Facing mysterious things in a place of different faiths
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Facing mysterious things in a place of different faiths

Director Panu Aree and screenwriter Kong Rithdee discuss their first feature film together, which draws from their shared cultural heritage and personal experiences


Set in the early 2000s, Panu Aree and Kong Rithdee’s “Daen Sap” (The Cursed Land), which premieres on July 11 in cinemas, distils Thailand’s political and ethnic tensions into a thrilling, time-hopping horror film.

Panu and Kong have formed a fruitful collaboration through a series of documentaries. Their joint efforts have yielded compelling works such as In Between (2006), Muallaf (The Convert, 2008), Baby Arabia (2010) and Gaddafi (2013). Through their lens, they shed light on thought-provoking themes, offering profound insights and fostering an understanding of this significant aspect of Thai society.

Panu and Kong expand the horizons of Thai horror cinema, rooted in Buddhist cosmology, with Daen Sap, through Kong’s sharp script, captures Thailand’s unresolved conflict with the Malay peninsula and its inhabitants, many of whom were brought forcibly as labourers for the development of Bangkok in the 19th century.

Guru By Bangkok Post speaks to Panu and Kong about their first feature film together and their recurring theme of Muslim identity in Thailand.

Why does all the subject matter in your documentaries or films deal with Thai-Muslims?

Panu: We’ve known each other for almost 20 years and are both Muslim. We also have the same opinion about how Muslims are portrayed in the media, which is why we decided that we should tell our own stories. That’s when we decided to make a documentary together. Most of the subject lines in our documentaries deal with moderate Muslims in Bangkok. 

Kong and I have done documentaries before and we’ve always said that if we had a chance to work together again, we should shift from documentaries to feature films.

Kong: Our first [short] film together was In Between in 2006 and we made that film in order to portray Muslims in Bangkok, who live a normal life even though their identity is different from the majority. 

This is the story that’s hardly ever told in Thai cinema. Notice that cinema has themes about the mountain people, ethnic people, different ethnic people, though not much as they are still in the minority in terms of representation. So yes, the Muslim people in Thailand, the Thai-Muslims are not portrayed much in mainstream media. Or, if they're in the mainstream media or the news, it is not always in a positive light.

We are both of the thinking that we have things to tell, not to counter any prejudice or not to promote us, but to show that there are several more stories in Thailand worth being told and we are telling some of them. We have done three or four documentaries on Muslim people. We did The Convert, which is about a Thai Buddhist woman who converts to Islam to get married. Baby Arabia is about a Thai-Muslim rock band and now we’ve decided to do our first feature film together. 

What is Daen Sap about?

Kong: It is the story of a Muslim community and a Buddhist father and daughter who move into this community. It’s a haunted house story but with an Islamic twist. Though Daen Sap isn’t the first Thai-Muslim horror movie, it is the first to be placed mostly in the suburbs of Bangkok and Muslim areas of Bangkok. 

Since religion is such a hot topic, with Islam being a major focus, do you have to be careful dealing with political correctness so not to avoid backlash?

Panu: Yes. This is why we had to do research, especially on topics that would be sensitive for the Muslim people since the movie is about ghosts or ‘jin’. What was more challenging was to learn how to communicate with a non-Muslim audience, especially on the concept of ‘jin’, which is quite unique. We also had to speak with a lot of Islamic scholars to check the facts and details. 

Kong: I believe we will get a lot of criticism from Muslims and non-Muslims. Because we are not portraying Muslims as the best people in the world. I hope it’s not going to blow up but these days you cannot tell. We mean well. 

[Last week, Neramitnung Film, the producer, issued a statement in response to the Center For The Protection Of Dharma, after being criticised for insulting and despising religion.]

Why horror?

Kong: The genre of horror has always been used throughout the history of cinema as a critique on something; as a form whereby you can use it to slip in other messages, to talk about other things apart from fear, the supernatural or something unexplained.

We like horror films and we think it can sell if it's a horror film. Through the process, however, we discovered most of the zombie-themed movies or horror are a critique of something. So more or less, we try to explain that. Something unexplained, something beyond our own understanding means it can be interpreted from an ideological or historical perspective. And, if you see the theme, you will understand.

Panu: I work in the Thai movie industry and I go to a lot of film markets. I have learnt that the horror genre is still sellable. Horror is one of the many genres that people all over the world connect to. So, we though by starting with horror we can communicate with the audience, not only in Thailand but internationally, as well. 

We’ve also added something which we want our audience to decode, especially in the historical or political context. I hope that people will enjoy the story, but at the same time, they might have some questions where they will have to do some research about what happened in the movie.

In Daen Sap, we aim to build on the reputation of Thai horror films while subverting familiar genre stereotypes with a presentation of Islamic subculture alongside the aforementioned historical references. To us, the repression of history will continue to haunt us unless we confront it and acknowledge its existence.

Kong: When you talk about ghosts or spirits, one of the popular themes is that they return or come back to attack people or they have unfinished business. But what does this unfinished business mean? It can mean personal, historical or even political things. I don't know if people will read into this, but it's possible. But of course, we want to create suspense or a supernatural figure. 

Were you involved in the casting? Why chose the particular actors?

Panu: There are two actors whom we chose even before we caste them. One of them is the Malaysian actor, Bront Palarae. We’ve known him for many years and though he is of Malay, Pakistani and Thai descent, he can speak Thai, which made him perfect for the role of “Heem”, the Muslim neighbour. We also personally selected Jennis Oprasert to play the daughter, May. Both actors were picked by Kong and I before they even accepted the roles. 

Kong: Bront is quite famous in Malaysia and Indonesia, since he speaks Malay. This is his first Thai movie, even though he is fluent in Thai. In fact, I wrote the character with him in mind because he can speak both languages and a few parts of the dialogue require him to speak Malay, in a northern Malay accent. He was quite happy to accept the role since it would be his first Thai movie.

Panu: Casting Ananda Everingham was a commercial and financial decision. Ananda is known everywhere and though we had many choices, we had to deal with the studio. In the end, the choice was made on an actor who acts well and is professional. A day after he read the script, Ananda amazingly said yes. 

Despite most of your documentaries winning global recognition, do you still find it difficult to source funding?

Panu: Making movies, especially feature films, cost a lot of money. We submit our project to the international project market like in Hong Kong and Korea, and these awards are the reason we have some credit to talk to the studios. The average cost to produce a Thai movie is around US$600,000-800,000, which is very huge. So that's why even though a lot of studio executives like our ideas, they have to evaluate if the film is worth investing in. The good thing about making a documentary is that the budget is much lower, almost 20 lower than a feature film, making it easier to secure. 

Your documentaries are generally serious, have you ever thought about doing humour?

Panu: Even in Daen Sap, there might be a few humorous moments. Maybe for the next project, we might try to have some humorous elements but want to continue doing what we have done before; exploring the Muslim identity in Thailand. 

Being a journalist and a film critic, how was the transition to screenwriting? 

Kong: The difficult thing about filmmaking is that it is so much different from writing. So that's why I let Panu handle the direction and directing. To see something on paper or translated or transform into visuals is a very traumatic process sometimes because it's so much different. 

As much as you try, you can never get the image that you picture in your head while you're writing it. Film-making is such a difficult and expensive endeavour, because along the way, you cannot have everything that you write out.

You may say that certain things need to be the same as in the script, but you go on location and you can’t find it, you talk to the actors and they can't portray it, when you talk to the art team they couldn’t find what you’re looking for. Ideally, the director or the directing team should be able to fulfil their vision.

Film-making in general is such time consuming process and we also had an average budget for this film and we couldn’t get more. I wanted to shoot more in the South, but we could afford to go only for three or four days and that’s enough. We couldn't go back because the money ran out, you know, things like that.

So writing is one thing, you can write whatever you want, but to make it happen, especially in Thailand, you need to adapt a lot and you need to make compromises. 

How does being a film critic for decades help deal with criticism of your own movies and documentaries?

Kong: Believe me, I'm the harshest critic on myself. As I said before, filmmaking is such a difficult and different undertaking from writing. Even though I know what's wrong with the film I’m making, the same way I know what I do not like or I disagree with most of the things I've written about, I know exactly what is not okay with the thing I am making. But to correct them to make it happen the where we want it, is sometimes just not possible.

This is not self critical to be defensive but it's the fact that we know exactly, ‘we must do this, we must do that’, we cannot do it for one reason or another. There are a million things that may go wrong during the making of a movie. 

I am perfectly aware of the difference between writing about films and making films. I have enormous respect for filmmakers, even when I like or dislike their work. This is my first feature film, but we've done several documentaries before and the same concept applies. When you talk about a movie and when you make a movie, there are totally different thing. 

The critics and filmmakers have their own roles to play and they should keep playing their roles, even though they're different roles.


Long known as Thailand’s foremost film critic, Kong Rithdee is also a journalist, literary translator and deputy director of the Thai Film Archives. From 1996 to 2018, he was a journalist at the Bangkok Post covering film, art, culture and politics. He still writes film columns in English and Thai, while also translating articles, screenplays and books. In 2014, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government.

Panu Aree has a film and photography degree from Thammasat University. He was the sound engineer before directing documentaries, many of which have screened in film festivals, including the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Singapore International Film Festival. Panu is an executive at Neramitnung, one of Thailand’s upcoming film studios. 

Kong and Panu developed Daen Sap together, with Kong writing the screenplay and English subtitles, and Panu directing the movie. The film won the Network of Asian Fantastic Films (NAFF) Award at HAF Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum 2022, the Mocha Chai Award (Post-production Support) at the NAFF Project Market, Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival 2022 and the  “Surprised Prize” Focus Asia 2022 at the Far East Film Festival.

The film has also been screened at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, followed by the Ho Chi Minh City International Film Festival in Vietnam, the Asian Film Festival Rome in Italy and most recently at the New York Film Festival.       

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