The outspoken Thai director talks to SBS about his 'Buddhist noir' thriller and the challenges of shooting upside down.
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8 Aug 2012 - 9:45 AM  UPDATED 8 Aug 2012 - 9:45 AM

Writer/director Pen-ek Ratanaruang doesn't mince his words. He makes no apologies about the fact that he “has a reputation for offending people”, and in his native Thailand. And when you consider the views being expressed, it's easy to see why his candour might ruffle a few feathers.

“I'm really struck by how hard it is to be good in a society like Thai society, where it's full of corruption and hierarchy,” he says, on a visit to Australia, to discuss his new film Headshot. “If you know anyone powerful, if you're from the family of powerful people, you can do what you want.

“I'm not just talking about being killers or cops, I mean in general. Either you are consumed by greed, power, poverty, anything; one way or another, it corrupts you, and when you're in a society where corruption is the norm, then you don't think too much about it.”

His comments comes from within the context of Headshot, a film noir thriller stepped in Buddhist philosophy, which explores the notion of an honourable hitman: an ex-cop framed for corruption who, on release, gives dirty politicians and gangsters their karmic comeuppance.

“Our main guy tries so hard to be a good person, and even when he turns out to be a killer he's stupid enough to think, 'I'm doing this for a good cause. I'm only killing bad people'. That's what struck me about this story – how hard it really is, to remain good.”

Ratanaruang admits it's a struggle he witnesses constantly in Thailand, even among friends and colleagues, but he's mindful that as an outspoken critic of the entrenched corruption, he needs to practice what he preaches.

“When I talk shit about bad people I don't want to feel bad about talking shit about them! I really want to go full on! When I tackle those politicians when I do interviews in Thailand, I can go full-on because the tax people know that I pay a lot of tax and never dodge anything!”

A key theme in Headshot is the idea of karmic cleansing – hitman Tui (Nopachai
Jayanama) sets out to do his job, in the guise of a Buddhist monk. He gets the target, but has his world quite literally, turned on its head, when after sustaining a bullet to the temple, he wakes from a coma, seeing everything upside down. The time-shifting narrative recalls Tui's past as an incorruptible cop, and the circumstances that caused him to dispense rough justice to top-shelf felons. Along the way, he suffers a broken heart, contemplates his own belief system, and dons Buddhist robes again – first as a cover, then for real.

Of the film's themes of morality, spirituality and redemption, Ratanaruang says, “To me, it's a simple case of, 'You pay for what you've done'. You can't escape it; becoming a monk will not help. Shaving your head, putting on the yellow robe won't help. You have to pay for what you've done.”

Ratanaruang adapted novelist Win Lyovarin's Rain Falling Up The Sky after the prolific author sent him a copy. “I have his books, and had only read one or two but I picked up this one because I ran out of things to read, and I was intrigued by the title.”

The main difference between the heavy tome and the film, he says is that “the book is more like an action thriller. There were a lot of action sequences, and I'm not that kind of director! I don't have that kind of talent to do like, super acrobatic exciting action sequences. I mean, I could if I really put my mind to it but, how many can you really do in a film?! You'd get so tired! But what really struck me when I read the novel was that maybe it could just be my take on it.”

'His' take, meant injecting some of the key learnings he'd gleaned as a “huge fan” of film noir – especially the films of Robert Mitchum, “and some of the obscure, cheap B- grade kind of things”.

“Those noirs if you watch them, are all a little bit unbelievable – there are a lot of coincidences, and you don't know why. How can this girl come to get the money at this time, how do they know? I love those things, and the facts don't matter because the films are so entertaining.

“And it's funny because through all of these made up tales, when you watch, it kind of reflects who you are, or where you live, your society, it is like a fable, and love them, and the fact that they are so very stylish. I love the way they dress, the way they smoke, so for me it is something I can keep watching.”

On the subject of style, Headshot's matter of a lead character with a significant visual impairment offers an abundance of in-camera tricks to play with, depending on how much discomfort you want your audience to experience, that is.

“Before I started filming, when I told people, 'I'm going to make a film about a guy who sees things upside down', everybody would say, 'Really? We're going to see the film upside down?' Everybody would say it, so I knew I wasn't going to do that!

He credits most of the sparing use of altered stylised images to his “very ambitious cameraman”, Chankit Chamnivikaipong. “I didn't think too much about the upside down shots – not as much as my producers and my crew did. I thought it was okay, you have to see things upside down because that's the condition of the guy, but once you've established that, I thought it might be quite annoying to keep seeing upside down pictures.”

In the end, the device of reverting to the Tui's point of view – with a stylised, out of focus image, reminiscent of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's blinking narrator – was more to assist with the time-shifting narrative, than anything else.

“Since the script was going back and forth so much to past and present, I thought, in order not to put '7 years ago', '5 years ago', 'now', '2 months ago', '2 months in the future'… in order to avoid a lot of those captions, every time he come back from the past to the present. I thought if we start with an upside down shot, we know we're back to the present. So then you find a place for this upside down shot without becoming a show off – 'Oh look how cool it is'… type of thing.”

Watching the twists and turns and lead character's crisis of faith play out in Headshot, it's easy to see how it could be whittled down for an English language remake. When this point is made to Ratanaruang, he agrees, and says, “we've already been approached!”

“I think it would be kind of hard. With the whole Buddhist thing, what, you make him a Catholic priest, and go and hide him in a church? I don't know, but they are trying… Something like this happened to me before, my second film (6ixtynin9). Someone in Hollywood actually bought it, and paid me. They wrote the script, and set it in Las Vegas or something and I think they even had a director attached. They sent me a script to read. It wasn't bad but I didn't think it was going to work and in the end they found they couldn't make it – a lot of logic didn't make sense.

I think if you want to make a straightforward kind of thriller [in a Headshot remake], you really have to make it like a Bourne or something, if you take out the Buddhist elements and that requires a lot of work. It would be good if somebody could try it and have a go – it would be fun to see.”

Headshot screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August before a release through Madman Films in late 2012.