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September 25, 2012


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Fon Tok Kuen Fah
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang - 2011
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

I feel a little bit of a loss at not seeing Pen-Ek Ratanaruang last two films, Nymph and Ploy. Previous to those to films was Invisible Waves, which I wrote about a little over four years ago, when that 2006 film was made available as an English subtitled DVD. Invisible Waves marked Pen-Ek's drift away from conventional narrative. That Headshot is perhaps incorrectly acclaimed as a return is more due to the framework of familiarity provided by certain genre trappings. As much as Pen-Ek's previous films, Headshot is about a character trying to find his bearings in unfamiliar territory.

The source novel's title, by Win Lyovarin, Fon Tok Kuen Fa, translates as "Rain Falling Up the Sky". It refers to the way Tul sees the world after being shot in the head, upside down. That Tul sees the world in this way also fits as a metaphor for his own life, a former cop turned "assassination expert", turned fugitive on the run. There are just enough point of view shots to let the viewer see how things look through Tul's eyes. That Tul is initially disoriented is shown when he staggers through his own apartment, holding on to a table, before seating himself.

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Doubling also plays a part in the story. Tul both pretends to be a Buddhist monk, and becomes a real monk. Tul also is imprisoned for two murders, one staged as part of a blackmail plot. The doubling also involves Tul's prostitute girlfriend, Tiwa, professionally known as Joy, and Tul's doctor who goes by the pseudonym of "Dr. Demon". The doctor first comes to the attention of Tul based on his thesis that people are genetically disposed to commit evil. With only the briefest exchange of words, Tul attempts to wind his way between free will and fate or karma.

The expression of internal dichotomies is also culturally specific to Thailand with clothing as a signifier. Whether as a disguise or as a real monk, Tul's head is completely shaved, and he wears the orange robe. The woman who introduces herself as Joy, wears mini-dress designed to be sexually alluring. As Tiwa, she is seen wearing a blouse and jeans, visual shorthand for being a "good girl" most significantly used as part of the closing shot in Chatrichalerm Yukol's Angel from 1974, about a Bangkok prostitute who reformed at the end of the film, shucks her dress in the trash.

Win's novel is not available in English. How much of the film is directly from the novel is unknown to me, yet, Tul's first person voice overs suggest that Win has some familiarity with the connection between crime novelists and existentialists, especially Albert Camus' The Stranger and the novels of James Cain, Camus' stated source of inspiration. To what extent Pen-Ek is also familiar with these writers, I do not know. I bring this up because much of Headshot is a visual meditation on a disconnected life. There are the genre moments of chases and shootings, but there are also long moments of staring out windows, or gazing on the pictures that cover a wall in Tul's apartment. Bangkok seems to be uncharacteristically desolate, with empty streets, empty highways and forests. Even though Pen-Ek has chosen to describe this as "film noir", beyond the shifting between past and present, Pen-Ek emphasizes mood over motivation.

Vichaya Vatanasapt's score also provides an atypical aural compliment. Just as Pen-Ek strips the narrative aspects to the essentials, Vichaya often just uses a solo piano, if not a handful of instruments to create music that just brushes on the side of the experimental. The overall effect gives Headshot the feel of a European art movie from the early Sixties.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 25, 2012 08:08 AM