Pimpaka Towira’s The Island Funeral accomplishes the difficult feat of rolling political commentary into the template of a “lost highway” horror film by forgoing ironic distancing. The film’s ambitious and sincere aesthetic aims are suggested through an opening long take that slowly pans across wide-open plains on the outskirts of Thailand’s Pattani province. As talks of wrong turns overwhelm the rural terrain’s ambient noises on the soundtrack, the camera passes Toy (Yosawat Sitiwong), who sits in the back of a parked car scrolling through his smartphone. Towira pinpoints the characters’ banalities—bickering, obliviousness, reluctance—as their defining traits, but not as an assertion of their complacency. Unlike the typical protagonists from slasher films who are punished for seeking pleasure, these characters are enmeshed in a sojourn to discover their personal and cultural heritage.
Towira stages confrontations between historical memory and the present to startling effect. Toy is friends with Zugood (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk), whose sister, Laila (Heen Sasithorn), has insisted that the boys accompany her from Bangkok into the southern countryside, where she hopes to contact her long-lost aunt, Zainub (Kiatsuda Piromya). Laila’s motivations stem less from an urgent need to see her aunt than from a desire to educate herself about the separatist beliefs of an increasingly militarized South, where mosques have been attacked and allegedly cursed for years. Laila, herself a Muslim woman, is configured by Towira and co-writer Kong Rithdee as a strong-willed proponent of open dialogue on matters of diplomacy and religion, so that her conversations with Zugood and Toy reveal a dynamic character whose political demands aren’t surrendered to the machinations of empty suspense.
That said, The Island Funeral unfolds with moments of possible danger strategically scattered across the film’s running time. Laila’s potential spotting of a partially naked woman in chains dashing across a dimly lit road is particularly noteworthy, especially given that Towira grinds the trio’s movements to a halt for a long static take as Laila debates whether or not to go into the woods after her. The prolonged moment of doubt is an emblematic example of Towira’s determination to call upon the visual techniques of slow cinema in order to heighten a sense of claustrophobia in the moment, but it also injects more force into subsequent flashbacks to past instances of implied militaristic violence. In effect, the possibility of a tortured, runaway woman mirrors Laila’s own suspicions about her nation’s history, so that the immediacy of a darkened secluded road gives way to the grandiosity of contemplating one’s own potential role in reforming cultural practices.
As the youths draw closer to Zainub with the assistance of a motorcyclist and a boatman, Towira gradually slows the film’s pacing to the extent that substantial stretches of time pass without significant narrative progression. While this choice is a bit jarring in the moment, it’s made successively evident that action, as a marker of significance, is being refuted for an affirmation of the particulars of place. When the calm, darkened surroundings of a river remain on screen for extended periods of time, The Island Funeral makes clear that its eulogy isn’t for an individual, but the possibility of a unified, even depoliticized Thailand, where each square foot of land is valued for its potential beauty and not as another bartering chip in an ongoing war.
While The Island Funeral omits explicit depictions of violence, its adamancy that hidden instances of terror are even more detrimental, whether actually disguised or the abstract components of an underlying system of thought, resounds throughout its final third where lengthy periods of silence give way to long conversations between Laila and Zainub. By film’s end, things that go bump in the night seem like meager horrors next to a nation’s willful and ongoing refusal to diverge from its procedures toward violence, such that the past remains a definite harbinger of atrocities to come.