More Than This: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
My pal Durian Dave tipped me to an excellent upcoming film series at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen–ek Ratanaruang. Though not quite as much the international filmi darling as his countryman Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ratanaruang has nonetheless garnered critical attention for his unconventional, atmospheric crime films. Six of his movies will be on view at YBCA for a three-week run, with the director in person April 4 at the screening of his latest film, Headshot (2011), and at the April 7 screening of Nymph (2009).
Ratanaruang teamed up with Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer; Thor) and Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (famed for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, among many others) for a pair of films included in the YBCA series. Last Life In The Universe (2003) follows Kenji (Asano), a Japanese librarian living in Thailand whose desultory attempts at suicide are interspersed with his equally desultory meanderings around Bangkok. Due to its overuse in describing Thai films I hesitate to use the word dreamlike, but in this case the term is quite apt. The film’s multilingual dialogue and lovely color scheme, with its burnished greens and browns, Chris Doyle’s gliding camerawork and deep-focus compositions, and the languid narrative pace possess the half-remembered structure of dreams. The film is leavened with an absurdist humor occasionally punctuated by brief bursts of violence, but the real story is the development of Kenji’s relationship with Noi, a woman he meets during one of his suicide attempts. After a tragic accident, the two retire to Noi’s incredibly cluttered and filthy beach house, which starkly contrasts with Kenji’s meticulously kept apartment, and slowly develop a friendship. Here Ratanaruang shows a pleasantly light touch, combining Doyle’s keen eye for color and composition with a delicate narrative sensibility. There is a quite beautiful sequence where Noi’s house cleans itself, with books and papers flying through the air like the toys in Mary Poppins’ nursery, suggesting the mystic quality of Noi’s relationship with Kenji. Sporting a pageboy haircut and glasses, Tadanobu Asano is suitably restrained in his librarian role, with only a few brief glimpses of his full-back tat suggesting a history of violence.
Ratanaruang’s second film with Asano and Doyle, Invisible Waves (2006), proceeds in a similarly languid fashion. Passive hitman Kyochi (Asano) poisons his girlfriend, who is also the mistress of his mobster boss, then goes on the lam across Southeast Asia, which as shown here is much less exciting than it sounds. Kyochi endures a Kafka-esque boat ride in a janky cruise ship cabin and briefly wanders through Phuket, getting mugged in a fleabag hotel before the boss’s boys catch up with him. Asano’s quiet charisma anchors the film, along with a dark, fatalistic humor and Christopher Doyle’s brilliant compositions. A bit more linear than Last Life, the film nonetheless meanders similarly through its narrative without a huge amount of action. Mysterious blood smears, a cute baby, karaoke-loving hatchet men, and cameos by Hong Kong performers Maria Cordero and Eric Tsang populate the stark scenario.
Headshot, Ratanaruang’s most recent film, follows Tul, a morose and disillusioned cop who becomes a hitman, mixes it up with various bad guys, falls for prostitute, and becomes a monk, not necessarily in that order. Unversed as I am in Buddhism, the film’s references to that belief system were very opaque to me—perhaps to another less philistine viewer they would have more resonance. Not quite as sublime as Last Life or Invisible Waves, Headshot wavers between violent action and long expository sequences, but the film’s non-linear narrative and Tul’s existential search for a moral higher ground elevates the film above a standard genre exercise.
Also included in the YBCA series are the black comedy 6ixty9ine (1999); Ploy (2007), which looks at love, desire, and betrayal; and Nymph, a surreal stroll through a haunted Thai jungle.
Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen–ek Ratanaruang
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
April 4-21, 2013
Full schedule and tickets here.
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