Review: Santi-Vina // สันติ-วีณา (1954)

Thai classic film Santi-Vina opens with a telling shot. A little temple with a white stupa sits atop a mountain in the uninhabited wilderness, with the flurry of weeds and wild vegetation visible from the camera’s vantage point. The untaintedness of the rural landscape, looking more like Laos in today’s terms, seems like a signpost of a Thailand, unfamiliar to many - agrarian, basic and pristine in all senses of the word. This shot is revisited about an hour and a half later into the film, revealing another facet to this particular vision the director has chosen to present, but more importantly, attesting to the wisdom behind the film’s narrative.

Santi-Vina tells the tale of a doomed romance between blind boy Santi and his childhood flame Vina, framed in familiar elements of class distinctions and arranged marriages. Santi, due to his blindness, was sent by his father to live with the village abbot who lived in a cave, as the peaceful environment could be more conducive for growing up. Vina, who is a persistent lover, stood by him through these transitions. She smuggled him into the village class, fought the bullies in school and continued to visit him ‘religiously’ through the years as she blossomed into the likeness of 1950s Hollywood vintage star Brenda Marshall. At least the make-up and hair did the work.

With characters speaking in clipped, measured dialogue, perhaps a hallmark of vintage cinema, director Thavi Na Bangchang, gives the audience an economical rendition of a Thai version of Romeo and Juliet. Told with simplicity and a delicately-curated montage of village rituals against the gawking at nature, graceful fields and majestic limestone cave formations, the film in its meticulously-graded form, is a quiet spectacle to behold.

However, far beyond exuding the appeal of an ornate museum relic, the film packs a subliminal Buddhist wisdom that knocks at the consciousness of the more contemporary minds that were gathered in the cinema watching it today. Running in parallel to the doomed romance between Santi and Vina is Santi’s rocky road to religious enlightenment. The film has wisely woven together seemingly disparate elements to tell a story about karma and destiny. These include Santi’s blindness, battling love rivals, the distraction of romance against peace in practising Buddhism and falling rocks in the cave where Santi lived with the abbot. Petrified at first by the sound of the falling rubble, Santi lives to accept the abbot’s explanation that this is normal and one can learn to ‘filter out’ this disturbance in his daily life. With deliberate strokes, the falling rocks are actually planted as a major plot lever which gives the audience a certain moment of epiphany towards the end. Don’t worry, no spoilers ahead.

In telling Santi’s story of a religious awakening, director Thavi artfully turns the royal flush he has in his poker deck in a subtle yet beguiling reveal. The film is delicately balanced between scenes that advance the narrative and scenes that enrich the spirituality and recapitulate an overall sense of the beauty in the laws of nature. In between family conversations and heated fights are extended takes on the gleaming Buddha statues in the cave, glorious sunsets and close-ups on the glacial sailing by of candy-hued ‘Krathongs’ (ornately-decorated offerings) during the Loy Krathong festival. The meditative is interwoven with the depictive and the real messages reside in between the lines - spoken lines and visual lines.

Watching Santi-Vina is as much a spiritual experience as it is a visually gratifying feast for lovers of the rich hues of vintage cinema. Screened as part of the Asian Film Archive’s (AFA) ‘Asian Restored Classics’ series, Santi-Vina epitomises the AFA’s perennially-running message about the importance of film restoration. The film’s journey to restoration is in itself a cornerstone to the film’s significance and why it warrants some reverence. The restored copy was in fact assembled from recently-discovered sound negatives in the British archives and film reels from China and Russia. If the film’s approximate duration of two hours seems a sermon too long, be assured the one will emerge from it gleefully enlightened.

- Jeremy Sing

This film was viewed as a part of the Asian Restored Classics, presented by the Asian Film Archive. The Asian Film Archive is a registered charity and interested members of the public can support it here.
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