As a result of institutional support, independent filmmaking in Southeast Asia is flourishing. Thailand has grown into a creative hub – production companies such as Electric Eel Films help realise the ideals of collective work and inclusiveness whereas the Southeast Asia Fiction Film Lab (SEAFIC) and funding program Purin Pictures provide practical peer-to-peer support to young filmmakers and share valuable industry know-how. One of the people involved in the independent filmmaking scene in Thailand is Pom Bunsermvicha whose short film Lemongrass Girl premiered at 2021 International Film Festival Rotterdam and now travels the film festival circuit.

In Lemongrass Girl Pom looks into what is invisible or taken for granted, either when it comes to filmmaking or mechanisms organising the society. She chooses the third way of storytelling, somewhere between fiction and documentary. Lemongrass Girl takes place on a film set during the production of another film – Come Here (2021) directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong. Pom’s film is not a making-of or behind-the-scenes, but a piece that carves its own space to tell its story. It expands the boundaries of fiction, and by doing so it approaches reality. Lemongrass Girl centres on a girl who is part of the film crew and becomes responsible for warding off the rain that might disrupt the work on the set. The requirements for the job and the superstition involved reveal a deep-rooted sexism in Thailand.

I talked with Pom Bunsermvicha during the 2021 International Film Festival Rotterdam. We discussed superstitions, collective work, her origin story and the way young indie filmmakers in Thailand combine the transnational and the local to comment on contemporary social issues in Southeast Asia. 

Maja: Could you tell me what got you interested in filmmaking?

Pom: I grew up in Thailand, but I left to study in the United States when I was 16. I think the instinct to document has always been in me, through photography mostly. But the thing that got me to stay up all night was editing. Where I was at Cate School, my boarding school, we had a weekly event called the assembly. I often showed short videos I made there, and it was such a special experience to have an audience, theatre-packed with people and to see their reaction to my work on the big screen. At the time, I did not know what filmmaking really was. I knew I liked documenting and editing, and I did not grow up watching independent or arthouse films per se. In fact, I watched a lot of Hollywood films, because my dad did. 

Pom Bunsermvicha

When it came to college, I did not feel confident enough to go to film school. I chose to study at Brown University, which led me to be exposed to different methods and ways of thinking. The Modern Culture & Media (MCM) program there was largely theoretical, which forced me to be critical, to view cinema, moving images and other media critically. When I came back to spend the summer in Thailand, I met Anocha Suwichakornpong and interned as the 3rd assistant director on Josh Kim’s How To Win At Checkers (Every Time) (2015), a film Anocha was producing at the time. The opportunity gave me the chance to observe the film set and get to know the film community. I’ve come to learn that the film community in Thailand is like a small family. My new found family were the people who led me to world cinema. Soon after, I spent my semester abroad in Prague and studied at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU). I was introduced to a traditional film school experience: shooting on 35mm and making a film with no dialogue, Eastern European style. It was where I made my first short film, 10:10 (2015). 

Upon continuing my exploration in filmmaking, I developed my first documentary short E-po (A Second Chance) as my thesis project at Brown. It was my first try with documentary filmmaking, and it was my first work from Thailand. I struggled a lot with the process as required by documentary filmmaking. I remember having to edit and re-edit, completely restructuring the narrative from scratch, again and again. The process was difficult, as the form was new to me, but I learned a lot from it. 

With Lemongrass Girl, it was sort of my love letter to the filmmaking community in Thailand. It is not just a film about the girl who plants the lemongrass; the other half of it is about the behind-the-scenes and the people working behind the camera. Through Lemongrass Girl, I was able to break the boundaries between documentary and fiction completely. I believe that in film, you can’t define anything as one or the other. It is both documentary and fiction, and neither at the same time. The film also led me to find my voice. I felt that in the past I have always made films under some sort of mentorship or affiliation to an institution, at school or as an exercise or thesis. But with Lemongrass Girl, I felt I was able to express my ideas in free form. 

Lemongrass Girl

Maja: So it wasn’t an assignment, it was something that you just wanted to do.

Pom: Lemongrass Girl actually came together from various conversations I had with Anocha Suwichakornpong, Tulapop Saenjareon, Parinee Buthrasri, Maenum Chagasik and Aacharee Ungsriwong. We spoke a lot about sexism and it not being a public subject of debate in Thailand. Patriarchy is very dominant, but no one really sees it as a problem. So we thought, why don’t we make a film about it? We started brainstorming and Anocha put together moments of our impressions and experiences into a script. It is actually only two and a half pages long. Anocha knew that my approach would be to combine the documentary aspects with the script, so I think she left a lot of room open for exploration. Lemongrass Girl was one of those things that came to life quite unexpectedly, where it stemmed organically out of everyday conversations and anecdotes of experiences we had on set. Our personal experiences as female filmmakers have given birth to the concept and idea. I guess that is how it all started. 

Maja: I was wondering, because Lemongrass Girl actually made me think about the Hong Kong film industry in the early ‘80s and Angie Chen’s memories from the film set during the time she was directing three fiction features for Shaw Brothers: Maybe It’s Love (1984), My Name Ain’t Suzie (1985) and Chaos By Design (1988). So anyway, there was this superstition that a woman cannot sit on the equipment cases on sound stages because it would bring bad luck to the production. So when she became the director she would deliberately sit on them just to prove the point. Are there any prejudices or stereotypes only related to women on film sets or in the film industry in general in Thailand? Could you tell me more about the custom of burying lemongrass to prevent the rain? Do you know when it became common in the film industry?

Pom: The lemongrass girl superstition does not only happen on film sets, but it also exists in the suburbs, the countryside and in the city too. If a company holds an outdoor event in the middle of Bangkok, the organisers would find the youngest girl they know, assuming she’s a virgin, and ask her to plant the lemongrass in the ground. It is a superstition that still happens today. The reason why this tradition is still heavily practiced is because there is so much hierarchy and patriarchy involved in our culture, especially on film sets where there are traditions and rules that one has to follow. 

But to answer your question, there are a few other practices to ward off rain. Planting lemongrass upside down is one of them. The other one is to take red underwear and stick it up against the sky, like a flag – the red colour I assume is connected to the context of menstruation and fertility. According to my research, it has been practiced for many centuries but the superstition originally came from the agrarian times – Thai people needed rain for their growing crops. And at that time, in order for the heavy rain to stop before it starts to drown the crops they would try to ward off rain with the traditions as they believe these acts would upset the rain gods. 

What was interesting, to me, was the fact that the whole aspect of virginity and womanhood actually grew from society and culture, not the superstition itself. The whole thing was about upsetting the gods. But over time, people thought in order to maximise the likelihood of succeeding, someone who is pure must do it. Being a virgin is the definition of pure in Thai culture. The thing is people wouldn’t believe a woman is a virgin because she says so. They would make women plant lemongrass in the ground as a virginity test to see whether or not it will rain.

Lemongrass Girl

Pom: It’s set in Kanchanaburi, a province in the west of Thailand near the border with Myanmar. There is a railway bridge built during World War II. A lot of prisoners of war died during its construction. Kanchanaburi has a specific history explored in Anocha’s film hence the choice of the location. Part of the story is set in a forested area while other parts are set in a riverside hotel. Such landscapes are very common in that province.

Maja: I noticed that in recent years some Thai filmmakers take on this self-reflexive mode and look at the film industry itself. In addition to Anocha’s films, there are also Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s episodes for HBO Asia and Aditya Assarat’s Hi-So (2010) among other titles. You have made short films in the US, in Czech Republic and in Thailand. I was wondering, how would you compare working in these three places? 

Pom: In the US, I didn’t have a formal experience working on an actual film set, so I can’t say as much. In Prague, I was in a film school environment. I guess what would differentiate my experiences would mainly be the culture. In Thailand, hierarchy doesn’t function because of one’s professional rules. In the US, if you’re the producer it’s safe to say you’re above everyone in the decision-making process. There’s a strict set of responsibilities everyone takes on. In Thailand, beliefs, tradition, age and gender all play a role in the dynamic of a film set. What dictates the relationships are the cultural aspects. 

On the set of Lemongrass Girl

My experience on film sets in Thailand really resemble the feeling of being part of a family. There aren’t a lot of people making independent films. Every time there’s a new project underway it feels like a reunion. You see everybody grow from one film to the next. I could imagine that this type of filming culture existing elsewhere too. I would be interested to learn more about film set cultures and traditions in other countries. 

Maja: Yes, that would be an amazing research topic! Actually, I was also curious, because I noticed that a lot of young filmmakers involved in Electric Eel Films went to Eastern Europe to study in film schools for some time. How did you see the region from the perspective of filmmaking and life in general? 

Pom: I think there’s a certain parallel between the economy of Eastern Europe and developing countries in Southeast Asia. These regions distinguish themselves from the wealthier countries in Western and Northern Europe or even North America. The politics and economics of each country are reflected in the characteristics and personality of the films that are made. I think in Eastern Europe and Thailand, various expressions of national identity play a big part in what you see on screen. I’m not sure if I am describing this clearly, because it is not the same feeling you get with countries like France.

Maja: I can get what you mean. I feel there is some sort of stubbornness about people living in these two regions. Often the feedback that I get after saying where I come from is pure excitement that the cost of living in Poland is so cheap and it would be great to go travelling there. 

Pom: Exactly! That’s the annoying part. Thailand gets similar reactions – usually about things and certain experiences that they are going to go explore and things that are only available in the country. It is like they only hold a certain type of image to our countries. 

Maja: I really wish that someday there would be a Polish version of a film like A Room with the Coconut View (Tulapop Saenjaroen, 2018, short)! 

Pom: I would love that too! 

Maja: A Room with the Coconut View was also produced by Electric Eel Films. I was wondering, do you often exchange roles as you cooperate on films? For example cinematographer working on one film becomes a director or an editor of another project? 

Pom: Yes, we do. From one film to the next, we often exchange roles or help each other in one way or another. 

On the set of Lemongrass Girl

Maja: So what’s your plan for the near future? Do you have an idea for the next film?

Pom: I am developing a new short film now called The Nature of Dogs that I co-wrote with my friend Nicha. The project is a recipient of the SGIFF Southeast Asian Short Film Grant (SEA-SHORTS). The film follows a family of four and their dog on an ordinary seaside vacation whereby a series of interactions betray a mysterious tension in their relationships.

Maja: I’m looking forward to seeing it!

About The Author

Maja Korbecka is a PhD candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses include Sinophone cinemas, film festival studies and Southeast Asian cinemas. She is also interested in film curatorship and different forms of film criticism such as audiovisual essays and podcasts.

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