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ASIA EXTREME: From Bangkok to Brooklyn, and back again: Pen-Ek Ratanaraung

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Though Thailand’s cinematic history extends back to 1923, it’s only been in last ten years or so that Thai films began cropping up in festivals and theaters worldwide. Even at home, directors were mostly churning out populist fare, catering to the masses with low-budget genre productions. In the 1970s there was a brief period of socially critical films, which stemmed from the student uprisings of 1973 and 1976. However, it wasn’t until 1997 that Thai cinema found acceptance and acclaim in the west, and it began when newcomer Pen-Ek Ratanaraung’s debut feature, FUN BAR KARAOKE, had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. Considered the birth of New Thai Cinema, it paved the way for a handful of directors working both within genres (Prachya Pinkaew, ONG BAK) and strictly arthouse (Aphichatpong Weerasethakul, SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY). Yet what separates Ratanaraung from most of his peers is the international success he’s found from audiences both high and low.

Born in Bangkok in 1962, Pen-Ek moved to New York City in 1977 to study at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He supported himself by working as a freelance illustrator and designer, while immersing himself in independent and international cinema. Returning to Thaland in the early 90s, he worked for several years as an art director before trying his hand at directing. A genuine genre mash-up, FUN BAR KARAOKE (1997), like several of his films, has a young female protagonist at its center. Here it’s 24 year-old Pu, who lives alone with her degenerate father, is dating a hitman, and who has conversations with her deceased mother. This situational comedy-drama-action-supernatural-thriller is impressively complex for a first feature, and it contains several themes that recur in later films.

Ratanaraung is a wonderfully observational director, and many of his films spend a great deal of time focusing on the mundane and the ordinary, which are used as launching points for his wonderfully imaginative stories. 6IXTYNIN9 (1999) begins as a portrait of a suicidally depressed young woman who loses her job – a victim of the Asian economic crisis – but soon becomes a gritty, darkly comic tale of murder and intrigue. His third film, MONRAK TRANSISTOR (2001), yet another multi-genre effort, is a quirky musical with serious melodramatic undertones that recalls both 60s Thai cinema and Homer’s Odyssey.

With his fourth film, the critically acclaimed LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (2003), Ratanaraung took greater risks, while significantly widening his scope. Working with regular Wong Kar-wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle and casting Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano in the lead role, LAST LIFE was the first of two films with a decidedly pan-Asian feel (the other being 2006’s INVISIBLE WAVES). A melancholy romance that feels as if it’s set in a dream state, LAST LIFE is a visually sumptuous affair, relying much more on mood than dialog. Asano plays a suicidal librarian who befriends a bar hostess after a tragic accident. Not speaking each other’s language, but sharing a similar loneliness, the two find a connection through gestures of eating, cleaning, smoking, etc. On the periphery are Japanese Yakuza and Thai pimps threatening to destroy the idyll of the unlikely pair. It’s a film of great quiescence, punctuated by unexpected moments of violence.

After a three year hiatus, Ratanaraung returned with INVISIBLE WAVES, which once again starred Tadanobu Asano, as well as a handful of actors from Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea. A neo-noir with a dash of David Lynch, it tells of Kyoji, a hitman (a common profession in his films) who is having an affair with his boss’ wife. When she is killed, Kyoji sets out to avenge her death. More metaphysical than suspenseful, the film’s deliberately languid pace was a strain for some, and it was considered a failure by many after the success of LAST LIFE. PLOY (2007), his first film devoid of gangsters and guns, is a devastating portrait of a failing marriage and the fragility of relationships. A married couple whose relationship is in the doldrums meets a beautiful young woman in a fancy Bangkok hotel. Told over a 24 hour period and incorporating dreams of all three characters, PLOY finds Ratanaraung bringing a genuine pathos to this, his most nuanced, mature work.

Just as INVISIBLE WAVES was an extension of LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE, so does NYMPH (2009) share a similar connection to PLOY. Once again a marriage in crisis is at the film’s center, though without an additional character to add to the dramatic tension. NYMPH has been described as his most experimental work, and some feel he is moving closer towards the obliqueness of his peer Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and away from the more audience-friendly titles that launched his career. Only time will tell if this is indeed a new direction, or merely a phase. Regardless, Pen-Ek Ratanaraung’s place in Thai film history is unassailable.