Layers

A film by Aaron Minks

Ounheuane, the one true lacquer-man in Laos, takes us along through his workshop in Luang Prabang as he strives to revive the ancient tradition of Lao-style lacquerware, layer upon layer added until achieving perfection. The historically meticulous, weeks-long process offers a look to the past in stark contrast to the accelerated development of the present. Ounheuane emphasises his artistry and the cultural preservation it represents in the face of mass produced products. While lacquerware was long forgotten after the fall of the royal family in Laos, Ounheaune has revived the tradition and become quite popular. Now he must choose between money and fame that comes with success, or staying true to his roots.

Entranced by the intricate patterns while collecting firewood for his family in the forests of Laos, becoming an artist was intrinsic to Ounheuane Soukaseum. This interest pulled him from his home in Xiengman Village to cross the Mekong into the city of Luang Prabang, where he attended art school. There he received a scholarship to study lacquerware in Myanmar. This visit triggered Ounheuane’s interest in the ancient craft, and upon returning to Laos, he set out to revive the lacquerware industry in his native country. The earliest lacquered objects unearthed date back thousands of years to Zhejiang, China, though the process itself expanded much later under various Chinese dynasties as it made its way through the Korean Peninsula into Japan and Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, Myanmar has been the hub for the lacquerware tradition, especially in Bagan.

Ounheuane originally created lacquer in the tradition of the Lanna Kingdom (modern day northern Thailand) before researching and modifying it for the Lao tradition. He is currently the only person to be creating this art form in Laos. The Lao royal family traditionally used lacquerware in ceremonies and as gifts, and the lacquer was also used extensively for temples such as Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai, and Wat Sene in Luang Prabang. Today one can find many lacquered products in Laos, though quality and tradition are lacking with many synthetic, cheap goods flooding the market.  

The traditional lacquer process is extremely time consuming. Most pieces take weeks, if not months to complete, and Ounheuane takes pride in this fact. Strips of bamboo, at times woven with horse or buffalo hair, are used to form the piece before the first layer of a mixture of buffalo dung and lacquer is applied. The piece is then shelved for seven to ten days to cure before being sanded and the process repeated. “True lacquerware takes time” insists Ounheuane. In the modern world everyone wants everything fast, but Ounheuane refuses to compromise his trade and takes pride in the quality of his products. 

About the Filmmaker

Aaron Minks is a photographer, filmmaker and writer currently living in Luang Prabang, Laos. Aaron specializes in portrait and travel photography as well as directing and filming short documentaries in the SE Asia region. Aaron is also in the final round of editing Open Road, a book based on a year-long journey by bicycle through South America. He also guest blogs for various websites.

Credits

Director I Writer: Aaron Minks

Director of Photography: Houmphan Phahongchanh

Producer: Sengphet Southnavong

Editor: Ka Xiong

Sound Engineer: Kongsy Vilayphone

Music: Live recording at National Museum, Luang Prabang

Created for the Directing the Documentary Workshop in Luang Prabang

(2015)