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The Man Who Died for his Art
 

Anchalee Chaiworaporn

  All rights reserved.
 

Before Apichatphong Weerasethakul who insists on experimental style and brought the Thai film fame by grabbing the first Cannes award in 2004, there was one man who struggled to live with his art and finally died for what he believed.

 


                                                         Related Story:
Rattana's Filmography


Montien Hotel, Bangkok, August 1970

Director Rattana Pestonji was feeling very optimistic as he walked into the Montien Hotel that humid evening in August, 1970. After years of frustration, he was finally nearing his goal. He had managed to prod the government into action; Economics Minister Bunchana Atthakorn had agreed to meet Thai filmmakers to discuss ways of assisting the domestic movie industry.

Although he had retired from directing movies six years before, Rattana was still very much the man of the moment. Bunchana gave the opening address but all those who had crowded into the hotel's Methee Room that evening were eagerly waiting to hear what Rattana had to say his would be the most important speech by far. In conversation with Sa-nguan Matthawaphan, vice president of the Thai Film Producers Association, Rattana was unable to conceal his glee.

Sa-nguan, we've been waiting such a long time for this day. I hope we're finally going to get what we want.

After the minister stepped down, a number of filmmakers took the podium, one after another, to make their case for government funding. Finally Rattana's turn came; he had asked to speak last. It was 9 pm .

When I first started out in the movie business, he began, Sadet Ong Chai Yai [Prince Bhanu Yugala] had just hired me as a cameraman for a film he wanted to shoot called Phanthaay Norasingh . I've spent every baht I ever earned on my productions and now I have to make adverts just to survive. The foreign film distributors have been preying on Thai cinemas. .

Rattana faltered. Then, in full view of the horrified audience, he crumpled to the floor, unconscious. Unable to revive him, Rattana's friends rushed him to nearby Chulalongkorn Hospital . He died three an hour later of a massive coronary.

Rattana had devoted the best years of his life to cinema; his death sent shock waves through the industry.
 
Rattana at Montien

A few days after that fateful meeting on Aug 17, the government decided to set up the Thai Film Promotion Board. The new organization would be responsible for promoting and encouraging investment in home-grown movies.
Rattana's name has gradually faded from the public memory. Today, 35 years after his death, very few people remember the achievements of this remarkable man.

Born in Thailand to a family of Iranian extraction, Rattana showed an avid interest in photography from an early age.

Even as a boy Dad was completely in love with his camera, Rattana's daughter, Phannee Trangkhasombat, recalled in a recent interview. I was told he used to dismantle and reassemble his camera so often that grandfather decided to send him to London University to do engineering.

Enmeshed in his studies in England, the young Rattana still found time to take photos and picked up several awards for his work in photographic competitions. After graduation, he returned home with a degree in engineering but was never to use it.

Quickly finding a job as a film salesman, Rattana began to explore an art form that was still in its infancy in Thailand cinematography.

In 1937, he shot his first amateur movie called Taeng the story of a young Thai girl. Taeng was entered in the Amateur Cine Competition in Glasgow, Scotland and received the prestigious Alfred Hitchcock award.

Rattana continued his work in sales until he met Sadet Ong Chai Yai [Prince Bhanu Yukol) who was a powerful figure in the Thai film industry. The Prince invited him to exercise his talents as a cameraman on the film Phanthaay Norasingh (Oarsman Norasingh) in 1949.

He tackled the project with boundless enthusiasm. Dad was almost killed during the shoot, his daughter recalled. Attempting to get the most dramatic camera angle for a climactic scene, he was nearly crushed by a ship he always went after the perfect. He managed to leap out of the way at the last moment, cradling his camera like a newborn baby.

Two years after his start as a professional cinematography, Rattana expanded his horizons by directing his first feature Tukkata Jaa (Darling Doll). It was so well received, He formed his own production company, Hanuman Moving Pictures, in 1953.

Rattana knew he had to get serious now. While most Thai filmmakers were content to use 16mm film, which required post-production dubbing, only the international standard was good enough for Rattana. He shot his first production Santi-Weena on the superior (and expensive) 35mm stock, using sound-on-film. This time, he concentrated only on the cinematography and handed the directing chair over to Khru Marut.

Santi-Weena was entered in the 1955 Southeast Asia Film Festival in Tokyo alongside 26 feature films from Japan, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, India, Ceylong, Pakistan and Thailand . The film swept the awards, taking best cinematography, best art direction, and the Golden Harvest Award for best Asian cultural presentation.

But the Thai government was unimpressed. Returning triumphantly with an armload of awards, Rattana was shocked at his treatment. Not only was he charged US$5,000 (Bt125,000) tax for the $16,000 Mitchell movie camera he won at the festival, but he was also fined Bt1,000 for failing to clear his film with the Thai censor.

It wasn't all dark clouds though, as the film was praised in Thailand and distributed in Russia and China a first for a Thai film.

Though frustrated by the Thai bureaucracy, the energetic filmmaker continued his work as director or cinematographer on Chuafah Din Salai (Dying Forever), Rongraem Nark (The Hell Hotel), Sawan Mued (Dark Heaven), Phrae Dam (The Black Silk) which he sent to the Berlin International Film Festival in 1961 and Namtarn Mai Warn (The Unsweet Sugar), as well as a few documentaries.

Rattana's feature-length films usually incorporated an experiment. Rongraem Narok was shot entirely on one set a difficult technique which Hitchcock had employed successfully in his movie Rope .

His film often went against the public grain by daring to have unhappy endings which usually spell death at the box-office. This is probably why his movies were respected more than they were actually watched.

Phannee said, We didn't always lose money. Only Rongraem Nark and Phrae Dam were financial failures. But it's true we received more praise than money most of the time.

Fifteen years after his professional film debut, Rattana decided it was time to pack it in. He was frustrated with the whole process, and his health was not equal to the demands of filmmaking.

But he couldn't walk away from the industry entirely. He continued to fight for support, and co-founded the Thai Film Producers Association. As president of the association, he haggled constantly with Field Marshall Thanom Kittikajorn, arguing the importance of Thai films right up to his last breath.

Phannee recalled that tragic night, Stress and anger were the main causes of my father's death, insisted Phanee. If Dad didn't give that speech, firing his passion, I don't think he would have died so soon.

Dad tried to bring fame and respect to this country. But the government didn't care. He often complained the government closed their ears whenever I had something to say.'

But Rattana's martyrdom didn't help the cause that much. The Thai film community was energetic for just a short while and the industry is in the same shambles it has always been.

Today, the government seemed to support the Thai film industry more than ever. But this still has to be under the condition of what arts you are going to say. This is clearly seen in the state reaction to Tropical Malady and Ong Bak two films that simultaneously brought the Thai fame. While the latter got two awards from the government Tony Jaa as the Culture Diplomat, and Prestigious Award to the producer, Tropical Malady still walks into the road of silence and loneliness.

   
   
   
 

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