Amid an onslaught of competitions featuring mostly mediocre films or a largely overhyped selection of art house films from Europe, a retrospective selection of films by Thai filmmaker Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has certainly been the richest gain of the Kolkata International Film Festival 2017. Ratanaruang is not only among the most successful directors belonging to the steadily developing Thai film industry, but owing to his distinct cinematic style and vision, he is also considered to be among the forerunners of what has been collectively described as the Thai New Wave with Nonzee Nimibutr and Wisit Sasanatieng among his mainstream contemporaries while Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Aditya Assarat, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pimpaka Towira, Thunska Pansittivorakul and Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit are the indie-art house counterparts.
Ratanaruang’s rise along with other prominent filmmakers of the Thai New Wave took place following the Asia Financial Crisis of 1997. The crisis began in Thailand with the financial collapse of the baht as the government was forced to float the baht due to lack of foreign currency. Also, Thailand had acquired a huge burden of foreign debt that made the country effectively bankrupt even before the collapse of its currency.
The Thai film industry was already in an ailing state with the market saturated with Hollywood films and television becoming the preferred mass entertainment medium. So, when this new crop of filmmakers emerged, the pursuit was not only just for a personal expression like the other New Waves, but rather a collective aim for an overall creative and commercial merit to provide a life-shot to the Thai film Industry. 1997 itself witnessed two successful breakthroughs; one was Nonzee Nimibutr’s crime drama Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangsters which broke box office records and the other was Ratanaruang’s crime comedy, Fun Bar Karaoke which was selected to play at the Berlin Film Festival, thus becoming the first presence of Thai Cinema in an International arena in 20 years.
The films included in the Pen-Ek Ratanaruang retrospective at the Kolkata International Film Festival 2017 included Fun Bar Karaoke (1997), 6ixtynin9 (1999), Transistor Love Story (2001), Ploy (2007) and Nymph (2009), while his latest release Samui Song (2017) was included in the International Selection. The first three films were essentially responsible for Pen-Ek’s early success as they were screened in International festivals such as Berlin, Rotterdam and Cannes respectively. These films also confirmed Pen-Ek’s primary engagement with genre films and how he uses certain generic conventions, often taking interesting detours, in order to re-contextualize them in a Thai vi-a-vis larger pan-Asian setting and history. One can consider the typical dramatic scenario in 6ixtynin9 about loneliness and the way something like an instant noodles box which is mundane, familiar and a FMCG product becomes the essential plot point which pushes the narrative into the crime/gangster paradigm.
In a lot of ways, including narration, formal style and even reception, Ploy can be considered as a departure within Pen-Ek’s oeuvre. The film revolves around a crumbling marriage of Wit and Dang, the latter a former film actress. The growing distance between the two finds a visual articulation in a Bangkok hotel as they have returned to Thailand for a funeral from the US. At the lobby, Wit meets Ploy, a young woman waiting for her mother to arrive from Sweden. Wit invites her to their hotel room, to get cleaned up and wait for her mother, which greatly annoys Dang. Meanwhile, in another part of the establishment, a hotel maid and a bartender are involved in a secret tryst and passionate lovemaking. The entire film is structured like a set of overlapping dreams. Dang dreams about killing Ploy out of jealousy, Wit dreams about sexual violence inflicted on Dang while the entire episode with the maid and the bartender is probably dreamed up by Ploy. It implies that the film features only two ‘real’ events; the couple’s arrival in Bangkok and their presence during the funeral. Thus, the dramatic elements including the conflict, crises and the consequences find an expression within the dreams, beyond the mundane happenings of reality. Shot in long and languid takes with a sparse but consistent sound design made of very ‘hotel’ sounds which are both domestic and yet unfamiliar, Ploy is a complex film about Thailand’s negotiation with an urban modernity of 21st century.
With Nymph, Pen-Ek engages with the tropes of the horror/psychological thriller films, dealing again with a failing marriage of an urban couple. However, things take a supernatural turn when they spend the night camping in a forest and the husband goes missing, only to return a day later with strange obsessions. While it may not rank as high as Pen-Ek’s other films on aesthetic merit, it certainly features one of the most memorable opening shots in film history. Reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) in terms of sheer technical audacity, the eight minutes long take drifts fluidly through the canopy of a jungle, as a woman gets violated by two men in the periphery. circles round a tree to the sandy bank of a creek, where it rises again into the canopy. It continues moving over the water to the treetops and then goes around for an aerial shot of the stream – in which apparently the bodies of the two alleged rapists are floating – and climbs down again, heading towards some trees along the banks. To combine handheld movements, tracking and drone and crane work in a single shot is certainly a testimony to Pen-Ek’s supreme command over the film craft.
Pen-Ek’s generic interventions continue even in the 2017 film Samui Song which call also be considered as the most straightforward genre film in his body of work.
A noir to the extent of almost a similar plot to the James M Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, the film is a harsh critique of the religious cult and their influences among the Thai hi-so way of life. As with the plot of the original novel as well as almost a recurring motif across Pen-Ek’s films, Samui Song also revolves a bad marriage, an interracial couple in this case, which finally leads to murder. While the self-reflexive generic exercise doesn’t payoff too well with the plot twist in the final act, the film is nonetheless consistent with the director’s style and his aesthetic and socio-political concerns. The notion of a Thai identity and thereby a sense of belonging or its absence thereof are certain elements which always make their way into Pen-Ek’s narratives as well as visual expressions.
The idea of home as a space of comfort and belonging is almost absent. Hotel rooms, lounges, lobbies, parking lots or camp sights acquire significance and the narratives primarily unfold therein. Thailand becomes a temporary or an interim space, so to speak. It is only the dead, as in Ploy or the ailing as in Samui Song or the spirits as in Nymph, who have permanent residence. The living are just sleepwalking through a space which is still negotiating with an urban modernity.