Back around the time of 2003, during the release of his film “Last Life In The Universe”, director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang was riding the wave of international popularity. I am sure that it is no coincidence that this recognition came due to the fact that he was working with master cinematographer Christopher Doyle on the film, which meant that “Last Life In The Universe” was always going to get more coverage than his previous films. It was in fact the Doyle connection that introduced me to the world of Ratanaruang’s cinema, and I am so glad that these two artists did collaborate, for if they hadn’t I may not have become familiar with one of the greatest and most unique artists working in cinema today. However after the working collaboration between the pair ended (they made one more feature, “Invisible Waves”, and a short, “Twelve Twenty” together), Ratanaruang’s films suddenly became much harder to see. This was incredibly frustrating because the quality of the films did not drop at all (both the subsequent “Ploy” and “Nymph” are amazing films), but for some reason English language distributors did not pick up these films, and still today, there are no English-friendly releases for them. As such, less has been written and discussed about them. What is the point of this paragraph? Nothing really except to point out that “Headshot” is often described as a return-to-form for Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, which I believe to be a false statement because I feel he was never out of form to begin with. Thankfully “Headshot” has been picked up by international distributors so the film will be out there and seen, and yet somewhat ironically, this is the first film of Pen-Ek’s since 2001’s “Mon-Rak Transistor” that I have not seen on the big screen (but I am hoping it will screen at this year’s MIFF to rectify that).
“Headshot” is described by Ratanaruang himself as a “Buddhist film noir”. It is a film that is told in a non-linear fashion with scenes from the past and present blending in a fluid way that the viewer is never once confused as to what exactly is going on. The film is about a policeman called Tul, who after bringing down a politician’s son in a massive drug raid and then subsequently refusing to take a life changing bribe to make the crime go away, is set up for a murder he did not commit. As a result of this set-up, Tul ends up going to jail for a lesser crime, and while there he reads a book by a doctor calling himself “The Demon”. The book is about how he believes that evil exists in everybody and for some reason Tul finds himself drawn to the book enough to write a letter to the author. Surprisingly, the doctor visits him in prison and explains to him that he is in a group that organizes assassinations on the criminals of the world, criminals who believe themselves to be above the law and think that they can get away with anything. The doctor than says that he believes that Tul would be a perfect assassin for his organization and offers him a position. Tul rejects this initial offer but later when he has done his time and is out of prison, he ends up joining the group for reasons I will not divulge here. One day, while disguised as a monk and on the job to assassinate a corrupt politician, he is shot in the back of the head and is then in a coma for three months. After he awakes, he realizes that he is suffering from a rare condition where he now literally sees everything upside down. This is not at all good for a hitman because he just is not used to seeing the world like this, and as such he now has to look at things more closely and significantly, which includes himself as he begins to realize just how far off the path in life he has gone. The more inward he looks, the more he is disturbed by what he has become, and he decides to leave this life of killing and to try and save his soul by becoming a monk for real. However that is easier said than done with people looking for him and trying to kill him.
This is a film with so many twists and turns in it, that I have left out a great number of plot details (and characters) so as to not ruin the experience. Also, as I mentioned before, the film is non-linear, so what I have described above does not all happen in a straight line. The film is also quite dense with so much going on for its entire running time. When I was explaining the whole film to my wife the other night, she was stunned that the film only went for an hour and forty minutes, because after everything that I mentioned she was sure it would’ve been closer to two and a half hours. While I dispute the claim that this is a return-to-form for Ratanaruang, it is a return to the type of crime film he was making earlier in his career (with films like “Fun Bar Karoake” and “6ixtynin9”), yet it is infused with the spirituality of his later films. I believe this is the first time that Pen-Ek has done an adaptation of someone else’s work, in this case a novel by Win Lyovarin entitled “Rain Falling Up The Sky”, and yet the whole thing feels like it could only have come from Pen-Ek himself, it just has the atmosphere present in all of his films.
What is interesting about “Headshot” is the way Rataranuang has handled the material because you would assume that most directors would use the whole “seeing the world upside down” gimmick as the backbone of the film, and exploit the situation visually. While we do get Tul’s point of view shots every now and then, Rataranuang and his cinematographer Chankit Chamnivikaipong do not go to the well too often, they are more interested in the internal struggle that Tul is going through as opposed to the way he views the external world. Actually this is a good thing too because the shots that we do see from upside down are so disorientating it would have been a hard slog watching if the technique was overused. I must admit that I have always wanted Christopher Doyle and Rataranuang to make another film together, but if that is not to be, I’m glad his cinematographer of choice is Chamnivikaipong (he has been cinematographer on all of Pen-Ek’s films minus the Doyle ones). He really does fantastic work and he continues to get better and better each film. Chamnivikaipong appears to have found a real confidence since “Ploy” and he always makes visually interesting films. I was particularly impressed by the set piece in the forest in the pouring rain. He makes it look so beautiful while still getting the point across that visibility is almost nil.
The man chosen for the lead role of Tul was Nopachai Chaiyanam, who previously had a role in Rataranuang’s “Nymph”. In that film, he really wasn’t given that much to do but did bring a presence with him however in “Headshot” he is almost in every scene. The range of emotions he has to process throughout the film is amazing and it is his performance that holds the film together. This is not a happy man and someone who is fighting an internal battle to find some peace within, so while a lot of the film is a physical battle, it is equally a mental battle too, which Chaiyanam is able to express via limited dialogue. He also equips himself nicely in the physical states making it fully believable that he was a cop and is now a tough hitman.
The two girls in the film both make an impression also, but personally I loved Sirin Horwang as Rin, a girl that Tul takes hostage during one of his escapes. She just had this attitude towards the world that I loved. Yes, she was taken hostage, but it felt like she didn’t give a damn and was in control the whole time. It helped that she also looked amazing especially in the scene in the forest that I mentioned above. Chanokporn Sayoungkal, who plays Joy, is also very attractive but I felt she wasn’t as strong in the acting department as she could have been, as she appeared to only have one expression.
Compared to the last few films from Pen-Ek, “Headshot” is quite plot heavy, and yet those of you that go into the film thinking that this will be an action film will leave disappointed because the film works more as a drama with splashes of violence and action spread throughout. Amazingly, with the amount of plot that is within the film, it is still presented in Pen-Ek’s usual style which is more about the visuals and mood as opposed to dialogue. The whole Buddhist angle is worked well into the film, and it really does become more of a spiritual journey as the film goes on. However with Buddhism really focusing heavily on karma, does a hitman really have a chance in today’s world? A special mention must be made about Patamanadda Yukol’s editing which is truly outstanding. As I mentioned earlier, he has created a beautiful fluid style, so while we may see images well before their meaning is fully explained to us, it never becomes confusing or overwhelming. That is not to say that you do not have to pay attention, because you do, as scenes you think may be happening in the present can be from the past, but if you are focused while watching the film, you will never have a problem distinguishing them.
Overall, I was a big fan of Pen-Ek Rataranuang’s hitman thriller “Headshot”, it appears that the man just does not make bad films (ok, let’s pretend that “Invisible Waves” didn’t happen). While this new film is considerably more plot heavy than his recent fare, it still has the same visual style and atmosphere of those mood pieces. The film has a great leading performance from Nopachai Chaiyanam and it has been impeccably edited. I wholeheartedly recommend “Headshot” and it is great to see Rataranuang continuing his streak of great and interesting films. As usual I look forward to what is to come next from this exciting director.