They call it puppy love
FIRST-TIME DIRECTOR Siwaporn Pongsuwan decided she would get the hard stuff out of the way first. Children and animals, all in the one film - namely, A Bite of Love, a low-budget and surprisingly moving film about a runaway girl and the stray dog she befriends.
'Yes, I know what they say about not working with children and animals,' says the diminutive, soft-spoken Siwaporn, sipping water in the Bangkok office of the film's distributor, Sahamongkol Film. 'But, actually, it wasn't that bad. The dogs used in the film were all mine, so I knew their moods and personalities, and the way they would react, and that made the job a lot easier. Using my own dogs in a film has always been a dream of mine. Once you watch the film, you can see that the dogs' acting isn't a result of training but is a portrayal of their emotions and feelings. I found this to be a challenging task.'
Things were a little trickier in regards to the child, Nawarat Grace Techaratanaprasert, who plays Kao Niew (the movie's Thai title is Kao Niew Moo Ping - the names of the schoolgirl and the stray, but literally also meaning 'Sticky Rice Grilled Pork'). After filming had wrapped, the child star won the best actress award at Thailand's equivalent to the Oscars, for her debut in Er Rer (Beautiful, Wonderful, Perfect). Many felt her win owed more to her being the daughter of the Federation of Film Association of Thailand's president (Sahamongkol chief Somsak Techaratanaprasert) than for her acting.
The bad blood was such that there were even calls to boycott A Bite of Love, which Siwaporn says was unfair. 'I'm not worried about the critics,' she says. 'Awards have never had much to do with the box office. If I had to do it all over again, I would still cast Grace. She's a wonderful little actress and I think she gave a great performance in my film.
'I found her very mature. She had amazing self-discipline for a child. It's surprising to find an eight-year-old child able to work from 7am until as late as 9pm without getting fussy. Grace also loves dogs as much as myself, so she put a lot of effort into her acting. She also helped me handle them. She would notice if the dog acting in the next scene was tired and understand how she should interact with it.'
The film cost 10 million baht ($2 million) to make, and, according to Siwaporn, did 'reasonable' business during its short run in Thai cinemas in January. It was part of the line-up at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, and is about to enjoy a general release in Hong Kong and Singapore, with a run in Taiwan also being discussed. Siwaporn says Asian audiences will enjoy the film if they give it a chance.
'It's certainly not just a children's film,' she says. 'It's a simple family tale. A lonely girl meets a lonely dog and they make each other feel complete. I'd describe it as both heart-warming and heartbreaking, and it highlights two very big problems in Thailand, namely stray dogs and runaway children.'
In Bangkok, it's hard to miss the grubby hordes of roaming street children, many runaways co-opted into begging by gangs. And stray dogs are a constant menace, often forming diseased, growling packs that terrorise the capital's sois, or lanes, at night.
'Personally, I can't understand how any person could abandon a dog,' says Siwaporn. 'People here seem very fast to get rid of their pets when a cute puppy suddenly turns into a grown dog. It's very common to drop them off at temples or simply abandon them on the street. There are an estimated 150,000 stray dogs in Bangkok. Mostly, they're female dogs that are left by their owners because they're pregnant. The owners don't want to raise them any more, so they let them become society's burden. And these dogs give birth to many more strays. This disturbs me. But all I can do is feed stray dogs and occasionally bring one home.'
More than occasionally, in fact. Siwaporn has 15 dogs, all adopted strays. One, named Dang, was her main inspiration for the movie. 'A few years ago, I found a mongrel in the Siam Square area. After watching her for a month, I decided she was a stray and took her home. Three days later, she escaped. A week passed, and I saw Dang in Siam Square again. I followed her, and realised she was still looking after her puppies, and that greatly touched me.'
She kept tabs on the dogs, but one by one the puppies were killed or simply wandered off to another area. 'Dang was on her own, and she was being kicked very hard by the security guards. So I took her home again.'
Dang appears in the movie as the mother of Moo Ping, the stray Kao Niew befriends. Moo Ping is played by a younger dog named Sing To.
The plight of abandoned children provided the rest of the story. 'It's in the headlines of newspapers every day,' Siwaporn says. 'Some of these children are abused by their step-parents. Some run away from home because they feel like they don't have a home to return to. Once, I saw a child wearing the same clothes several days in a row standing around my house. But when I went up to ask where he lived, he walked away as if he was afraid that I'd send him back home. And he was scarcely 10 years old. I feel that parents these days are weaker than parents in the past. Aside from being unable to support themselves, they're also unable to support their children. Kao Niew is probably luckier than most homeless children in Bangkok.
'I told my friends the story of Dang. Prachya [Pinkaew, director of action film Tom Yum Goong] said it would make a great cartoon,' she says. 'I had all but forgotten about it, when I was invited to Somsak Techaratanaprasert's house. I saw Grace there, with a puppy clutched under her arm, and suddenly the whole thing fell into place.'
The film follows Kao Niew as she's sent to live with her aunt and grandmother after her mother (Sinitha Bunyasak) leaves Bangkok to pursue her career. The child finds a puppy with a passion for grilled pork, which she promptly christens Moo Ping. However, when her new friend is discovered by her aunt and grandmother, they call in the dogcatcher. Kao Niew runs away, heartbroken, in search of her canine companion. Television host Patcharasri 'Kalamae' Benjamas makes her film debut as the modern aunt, and the rest of the cast includes former siren Naowarat Suesat, veteran actress Marasree Israngoon Na Ayuthaya and Winyoo Janjao, as well as three more of Siwaporn's dogs.
Although it's her first time behind the cameras, Siwaporn is no industry novice. She began her career as co-writer of the script for 1992's Romantic Blue, a breakthrough success at the box office for a Thai film. She then became a film critic, writing for and editing numerous journals, including Cinemag, Sarakadee and Jumpcut, while hosting the now-defunct website Bangkokcinema.com. In 2002, she produced Kongdej Jaturanrassamee's debut feature, Sayew, followed by her brother Thanakorn's first two features, Fake and The Story of X-Circle, and then Kongdej's second feature, Midnight, My Love. This year, she also co-wrote and produced The Sperm, Taweewat Wantha's second movie.
'The films I produce tend to have a niche audience somewhere between a commercial and an art-house audience,' she says. 'I call this niche Distinct Films in that they're distinct from commercial films and have their own character.'
Her production experience didn't help that much as a director, however. 'Directing is all about having complete creative control. Producing is, well, producing - although I've been lucky as a producer to also have been involved in editing, so I've seen the larger picture while filming.
'As for directing my own feature, it's a dream I harboured when I was young. But as I grew older, that desire faded. I encountered a talented new generation of directors with projects that I wanted to see made into films, so I became a producer. Finally, my desire to direct my own films returned.'
She says the list of directors who inspire her is 'almost endless', but she particularly enjoys the work of Hong Kong directors such as Wong Kar-wai, Peter Chan Ho-sun and Johnny To Kei-fung, as well as that of French filmmaker Claire Denis and American David Lynch.
Siwaporn says she won't be rushing to work with animals again. 'The problem is the waiting. You have to keep watching their movements. But there's always a moment - I call it the miracle moment - when they'll surprise you with their incredible acting.'
Her next film as a director will focus on another of her passions: cooking. 'It will be a drama,' she says. 'Something to hopefully capture the magic of my country's amazing food.
'You see, I feel like I should make films about things that I love because then I'm happy the entire time I'm working on it.'
A Bite of Love opens today