Writer-director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang jokingly describes his new film, Headshot, as "Buddhist noir." Yet the Thai-born, American-educated filmmaker seems to encompass the oxymoronic qualities of the term, speaking passionately, enthusiastically, but in hushed tones about issues of justice, torture, and head injuries. It's almost like talking to a revered holy man, until he slips out a hearty laugh, or reveals the opposite intention—breaking his serious demeanor.
Ratanaruang developed a cult following after making lush, leisurely paced films such as Last Life in the Universe, Invisible Waves, and Nympth. But with Headshot, he's made a dazzling, dizzying "action" film—or, rather, the closest thing to an action film his diehard fans will likely ever see. While not without its quiet moments, Headshot is a change-up that impresses more than it confounds.
The film's conceit is that its hero, Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam), suffers a head injury that causes him to see the world upside down. Ratanaruang inflicts this condition only periodically on the audience. Most of Headshot toggles back and forth in time, chronicling double-crosses, the ways of femme fatales, and reversals of fortune as Tul goes from blackmailed cop to hitman, seeking karmic retribution along the way.
Ratanaruang sat with me during the Tribeca Film Festival last year to discuss how he created the film's tense and poetic visual vocabulary.
You've described Headshot as a "Buddhist noir." You have a wounded hero, a femme fatale, and a fatalistic perspective. How did you play with the genre and its elements?
I adapted a novel, and I think the novel was written to be made into a film noir. It had all those characters and elements already in it. There were things I didn't like in the book, things that wouldn't work as a film, so I got rid of some characters, and created another character. But the basic idea is already there: Tul is a victim of corruption and being trapped by a femme fatale. The term "Buddhist noir" was a joke. The reason I called it that was if you go back and watch some of the best film noirs, they're kind of Buddhist. When Tul dies, he's happy, and when he was alive, he was struggling. For me, that's very Buddhist.
He's a quiet antihero in a world full of evil and selfishness. There's a line in the film that we, humans, are the only society that "invents justice." How do you feel your values are communicated through these characters?
He's trying to be a good guy—to the point of almost being stupid. How can you be that good in a world where everything around you is really bad? While Tul was going through [the story] he had no choice. He takes the law into his own hands. He [experiences] disappointment when he tries to be a good cop, takes a bribe, and ends up in jail. He probably didn't think what he was going through was right or wrong, more that he had no choice. I live in my country, and I see how corrupt the politicians are and stay above the law. Sometimes I feel like him, and I should go out and kill these people. Of course, I don't know how to shoot guns, but you feel like you should do something.
Isn't making a film doing something—creating awareness?
Oh, no. Everybody's aware of this [corruption] in my country. You don't have to show them with a film. Foreigners, maybe. If you're a writer, you act with your pen; you write about corruption. You investigate it. If you're a filmmaker, you do something like Michael Moore. Sidney Lumet made films like this. In a way, by making a film I'm taking justice into my own hands too. I could show the film and it could piss somebody off, and they could kidnap me, or they could send somebody to my house.
They could steal your girlfriend as in Headshot! Do you identify with Tul?
My life is pretty comfortable, but if something happened to me, like what happened to him, time and again, I'm not sure I can be this calm about it. [laughs].
Let me ask you about the upside-down perspective. I thought there would be more of that.
Quite a few people think that. We used upside-down shots only to establish his [point of view]. We used the upside-down images only when we wanted to come back from the past to the present. We established the first shot in the next sequence. I told people before I filmed it, people will wonder if they would have to watch the whole film upside down. People would expect something like that, so let's not give it to them.
What research did you do on brain or head injury?
We didn't do a lot, but what we did was find a real doctor who had a case in which a guy fell and hit the ground very, very hard, and woke up with this upside-down vision for real. But it only lasted like 20 minutes, and then it became normal. So as far as I know, there have been people who've seen things upside down, but I don't know anyone who has had the condition for more than 20 minutes. We found another guy, who is 64 years old and lives upcountry and writes and reads upside down. We shot a short documentary on him. He doesn't see things upside down, but writes and reads upside down.
Headshot features incredible atmosphere and tension, from a hot-wax torture scene to chase scenes and shootouts. But I wouldn't call you an "action" director.
I think I can do these scenes well because I'm not one. If you give the scenes you mention to an action director, it will look like a movie. It will have slow motion of blood spurting, but the torture scene is straightforward. Torture is torture. You have to be as cruel as possible. And it can't be quick; it has to be slow. You know, to make you uncomfortable. You have to be really slow. And the shootout in the forest was interesting because, actually, it was anything but an action scene. It happened to be people following one another and killing one another. We shot it like a ghost movie. You don't see the guy at all. During most of it, you don't see the hero and the girl; they don't know where they're going. So we approached it more like a horror film in a forest. Another thing is that it had to be a love scene—romantic, and bring them together.
Do you come to a point where you decided you were going to make this movie, or do this project/script?
I don't have ideas all the time. I don't have a next project. People think I'm kidding. When I was young, I had five to six ideas at once, working relentlessly. Now, if an idea doesn't come, I don't push it. I walk around, ride my bicycle. I came to filmmaking by accident. I didn't have a dream to be a filmmaker. But it was a happy accident, because I like it very much. So I use every film I make as an opportunity to try something: a musical, or without a script, or with Japanese actors. I don't think of my filmmaking as a career, because I don't want a career in filmmaking. If I want a career, I'll do something else. It's part hobby, part passion for me. It's not a job, for sure.
How do you feel you fit in with the community of other Thai filmmakers?
We're friends, and we help each other all the time, but we hardly see each other. How do I see myself fit into that? That term "New Wave" comes from journalists or film critics. It doesn't really concern me. I make the films I want to make. Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's not so good.
You appear critical of your work. I find much of it rapturous: the artful composition and palpable atmosphere. There's emotion in every visual.
A lot of credit must go to my cinematographer [Chankit Chamnivikaipong], who I've worked with for 15 years, and to my production designer [Wittaya Chaimongkol]. We always approach the film as, no matter what, we're going to make it cinematic. People come to cinema and they should be rewarded with a cinematic experience, and not a television experience. So we frame things a bit wider, and hold shots a bit longer, and when we move our camera, we do it slowly, elegantly. I don't like to shoot content. That will take care of itself. You have a story, but you tell a story, and your story will be told by your shots and your editing. Because the [emotion] is more important than the story.