Thai director Taiki Sakpisit is in town for the 32nd Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). Not only is he promoting his FIPRESCI Prize-winning debut feature film The Edge of Daybreak, but also, he’s mentoring budding Southeast Asian filmmakers here as part of SGIFF’s Film Lab programme.
Speaking to us over coffee, Taiki is a soft-spoken man, genuinely joyous and full of enthusiasm when speaking about his film and his artistic process. And all that is particularly fascinating when you consider the sheer weight of his work, which deals with the concept of recurring trauma and violence in Thailand’s political history.
“I never set out to make work with the intent of winning prizes,” says Taiki, on his historic FIPRESCI win. “I don’t make work for the sake of pleasing anyone except myself, and my films are really a medium to capture my own thoughts and experiences, to deliver sociopolitical commentary on the things I think are necessary. Most of all, even if audiences may not understand what’s happening in the film, I want to create work that has resonance with them, and that they can walk away feeling something for.”
He’s not wrong about the complexity of his films. Primarily known for his experimental short films, Taiki puts so much thought into his images, that pausing at a single frame will leave you with a painting on film, one that can be peeled back to reveal layers of meaning. “There are times even Thai audiences may not completely understand what is going on, but you don’t need to completely understand what is going on to appreciate it,” says Taiki. “Most of my work is like that – elusive, and intended to create a sensorial experience through this universal language.”
Of course, critics being critics, Taiki’s The Edge of Daybreak has been analysed and unpacked by reviewers already since its premiere at International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). While on the surface one could read it as a look at a dysfunctional family undergoing mental trials and tribulations, Taiki in fact, intended it to reference issues such as the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, and the military coup d’état of 2006.
“It impresses me how much critics can draw from a viewing,” he says. “One critic noticed that because one of the characters is missing for 3 years, it was likely that he was some kind of soldier engaged in jungle operations in the 70s. Even though I don’t explicitly mention these things, there’s enough pieces for audiences to put together and connect the dots, if they so wish.”
Thanks to its accolades and critical acclaim, tickets to the SGIFF screening were snapped up quickly, and Taiki goes on to explain how he hopes audiences will be able to rewatch the film at some point, even to the point of obsession. “If I like something, I end up obsessing over it,” he says. “When I was working on this script, I kept watching Andrzej Żuławski’s The Third Part of the Night, which dealt with the idea of doppelgängers, and it was this multilayered film with shifting identities, about trauma in Poland and East Europe. I just thought, I want to create an experience like that, and to ensure that all the grief and pain present in the film translates in the audience viewing experience.”
The Edge of Daybreak however, is certainly not the first time he’s attempted to bring such ideas to the screen, weaving ideas of psyche with a person’s place in the real world. One such example he cites is his short film The Mental Traveller. “I like the subject of how the mental landscape of the mind can sometimes resonate with Thai political traumas,” says Taiki. “The Mental Traveller, I remember how personal and special it was to me, and basically, I spent about half a day with patients at a mental institution filming them and observing them. I pitched my idea to the institution, and why it was so important to me, and why I wanted to film them and make art, just observing the camera and how it captured all the patients.”
“Eventually, I had the idea for The Edge of Daybreak, and knew that I needed a bigger canvas for it beyond what a short film’s duration could offer,” he continues. “While my short films are about being in the moment, sometimes spending a whole day just conversing with the landscape, and figuring out my next shot on the go and receiving inspiration from the space, a feature film is quite different from that.”
“A little over 3 years ago, I had this vision of the story, and realised it needed to be made now,” he adds. “The beauty of this film was how it was a collaboration with so many talented people – my DP, my colour grader, my editor, and most of all, my music director Yasuhiro Morinaga, who I’ve been working with for so many years, that he’s been almost like a creative partner, and I’m thankful that he was on this journey with me.”
Speaking of music, Taiki reveals a fascinating fact about the way he works – he has a tendency to think of film like a composition, and tries to find the musicality even in the framing and cuts. “The reason I even got into art in the first place came from my love for music, and I started to apply that to my films,” says Taiki. “Music is all about the rhythms and timing, and captures emotion so well in a piece.”
“For my short film A Ripe Volcano, I had Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in mind, and kept thinking of the ‘Tristan chord’, where the music keeps building, keeps you in suspense, and how it never reaches that climax. For The Edge of Daybreak, I was leaning more towards environmental sounds that were arranged in an avant garde way, like Tony Conrad’s ‘Outside The Dream Syndicate’, which emphasised the heaviness of the sound, and the almost suffocating bass.”
For Taiki, it seems that every element in his film has been orchestrated, right down to location and mood. “I already knew I wanted the film to be in black and white, in order to bring out the textures and high contrast. The chiaroscuro you see, with so much darkness onscreen, it feels like impending doom, almost like an evil presence encroaching on your space, a horror of the mind,” he says. “It was important to me to have this and bring out the horror elements to it, which comes out in the ‘haunted house’ at the centre of the film. While the house itself stands out, it’s also the atmosphere within it that adds to the unease, like how the occupants seem to be haunted by an unseeable force and can feel the presence of someone absent.”
“To find that house, my location team scouted for a good location, and eventually, they found one in a secluded spot by the river, about two hours drive from the river. It was rundown and on the verge of collapse, and we could use it,” he continues. “What’s more, when scouting, we also found the unfinished pagoda nearby, and incorporated that into the script as well, which seemed to release some kind of energy. All of that came together to make it seem like the characters were being possessed by the unknown, a mysterious energy and the spirit of the past. Coupled with the dialogue, and it felt like they were in a state of somnambulism, sleepwalking through a dream. It was perfect.”
This combination of planned elements and his usual more experimental process seemed to work well for Taiki. Before the film started, we thought we should do some proper storyboarding, but I got so tired of that within the first few days,” he says. “I ended up sharing a visual research journal I had with my crew, containing photos and paintings that inspired me, and it ended up triggering their imagination, and allowed them to have their own creative input and contributions to the film.”
“Still, I think most of the crew didn’t know what was going on, because it was such a strange film to begin with. But everyone seemed to be very happy working on the project, because it’s something so different from what they were used to. As an artist, I was also welcoming of the happy accidents that happened during filming, and there were actually quite a few unplanned shots that made it into the final cut.”
Taiki doesn’t think his style will ever truly change, and he firmly remains in the realm of the abstract and experimental. “The beauty of producing such work is how many interpretations and comments you get about it, and how often, it does manage to stand the test of time,” he says. “Like this piece that I did, A Ripe Volcano, even though it’s already 10 years old, but it was still being presented earlier this year at National Gallery Singapore, which shows it still has relevance.”
“Arthouse cinema still doesn’t get a lot of audiences though, and I do wish the government could support independent cinema more, in terms of both filmmakers and audiences,” says Taiki. “The funding mostly goes to work that’s pro-government, and there isn’t as much space to criticise or pass commentary in art.”
“Still, I’m optimistic of the youth in Thailand,” comments Taiki. “They have a very different mindset from their parents’ generation, and no longer holding mainstream opinions. They also gravitate more towards independent film, and appreciate it better, perhaps because they’re also more politically engaged than better, and I’m looking forward to how they grow up and affect the film landscape.”
“And as for the directors, there’s so much promise in how they present such fresh responses to issues in society, and it’s growing more each year. They’re so brave in terms of their activism, and I feel so inspired by their boldness. That’s why I’m sure the future of Thai art and cinema is in a good place.”
Ultimately, Taiki is still an artist first, and wants to ensure that his own work always shows him at the top of his game, such that it can speak for itself. “Every single day, I’m just doing the best I can, writing down ideas and doing research as I figure out my own responses to the political issues of Thailand juxtaposed against my own,” he concludes. “Film for me, is a record of my life at the point of creation. And as long as I can be authentic about it, and maintain full creative control without compromise, perhaps that’s good enough for me.”
The Edge of Daybreak screens on 2nd December 2021 at Golden Village Grand (Great World City). Tickets are sold out.
SGIFF 2021 runs from 25th November to 5th December 2021. For more information about the SGIFF, visit their website here