'I would compromise even less': Pen-Ek Ratanaruang on his last 20 years

 Director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and actress Cherman Boonyasak on the set of Samui Song
How many high points can one hit in a career? This is a question we all ask ourselves. Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang finds a little window in his last film Samui Song to engage in some self-deprecating humour. In a scene in which the lead character Viyada, who is an actress in the story, speaks to a casting director, the casting director recounts how painfully slow some artistic films are, particularly one in which a man is walking around a ship in search for something. The casting director said she fell asleep and when she woke up, the man was still walking around on the ship. For film buffs who are familiar with his works, that’s a scene from Invisible Waves, by Pen-Ek, released in 2006.
Actor Asano Tadanobu 'wandering' on the ship in 'Invisible Waves'
Samui Song marks Pen-Ek’s return to long form narrative and a re-emergence on the international film festival circuit and Pen-Ek loses none of that iconoclastic stylishness seen in his post ‘Last Life in the Universe’ career. Thai film critic Kong Rithdee calls this a return in ‘fine form’. But others were less convinced, like Jonathan Romney of Screen Daily who said ‘Samui Song is unlikely to restore Ratanaruang the international attention he gained from the emotionally direct Mon-rak Transistor and Last Life in the Universe.’

As a film that actually coincides with the 20th anniversary of Pen-Ek’s career in film since his first work Fun Bar Karaoke in 1997, one would ask if it is a befitting nod to his capricious journey over the last two decades and one could argue there is a lot from his past mirrored in the film. Samui Song features a Thai-speaking ‘farang’ like Noi, played by Ray MacDonald in Fun Bar Karaoke. It bears moments of kooky yet wry humour anchored by the absurd, just like Tum and her string of odd encounters with mafia murderers and nosy neighbours in Ruang Talok 69. It has that hint of Luk Thung, Thai country folk music, in that ‘perfect’ moment, an imagined nod to Monrak Transistor. Cherman Boonyasak, all grown up from Last Life in the Universe comes back to take the lead in Samui Song. Gangsters on the run, assassins, a trail of dead bodies and that undeniable love affair with the sea offer a subtle wink at Invisible waves. That familiar premise of an actress dealing with her insecurities, seen in Viyada in Samui Song, first reared its head in Ploy and Cherman Boonyasak is somewhat doing a Lalita Panyopas, who played the actress in Ploy. The biting social commentary about corruption among people who are revered and in power, seems a dead ringer for his 2011 thriller Headshot that also attempts to subvert monkhood. Finally, marital squabbles, like that between Viyada and her husband Jerome, echoes themes explored in Pen-Ek’s supernatural thriller Nymph, which like Samui Song, also featured an identity transfusion. Lalita Panyopas in 'Ruang Talok 69'

With so much going in, it is no wonder the film is such an assault on the senses and quite evidently, polarising on its audience. For those who need an elevator primer of the storyline,
Viyada is a popular TV soap opera actress who is alienated by her farang husband, Jerome, after he ironically (since he is a farang) got sucked into a local religious cult which she abhored. She seeks retaliation by engaging Guy, a Thai-speaking farang assassin, to kill Jerome and in some kind of a twisted closure, she found herself a new home, in the arms of her original nemesis, the leader of that cult. There is that added curveball of her undergoing plastic surgery to become someone else in order to escape from Guy, making this potentially one of the most protracted character arcs in movie history.

In an interview with SINdie, Pen-Ek spoke about the reception of Thai audiences to the film saying that like most of his films, Samui Song split his audience into half. "People who liked it really enjoyed the twists and turns and the unpredictability of the film, while the people who didn’t like the film thought it was confusing, especially the ending. The most interesting feedback was many people took it as a-film-within-a-film kind of a film, while I never thought it was. For me, the film was much more straightforward than what most people thought, "he said.
Indeed, Samui Song is a dissonant mish mash of thematics and plot overlaps, yet somewhat a beautiful chaos. You simply cannot rationalise this plot arc, except to sail along with it and indulge a bit in the director’s somewhat hallucinatory vision and lyrical take on logic. Obsession is still the rule of the game for Pen-Ek and this is clearly evident when the same motifs have appeared in his films over the last two decades - assassins, unlikely heroes and identity makeovers. Pen-Ek is grateful for the career he has had that was made possible with ‘extreme hard work, obsession and lots of luck.’
Looking back at the last 20 years, he said, ”I feel the same as when I started twenty years ago, actually. Ok, I look older and have less idea and energy, but I’m still very excited when I get to start a new project, and of course, nervous and anxious just like before. I still make lots of mistakes, bad decisions and I’m still learning new things. Most importantly, I’m still as self-centred as I was twenty years ago. Experience hasn’t made things easier.”
Writer Jackson Scarlett, wrote in an article about a retrospective film screening of Pen-Ek’s films at Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco, lamenting on the disappearance of some of the young directors who made up the Thai New Wave in the late 2000s, one of whom was Pen-Ek. In the article, these Thai filmmakers were mentioned as a counterpoint to the state of ‘International Art Cinema’ today, which seems to have driven itself into a kind of cliche, with ‘expected plot turns, stylistic tendencies and predictably odd stock characters’ and of which Michael Haneke’s Amour is the flagbearer for these type of films.

Last Life in the Universe

Pen-Ek broke into the international film circuit with his ‘philosophical’ film about suicide and the juxtaposition of culture, Last Life in the Universe. Born out of a script sitting in a drawer, a break-up with his girlfriend and frequent thoughts about death at that time, the film epitomised the kind of non-prescriptive work that eschewed a framework, something Jackson, and potentially many indie film followers, seems to miss so much.
“Let’s not know too much about what we’re going to do, let’s just look for the film. ” Pen-Ek once said.

For Pen-Ek, a designer by training who studied at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York and started work as freelance illustrator, the story had never been the starting point of his films. It was a certain image, sound, music or character. His films take visual shape before the stories are formed and the dots are joined to form a plot. They are undeniably intuitive in their approach and somewhat transcendental in their effect.

I remember fondly an old encounter with Pen-Ek, fresh after being smitten by my first viewing of his films at a 2005 retrospective in Singapore (funny how incomplete this retrospective seems on hindsight now). Fresh from the international acclaim heaped onto Last Life in The Universe, this was a Pen-Ek masterclass at the Objectifs School of Filmmaking in 2005. About 15 young and budding filmmakers had gathered to attend this masterclass. Some like myself, conditioned like a typical Singaporean, came expecting model answers on how to make an award-winning film. In the end, the masterclass taught me the art of rambling and how you one could ramble on for 2 hours and still offer lessons for posterity. In particular, I learnt a great deal about his trinity with actor Asano Tadanobu, Pen-Ek’s muse at that time and the irrepressible Christopher Doyle, his cinematographer. Was I one step closer to knowing how to make an award winning film? Probably not. But it left me hungry for his next upcoming film at that film, Invisible Waves.
Invisible Waves did not earn the cult status its predecessor Last Life in the Universe attained, but it planted the seeds of a much darker, noir-esque psyche that infiltrated his later films. Invisible Waves is arguably a more calculated attempt with a strong ‘designer’ finishing to it. In the film, a Japanese chef, played by Asano Tadanobu, commits a murder and then flees to Macau and finally hops onto a ship to Thailand. Like what the casting director quipped in Samui Song, there was a lot of walking around on the ship. What was also noticeable was the paring down of humour. While assassins and gangsters had been a staple in his earlier films like Fun Bar Karaoke, Ruang Talok 69 and even Monrak Transistor, they were always a note away from goofy, and in some instances, provided comical pay-offs towards the end.
But in Invisible Waves, you do not want to trifle with the gangsters. Donning designer suits, they are crafty and white-collared. And somewhat chess pieces in Pen-Ek’s game of coincidences. i.e. your boss who treats you well turns out to be the crook you were after.

On where he picked up his streaks of noir and if his childhood was any different from others, Pen-Ek said, “My childhood was as plain and boring as any boring childhood can be. Perhaps that’s why I became interested in pranks and sex very early on. In classes, I tried to imagine what my teachers looked like naked, especially the one who wore glasses. Or I would steal the teachers’ stuff and hide them when they were not looking. I got myself into a lot of troubles in my school days. I was punished a lot for some really shameful crimes. However, I was a really good athlete who brought a lot of fame and fortune to my school as well. The teachers had a hard time with me. They didn’t know whether to praise me or punish me.”
Indeed, the duality and moral dilemma of good and bad, white and black cannot be epitomised better than in his films. In a question and answer session about Samui Song at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, Pen-Ek explained the relationship between the public, the police and the monks in Thai society. Essentially, the public is afraid of the police, who are then ‘afraid’ of the monks. But are the monks are pure in their intentions as their appearances suggest? This is something Pen-Ek as a filmmaker has long sought to uncover. Headshot
Back in 2011, Headshot already provided a subversive (and sometimes literally upside-down) look at society, with its daring attempt to ‘bastardise’ the aura around monks and to taint our view of law keepers and where they stand when survival and personal goals stand in the way. This social-political awakening continued with an even more brazen attempt at tackling modern Thai political history with documentary Paradoxocracy. Using interviews with several unnamed academics, activists and political leaders, it was an attempt to find an explanation for the political dysfunction that is happening in Thailand today, an attempt that witnessed a strange hypocrisy from the cinema exhibitors who put the show up and downplayed its publicity.
In the same spirit as his works, I am somewhat thankful lip service is not part of Pen-Ek’s vocabulary when he gives interviews. When asked about his views on the current state of Thai cinema, he was did not mince his words.
“The industry people here in Thailand are very downcast about the current situation of our industry. They complain that more than half of Thai films went busted at the box-office. I’m not one of those people. I feel good about current state of our industry especially about the independent scene. More and more independent films are getting made and distributed in cinemas. Several of these independent films are traveling to good festivals around the world. International film funds are paying more attention to these little Thai projects compared to twenty years ago because we’re now on their maps. Ok, it’s not good that most films, especially the mainstream ones, are losing money but that should not be the reason you don’t want to try harder. It should make you want to put up better fights. And if you really look at these films that tanked, you’ll see that many of them brought it upon themselves by making bad films. They didn’t give enough care when they made them but complained when the films went busted, ”he shared.

Having said that, Pen-Ek admitted he had his moments of losing steam in filmmaking and falling out of love with cinema. During the making of Samui Song, there was a period he got himself into a situation in which he felt lost the ability to make good judgement. He said, ”It was a strange situation, like I had lost my soul or some dark spirit was taking over me or something. I had no confidence. My decision was un-precise. I was floating in limbo. I couldn’t trust my own judgement. it was very frustrating. This never happened to me before. I wanted to stop making films then.”

Knowing how Pen-Ek finds his inspiration for his films, it is hard to believe he would ever run out things to get inspired by or stories to tell. His influences are eclectic and somewhat random. He draws energy from a mix of popular culture, film culture, Thai culture and everyday culture. He has a penchant for taking a figment out of an observation and running with it. Samui Song, after all, had its birth in a supermarket. Pen-Ek spotted a famous actress shopping with her husband who was a foreigner, and started to imagine the conversation between them. Then, ideas and influences from his own consciousness and experiences piled onto one another to create the  rather odd but immensely hypnotic film Samui Song became.

At a question and answer session in 2011 hosted by the New York City Asia Society following a screening of Ploy, Pen-Ek credited sadness as a hugely constructive emotion for him as a filmmaker or artist. He related how much he enjoyed going to funerals more than weddings because people always look more elegant in funerals and for that reason, he has fallen in love many times at funerals. Vidaya, the main character in Samui Song embodies all of that and more. She is sad, moody, and wears a blase look on her face most of the time. She is sophisticated, stylish and composed yet there is a rebellious spirit in her dying to get out. She starts off a relatable girl who is really itching to measure the depths of her dark side. A character like her tells you this is a bona fide Pen-Ek film. Love it or hate it. I think Pen-Ek doesn't care.   

In fact, he has this to say when asked what advice he would give to his younger self,
"I would compromise even less." Cherman Boonyasak in 'Samui Song'

Written by Jeremy Sing

Samui Song is now available for watching on iTunes.
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