SANTI-VINA

 (Thavi Na Bangchang, Thailand, 1954) 114 minutes

SANTI-VINA

Director: Thavi Na Bangchang
Producers: Robert G. North,
  Ratana Pestonji, Rak Punyarachun
Screenplay: Thavi Na Bangchang,
  Vijit Kunavudhi, Robert G. North
Cinematography: R. D. Pestonji
Music: Nath Tavorabutr
Poonpan Rangkhavorn (Santi)
Rayvadi Sriwilai (Vina)

Reviews and notes

Festivals:
1954 Tokyo
2016 Cannes



Long believed lost, Santi-Vina was the first Thai film shot on 35mm and in colour. The camera negative was recently discovered at the BFI National Archive and was used by L'Immagine Ritrovata to produce this stunning restoration. "Had Douglas Sirk made a Thai Buddhist melodrama, it might have looked something like this. The relationship between blind boy Santi and his neighbour Vina is charted as their friendship turns to romance. But the path of true love is never easy: Santi is sent away to live with a monk and then he has to contend with bully/love rival Grai. Some of the film's greatest pleasures lie in the images conjured by cinematographer R D Pestonji: a distant Buddhist stupa on a mountainside at sunset; saffron-robed monks walking along a barren village path; the brilliant colours of the magical Loi Krathong ceremony."
- Robin Baker, London Film Festival 2016.


Thai classic film Santi-Vina opens with a telling shot. A little temple with a white stupa sits atop a mountain in the uninhabited wilderness, with the flurry of weeds and wild vegetation visible from the camera's vantage point. The untaintedness of the rural landscape, looking more like Laos in today's terms, seems like a signpost of a Thailand, unfamiliar to many - agrarian, basic and pristine in all senses of the word. This shot is revisited about an hour and a half later into the film, revealing another facet to this particular vision the director has chosen to present, but more importantly, attesting to the wisdom behind the film's narrative.

Santi-Vina tells the tale of a doomed romance between blind boy Santi and his childhood flame Vina, framed in familiar elements of class distinctions and arranged marriages. Santi, due to his blindness, was sent by his father to live with the village abbot who lived in a cave, as the peaceful environment could be more conducive for growing up. Vina, who is a persistent lover, stood by him through these transitions. She smuggled him into the village class, fought the bullies in school and continued to visit him 'religiously' through the years as she blossomed into the likeness of 1950s Hollywood vintage star Brenda Marshall. At least the make-up and hair did the work.

With characters speaking in clipped, measured dialogue, perhaps a hallmark of vintage cinema, director Thavi Na Bangchang, gives the audience an economical rendition of a Thai version of Romeo and Juliet. Told with simplicity and a delicately-curated montage of village rituals against the gawking at nature, graceful fields and majestic limestone cave formations, the film in its meticulously-graded form, is a quiet spectacle to behold.
- Jeremy Sing, SINdie, 18 October 2017.



Restoration and background notes.

Thai cinema was very much under the spotlight in the Cannes Classic segment during which a recently rediscovered Thai film was screened. The special section has been a goldmine for fans of rare film since its inception in 2004. Those screened with beautiful new prints over the last decade include South Korea's The Housemaid by Kim Ki-Young and Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day. This year, the section selected Santi-Vina, a Thai film from 1954, which was lost for 60 years before being found quite by chance in London, Moscow and Beijing.

Santi-Vina was made veteran stage play director Thavi 'Marut' na Bangchang, who was behind the productions of Prince Bhanubandhu Yugala's Assavin Karn Lakorn Troupe and Sawas Thikamporn's Sivarom Troupe. Little information about his life is available and only very few of his works have survived, among them Forever Yours (1955) and Pantai Norasingh (1950). It was the first film produced by Hanuman Films, a studio founded by self-taught filmmaker RD Pestonji, winner of Glasgow's Amateur Cine Competition for his short film Tang, and his American partner Robert G North. Pestonji also served as cinematographer while North penned the script. The story is centred on Santi and Vina, star-crossed lovers whose relationship is forbidden by Vina's parents because Santi is blind.

The film premiered in Tokyo the same year at the first South East Asian Film Festival, the precursor to the Asia Pacific Film Festival, in Tokyo, which was set up by Masaichi Nagata, president of Daiei Studio with the support of Sir Run Run Shaw. The aim was to create a film festival showcasing best films from Asia. Eleven feature films from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaya, Philippines and Thailand competed in the inaugural edition with Santi-Vina winning Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction and becoming the first Thai film to win any awards at an international film festival. The film was released in Thailand in December 1954, and His Majesty the King attended the premiere at the Empire Theatre.

The problems started immediately after the festival. After learning that he would have to pay a large sum of money in custom duties to take the film back to Thailand, Pestoni decided to ship it to London. He was later informed that the film had been damaged during the voyage and died in 1970 believing that his award-winning film was lost forever.

"In his funeral memorial book, it is written that the film was damaged during the transportation, and in 1994, when Rank Film Laboratories sent negatives of Hanuman Film's titles back to Thailand, there was no Santi-Vina," Sanchai Chotirosseranee, deputy director of the Thai Film Archive, explains.

In 1976, Pestoni's son Santa remade Santi-Vina as a tribute to his late father but the print of the remake has suffered the trials of time and is in poor condition. Not long after, a film researcher combing the archives found a news clipping stating that Santi-Vina had been sold to the Soviet Union and China in the 1950s and was released in both countries.

The search for the film was launched again in 2012 when Sanchai received an e-mail from Alongkot Maiduang, a film critic working on his PhD. "I went to the British Film Institute to see some films that hadn't been released and was amazed to find some Thai films in the BFI archive, many of which were not available in Thailand," Alongkot explains.

"That made me curious about their collection so I asked them to check all the Thai films available. They sent me a list with Santi-Vina on it and an annotation that the negative was sound. The spelling of the title on the list was Santi-Veena, which wasn't the official English title, and I e-mailed Sanchai at the Thai Film Archive for more information. It turned out that they didn't know Santi-Vina was there. When I came back to Thailand, Sanchai told me that thanks to my e-mail, he had dug further into the archive and discovered it also held the picture negative of the film. The negative though was listed as Santi-Vina, which explains why the two were separated, and in the database, it wasn't listed as a Thai film," he says.

Sanchai takes up the story. "I went to the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy and met Brigitte Paulowitz, a film archivist from Switzerland who introduced me to Peter Bergov from Gosfilmofond, the National Film Archive of Russia," he explains. "We found out that Gosfilmofond had kept a print of this film, and later, Dome [Sukvongse, the director of Thai Film Archive] and [deputy director] Chalida [Uabumrungjit], received an e-mail from Sha Yang, a Chinese film researcher, saying that the film archive in Beijing had also kept a copy of Santi-Vina."

Plans were made to fully restore the original print. "L' Immagine Ritrovata, a laboratory in Italy which specialised in film restoration, helped us in the restoration process, which began in 2015," Sanchai says. "There were still problems as some scenes were lost from the original negative. We had to use the elements we got from Russia and China to make the restored version as complete as possible."

And thus the beauty of Santi-Vina was revealed to the world again for the first time in 60 years last Thursday. August Pestonji, grandson of RD, attended the premiere of the film along with Kong Rithdee, a board member of the Thai Film Archive.
- Donsaron Kovitvanitcha, The Nation, 24 May 2016.

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