Locarno Open Doors Winner ‘A Useful Ghost’ Uses Dust and a Ghostly Vacuum Cleaner to Comment on Thai Politics

There is a lot that Thai director Ratchapoom Boonbunchachoke cannot say about his new project “A Useful Ghost.” But then again, when audiences in Thailand see the film, they will know exactly what it means.

Set primarily in a family home, “A Useful Ghost” tells the story of a couple, March and Nat, and their young son Dot. March runs a vacuum cleaner factory, but ironically, one day Nat dies from a respiratory disease caused by air pollution in the area. Saddened by the death of his wife, March becomes worried that the same fate will befall Dot, when the boy starts developing similar symptoms.

In an attempt to save her son’s health, Nat returns to haunt the family as a vacuum cleaner and tries desperately to suck up all the dust in the house. Eventually, she realizes the family home is haunted also by the ghosts of dead laborers that died at the family factory.

The film just won the top prize at the Locarno Film Festival’s Open Doors awards ceremony, yet its premise makes it sound like Casper and Scooby-Doo might be useful comps. However, Boonbunchachoke says “A Useful Ghost” owes more to the satire of Portuguese masters Manoel de Oliveira and João César Monteiro, than to a spooky Disney caper.

“It’s about people who are treated as less than. The dust and the ghost are always something that we have to clean, something we have to get rid of,” he explains.

Boonbunchachoke was inspired by a popular Thai fairytale, which has been adapted as plays, radio shows, TV series and around a dozen feature films.

In the story, a young Thai soldier leaves his pregnant wife to go off to war. When he comes back, his neighbors tell him his wife died in childbirth, but he doesn’t believe them because he sees her life-like ghost before him. The man later asks a Buddhist monk to perform a kind of exorcism to get rid of the ghost, and sure enough the religious man succeeds in warding off the evil spirit.

Thai storytelling is full of ghost stories, Boonbunchachoke says, but the director was “bored” with the traditional narratives and horror conventions which obstinately haunt such tales. His project will not “spend too much time trying to scare the audience,” but rather try and use ghosts as “sociological objects” through which to explore societal issues.

“I want to ask why they die, why they return? Ghosts can be read politically. What is the social function of these ghosts in society? I don’t want to follow horror conventions and scare the audience. People know that I wanted to do something new,” he says.

Original drafts of the script did not have Nat returning in vacuum cleaner form, and Boonbunchachoke wondered whether the idea might be “too silly, too ridiculous,” before discovering that he could use it as a framing device to demonstrate the characters’ different attitudes toward ghosts.

“In the film, you will see the vacuum cleaner talking and speaking on its own, but the husband and the son will see her in a pale-skinned human form. The characters who are afraid of ghosts, who hate ghosts, will only see an object that doesn’t do its job,” he says. “The image of humans trying to have relationships with things they’re not supposed to is intriguing to me. Also, I like ridiculous stuff in movies.”

“A Useful Ghost” is being co-produced by Cattleya Paosrijaroen and Soros Sukhum of Bangkok-based shingle 185 Films Co. The former tells Variety she first came across Boonbunchachoke via his university lectures on cinema and his thought-provoking film reviews on Facebook.

Boonbunchachoke posted on the same social media site that he was in desperate need of a producer for his new project. Having seen his previous shorts (one of which won Locarno’s Cinema & Gioventù Award for best international short film at last year’s fest) and met several times in person, Paosrijaroen says she and her partner leapt at the prospect of working with a filmmaker who “speaks directly to new audiences, to a new generation.”

“We don’t have much support or funds from the government right now. It’s a very challenging time for young filmmakers,” she says. “We have the master filmmaker Apichatpong (Weerasethakul), but what’s next? I’m not saying it’s not important to have a master, but we need to look to the future also.”

Given the current political turmoil in Thailand, and a dearth of art dealing with the subject, both director and producer agree “A Useful Ghost” will be a more than useful film to provide vital context and humor for Thai and international audiences.

Having won Locarno’s top Open Doors award and pocketed a production grant of 35,000 Swiss francs ($38,000) in the process, their hope is that shooting the film in late 2022 remains a realistic prospect.

“There are protestors in our country right now and we need to make this film as soon as possible because it’s like a volcano,” says Paosrijaroen. “My generation has left lots of problems behind and we might have a lost generation because of that. But we are hoping this new generation can clean it up.”

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