Headshot screens at the Sydney Film Festival on June 13 & 14. Check the festival schedule for times.
Pen-ek Ratanaruang has always been a bit of a philosopher. When he burst onto the scene with the high octane comedy of errors crime caper 6ixtynin9 it looked like he was setting himself up to be the next Tarantino/Rodriguez/Park-type urban thriller auteur. That didn’t happen. Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves and Nymph happened, and it looked like he was going to be the next Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Cannes winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). Of course, no one seems willing to call Ratanaruang the next Ratanaruang. Shame, because good or bad, a Ratanaruang film is always a welcome, very often impossible to describe, treat. So here’s the “Buddhist noir” Headshot. Headshot is the oddest noir thriller you’re likely to see this year (maybe any year) with a cluster of elements that shouldn’t mesh: as an action film it’s slow. As noir it’s not nearly godless enough. As a meditation on the meaning of the universe it’s too heavy with depraved crime.
Headshot is Ratanaruang’s most accessible film since 2001’s Mon-Rak Transistor, and it combines standard genre filmmaking (albeit on the twisty side) with the director’s signature lyrical existentialism. The temporally disjointed film begins with one-time cop Tul (Nopachai Jayanama), now a hitman disguised as a monk (or is he?), on a mission to eliminate corrupt politician (they have corrupt politicians in Thailand?) Jittanya. Tul is shot during the hit and wakes up afflicted with a head wound that has him seeing everything around him upside down. Karmic intervention or medical oddity? Doesn’t matter. Ultimately it’s just a symptom, maybe a reminder, maybe the catalyst for Tul to rethink his life and his actions.
As it turns out Tul has a pen pal-slash-overlord, Suang (Krerkkiat Punpiputt), who’s chosen him to take part in a secret campaign to rid Thailand of corruption by murdering offenders. Suang chose Tul because of his refusal to accept a bribe and throw a case, which got him set up and thrown in jail. Not that we see things in order of when they happen; Headshot flits around through time, keeping viewers as off balance as Tul with his upside down vision. In going from cop to prisoner to assassin to monk Ratanaruang runs the state of mind gamut for Tul’s journey from cop who sees things in black and white to enlightened monk who finally realises the sanctity of all life — finally seeing the world upside down from where he started.
At times the metaphor is thick and heavy and at others it dances on the periphery of some super-stylised images. Ratanaruang’s spin on the noir thriller folds in enough of the genre’s conventions — the son out for blood, the mysterious accomplice that shows up in the nick of time, the main character’s crisis of conscience — to play like Zen Raymond Chandler, but the musings on life, death and cosmic justice are unapologetically metaphysical, seemingly at odds with the hard boiled tradition. Strangely enough the two make cosy bedfellows and complement each other nicely.
The upside down conceit could have easily gotten out of control and brought on head trauma in audiences, but Ratanaruang uses the device sparingly, at key moments on Tul’s journey, and he allows frequent DOP Chankit Chamnivikaipong’s alternating languid, fluid, saturated images to do their part in telling the story too. Rain has never looked so ominous and simultaneously cleansing. A warehouse has never looked more like the location for a major epiphany. Headshot isn’t perfect, but anyone that can breathe any degree of new life into a frequently stale genre deserves props.