Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Sound of Silence

We’ve seen myriad Buddhist film festivals lately, most of them with the same ten or twelve choices. This one, in Bangkok, features some less commonly selected movies… – Buddhist art news

Actress Seeta Devi in the 1925 silent film The Light Of Asia . She plays the wife of Prince Gautama, who later becomes Lord Buddha.

An ensemble of culturally diverse musicians performs live tonight at the screening of an 87-year-old silent film at the opening of the first International Buddhist Film Festival
Bangkok Post, Published: 6/06/2012
Prince Gautama silently weeps, and the violin sighs. Gently, like a tiptoeing deer, the koto’s murmuring melody comes in beneath the rhythmic carpet of the tabla drums.
Prince Gautama _ later Lord Buddha, the prophet of the world and the light of Asia _ soon rises from grief and enters a contest with arch-nemesis Devadatta on horseback. Bustling and thunderous, that’s when the Indian percussion, played by a big man from Mumbai, mimics the rumbunctious galloping of hoofs while the Thai brass ensemble, led by the cheek-puffing trumpeter, bleats a war cry.
On the screen is the silent movie, The Light Of Asia. The 1925 German-Indian epic was the world’s first picture ever made on the life of Lord Buddha, and the restored 35mm print is crisp and rich with ghostly glory. The profundity of Prince Gautama’s eyes seems to reach an even greater depth when the film itself is soundless, but with every nuance of emotion heightened by the live music from the 15-member band gathering in the rehearsal studio.
Tonight at Scala Theatre, this quickly-assembled band of international musicians will put together what looks set to be a unique movie/music event of the year: a live performance to accompany the rare projection of The Light Of Asia.
Music director Anant Narkkong envisions the fusion of sounds in sketching the emotional colour of this hushed, lush movie.
“The music will be a simulation of different cultures, with this great movie at the centre,” says the Thai composer/musicologist. “We’re trying to create a dialogue, among the musicians who come together here, and among the audience, too.” The show tonight is a fitting curtain-raiser to the International Buddhist Film Festival 2012 Bangkok, organised by Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of Lord Buddha’s enlightenment (see right).
The Light Of Asia was co-directed by German Franz Osten and Indian Himansu Rai, and the 90-minute black-and-white film recounts the story of the Indian prince who, after pondering the inevitable scourge of sickness, old age and death, renounces his wealth and sets out to seek the ultimate truth.
After 87 years, the film’s visual expression remains distinct, and while there are elements of exoticism in the portrayal of the Indian cities _ with their Hindu shrines and Islamic mosques, with streetwise snake-charmers and ceremonial elephants _ The Light Of Asia has an authentic depth and a trascendental resonance that hardly date.
The feeling will be accentuated by the soulful serving of the music by Anant and his band.
Anant isn’t new to the film and the art of performing before a movie screen. Back in 1987, the musicologist led a band to perform live to Bangkok’s first-ever showing of this same movie at the National Theatre.
For the show at Scala tonight, Anant has returned to study the timing and grammar of the film, dissected its transition of mood and narrative, then attempted an amalgamation of various musical disciplines that altogether complement the cinematic expression.
In bringing different sounds and cultures into this temporary band, Anant’s original music is by turn impressionistic and expository, at once experimental and structured; it has an aromatic whiff of the subcontinent, yet brims with jazzy purr and improvisatory instinct.
It’s a sound effect and a tone poem, and it can be interpreted as a soundscape that regards Buddhism not strictly as a religion, but as a spiritual force that transcends frontiers.
”The music is live, it moves from beginning to end, meaning that we’re witnessing its birth, old age and death, along with the screening of the movie,” says Anant. ”Music is about listening. And before the audience hears anything, the musicians are the first to have to listen to the sound they produce and the sound their friends produce. It’s a way of focusing, which leads to the sharing of ideas, comments, and of sounds.”
Sharing is what Anant stresses almost with a philosophical occupation. Coming together for this special occasion are member guest musicians: Gary Hall, a Hua Hin resident who plays the synthesiser and also serves as the conductor; Randolf Arriola, a Singaporean guitarist specialising in ambience and ”meditation music”; the highlights are two Indian musicians, Ustad Matloob Hussain Khan on sitar, and Vasi Ahmad Khan on the tabla _ the Indian drum.
Both have come to Bangkok courtesy of the Embassy of India, and the musical dialogue has crossed over into a religious one: both Ustad and Vasi are Muslim. In case of Vasi Ahmad, he’s a member of the Cine Musician Association, and works closely with A.R. Rahman, the composer who won an Oscar for his music in the film Slumdog Millionaire.
”There’s no problem [for a Muslim to play and sing] in a Buddhist film,” says Vasi, a big, alert, smiling man from Mumbai. ”Musicians have only one religion, and that is music. This is an old religious film, and it will be a special performance tonight.”
In Anant’s sound kitchen there are also the koto, a Japanese string instrument, and guqin, its Chinese counterpart. Completing the sonic ingredients are the Thai saw-u, the tapping guitar, the erhu, the electric violin, a brass band, and even an iPad from which electronic clinking and thumping emerges.
”The combination of Buddhist culture and world music influence is what we’re looking for,” says Gary Hall, keyboardist and conductor. ”The music is half-composed and half-improvisation. What you’ll hear is an Oriental sound, but definitely not a traditional one.”
The practice of live music at film screening was invented not long after the birth of film.
In Thailand, live music was actually a great drama of the film-going experience during the reign of King Rama VII; not only during the screening, but a small ensemble was usually hired to play an overture at the cinema entrance to attract the crowd (a band called Korpai will fulfill that duty tonight).
Anant cites Nai Kun and Nai Noree as two legendary ensembles that played extensively at cinema houses in those long gone days, and their musical spectacle provided a form of transition from live music played at traditional performances like likay, or the mask-dance khon, to the new popular entertainment of film. Later when sound films became prevalent, the practice of live music grew irrelevant, then faded away.
Live sound, Anant says, has the analogue quality that pre-dates the cold precision of digital. But the real, manifest feature of live music accompaniment is that flash of uncertainty, the instinctive tweaking of notes and unplanned side-trips of melody and riff. Such quality is a perfect emblem to the film that Anant sees as a beautiful garland to salute the teachings of Lord Buddha.
”In playing along with the film, we have to move with great consciousness,” he says. ”Sound is impermanent, and live music faces uncertainty _ the same as what we experience in life as Lord Buddha told us. The musicians have to find a shared heartbeat. That way our music will be born and die together.”
Lights, camera, Buddhism!
Showing Buddhist wisdom through film is the underlying concept of International Buddhist Film Festival 2012 Bangkok (IBFF 2012), which begins tonight for invited guests at Scala before moving to public screening at SF Central World from tomorrow until Sunday.
Here are some highlights of the 33-film programme. Tickets costs 120 baht. Go to for more details.
Carte Blanche: Three monks pick films
- IBFF 2012 has asked three respected monks _ Phra Jayasaro, Phra Paisal Visalo and Phramaha Vudhijaya Vajiramedhi (V. Vajiramedhi) _ to choose films that convey strong Buddhist messages.
Phra V. Vajiramedhi chose Matsuko Delivers, a Japanese film about a penniless, nine-month pregnant woman who’s left her husband to return to the old community of her childhood (Friday, 2.30pm and Saturday, 7.20pm). Phra Paisal has chosen An Army Of Peace, the documentary that records the Dhammayetra pilgrimage in 1997 (Friday, 1.20pm and Sunday, 3.55pm). Phra Jayasaro has opted for Crazy Wisdom, the documentary that explores the life, teachings, and “crazy wisdom” of the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a pivotal figure in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West (tomorrow, 7.10pm and Sunday, 2pm).
Saturday at 6.50pm and Sunday at 2.40pm
- One of legendary Korean filmmaker Im Kwon-taek’s contemporary classics, the film follows the parallel paths of two Buddhist nuns on their spiritual journey that will be an ultimate test for their faith.
Tomorrow at 6.50pm and Saturday at 2.15pm
- A punk rock veteran, now a married Buddhist priest, has a crisis of identity. This film touches on karma, self, compassion, community, impermanence, a dog, fathers and sons, relative and absolute, noise and music.
Tomorrow at 5.10pm and Friday at 7.10pm
A Nepalese nun embarks on the task of reclaiming her monastery’s money from a mysterious man in order to perform a ritual for their revered abbess. A sincere and heartwarming tale reflecting on lives in this quiet and timeless mountainous region.
Friday at 12.30pm and Saturday at 5.20pm
On her way home, a little girl is taken prisoner by boys playing Taliban militants. Everything happens in the Bamiyan valley of Afghanistan, home to the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
Friday at 5.15pm and Saturday at 12.40pm
Directed by leading Chinese female filmmaker Li Yu, the film follows the lives of three young people living in Chengdu, a region still recovering from the great earthquake. The film stars popular Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.
Tomorrow at 5.20pm and Sunday at 7.30pm
This 1957 film from Sri Lanka tells the story of Cyrill, a man dissatisfied with his introverted fiancee Sujatha. He starts a relationship with the more outgoing Sarojini and gets her pregnant. Sujatha meanwhile is fascinated by a wandering Buddhist monk.
Friday at 4pm and Sunday at 11am.
Famed Myanmar director U Thu Ka adapted the 1966 Hollywood film Madame X (directed by David Lowell Rich and starring Lana Turner) and put in traditional Buddhist wisdoms. The story concerns a doctor who falls in love with a woman but is thwarted by her family when they find out about his lowly origin.
Friday at 7.20pm and Saturday at 3pm.
Young director Gunparwitt Phuwadolwisid’s debut film, Three Marks Of Existence, is a road comedy about a young man who, facing various problems in his life, takes on a pilgrimage to India. Also, three well-known Thai directors have been commissioned to make three new short films on the theme of Buddhism. Chookiat Sakveerakul (Love Of Siam) has made I Dreamed A Dream; Siwaroj Kongsakul (Eternity) tells the story of a family in Sang Yen; Uruphong Raksasat (Agrarian Utopia) will present In The Farm. And lastly, the festival will screen Emerald, a short experimental film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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