Black Silk (1961)
Director: Ratana Pestonji
Cast: Ratanavadi Ratanabhand, Sarinthip Siriwan, Senee Wisaneesarn, Tom Wisawachart
Plot: Prae is a young widow who, still grieving over the death of her husband, refuses to start life anew with her lover. Desperately in need of money to convince Prae to marry him, Thom finds himself in the middle of a murder and an elaborate scandal. Prae is unwillingly dragged in as a victim, and the couple gets entangled in a web of deceit and heartbreak as things spiral out of control.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin)
Rating: PG for some violence.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Ratana Pestonji is an immaculate framer of characters and objects, well that is judging by his work here in Black Silk, a Thai crime classic that has been regarded by some as the first ever film noir produced by the country. His visual style is simple yet distinctive, with the use of rich colours particularly yellow, one of the film's strongest features.
Another memorable aspect of Black Silk that gives it some kind of cultural specificity is the use of traditional music and folk songs, both diegetically and non-diegetically, which create an aural mood that is loosely associated with classic Southeast Asian films and music.
Nominated for the prestigious Golden Berlin Bear, Black Silk is a film best appreciated as a cultural lens into 1960s Thailand, rather than as an art film that meanders in its storytelling. Depending on your capacity for 'slow cinema', Pestonji's film may or may not work out for you.
It takes its time, sometimes far too long, to get the narrative running, but at least the mise-en-scene is superb as Pestonji knows how to foreground things. The characters are always in focus, but while they are not always interestingly developed, the camera's precise staging of what transpires on screen more than makes up for it.
The premise is straightforward: A woman named Prae who is in mourning over the death of her late husband is unwillingly (and unknowingly) dragged by her lover Thom into an elaborate scandal involving murder. Things spiral out of control and essentially Black Silk explores the already rocky relationship between the couple taking a turn for the worst as fate hands each of them a manipulative wrecking ball.
Pestonji’s bleak tale is offset by its aforementioned impressive cinematography and staging of characters, but the acting by the lead cast leaves a lot to be desired. The dramatic quality (and power) of their performances is sincerely lacking, and I feel this is the weakest point of the film.
Despite its flaws, Black Silk remains to be a cultural milestone in Thai cinema, with Pestonji often regarded as the highly influential ‘father’ that has inspired filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010) and Wisit Sasanatieng (Tears of the Black Tiger, 2000). It remains well preserved today due to the important efforts by the Thai Film Archive.
GRADE: B (7.5/10 or 3.5 stars)
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