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October 07, 2010

Wisit Walks Away

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Citizen Dog

Since I named this blog after the column by Herman G. Weinberg (minus the brandy and cigars), that I use to read in the old "Take One" magazine, the time has come for a Weinberg style rant about the state of Cinema.

In the documentary, It's All True, Orson Welles demonstrated that he would and could make an unmistakably Orson Welles movie, even with the least resources available. Welles, like most film directors, would have be dragged from the studio kicking and screaming, than never make another movie. The only director I am aware of to have walked away from filmmaking is Brian Hutton, who is remembered primarily for being Clint Eastwood's director-for-hire on Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes. A somewhat more reliable source than IMDb states that Hutton left film to concentrate on real estate interests, while the IMDb story that Hutton became a plumber is another example of legend being accepted as fact.

Today marks the general release of Wisit Sasanatieng's film, Red Eagle in Thailand. Not only is this Wisit's latest film, but it could be his last as noted by the Thailand based film journalist, Wise Kwai. There are several reasons why this news has been received indifferently by the majority of film journalists. But imagine, if you will, if Wong Kar-wai decided after In the Mood for Love that he was no longer in the mood to make another film, or if Paul Thomas Anderson declared following There Will be Blood that there will be no more Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Imagine if Martin Scorsese declared after Raging Bull that he was tired from raging at the studio suits and their lack of imagination or sense of film history.

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Dang Birely and the Young Gangsters

How dare I compare a one-shot director from some little Asian country with St. Martin? Wisit's first big screen credit for writing the screenplay for Dang Birely and the Young Gangsters, a film that owed a lot to Mean Streets. (And let's not forget that Scorsese was in turn inspired by Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni.) Directed by Nonzee Nimibutr, Dang Birely was a huge hit in Thailand, marking the beginning of a Thai "New Wave". The comparison to Scorsese doesn't end there as Wisit's films are informed by his love for older films in general, but especially older Thai films. One of the the things that marked the criticism of Tears of the Black Tiger was the cultural misunderstanding, that Wisit was inspired not only by Hollywood and Italian westerns, but that Thailand also had its own tradition of action films, mostly unseen and unknown by most film journalists.

The saga of the distribution problems of Tears of the Black Tiger were of no help. For myself, Wisit's film was one I bought as the edited British DVD when it became clear that the Weinstein Brothers had no intention of releasing the film in the U.S. following the ballyhoo at Cannes. Even when that film did get a somewhat decent release in the U.S., it seems like the damage was irreversible. Wisit's second film, Citizen Dog, released to critical acclaim in Thailand, received a DVD release in the U.S. by a small company. His third film, The Unseeable, written by horror specialist Kongkiat Khomsiri, seemed to live up to its English language title. As muted in color and tone as the first two films are loud and colorful, The Unseeable came and went in Thai theaters. I came to late to see this film with English subtitles when I lived in Thailand, waiting for an imported DVD.

Unfortunately, critic love is not the same as box office love. The reviews by serious film critics and the various festival screenings do not make up for the fact that Wisit's films have been financial failures in Thailand. There have been a slew of projects that have been announced, that have not been done, and may never be realized. Unknown at this time are the compromises that probably were required to make Red Eagle. I hope to see Wisit's new film some day, some way. I've done what homework I could, seeing the last of the films that provided Wisit's inspiration.

That Thai companies have generally discontinued releasing DVDs with English subtitles has helped compound the problem for film scholarship. Not only are there only a handful of older films available for those who are not fluent in Thai, but even recently released films are not easy to see. Wisit returned the favor by writing the screenplay for the critically acclaimed Slice, released earlier this year. In spite of critical accolades in Thailand, and a large number of nominations for Thailand's equivalent to the Oscar, Slice is currently only available as a Thai DVD with no subtitles. Given the seemingly insatiable market for horror films, one would have thought Magnet or Lionsgate would have pounced on Slice for the U.S. DVD market. As far as seeing a subtitled version of Red Eagle, since I can't be at my favorite theater in Chiang Mai, I'll probably have to hope something is available from Hong Kong or Malaysia next year.

This is a conspicuous month as Wisit will also be visible at the Pusan International Film Festival with his contribution to the omnibus film Camellia. Bringing things to something of a full circle, Wisit's short film continues the adventures of Iron Pussy, Michael Shaowanasai's drag parody of Thai movie star Petchara Chaowarat. Not only was Petchara frequently paired onscreen with the original "Red Eagle", Mitr Chaibancha, but "Iron Pussy" was first introduced on film in a feature co-directed by Michael Shaowanasai and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Ten years ago, Wisit's debut film was the first Thai film to compete at Cannes, while Apichatpong's was the first Thai film to win the top prize. Even if Wisit is exiting a career in filmmaking, he is not leaving quietly.

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The Unseeable

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 7, 2010 03:46 AM


Great summation of Wisit's career so far Peter!

The Unseeable was eventually released with English subs in Singapore (or maybe HK).

And you've reminded me I need to keep an eye out for an English-friendly release of Slice.

I don't think Insee Dang will be the last film Wisit ever makes. He's made a clear distinction that he's walking away from a film industry and Thai studio system he obviously feels has betrayed him and his art.

Along with other artistic endeavors, such as writing a comic book, he will likely continue making movies and videos, but they will be smaller, independent projects.

Posted by: wisekwai at October 7, 2010 06:45 AM

Great article on Wisit!

Singapore has a The Unseeable DVD release with English subs, but I think it's already out of print (tried looking for it at various places before I went to Bangkok, to no avail)

Posted by: Stefan at October 7, 2010 08:54 AM

WiseKwai and Stefan: I have the Innoform DVD of The Unseeable, that I wrote about a couple of years ago. The screen grab at the bottom is from that DVD.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at October 7, 2010 01:40 PM