Headshot: Hong Kong Film Festival Review

Hong Kong International Film Festival
An esoteric killer thriller short on thrills but blessed with plenty of ambition.

An esoteric killer thriller short on thrills but blessed with plenty of ambition.

Starting, quite literally, with a bang and settling into a taut, gruesome, but esoteric noirish thriller Headshot mixes Buddhist philosophy with modern urban violence to largely middling effect. Strong visuals (when visible) and writer-director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s typically languid (some would say somnolent) storytelling distinguish the film from dozens of others like on the cinema landscape, but those expecting a shoot-’em-up, especially one from Asia, where the hit man thriller subgenre has been given new life (led by the Koreans), will be sorely disappointed. On the flipside, the central parable isn’t all that subtle and so those expecting a Ratanaruang-ian alternative will be equally miffed.

Ratanaruang is a favorite on the festival scene, which will give Headshot a long life in that arena. But as the filmmaker’s most accessible film since his first notable success (Mon-rak Transistor) combined with the crime-thriller genre the film should be able to transcend Asian fests and find limited to moderate art house distribution in some Asian and European markets. Specialty cable, VOD, download and DVD are still its best bets in North America, particularly among cinephiles.

The temporally disjointed story begins with former cop Tul (Nopachai Jayanama, competent if unremarkable), now an assassin, reviewing the specifics of his next target, a fat cat politician called Jaran Jittanya. He gets the job done but is shot in the process and wakes up days later with a curious case of seeing everything upside down. Medical oddity or guilty conscience? From there the film jumps back (and forth) in time to detail what brought Tul to this moment. Among the factors involved are a corrupt lawyer who demanded Tul drop a major criminal case, a junkie prostitute, Joy neé Tiwa (Chanokporn Sayoungkul), a three-year prison stint and later a pen pal, Suang (Krerkkiat Punpiputt), who calls himself Demon. Demon offers Tul the assassin’s gig, but for good and/or vigilante purposes. Unsurprisingly, Jittanya’s son Torpong (Apisit Opasaimlikit) shows up looking for revenge.

Amid all the existential hit man angst Ratanaruang crafts a meticulous, metaphysical narrative that marries the tropes of the hired killer film with the director’s own tastes, which lean to the philosophical. This is Last Life in the Universe as filtered through Mickey Spillane after converting to Zen.

Moody and dense, DOP Chankit Chamnivikaipong’s slate gray images occasionally fall into simply obscure. The story weaves in and out of its underworld environs deftly, but Tul’s upside down view of the world post-head shot is a whisper thin analogy to hang the narrative on, and the convoluted story often feels just that. The more a viewer understands about Buddhism the better, but fortunately the basics will serve, as Tul’s internal cause and effect musings over the nature of violence and the fluidity of morality underpin the action, such as it is. At one point Tul picks up hostage, Rin (Cris Horwang), that later morphs into his wheelwoman and her eventual revelations bring the film’s narrative threads together. Despite Headshot’s flaws, it does have a mesmerizing quality in its illustration of humanity’s dark side, social and spiritual. It’s a film that coaxes into its world rather than drags.

Producer Pawas Sawatchaiyamet, Raymond Phathanavirangoon
Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Cast Nopachai Jayanama, Cris Horwang, Apisit Opasaimlikit, Chanokporn Sayoungkul, Krerkkiat Punpiputt, 
Screenwriter Pen-ek Ratanaruang, based on the novel by Win Lyovarin
Director of Photography Chankit Chamnivikaipong
Production Designer Wittaya Chaimongkol
Music Vichaya Vatanasapt
Costume designer Visa Kongka
Editor Patamanadda Yukol
No rating, 102 minutes