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Sine Simplified

by Jason Tan Liwag

Filmmaker Spotlight: Pom Bunsermvicha

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Pom Bunsermvicha
We interview Pom Bunsermvicha about her film “Lemongrass Girl”, discovering her hybrid docufiction style, and exploring identity and isolation in Thai society through cinema.

Dagupan City, Philippines — Lemongrass Girl follows a young production assistant tasked to plant lemongrass as part of Thai superstition to ward off the rain. In complying with the demands of the ritual, she begins to crumble as the days go on. Since its world premiere at the Ammodo Tiger Short Competition at the 50th IFFR, it has also been selected for Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight 2021.

Pom Bunsermvicha is a Thai independent director and producer. Since her first short film 10:10 in 2015, she has directed four other short films: Graduation Speech (2015), COACH (2016), E-po (A Second Chance) (2018), and Lemongrass Girl (2021). Her films have screened and competed in many international film festivals such as BFI Flare and Hamburg International Short Film Festival. She is an alumna of the Berlinale Talents, Tribeca Film Institute, and was set to be part of the Locarno Film Academy in 2020 until its cancellation due to COVID-19.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Pom earlier this year to talk to her about her film, the unique filmmaking process, and how set conversations turned into the creation of a critique of power structures in Thailand.

Conducted in February 2021, the interview has been edited for brevity and clarity:

How are you? How is the situation over there?

I’m okay. I’m very busy these days for some reason. This week is so packed. But the situation is okay. In Thailand, we were lucky for a couple of months before New Year’s and so we were kind of free to live life the same way we did. But right before New Year’s, the second wave hit. 

So now, we’re in partial lockdown in some parts. Especially around Bangkok. They’re in a super red zone and it’s not so good. So you can’t really quite travel outside of wherever you are. But I mean, we’re used to this. We’ve lived like this for a whole year now.

How did you start with your filmmaking journey?

I would say that leaving Thailand was a pivotal moment for me. Leaving to study abroad allowed me to discover who I am, what I liked, and what I didn’t like. For me, I didn’t grow up with a deep relationship with cinema per se. When I was at Brown University studying media studies, I was actually having trouble with the theoretical side of things because I don’t know how it relates to or connects to the act of making film itself.

Later, there were two things happening concurrently. One was me studying abroad in Prague and being in a kind of film school space that exposed me to world cinema or, at least, European cinema there. At the same time the summer before that, I was interning in Thailand with Anocha Suwichakornpong. The film [Lemongrass Girl] is also about her film, right? So that’s when my relationship with Anocha started. That summer I worked on a feature film with her. I was the third assistant director on set and I was exposed to filmmaking and independent filmmaking culture in Thailand. I got to know people in the industry who later kind of became my family and got to know the community. So it just felt right.

Concurrently while building these relationships, I was exposed to Asian cinema and just world cinema in general and also studying abroad in Prague and making my first short film there. I would say that the films I made in Prague or even my thesis film (E-po, the one about grandma), even though it was my first film from Thailand, were kind of ways for me to discover what I could do with the medium and me learning.

With Prague, it taught me about traditional narrative filmmaking. They force you to make a film with no dialogue and then you shoot on film, so you really learn with constraints there. Whereas with E-po, I learned a lot from making docs and experimenting with form. Just making a documentary for the first time was a difficult process for me, to be honest. I think it happens. There are just so many different possibilities.

So with this film, with Lemongrass Girl, I think it was the first work where I felt like I’m starting to discover my voice and what feels good to me in terms of what I’m interested in. When I was doing only fiction, I felt restrained by that. When I was doing a documentary, I felt restrained by that. So now, actually, there’s no boundaries. You can just do whatever you want. So with Lemongrass Girl, I got to do that.

Lemongrass Girl_Film Still 4

This film serves somewhat as a subtle reflection of power relations and sexism. Is that something that you were conscious about when you were creating the film or was it something that you realized in hindsight?

In terms of commentary on sexism, I was definitely aware of it from the beginning. I think that’s why we wanted to make this film in the first place. Because the story of the lemongrass girl is something that happens a lot on film sets. People make fun of it and they don’t really think much about it. We were like: “This is a problem.” But no one is saying anything. No one is doing anything about it. Everyone seems to think that it’s not a problem.

Through those, we had a lot of conversations about sexism and what we’d see wrong in our society. It kind of culminated in this perfect kind of timing, where Anocha was about to shoot Come Here and we were like: “What if we made a film about the lemongrass girl?” and then they were like: “Oh yeah, we should!” and we were like “Yeah!” So it kind of just happened. But the idea formed before we went into shooting, for sure.

It was really nice that Anocha took our conversations and our brainstorming and wrote out scenes. She wrote out about three pages and it was kind of themes and things that could happen. But she didn’t write everything out for me. She knew that this would be an approach wherein I would also be documenting what happens as well. So she left a lot of space and room for me to pick her writing and work it into whatever what really happened onset and kind of create from there. 

So that was really nice because Anocha really understands. And even in her work as well. She uses a lot of documentary approaches to her filmmaking. So it was nice that we were able to go from conversations to writing out different scenes and kind of making it while shooting. I think the last kind of writing happens in editing, for sure. Most films are like that. Some films, they’re more strict as to whatever you wrote in the script. But with this one, I really did have to think about how I would put the film together in editing.

You talked about how there are two DoPs [directors of photography] here. One who takes all of the fictional aspects while you capture all the behind-the-scenes work. I noticed throughout the filmmaking process, you used static camera work that’s more distanced. Was there a reason behind that? Did you want to create a more natural feeling of being an observer?

It was because I shot this with Parinee [Buthrasri] as well. Parinee was working as a producer on Come Here and she has made a career for herself as a cinematographer as well. So she would actually shoot the fictional scenes from the script and I would be directing more while during the behind-the-scenes ones, I would be shooting. I guess, in terms of practicality, the style kind of matches, to just have it be static. You see more and I think technically it just makes sense. I could leave the camera where it looks good to me and I could just let it run and I can kind of disappear from the camera even. But it helps. 

Not like “Oh. I don’t want to be here while shooting you!” or like “Be natural.” It’s more of… it’s nice to have some space away from it and also for people and things to kind of unfold in front of the camera. To be able to capture that stuff, if the camera is moving, you have to be so intentional about where you are and what you want to film. It’s much bigger in terms of the production budget and scale. We didn’t have any money. All we had was a camera and a tripod and a little sound. 

So it was hard: partly because of the budget, partly because of the technicality of it. But also, I think it works in terms of style. For me, also with E-po, I did kind of the same style to just have the camera static and just observing and we kind of just transferred for that. With that, I also collaborated with Parinee, as well. It just continued with that collaboration from the previous film to the next.

Lemongrass Girl_Film Still 5

This was filmed two years ago, right?

Yeah, two years ago! Two and a half years ago now.

You talked about it in the Afterthoughts about how difficult the editing was. What about the editing process was difficult?

Yeah. Before I went into editing and the script, I felt like there was enough tension in the lemongrass girl story. But when I was filming, I couldn’t film every single scene that was written or some didn’t work as well. I couldn’t use everything. So I had a hard time making sure that there’s enough tension in the film. So by the time I finished it, I thought it’s enough. I think it’s a good amount. 

But at certain points, I didn’t quite know how to kind of tell the story so that it would carry the audience and it would have enough substance. I was scared that, if people watched it, they might not understand Piano’s struggle within the film. That was a big concern for me because it was really important that the audience needs to be able to feel what she’s feeling. Or at least get close to that. That was kind of difficult in the editing process to make sure that I’m editing it in the right way where you get that feeling that’s more or less the same.

How long did it take you to shoot this?

One week. Because Anocha was shooting for one week. *laughs*

So Anocha’s style is she’d shoot something and then she’ll wait and then she’ll shoot something else again. So her films are quite fragmented. In this particular set, she shot for one week and I would shoot on days that she’s filming the behind-the-scenes stuff. And on the days off, we had like two days off in between, I would shoot the Piano story: going to the aunt’s house, finding the lemongrass, the shots on the scooter… all of that we shot on the days off.

It’s hard for me also because I have so much good footage from what I shot in the behind-the-scenes section. I wish that I could do more with it. But I couldn’t! Because there were so many good moments, I had to make a decision to cut the stuff that didn’t matter in the end. But there was actually a lot more beautiful footage in the behind-the-scenes that I wish I had shown. But it didn’t fit in the film. So I hope Anocha does something with it.

Are there any particular things that were unique about the filmmaking process for you? 

I think that what was so interesting for me was the fact that I was making a film alongside everybody working and making a different film for real. It wasn’t like I staged a film set and I had everything acted out. What I was filming was really reality unfolding in front of me. That was interesting for me because everybody onset really had to play along with the narrative of the Lemongrass Girl while they’re actually working. 

Everybody was kind of aware. “Oh. Pom is making a film and Piano is gonna act in it.” Piano is actually the real production manager on set. Like on top of acting and being the lemongrass girl, she was actually working. So that was such an interesting experience because everyone was performing their role onset, meaning they were performing their job, but they were also performing and acting themselves as part of the film. You see that most through Piano, but it’s actually really everybody involved.

For me, it doesn’t matter anymore what was documentary and what was fiction. Like there’s no line; no boundary. This is what it is. It was so interesting that, like, for example, one of the last shots in the film was when the assistant director Maenum [Chagasik] goes “Piano? Piano? Where are you?” or calls for Piano and asks if anyone has seen Piano. When I was filming that, I kind of put the camera down and they were actually working and Anocha was really stressed at the time about filming. Like she wasn’t acting for the camera and I just asked Maenum to say this line. Then that’s it.

A lot of the time, I just observed and kept the camera rolling and kind of would ask people to do little things for the film. It was nice that they didn’t mind. Many times, I was quite annoying. For Piano, I would shoot her all the time. I kind of followed her around and saw her struggle. At one point, on the last day, she turned to me and she said: “Pom, I really cannot today. I’m too stressed.” And I’m like “Okay, okay, I understand.” I didn’t film her that day. For me that was such an interesting experience. 

I was concurrently working as the behind-the-scenes videographer. So some of the footage that I shot, Anocha might use for her real behind-the-scenes video to promote her film. So technically, I was also working but I was also also making a film. So like, everybody was kind of doing everything at once.

That was an interesting experience for me because there are no more boundaries. It is what it is. People are performing and also being themselves. I think it couldn’t get more real than that. It couldn’t get more real than that. But also, at the same time, it was completely made up.

Lemongrass Girl

What’s a scene that you wish you could put in but you felt like it couldn’t work?

One of the things that I really wanted to explore and I don’t think I achieved it in the editing process is the kind of atmospheric feeling of being on a film set. 

Because for me, when I was trying to think about the lemongrass girl story, before I started editing and while editing, I needed to think about: How do I present this film? What is special about this film? And to me what was special about it is that it’s not just the lemongrass girl story. That’s just half of the narrative. The other half is paying tribute to Anocha and her filmmaking. But again, the two narratives would kind of fight, right? Part of it is Anocha’s film and we’re really on her set; on a film set. But part of it is also the lemongrass girl too. So for me, I wanted to have a sequence wherein you feel the tension of and see more of what happens on a film set for people who’ve never been on a film set. 

I wanted to show them the rhythm of what it’s like to be on a film set. Before you call action, everything is quite chaotic, everyone is doing their own thing. People make mistakes all the time and you’re just trying to do your best job to make everything happen perfectly in front of the camera. Then when you say action, everything halts and it’s quiet and you’re just waiting. Everyone is just paying attention to this one thing unfolding in front of you and in front of the camera. And I think that’s such a beautiful dance. I wish I had been able to capture that. But I didn’t have the right footage or the right kind of ways to make a whole thing out of that feeling. 

But that guided me through the behind-the-scenes section of the film. Because, if you think of the film, the first half we’re just following the lemongrass girl narrative. Once she plants the first lemongrass, the narrative kind of disperses and it’s no longer linear because you’re kind of taking two different spaces and different things that happen while the narrative of the lemongrass girl comes in and out. They don’t go together but they seem to isolate themselves from each other.

I don’t know if I did that well. *laughs*

Throughout the film, Piano is kind of at the sideline of her own story. There’s a shot on the lake after she plants the first lemongrass and it’s in the dark and I actually kept looking for Piano. But I couldn’t find her. I started to ask myself: Will she only be in the frame when she fulfills her function?

You know, it wasn’t quite intentional. When we were making this film, it wasn’t like: “Okay. She’s not gonna be around anymore.” It’s all feeling. And it’s nice to see that. You asked if I planned everything and the answer is: of course not. We had an idea and we had a feeling and it’s so nice that I was able to convey this feeling in the images where you receive something and get something out of it as well: whether you’re looking for Piano when that might not have been my intention. *laughs*

Rituals are a way by which people become a part of society and become integrated into certain communities. But they’re also ways of excluding people from society. I think that in your other films, you also reflect something about people who can’t fulfill these roles that they’re trained for: a swimmer who can’t swim [in Coach], a lemongrass girl who can’t force the storm away, etc. Is this something that you gravitate towards? Like exploring anxieties and isolation when you’re not able to fulfill a role or a function?

I think it’s so interesting to hear you describe that back to me like that because I don’t feel or I don’t see that that’s what I’m doing. It’s so interesting that you see parallels between the films the way you did because I would never have drawn those parallels. But you’re right! *laughs*

You’re right. I can’t really fully answer that question because I don’t think I’m fully aware of it. But I think it comes from my identity a little bit. I grew up here as a woman but I’m queer presenting now. And it took me a while to get to this point. When I was living in the US and studying in the US, I’m not really…well, I’m an international student. No matter how much I try, I didn’t grow up there. 

So I think that I have this perspective of being an outsider. Like I’m also queer. I think it comes from my identity of not being so understood by the majority, right? But to kind of be on the edges or kind of be on the corner and kind of watching and observing what happens. I think that’s where it comes from and I think that would be my best answer. I have no idea!

Lemongrass Girl_Film Still 2

I wanted to ask about the ending. The ending is somewhat ambiguous. Why did you decide to end it that way?

How would you answer that question? Let me ask you: What did you think of the ending?

I really loved it because, at the end of the day, the ritual didn’t matter. Over the film, it becomes less about the ritual and it asks us why we needed to burden her with the ritual in the first place. It’s the circumstance that kind of suffocates the lemongrass girl and the existence of the ritual is what stifles her. So in the end, when it rains, it kind of liberates you from that pressure because it’s not in your hands anymore.

That’s very interesting because everyone has their own kind of reaction to the ending. And I love that. Because I think it really reflects what you got out of the film. For me, whenever I watch each cut, and I watch the ending again, I have this feeling like… “It just ended?” At first, I asked: Is that good or bad? Does that work? For me, it kind of works because of different things. I don’t know how to explain to you exactly what my intention is for the ending. Because for me, it is perfect that everyone has their own different interpretation of it and if it does that, it’s perfect for me.

Some people who actually believe in the superstition would be like: “Oh. So Piano’s not a virgin.” and I’m like: “That’s what you got out of the film?” Like some people would actually say: “Oh yeah. This whole time, I’ve just been trying to figure out if she’s a virgin or not.” Or people would have some reactions like you. 

My intention, and I think this is what matches with Anocha, was like we both separately said that the film should end with Piano disappearing. We both had this idea separately. She didn’t write that in the script per se and I just had this feeling, you know? Piano just needed to disappear. She is kind of erased from the narrative and I think that’s all I will say. 

From a critical point of view, whatever you see onscreen is kind of objectified. I don’t know if objectified is the right term. But when there’s a protagonist,  they’re used for a reason, you know?  Like the way that filmmakers have a protagonist, like the main character telling a story, everyone wants them to be a hero or it needs to end a certain way or have some kind of resolution with the character. But with this film, I think it encapsulates how we see women in our society. Like: “Oh, okay. Now she matters to us because she has to put the lemongrass down.” or like “Oh. She matters because it hasn’t rained yet.” But also because we can make fun of her. But by the end, because it rains, in a way, it releases that pressure but it also kind of erases her completely because she no longer has any kind of narrative power to continue to stay on screen.

What are films or who are filmmakers that you just really love or ones that you keep going back to when you’re artistically drained? Maybe ones that influenced your filmmaking?

So definitely one film that really influenced my filmmaking career, especially in learning about documentary fiction and all of that, is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. It’s a very long title. I think that film showed me a lot and when I look back to it, I’m thinking about what could be shown. You could do so little in terms of structure and repetition or just observing. I think that film really showed me that. The film is really long and you have to watch it on the big screen.

Abbas Kiarostami is a big influence for sure. But for some reason, I really love Through the Olive Trees. I don’t think a lot of people will say that they love it or will say that, out of Kiarostami’s work, it is the best one. But, for some reason, I feel the most drawn to it.

The other ones don’t have as big of an influence. I like a lot of female filmmakers’ work. Last year, I got selected to be part of the Locarno program where you get mentored by a filmmaker and it was Alice [Rohrwacher]. She made Happy as Lazzaro. She’s an Italian filmmaker and I love her work so much. She’s pretty recent, but I love her work so much. And I was gonna get to go to Locarno, be mentored by her, and make a film in Switzerland with a bunch of other filmmakers in Locarno.

Then because of COVID, it got cancelled and everything. I was so happy about being part of that workshop. *laughs* I really wanted to meet her and learn from her. One of my dreams is to actually meet her and be mentored by her at one point in my life. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I really love her work.

I wouldn’t say that my work is influenced by her work. I love The Wonders a lot, her second film. But yeah, again I wouldn’t say these were inspirations per se. I really like the style and what she explores in her work and all of that. Her work is the type of work that I might want to create one day. Those are the main ones. They’re the highlight for now. It doesn’t feel like a succinct list, but that’s okay.

***

Special thanks to the Young Film Critics Programme and the IFFR International Press Office, specifically Gloria Zerbinati for making the interview possible.

Note: Jason Tan Liwag was a trainee under the Young Film Critics Programme at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam.

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