Dagupan City, Philippines — “Has anyone seen Piano?”
Lemongrass Girl follows the story of a young production assistant named Piano who is assigned to plant lemongrass daily to prevent rain from disrupting their filming process. This ritual, reserved for virgins, is a common practice in Thailand, especially on film sets. While she takes on this duty at the beginning with some levity, the task becomes arduous as the days go by.
Superstitions and rituals have long been used in Asian cultures to make sense of the nonsensical and to control the uncontrollable. In Cathy Garcia-Molina’s romantic comedy You Changed My Life (2009), Laida (Sarah Geronimo) convinces her lover, Miggy (John Lloyd Cruz), to perform a sun dance to prevent rain and ensure a smooth flight. In the Japanese animated hit Weathering With You (2019), a sunshine girl clears the skies through prayer for small windows of sunshine. Like Lemongrass Girl, both films create saviors of their women in dire situations and their function is inexplicably tied to their personhood.
Piled atop Piano’s ever-growing list of things to do, the ritual begins to burden her and leaves her ostracized. Her colleagues create discussions and jokes about her virginity while she hurriedly eats alone. The docufiction obscures the boundaries between traditional and experimental storytelling. In this liminal realm, where reality and fiction co-exist, director and cinematographer Pom Bunsermvicha paint power relations in Thailand’s milieu with devastating clarity.
In the post-film conversation, interviewer Rosalia Namsai Engchuan reveals that the social construct of virginity is an ideology inherited by Thai society from the West in an attempt to fulfill a Victorian model of conservative sexuality, problematizing pre-marital sex in communities that were otherwise okay with it. The interplay between the ritual and its deep colonial roots expose how these can be used as a way of not only isolating individuals from communities but also in how these practices reinforce patriarchal and colonial ideologies and systems.
Lemongrass Girl begins by transforming the landscape of women and showing how they can begin to reject participation in these superstitions. However, the burden shifted onto women who are still unable to say no — both on an individual level and on a structural level. With such deeply-entrenched beliefs and superstitions woven into the fabric of Thai society, compliance seems to be the only key out of suffering.
In the end, members of the production look for Piano as signs of rain begin showing. But she is nowhere to be found. All we are left with is the empty space and cries from the heavens. In the process of erasing Piano on screen, Bunsermvicha simultaneously strips her protagonist of narrative agency while also creating a solution to the circumstances that suffocates her by taking her out of the space cinematically.
It’s an ending that is richly ambiguous — carrying the same reflective power as the water that we are left with. It wraps up a narrative in a way that reveals not only Thai culture but also the audience peering in to observe it and analyze it. The vanishing of the woman crystallizes her importance to a society ignorant of her value in the absence of function.
Runtime: 17 mins, 34 seconds
Director: Pom Bunsermvicha
Producers: Pom Bunsermvicha, Anocha Suwichakornpong
Production Companies: Vertical Films, Electric Eel Films
Sales: Pom Bunsermvicha
Screenplay: Anocha Suwichakornpong
Cinematography: Parinee Buthrasri, Pom Bunsermvicha
Editor: Aacharee Ungsriwong
Sound Design: Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr
Cast: Primrin Puarat, Tanwarat Sombatwattana, Buay Booranateerakit
Note: Jason Tan Liwag was a trainee under the Young Film Critics Programme at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam.
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