Headshot (2011)

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Headshot is screening tonight, 8.30 at the ICA, as part of the Pan-Asia Film Festival. Here’s what I had to say about it for a piece in LWLies.

Buddhist bullet

Thailand-set Headshot is perhaps LWLies’ favourite film of the festival. It presents itself as a noirishly pulpy crime thriller complete with shadowy shootouts, a pair of femmes fatales and a tangled chronology of flashbacks and flashforwards. Yet just as its protagonist, the cop-turned-vigilante-assassin Tul (Nopporn Chaiyanam), at times masquerades as a monk before ultimately becoming a real one, the film’s initial flirtation with Buddhist ideology slowly but steadily takes over, until all the film’s generic preoccupations become reducible to karmic parable, and its hero, be he in prison, in a coma, or in a repeat pattern of morally questionable actions and consequences, becomes a (maybe living) embodiment of the principle of bardo.

For, once Tul has taken a bullet to the head, viewers are left to wonder, as in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s previous Invisible Waves, whether the film’s hero is alive or dead, and indeed whether, spiritually speaking, there need be any difference. If the titular headshot leaves Tul with inverted vision (and a changed outlook on life), the film too turns the characteristics of genre upside-down, defamiliarising everything – an effect that is helped considerably by Ratanaruang’s way with moody stylisation.

Pursued by past sin and struggling to leave behind a life of killing, Tul declares to a head monk, “I’m lost”, articulating the viewer’s own sense of growing giddiness before what is a highly convoluted narrative – yet as Tul gradually finds his way through this dangerous world of illusion, his journey from Bangkok to Chumphon is directed inward as much as southward, on a two-way road to redemption. Headshot is the kind of film that can be enjoyed as pure genre, but is so much more than that, bringing Asia extreme to a more contemplative interior.

© Anton Bitel