A mesmerizing narrative of a family haunted by a country’s vicious political cycle – and standing in for the whole, traumatized nation – was the highlight of a recent international festival and is now seeking an audience back home.
Premiering last month at the Rotterdam Film Festival, The Edge of Daybreak introduces viewers to a dysfunctional Thai family torn apart by violence and trauma. The movie not only won praise from foreign critics but also brought back one of their most prestigious prizes for its “mysterious atmosphere and rich imagery.”
Despite high acclaim on the international stage, the film remains little known in the Thai mainstream. Not only for its lack of a domestic release date, but also because it’s the feature debut of an ambitious experimental artist rather than the work of a renowned auteur.
“It’s a 30-year timeframe centered on one single family, but its historical junction is significant and feels relevant to people today still,” said the film’s director, Taiki Sakpisit.
Taiki, 46, worked on short films and video installations such as A Ripe Volcano, The Mental Traveller and Until the Morning Comes prior to making the film. Seeing in the Dark, his latest installation, showed recently in South Korea.
The three-decade span of his first feature-length film begins with the slaughter of Bangkok university students in 1976 and ends with the 2006 military overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, events which have cemented Thailand into a seemingly intractable impasse.
Rendered in monochromatic, abstract visuals with minimal action, sparse dialogue and an ominous soundscape, The Edge of Daybreak is definitely not a straightforward drama. It’s best approached as a 110-minute mood piece that seeks to elevate its audience through layers of metaphor, emotional episodes and silent nightmare.
It’s not derivative, but you could splice some scenes into a David Lynch film without missing a beat. The cinematic range makes sense given Taiki’s range draws from his birthplace of Japan, schooling in San Francisco and roots in Thailand.
The Edge of Daybreak was filmed at locations throughout Thailand and features Thai performers including Manatsanun “Donut” Phanlerdwongsakul, Sunida “Stam” Ratanakorn and Chalad Na Songkhla.
Jumping around its arc of time, the plot unfolds around Ploy (Sunida), who nearly drowns as a child and grows to become a rising starlet only to be confronted by her distant mother’s suicide attempt – though not necessarily in that order. Political forces on the periphery factor into the passion, infidelity and deep pain that course through her family, and over all the open emotional wounds hangs a sense of dread.
But just as the title gets at the darkness of things before dawn, not all is hopeless. Taiki said he specifically named the film after an all-inmate band who made powerful soul music in a 1970s Virginia prison.
“I really like the band’s name, and their songs are filled with liberating emotions, as if music freed them,” Taiki said.
Taiki opened up to us about the film and everything that went into it. His lightly edited interview is below.
This film is your debut feature. How did it start?
There is a concept that I was really interested in: paralysis. Not only in the sense of a physical state, but also a mental one, and the paralysis of time is something I wanted to explore. The freeze of time is especially the concept I was interested in, because it made me think of the power to spellbind the masses. The notion of frozen time therefore is crucial in the film, which is mainly focused on invisible power, which might have more power than that which is visible.
What was the film’s source material? Any political or real life events?
There was one book I read that was a biography of Pridi Banomyong, the former prime minister of Thailand forced to flee the country after a military coup. A part of the book touched me very much; the night soldiers attacked Pridi’s home, and Pridi had to jump into the Chao Phraya River to escape. Still, the soldiers opened fire on his house. Pridi’s wife [Poonsuk Banomyong] shouted, “Please stop shooting. Only children and women are here.” That hit me with the idea of a family torn apart by political events, and the love of a mother who would do anything to protect her children – something I can really relate to. If you watch the movie, you might be able to sense that the survival struggle is at the heart of the movie.
Of course, despite the historical materials, I realized that I had to synthesize them into my work, with my real-life experiences embedded in it. It’s fair to say this is actually one of my most personal works I’ve made so far, especially the aspect of maternal love. This is why the protagonists in the film are women. I want to express the love of a mother that’s not only mine, but everyone’s. It’s a universal concept.
How do you think your film will be received in Thailand?
On the day my film premiered, if I remember correctly, a coup happened in Myanmar. Then days later, I saw videos of military men shooting people, and I don’t want to imagine if it could soon happen in Thailand, too. With what’s going on right now, no one can say they aren’t interested in politics. I don’t think it can be separated from one’s daily life now. As I am now teaching university students, I can feel that young generations these days are especially aware of politics. To me, they are the most politically active generation, even more than their senior students. I think if they want to change the country, the issue now falls into their hands.
Because the current political dynamic has been going on for so long, many things have come to reflect what’s going on in Thailand right now. Not only my movie, but in music, paintings and other forms of art. And I think it’s not only limited to politics now, but has had a ripple effect that now touches the economy, impacting families, parents and kids. It’s a vast effect. Everyone is now sharing the same experience, the same moment.
Due to the pandemic, your film premiered online instead of in a cinema. How did you feel about that?
Of course, as a filmmaker, I’d prefer my film be shown on a high-definition screen. But I found it impressive that my audience was so determined to watch my film. At the Rotterdam Film Festival, which was held online, people who bought tickets could only watch it one time when they clicked the ‘play’ button. They couldn’t rewind to see the whole film, which made the experience almost like watching it at a cinema.
What are other influences or films you referenced? Any movies in particular?
Actually what influenced me goes beyond movies. I tried not to find inspiration only from movies that I like. I’m not only a fan of movies, but also art and music. During the preproduction process, I found that a traditional storyboard did not challenge the imagination enough. So I shifted to what are called “visual references” for my crew, such as photographs, paintings and sculptures, like the sculpture of Berlinde De Bruyckere, or Jeff Wall’s photography.
But of course, there are a few movies that I take inspiration from: the poetic realism of Port of Shadow (1938) or the play of light, shadow and color in Window Water Baby Moving (1959).
I knew from the start that I wanted the film to be black and white. The script I wrote in each scene was specifically designed to be monochromatic. I would write something like “water stain,” rust on a cement pole” and “texture of a snake’s skin,” for example. Light and shadows are other essential elements of the movie.
Tell us about the film’s experimental music score.
I and my music composer [Yasuhiro Morinaga] talked about sound sculpture and we needed music that could connect spiritually. One day Yasuhiro suggested me to work with this Indonesian band, a hardcore one, called Senyawa. They made their own instruments out of bamboo and created such a very unique sound. Half of the band’s duo, Wukir Suryadi, watched my film and improvised what he felt, then he sent the materials to us.
We also worked with musicians from other countries such as Japan and Vietnam. We ended up having so many sound elements to choose from. We had so much fun working on the score alone.
How’s the feedback been so far?
I enjoyed some reviews written by European journalists and critics. Even though they are in Portuguese, Spanish or French, I used Google Translate to help me. What’s interesting to me is that, although my film doesn’t shout its messages out loud or directly, they seemed to feel a kind of pain or trauma in the movie, as if it’s a universal language. They seemed to know how political crises can mentally affect people in a certain country.
How do you view the present state of Thai film?
My film talks about Thai history subtly, not directly. It’s not a historical movie nor a biopic about someone. But it’s a personal film that fixes on one single family I made up. It might be an overstatement saying that a film like mine is difficult to watch. It’s just that there are not many movies like this coming from the Thai film industry.
If you asked me about the space occupied by Thai movies, many indie filmmakers would say that space is very small for them. But I knew from the start that I didn’t expect much anyway. I didn’t expect that my film would go mainstream with a large audience. I just did my best without thinking too much about the feedback or whatever comes after. For me, it’s already fulfilling with the filmmaking experience, from the start to the end.