". Similarly, a young human-rights activist, Chaiyaphum Pasae, was killed at a military checkpoint in 2017, and the film describes the circumstances of his death: "eyewitnesses say he was unarmed, and was beaten before being shot." More provocatively, a song composed by King Rama IX, Echo (แว่ว), is repurposed as an ode to Chaiyaphum's memory.

The director's trademark sexual content is also present. In fact, Santikhiri Sonata is his most explicit film since Reincarnate (จุติ). It includes a montage of clips from gay porn videos, progressing from 'solo' scenes to hardcore material, accompanied by Jaran Manopet's folk song บ้านบนดอย ('home on the hillside'). (The lyrics at first seem incongruous, though they end with the words "overflowing kindness" as a porn star reaches his climax.) This combination of homoerotic imagery and political critique is a consistent feature of Thunska's films, including This Area Is Under Quarantine (บริเวณนี้อยู่ภายใต้การกักกัน), The Terrorists (ผู้ก่อการร้าย), and Supernatural (เหนือธรรมชาติ).

Another trait in Thunska's work is the blurring of boundaries between documentary, drama, and autobiography. His films are densely constructed, their fictional narratives accompanied by found footage, historical captions, and on-camera interventions by the director. Santikhiri Sonata is his most structurally complex film, alternating between contemporary naturalism and a dystopian future, with metatextual behind-the-scenes sequences.

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