The Island Funeral
Directed by Pimpaka Towira
February 9-15 at MoMA
The three young travelers at the heart of the Thai road movie The Island Funeral have a strong sense of where they’re going, leaving behind central Bangkok for the far-southern province of Pattani, yet they still manage to seem lost every step of the way. Indeed, director Pimpaka Towira opens her fluid but occasionally plodding second feature (and her first in more than a decade) with a side-of-the-road shot in which the confused Zugood (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk) struggles to make sense of a folding map, while his sister, Laila (Heen Sasithorn), and close friend, Toy (Yosawat Sitiwong), fail to locate their coordinates with the aid of a smartphone. The Island Funeral, co-written by Towira and film critic Kong Rithdee, soon establishes that the dominant theme is not wayward youth but rather the fissured psychic terrain of contemporary Thailand itself.
Evidently seeking to resolve lingering questions about her national identity and familial heritage, Laila—who is, along with Zugood, a not particularly devout Muslim—has led the charge, against her father’s advice and for immediate reasons that mostly remain unclear, to visit a long-lost relative in the predominantly Muslim region of Pattani. The trip necessitates driving through a swath of terrain roiled by political violence, a zone where separatists have long sparred with government forces. During these middle passages, Towira seeks to instill an atmospheric sense of foreboding: News reports on the radio make frequent reference to violence and casualties, worrying Toy in particular; in one nighttime sequence, Laila stops the car abruptly and swears she’s just seen a naked woman in chains run across the road.
As the three eventually give up on finding the way themselves, the territory they pass through also seems to become progressively less terrestrial. By the time Laila and company arrive—via rowboat and torchlight, and after soliciting the help of a series of guides—at the remote village where Aunty Zainub (Kiatsuda Piromya) lives, the film, already slow-moving, settles into a vibe that’s practically narcotic, recalling the mystical lassitude of a working Thai filmmaker much more world-renowned than Towira, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The haunted-house effects in the movie’s last section might not be innovative but they’re well deployed: The antique lamps in Zainub’s house flicker drowsily as the wind rustles through the curtains and the insect chorus sings outside in the darkness, suggesting the very lushness of a past from which the younger generation here has, until now, been all but wholly disconnected. Too readily lapsing into its own extended longueurs, Towira’s film is nonetheless admirably alive to the fact that orienting yourself to your roots can be a disorienting experience.