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February 14, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir)/From the Thai Film Foundation: Black Silk

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Prae Dum
Rattana Pestonji - 1961

Black Silk has been described as Thailand's first Film Noir. I think noir purists would object, although there are certainly some noir elements. Allowing the film the widest berth possible, Black Silk is closer to something like I Wake Up Screaming than Double Indemnity. There's a heroine in trouble, a slimy boyfriend, and his even slimier boss, a stabbing, some shootings, and a few musical numbers. The film was also considered good enough to play at the Berlin International Film Festival fifty years ago.

Prae is young widow who works as a weaver. A friend of her late husband, Tom, is a constant visitor, attempting to get her to leave the house. Prae has no interest in the nightclub where Tom works, more so with a sick baby to care for. Tom's boss, Sina, owes money to a gangster, Wan. Sina comes up with a half-baked plan to have Prae and Tom accompany him while he visits Wan, with Prae discovering that she's to pretend to be interested in buying some land from Wan. Things get out of hand with Sina and Tom killing Wan and Wan's nephew. From there the plot becomes even more convoluted with Sina pretending to be his dead twin brother, and Prae's baby getting kidnapped in order to guarantee Prae's silence about the murders.

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The title refers to Prae's outfit. She is always dressed in black, except for her time in a Buddhist monastery where she is clad entirely in white. This is the film where everything comes together for Pestonji. Parts of the film that have no direct bearing on the narrative are of value as documents of what parts of Thailand looked like fifty years ago - the wats, the uncrowded streets, life along a river with its boats and houses, even a classical Thai dance performed at the nightclub. While the DVD is not perfect, there is a reasonably good preservation of the color and letterboxed wide screen "Hunanaman Scope".

Black Silk has been praised rightly for Pestonji's use of color, much of it in solid swatches of red, black, blue, and white. One shot that took my breath away was a short overhead shot of Tom, in his white shirt, entering his red car, which diagonally filled most of the frame. I couldn't do a screen shot of Tom's car, but here is a shot of Sina's car, an iridescent blue, or so it appears to me. There is something so peculiar about the color of the two featured cars making them more conspicuous against the dark exteriors.

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If any single classic Thai film was to be made more available for western audiences, this would be the one. Don't go by me. Two of the biggest fans of Black Silk just happen to be among the most critically acclaimed contemporary Thai filmmakers. For Wisit Sasanatieng, "Prae Dum is the film that remains my single major influence. It's the crown jewel of all Thai cinema. It shows that Khun Ratana was not simply a master storyteller, but that he knew how to use colour, art direction and camera angles to create subtle nuances and charge the movie with strong emotions."

For Pen-Ek Ratanaruang: "If I could choose, I would love to remake Prae Dum. It is so, so, so atmospheric and film noir. The shot when the camera pans from the coffin to the pair of sandles on the floor still gives me a chill. That shot would have made Hitchcock proud."

As it stands, Pen-Ek is making his own version of contemporary noir with his newest film, Headshot. Don't scoff at his naming Pestonji with Hitchcock as mere name dropping. When both filmmakers were younger men, in 1937, it was the man later known as the "Master of Suspense" who gave a prize to the novice filmmaker considered the master of Thai cinema.

Black Silk can be viewed online at Asian Pacific Films.

More fashions in Noir can be found at Ferdy on Film and Self-Styled Siren. Green is the favored color for helping preserve the classic film The Sound of Fury with a special blogathon link, a joint project with The Film Noir Foundation.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 14, 2011 12:05 AM


This is fascinating! I alerted the film noir enthusiasts at The Blackboard discussion board:


Posted by: Patrick Murtha at February 14, 2011 04:33 AM

Another wonderful window into Asian cinema like only you can provide, Peter. The plot sounds noir enough to me, and what self-respecting noir didn't consider or include musical numbers? What would Gilda be without "Put the Blame on Mame"? I'm going to watch this ASAP! Thanks, Peter.

Posted by: Marilyn at February 14, 2011 10:22 AM

A great addition to the noir discussion. Thanks for alerting me to a film about which I would have have heard otherwise.

Posted by: Tinky at February 14, 2011 04:23 PM

Patrick - Thanks for spreading the word.
Marilyn - Thanks for letting me play with you and the gang.
Tinky - I'm expecting your posts on Thai recipes any day now. Tofu is a common ingredient and Kosher.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at February 15, 2011 03:48 AM

Thank you for sharing. This is a movie I want to see. I think one of my favorite things in this blogathon has been the exposure to film noir in countries other than the US.

Posted by: Joe Thompson at February 21, 2011 09:56 PM