STOP10: 'A Room with a Coconut View' by Tulapop Saenjaroen

There is nothing mind-blowing like a short film that deconstructs the elements of a narrative, strips them of their natural roles, reconstructs them into some kind of a freak of the filmmaking craft and still manages to entertain. That is the Frankenstein of short films, A Room with a Coconut View by Tulapop Saenjaroen, just screened and won the grand prize, the R. D. Pestonji Award, at the 22nd Thai Short Film and Video Festival. 

As much of a phantasm as it sounds, the film is built an all-too-familiar premise, a tourist in Thailand. There are no actors in this film, the biggest character is the director Tulapop, who has a unrelenting, and devil-may-care vision of telling a story through voices, systems and perspectives. Alex is your usual farang tourist, seemingly the backpacking, off-the-beaten-track sort, who wants to see more in Bangsaen and he is not satisfied with his Thai-speaking robot guide Kanya, who is strictly programmed to show him what's officially approved. Through a deft touch on wry comedy, the struggle between the inquisitiveness of Alex and Kanya's dogged adherence to the official tourism handbook, draws a series of chuckles. Kanya goes the distance in introducing even the banal, such as 'This is water pump', and many of it comically well-timed. 

The film is of course not without a narrative arc. Kanya, despite her monotonous, robotic speaking tone displays some human fallibilities, such as dozing off and breaking down, brought to live by Tulapop's cheeky yet plausible appropriations of technical glitches. Alex evolves from a human-sounding run off the mill tourist to a robot himself towards the end, which is done to facilitate what the director is seeking to explore, the existential question of why we do certain things or tell certain stories. Is it because we willed to do them ourselves or are we at someone else's will and command? The film also throws some light on history and our interpretations of it. Kamnan Poh is apparently a well-know figure in Bangsaen and Kanya narrates his story (with some brilliant vintage video footages inserted) along the tones probably prescribed in the official script. But in the framework of this cheeky, irreverent film, we are led to question the truth about received history and identity, mostly the tyranny of it. It's a funny way to look at something increasingly topical in Southeast Asia - censorship and the truth.

We had the privilege of speaking to Tulapop just after his win at the Thai Short Film and Video Festival about his piece.

What was the inspiration behind this film?

The inspiration behind simply derives from the idea that I always wanted to make a work that has something to do with my hometown, Bangsaen, at least once. Although it was where I was born but I've never really lived there—only visiting on weekends or holidays since my childhood. It’s a kind of double binding impression that intrigued me, the feeling like being a tourist in my own hometown—familiar yet alienated, a constant questioning of what does it really mean to know or to feel belong to a place, or even the idea of being a forever tourist everywhere. Then I’ve started to collect the infos and other forms of representation relating to the town. The more I looked through what I’d been collecting, the more I became interested in the surfaces of the town’s given ‘identity’ or how it’s generically aestheticised, how the implementation of the aesthetics is weaponised and to what end, how digital culture plays its role in the process of the representation in a dictatorial regime, etc. That was a starting point I guess: when a portrait of a tourist town becomes a portrait of the making of the portrait of a tourist town.

Thailand is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. What do you want tourists to see more of that is not commonly seen?

Not specifically to tourists, I would say. And on the contrary, my attempt is to let the viewer to see much more of the ‘commonly seen’ or the commonly known instead, to such an extent that it is somehow interrogating what’s already been made to be seen, or made to be considered ‘common’ or ‘known for’. In other words, the project aspires to be a catalyst for different ways of seeing the existing or to somewhat dissect and deconstruct the pre-interpreted, rather than to offer more unseen/unfamiliar images.

Why the strange title 'A Room with a Coconut View'? What does it mean?

In the narrative “A Room with a Coconut View” refers to a ‘sea-view' room in the hotel. However, the view of the sea in the room are mostly blocked by coconut trees on the beach, so a foreign guest renames it as “a coconut view” room. So I think this title has a playful sense and slippery feel to it; it implies the entanglement between what is actually seen and the meaning imposed, or even the actual and the virtual in my opinion. It’s also indirectly playing with E.M. Forster’s novel title “A Room with a View”, I just added “coconut”.

What do you want the audience to take away from this film? How was the audience response at Locarno?

Nothing specific, really. Its life, maybe. So it won’t die just right after being seen. I think I’ve expressed my take specific enough so I’m more interested in how it travels or shape-shifts to somewhere or something else. At Locarno, I’ve heard some great feedbacks from the audiences and I was really happy to hear lots of laughter during the screenings.

Thai directors seem to have very distinctive and experimental styles. Agree or not agree? What are some of your favourite Thai films?

Agree and disagree. There are a lot of filmmakers in Thailand. Some are different from the others. My favourite Thai films are a short film called Jai by Anocha Suwichakornpong and ‘Blissfully Yours’ and ‘Tropical Malady’ by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

How do you feel about winning the grand prize at Thai Short Film and Video Festival?

I feel lucky, thankful, and honoured.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

A Room with a Coconut View (Trailer) from tulapop saenjaroen on Vimeo.
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