Future Greats 2024: Thaweechok Phasom

Thaweechok Phasom, Spirits of the Black Leaves (still), 2023, video, 29 min 59 sec. Courtesy the artist and International Film Festival Rotterdam

Selected by Taiki Sakpisit

In 2021, during his second year in film school, Thaweechok Phasom shared a poignant childhood memory with me. At around six years old, his mother left him after a heated argument with his father, briefly retreating to her Tai Yai family on the Myanmar border. Eventually she returned, reconciling with his father. This pivotal incident, along with two others, forms the core narrative of Thaweechok’s extraordinary thesis film, Spirits of the Black Leaves (2023).

A second element unfolded when he encountered the Mlabri, a nomadic tribe in the mountains of northern Thailand. In particular he was moved by the story of a young Mlabri mother who, immediately after giving birth, had to venture into the fields to gather corn (her sole source of income), which a group of the Mlabri had been hired to cultivate. Tragically, her child ceased breathing while cradled against her chest. These incidents, though disparate, resonate with each other, reflecting the profound emotions within Thaweechok and amid the evolving political landscape of Thailand.

These encounters compelled Thaweechok to confront feelings of shame and guilt, acknowledging both his own impotence when it came to action and, because of that, his own complicity in allowing these emotions to dissipate over time. In short, he saw himself as a powerless bystander to these narratives, unable to react effectively and ultimately relegating himself to their backgrounds.

Spirits of the Black Leaves (still), 2023, video, 29 min 59 sec. Courtesy the artist and International Film Festival Rotterdam

Spirits of the Black Leaves begins with a seemingly anthropological documentary about the Mlabri, known as ‘Phi Tong Luang’ (Yellow Leaf Spirit) in Thai. This term refers to the Mlabri’s lifestyle – they are hunter-gatherers who camp in huts made of yellowing banana leaves and move through the forest like spirits and (because they don’t believe in property) without possessions. The documentary footage concludes (after a little over two minutes) with an image of a mother with her child strapped to her back, before transitioning to scenes of a cornfield in which the unnamed character of the fiction film, which ‘starts’ at this point, works. This character symbolises (for those who know the director’s inspirations) the Mlabri mother who lost her child in the cornfield. The film then unfolds the daily routine of working, eating, sleeping and dreaming.

Throughout Spirits of the Black Leaves the mother undergoes transformative experiences, including confronting a spider’s web filled with wriggling bugs, consuming raw meat, crushing an eggplant, facing a loose goat in the twilight and watching national propaganda news programmes on TV. These scenes echo the painful sense of powerlessness that Thaweechok generates through (ironically) powerful affection-images: a tamed flock of scruffy goats awaiting slaughter, a burning barn, an unwanted, unproductive eggplant tree and a circular halo around the main character’s head as she fixates on the TV.

The director then gradually has his character break the fourth wall and be removed from her Mlabri character role. She appears in a different, more visibly modern room. She studies herself in front of a mirror before walking out of shot; when she returns she’s wearing different clothes. She becomes ‘the actress’, witnessing another actress portraying the Mlabri mother. Then the screen succumbs to a haunting embrace, swallowed by a colony of dancing shadows, flickering lights, electric noises, the eerie hum of television static and the whispers of nocturnal insects – a descent into the abyss.

Spirits of the Black Leaves (still), 2023, video, 29 min 59 sec. Courtesy the artist and International Film Festival Rotterdam

Thaweechok Phasom is a filmmaker, photographer and film student based in Thailand. His feature film Spirits of the Black Leaves (2023) screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam at the beginning of this year.

Taiki Sakpisit is a filmmaker and artist based in Bangkok, whose work focuses on sociopolitical tensions in Thailand.

Most recent


We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. This includes personalizing content. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, revised Privacy.