Dialogue: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
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Internationally, Pen-ek Ratanaruang is as well known as any contemporary director from Thailand. Since 1997, he has made six feature-length films. Each have been prominently featured at festivals including Cannes, Berlin, Rotterdam, Hong Kong and Venice, where he has won various awards and honors, though his films have never broken out in Thailand, where ghost movies, romantic comedies and slapstick are the top draws. His most recent film, "Ploy," featured at Pusan this year, was co-produced by Thai company Five Star Production and the Netherlands' Fortissimo Films, was made for less than a million dollars. It also was financed by money from the Rotterdam-based Hubert Bals Fund, after being selected for last year's Pusan Promotion Plan. The helmer spoke with THR Thailand correspondent Joel Gershon about his work on the film, battles with censors and his time at PIFF.
The Hollywood Reporter: What was your experience like at the Pusan Promotion Plan last year?
Pen-ek Ratanaruang: Well actually, the producers ban me from this kind of thing. Normally only the producers will go, because they know how to do it and how to talk this kind of talk. They don't want me in the meetings most of the time. Sometimes when you have these meetings, you have to make it seem like it's really commercial -- as though we're going to make a lot of money -- and the producers are afraid that if I'm in there, I'm going to say, "Oh no, I'm not going to make it like that!" (laughs)
THR: What sets Pusan apart from other film fests that you've attended?
Ratanaruang: It's very innovative. I don't know what makes it so special, but it's become the festival very fast. Everybody comes, everybody wants to catch up on the state of Asian films, and they'll come to Pusan, more than other film festivals in Asia. Everyone I know is coming this year. The program of films is really good. The parties are excellent -- the Koreans know how to drink. When you come back from Pusan you need three more days of holiday just to stay in bed. It happens to me every time. The fact is ... it's great for networking and it's becoming like that every year more and more.
THR: What are you looking forward to at Pusan?
Ratanaruang: For three years now, they had this thing called the Asian Film Academy, and this year I will be one of the teachers. They've selected (24) students from Asia. They've invited really famous filmmakers to teach them, and I'm honored to be a part of it. ... This year they've also started something that's really interesting called the Casting Board as part of Star Summit Asia. What they're trying to do is scout the actor and actress talent in Asia and pool them, so hopefully in the future we can share Asian actors and actresses. Ananda (Everingham, who appears in "Ploy") was selected as a Curtain Call actor in Star Summit Asia. So he's being treated really well.
THR: How did you enjoy directing Ananda Everingham in "Ploy"?
Ratanaruang: He's excellent, when you talk to him or when you work with him, you don't feel that he's 25 years old; he's very mature, his concentration is extraordinary. He's a very relaxed, cool guy; absolutely no ego and we've become really good friends. When he's in the neighborhood, he'll call me up and we'll have a drink. He's an easy guy to work with and a great personality. He watches a lot of films, a lot of old films, and he has a great knowledge of films. Actors and actresses in Thailand often have to be on TV dramas to survive. And that's really terrible. You have to overact everything--it's really dreadful to see. So Ananda is trying to resist it, and he's getting offers left and right. Last week we talked and he said he had like 18 scripts. So he's becoming very selective, as actors have to protect themselves. He has the qualities to become an international star, that's for sure. He speaks very good English, he speaks Thai, he probably speaks a little bit of Lao, he's going to be in a Lao film next year, it's the first Lao film in maybe 25 years. With the right opportunities, he has what it takes.
THR: What about Thailand do you try to convey in your films?
Ratanaruang: When I first started, 10 years ago, in my first two or three films, I was more conscious of being from Bangkok as I was born and raised here. There are a lot of things here that I wanted to show the world. But in the past five years I'm less aware of that. Less aware of whether my film is Thai or not. I believe less and less in nationalities, because when I show films here in Thailand some people love it, but a lot of people hate it and don't get it.
THR: What about the reception to your films in other places?
Ratanaruang: Again, when I show my film in France, there are some who like it, some who don't like it. When I show my film in London, New York, in Bolivia, Brazil, Somalia, Sri Lanka, in Mexico, some get it, some don't. And I found out after traveling to these places that the people who like my films, no matter what country they live in, what nationality they are, what color skin they have, or what language they speak, they tend to be the same kind of people. They read the same kind of books, they listen to the same kind of music I like, they like the same kind of cinema that I like. I even met a couple of people in Somalia who liked Tom Waits, they liked Leonard Cohen, they liked Milan Kundera. So it has made me stop believing about countries, nationalities and religion. Especially now because of the Intenet and SMS. My phone works almost everywhere. With all this technology, the world is getting suddenly really small. And everything is made in China, anyway.
THR: How severely was "Ploy" affected by the cuts made by the Thai censor board? Do you think it was necessary to have the original scenes in there?
Ratanaruang: There were eight cuts, but the running time is the same in both versions because I substituted other shots to take their place. In a way, the cut version co-directed by the censorship board and myself is more sexual than my full version because much is left it up to the imagination. But the original scenes were very necessary -- the scenes were not totally cut, the shots were cut. The full version, the uncensored version is more kinky; it's more perverted, because it has to be. In the uncut version, the sex progresses very slowly, in the cut version they start fucking very early, then during the rest of the film they keep on fucking (having sex), which, to me, is very boring and has no purpose and feels dirty instead of contributing to the story.
THR: Were you expecting the cuts? Were you disappointed?
Ratanaruang: I should have expected it but I didn't. Why would it not be cut? (Laughs) But I didn't expect it. Perhaps I was living in a dream that it will be OK, that they will see it from it a different from point of view. Because you don't see a penis or vagina or anything. I was half disappointed and half frustrated. Because I didn't see anything wrong with sex, I thought sex is a nice thing.
Born: March 8, 1962
Filmography: "Ploy" (2007); "Invisible Waves" (2006); "Last Life in the Universe" (2003); "Transistor Love Story" (2001); "6ixtynin9" (1999); "Fun Bar Karaoke" (1997)
Awards: Bangkok International Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize, "Last Life in the Universe" (2004); Vienna International Film Festival "Standard" Reader Jury prize for "Transistor Love Story" (2002); Seattle International Film Festival's Won Asian Trade Winds Award for "Transistor Love Story" (2002); Hong Kong International Film Festival, FIPRESCI Prize for "6ixtynin9" (2000); Berlin International Film Festival – Don Quixote Award Special Mention for "6ixtynin9" (2000).