Rattana Pestonji: A Legacy

Written by Benjamin Lim
Editorial Team, Perspectives Film Festival 2013

Not many people have had the honour of shaking the legendary Alfred Hitchcock's hand, and the late Rattana Pestonji was one of the rare few to have done so.

The Thai filmmaker's first short film Tang won the Amateur Cine Competition in Glasgow in 1937, and the award was given to him by Hitchcock himself. The latter would later become the "master of suspense", while Pestonji would be regarded as one of the pioneers and visionaries of Thai cinema.

Pestonji was well-known for his immense skill as a cinematographer, and many of his works made waves in the international film scene. One of his best films was Santi-Weena, which ironically is now lost to time. Santi-Weena, on which Pestonji worked as a cinematographer, swept the best cinematography and art direction awards at the Asia-Pacific Film Awards in Tokyo. Pestonji won a $16,000 Mitchell camera for his win, but was taxed $5,000 upon returning to Thailand and also fined 1,000 baht for failing to clear the film with the Thai censorship board.

Despite making a name for himself, Pestonji's movies were unfortunately not box-office successes. He retired from film-making after making his last film, 1965's Sugar Is Not Sweet, and went into the television commercial industry. Although he had stopped making films, Pestonji was still a strong advocate of Thai independent cinema and tried to push for more governmental support, till his death in 1970.

A few days after Pestonji's death, the Thai government set up the Thai Film Promotion Board, which was responsible for promoting and encouraging investment in Thai films.

Pestonji's films still remain a huge source of inspiration for the new generation of Thai filmmakers, which is why the director is often regarded as the "father of contemporary Thai cinema". Wisit Sasanatieng, director of 2001's Tears of the Black Tiger - the first Thai film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival - has been full of praise of Pestonji's influence. In fact, Tears of the Black Tiger, a colourful film, bore many of the hallmarks of Pestonji's films.

Sasanatieng said, "Khun Ratana was not simply a master storyteller ... he knew how to use color, art direction and camera angles to create subtle nuances and charge the movie with strong emotions."

The Thai Film Foundation has worked closely with the National Film Archive to preserve Pestonji's legacy. The foundation holds the rights to the director's films and has released a DVD set of his works. In 2008, when they were celebrating Pestonji's 100th birthday, National Film Archive director Dome Sukwongse said in a Bangkok Post article, "Ratana's movies were not big successes at the box office. He made a black-and-white film [Country Hotel] while everybody else had gone colour. And he used sound on film, while the audience in those days wanted to hear live dubbing - the dubbers were the stars, and each province had its own famous film dubbers. Khun Ratana did things in an idealistic way because he believed in it, and that was his greatest quality."

Pestonji's sons still run their father's film company. Previously known as Hanuman Films Company, it is now named Santa International Film Productions (after Pestonji's son Santa). The company provides technical support and equipment to foreign film productions shooting in Thailand, and some of the films they have worked on include Star Wars: Episode III, and The Beach.

While the acclaimed filmmaker may not be around anymore to witness the progress of Thai cinema, his name still lives on in a prestigious film award. The R. D. Pestonji award, named in his honour, is the top prize of the Thai Short Film and Video Festival, and the winner is awarded a medal and cash prize of 20,000 baht. Last year's winner was Visual Element, a drama about a slacker artist whose subjects come to life.

Catch Black Silk, which will be screened in 35mm as part of Perspectives Film Festival 2013: Breakthroughs in Independent Cinema. Black Silk is regarded as one of Pestonji's most outstanding works and a milestone in Thai cinema for being one of the first few films from the country to compete in an international film festival, in this case, the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival.

Black Silk will be screened on Sunday 6 October, 1:30pm at the National Museum of Singapore, followed by a post-screening dialogue with Zhang Wenjie, Manager of Cinémathèque at the National Museum of Singapore and Chalida Uabumrungjit, Deputy Director of Thai Film Archive.


There's Something about Scorsese

Written by Michelle Ann Kwara
Editorial Team, Perspectives Film Festival 2013

First released some 40 years ago, Mean Streets captures what it was like to be a small-time mafia member in 1970s New York. Director Martin Scorsese co-wrote the screenplay, taking his own experiences growing up in Little Italy and putting it all on the big screen. The result is a gritty, personal film from one of the most acclaimed directors today. It is also considered to be Scorsese's directorial breakthrough.

We also love the film for its rock-and-roll soundtrack. The opening credits has even been voted one of the top 30 rock and roll movie moments by Rolling Stone.

Martin Scorsese, director
'I'll get into a cab sometimes here in New York, and they'll know who I am and the film they'll bring up is Mean Streets 'Aaah, you'll never do better than that, kid, that was the best one..' That sorta stuff. 'It really was accurate, that was my life.' '

'I haven't sat down to look at Mean Streets from beginning to end since I made it. It's so personal and I love the music and I love the guys.”

Harvey Keitel, actor, plays Charlie in "Mean Streets"
"In Mean Streets, you have Marty's performance, Robert's performance and mine. It was these three energies, these three spirits, these three guys that collided."

Roger Ebert, late film critic
Great films leave their mark not only on their audiences, but on films that follow. In countless ways, right down to the detail of modern TV crime shows, "Mean Streets" is one of the source points of modern movies.

Shane Meadows, British film director
"There's something about Mean Streets that allows access to his process and gives you confidence. It isn't absolutely perfect in every way. I've seen it about 746 times, I've never done that with a film, before or since." Director Shane Meadows also credits Mean Streets as the film that made him think he could be a filmmaker himself.

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The Boys from Fengkuei

Written by Stephen Teo
Associate Professor, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, NTU

The Boys from Fengkuei aka All the Youthful Days is Hou Hsiao-hsien's fifth film as director and the one in which he displayed his chops as an auteur after making more or less conventional movies in his first four credits from 1980-1983 in the Taiwan commercial cinema. As such, Boys is a significant breakthrough work that Hou made outside of the commercial industry, and it is well worth re-appraisal since it has become relatively rare and somewhat neglected in assessing Hou's career.

After Boys, Hou would secure the reputation that he is now known for - a rigorously austere and humanist filmmaker in the neorealist tradition - in such distinguished films as A Summer at Grandpa's (1984), A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985), A City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993), among others. It is thus useful to reexamine Boys from the vantage point of Hou's mature auteurist style (e.g. his trademark long-takes, location shooting, use of non-professional actors) which seems embryonic at this early stage of Hou's career (one should remember that at this early stage in his career, Hou could have returned to the style and tenets of the commercial cinema in which he was employed). The long takes are not as self-evident (Hou wasn't as rigorous then about this particular technique) but his use of locations and the actors already betray Hou's refined manner, and he would also develop some of his long-standing themes (the memory of childhood, the rural conditions of growing up as well as the rough and tumble of youth, the break from the family to work in the city) which reverberate throughout his films.

The director also clearly marked out the neorealist tradition that he would follow by paying an homage to one of the great films in that tradition - Visconti's 1960 work Rocco and His Brothers (in the scene where the boys steal into a cinema to watch a film, which turns out to be Rocco). The presence of the Italian neo-realist classic in the film appears to suggest an important reference point for Hou but he uses the occasion to transform an intertextual allusion into a flashback scene in which the protagonist Ah Ching (played by a very young Doze Niu, who later became a director himself) imagines himself as a child seeing his own father on the screen being hit on the head by the ball in a baseball game. The scene is significant as a statement of Hou's independence, so to speak - for its private intrusion into a tradition whereby Hou is asserting his own style and aesthetic (the flashback occurs seemingly as a part of Visconti's film while it is playing on the screen and we are aware of the film only through its soundtrack). '

In the works which followed Boys, Hou indeed asserted his own brand of realist aesthetics in important ways - a kind of break from the tradition that he admired. A film such as Boys gives the viewer a chance to savor a work that contains its own pleasures while at the same time pointing the viewer to Hou's mature body of work. It is an indispensable film for this reason. It shows Hou at the early stage of his career a budding master, already in command of the style and themes that he would develop thereafter as one of Taiwan cinema's great directors of the modern age.


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