An impressive neo-noir thriller from Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life In The Universe)…
‘I see rain falling upwards.’
Tul (Nopachai Jayanama) is a good cop whose involvement in exposing a drug racket masterminded by a politician sends him into a downward spiral of attempted bribes, accusations of corruption and a prison sentence. There he finds in the mysterious Demon a kindred spirit who believes in targeting those who find themselves above the law, appealing to his moral compass, and becomes an assassin for their nefarious group.
But when he gets hit during one kill, his world is literally turned upside down: he awakes from a comma to find he no longer sees the world the right way up (to queasily disorientating effect). He reminisces on what has brought him to this point, wondering if this is karmic punishment for his life, only he has become the target for members of the underworld…
As you might expect from the director of Last Life In The Universe and Invisible Waves, Pen-ek Ratanaruang brings his own inimitable style to the storytelling. Considered one of Thailand’s leading new wave auteurs, alongside Wisit Sasanatieng and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, his style bridges both extremes of Thai filmmaking – from crowd-pleasing action to arthouse – and finding a median here that doesn’t disappoint either crowd. Easily making this his most accessible film to date.
If you’re expecting flashy action showpieces then you may be disappointed; but if you’re looking for an intelligent take on the genre then you won’t. The story is told from the point leading up to the headshot, interspersed with Tui’s memories of how he became an assassin. At points relaxed, if not almost languid, with Tui’s calm narration, sometimes to the point of glossing over some of the plot points; yet when pace is required Pen-ek gives enough of a punch to the proceedings to push the narrative along. It’s a fine balance to pull off, but one he achieves – perhaps with more than a whiff of some of Billy Wilder. (The film is more than a little reminiscent of detective fiction made famous by Double Indemnity co-writer Raymond Chandler.)
The theme of assassins will be a familiar one to Asian film fans. It’s a particularly strong theme in Asian culture from classic novels to the present day, but one for many defined by Hong Kong cinema. From Zhang Che’s The Assassin through John Woo’s The Killer to more recent inventions like Soi Cheang’s Accident, their presence is almost canonised, often taking a moral stance (though such principles in the act of killing are equally as often questioned).
Here we find parallels with Chow Yun-fat’s ‘good’ assassin of The Killer, who only kills bad guys. Only you suspect Tui has become less consciously aware of his decision. It’s only after his condition forces him ‘to look at the world in a more detailed way’ that he starts to question his own existence. Similarly, there’s a precursor to be found with Hong Kong born filmmakers Pang Bothers and the Thai-produced film that put them on the map, Bangkok Dangerous. There a rather more amoral lead had to contend with another disability, deafness which isolated him from the world and the repercussions of his actions; the crux for his redemption being falling in love with a true innocent.
Here the inevitable tragic conclusion of the noir finds acceptance with Buddhist theologies. It’s a well-made match, and though and one not lost on previous excursions into assassins as subject matter, it’s perhaps more plainly (and easily more obviously) presented here. Tul’s yearning to discover himself and metaphysical transformation sees him go from disguising himself as a monk to finally becoming one.
Esoteric perhaps, but not impenetrable; Pen-ek’s film is a fine take on the noir with just the right mix of pace and musing to keep everyone happy…