Katsuya Tomita’s career as a filmmaker has been defined by an obsession with the complexities of identity, as exploring the breadth of such an idea. His previous work, Saudade, was set in his hometown of Kofu, as a deeply personal film that examined the fault-lines of Japan; the discontents of youth, the sense of isolation, and the lengths people go to escape this apathy. Coming from a working class background and funding many of his early films with his job as a truck driver, Tomita’s own experiences clearly bled through in the intimacy felt throughout Saudade. In his latest work, Bangkok Nites, which premiered at Locarno Film Festival, Tomita trades familiarity for a foreign country in Thailand. He traverses the intersections between Japan and Thailand’s identity, explores the fault lines left by colonialism, and sprawls his narrative between Bangkok, the northern Isan region, and finally, Laos. With the aesthetics and approach to narrative shifting with place, the clear influence of the Thai cinema scene on the film, and the extent of what Tomita seeks to cover, the 3-hour film never feels overwrought. We caught up with Tomita at Locarno Film Festival to discuss his work, and the extensive process behind it.
Note: The following interview was conducted with the assistance of an interpreter, Julian Ross. Many thanks to him and Locarno Film Festival for making this interview possible.
It’s clear that the most central part of the film is the fact it’s set in Thailand, yet it’s a film from a Japanese director – that it’s exploring the relationship between these two countries. I remember reading interviews around the time of Saudade and you were very clear in wanting to make a film about this scene in Thailand, although I feel like this is a film that goes much, much deeper into that identity than I expected. I wanted to know where this idea came from, to making a film in Thailand, and how much the film developed once you began shooting there?
First, I’ll answer the first question, why Thailand and Southeast Asia and more broadly. After we made Saudade we, for a long period, traveled around Southeast Asia, and this was because we felt to understand and capture Japan it was important for us to expand our field of vision to incorporate Asia. This was inevitable for us to consider. Once we were going around different locations, inevitably we faced these historical backgrounds of these regions and their histories that embody. Why did we set much of the film in Thailand? Well, because despite being foreigners when we visited the region, we felt that there was some sort of fundamental foundational connection in particular in these areas. Something we felt that was lost or forgotten by the Japanese we felt existed in these regions. We felt this idea of Saudade with this region, freely by ourselves. Not necessarily something that … How do I put it? We just felt Saudade in that region. What is the secret behind this feeling that we were having? It’s something that we wanted to pursue in the process of making this film.
I think one of the really interesting parts about the film is both the style and structure of it, how it is divided into a faster paced kind of film set Bangkok and then once it moves towards the regional areas like Thailand, it feels like a film within the film where it’s quite slow. It engages with a more spiritual history and him engaging with those military histories. I noticed that in the special effects, at the end of the film, Apichatpong Weerasethakul was mentioned as a special thanks. And was interesting to see those things present in, say a film like “Uncle Boonmee” or something. Then again in this film that relationship between past and present. And then to come back at the end. I was interested in how you approached structuring the film?
It’s just as you say. When we have the idea to shoot this film, Bangkok Nites, we were of course focused on night time night life in Bangkok. But as we started talking to the women working in these districts, we came to realise that, what was said? Eighty percent? Close to eighty percent of these women are from the Isaan province? They come to the city to do some work. To get work, yeah. Find work. The path that they’ve traveled is one from Isaan to Bangkok, but we decided to go against the tide, I suppose? Going from the city into where they’re from… and this became part of the story.
Of course there’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul who’s been shooting his films in the Isaan province of Thailand for many, many years. Of course we knew his work. When we came to know much more about the region and it’s history, him being there, we came to understand his films in a deeper way than we ever done before. In a real tangible way as well. We went to say hi. We explained to him that we would like to shoot part of our film in the Isaan Province. He accepted this idea totally and also offered us help, which is why he’s in the end credits.
That’s really cool –
And since you asked me about Apichatpong Weerasethakul I’d like to respond with a little anecdote. When I went to see him and explain the story of Bangkok Nites, he asked me, “So who is going to play the role of the ex-soldier of the Japan self defence force?” And who’s going to play this character was? When I said it was going to be me, he looked at my t-shirt and looked up and said, “I thought so.” What I was wearing was a t-shirt of Taxi Driver with Robert De Niro with a mohawk, holding a gun, looking bloodied. He looked at that and realised that I would be playing the role.
That’s fascinating. I’m interested in how you want the film to be perceived, in terms of not only this festival but wherever the film will go next.
I guess this is similar to the situation in which we presented Saudade. These films depict the world that we see ourselves, the situations that we are in. To bring these into our stories was inevitable in a sense. But it was something, the world is a big thing where we see ourselves. This is the situation in which we live. I guess all we can do is ask for the audience to see this and experience this.