The Art of Death: An Interview with Anucha Boonyawatana

Making ripples quietly in its own terrain while its Western LGBT counterpart Call Me By Your Name is still bobbing along on the crest of its popularity is Malila: The Farewell Flower. To label it a gay film is of course a reduction of what it is and how it's been hypnotizing audiences with its spiritual wisdom and beauty.

Malila: The Farewell Flower is a contemplative and soulful meditation on beauty, ephemerality and loss. The film follows late-stage former lovers Shane and Pich as they reunite to contend with Pich’s ebbing mortality. A redolent and arboreal odyssey, the film explores mortality through the lens of Buddhist philosophy and ‘Bai Sri’, a Thai white jasmine flower ornament whose creation is inextricably tied with its creation; the flowers are folded and twisted to construct the ornament, the jasmine flowers are on the cusp of destruction as they are made anew.

Malila is directed by rising star Anucha Boonyawatana, who first made her debut in Berlin with 2015’s The Blue Hour. With its hallucinatory dreamscapes and deft intermingling of the sacred and the profane, Malila bears a kindred resemblance to the work of another Thai maestro, Tropical Malady’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

The film has picked up several international film awards over the past 8 months since its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) in 2017. This included the special Kim Ji Seok Award in BIFF, and the Best Director Award at the 2017 Singapore International Film Festival as well as the 2017 Kerala International Film Festival.

Picking up the Best Director Award at the 2017 Kerala International Film Festival

Picking up the Best Director Award at the 2017 Singapore International Film Festival

Anucha deliberating her steps on set of 'Malila'

Clearly a rising
star in the independent film circuit, Anucha Boonyawatana has a distinctive voice not seen in the film circuit. With a film that deals with big questions like death, love and Buddhism, we applied the same big questions to Anucha herself and got her to share her views about romance and Buddhist philosophies. We also asked if she is afraid of death.

What inspired you to make this film?
The film is like the collection of things I experience and adore. For Malila, It’s very personal and every elements in the film are came from my memory. I had a chance to study Thai flower making (Baisri) and found that it’s very pain staking. Baisri is very beautiful but it’s also fragile and will wither soon and it made me feel the word “absurd” and began to question about value of love and life. And once in my lifetime, I use to be in the monkhood. I wander through forest and had to do a lot of meditation practices. These experience make me understand the mentality of monks and inspire me to make Malila.

What was your initial idea like? How did it evolve to become this final product we see?
At first the film will be more surreal or magical realism. Malila is a very long time project, it should be my first feature but back in that time, I can’t find enough money to make this film. So I made the Blue Hour and after that so many years I’m grow older and I need Malila to be more realistic approach. But you may sense that film still has many dreamlike, magical and surrealism elements.

How was the experience of filming in the jungle? 
I love to film in the forest, and also my main actor. It’s very tough but relax at the same time. Everything in the forest is very hard to control especially for an art direction. Actually, the real forest is extremely green color but I don’t want that green, so we try to control the leaves like cut some leaves and fill in  the dry grasses.  You also have to be very brave, because sometimes it can be dangerous and haunting like we film in the actual location where the villagers dump dead bodies there. In that time, you have to be a strong pillar for all of the crews.
How did you work with the actors to get them to deliver such soulful performances?
We do a lot of workshop for their character’s back stories, I’ll let them do improvisations for many scenes that did not appear in the script like the scene that the first met each other, make love,  first kiss, fighting and saying good bye and also for the scene that related to their family and society. When they are on set they can draw the feeling from all of these memories to deliver their performance. Apart from acting workshop, we just use a very simple and fundamental techniques. Before we start filming I’ll let my actor walk for a while in the location, they will feel the atmosphere and all of the senses like wind, light, heat and some odor that emit from the location. Luckily they are very sensitive persons, so they will use all of these feeling to create the performance.

Do you think the concept of Buddhism and romance are conflicting? (because Buddhism teaches you to detach)
I don’t think that they are conflicting, They are different ways of living and detaching can be done in many levels. Buddhism also understand that every normal human wants love and romance but Buddhism will teach you to aware that all of these is impermanence and will lead you to suffering at the end.
The white Jasmine flower is beautiful but temporary. Do you think things are beautiful only because they don't last?
I really don’t know this. In my opinion, things like flowers are all beauty in every state from blooming to withering.
The film has travelled to a few countries. What were the reactions from foreign audience? Any interesting feedback?
I think the feedback is quite different and it’s also reflect the society of those countries. For example, in the countries those are still not open for LGBT, there will be a question like : why your characters have to be gay? Many people will think that LGBT film will have to talk about fighting for rights or something very activist. So they are very surprise that my film didn’t seem to have anything like that.

What are some of your favourite films? favourite Thai films?
I like classic Hollywood films and also old school Asian cinema from Akira Kurosawa and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. For Thai film,  Apichatpong’s films is my favorite. Also the film like Mulholland Dr. and Peter Greenaway’s work.
What do you think about death? Are you afraid to die?
I’m always think about death. Someone has told  me that I have death drives. I always let my self to be in a very risky situation and deathly relationships like having relationships with Hitman or veteran soldiers. Somehow their dark world story and background interest me and they are interested in me also. I have to say that I’m afraid to die like everyone. It’s ultimate fear and fragile that I want to overcome and vice versa it’s so charming and obsessive.  

Interview by Koh Zhi Hao

Check out the film trailer here:

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