'The Last Executioner': Shanghai Review

Last Executioner Still - H 2014
DeWarrenne Pictures

Last Executioner Still - H 2014

Non-grim and wholly human exploration of death and duty.

Thai star Vithaya Pansringarm anchors producer-director Tom Waller’s unconventional biopic.

Based on the true life of the last man in Thailand, Chavoret Jaruboon, to hold the job of carrying out executions by rifle, the fittingly titled The Last Executioner is a lush, sometimes surreal, occasionally lurid biography of a good man in an ugly world. Thai-born producer-director Tom Waller crafts a stylish and fundamentally fascinating portrait of the personal toll a gruesome social service (of a sort) takes on one’s humanity, even though writer Don Linder’s script could easily have delved much deeper into Chavoret’s character and conflicted morality. The film should do well at home in Thailand on the back of Vithaya Pansringarm’s (Only God Forgives) rising profile and possibly in other parts of Asia on the art house circuit. Broad-spectrum festival play is almost guaranteed.

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The film begins with a retired, and possibly dying Chavoret, or Chow, being interviewed on a Charlie Rose-type talk show as well as dealing with his demons on a garish game show. We learn that Chow is the last firing squad executioner at Bangkok’s notorious Bang Kwang Prison, and that he stepped down from his execution team job when the prison switched to lethal injection (a bargain at only 200 Baht per death). The film then settles into more conventional biopic mode, as it traces his life, from his days as budding rock star (he was guitarist in a band called the Helmet Heads) before meeting the woman who would become his wife. When Tew (played as an older woman by Penpak Sirikul) gets pregnant, Chow knows it’s time to find responsibility and applies for a job as prison guard at Bang Kwang. Once there, the job becomes a career and he eventually rises in the ranks to chief of executions, which are carried out by firing squad—at first rifle, then automatic weapon—until the early 2000s. After retiring, Chow is diagnosed with colon cancer, and his final years are ones of reflection.

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The Last Executioner balances a number of seemingly conflicting tones, which Waller largely manages deftly. Perhaps Chow’s defining moment—when a rifle jams and the execution squad repeatedly aims and misfires at the condemned man—is pitch black it’s so dark in its humor and The Spirit (David Asavanond) ping pongs between joking court jester and deadly serious avatar for Chow’s conscience. The film is violent without being overly graphic; it’s difficult to avoid blood in a film about deaths by gunfire, a hideous bungled double execution in particular. Cinematographer Wade Muller’s visuals are frequently arresting, with Bangkok’s lush environment ironically concealing the gruesome goings-on at Bang Kwang and more than a few saturated images underscoring the absurdity and complexity of Chow’s job.

Swift moving with snapping shots and editing, the whole thing would collapse in a miasma of cool pictures without Vithaya’s central performance, a model of quiet ordinariness. As a good man in a corrupt system (he’s warned early on not to rock the boat at Bang Kwang) and later in a horrible job (“I was an executioner, not a murderer” he emphasizes on the talk show), he flits between hangdog sadness when his work follows him home, much to the chagrin of Tew to radiant glee when watching Elvis DVDs with his granddaughter. Vithaya makes the occasional doubts and internal struggle to reconcile his job with his beliefs is always palpable but never overwhelming. He is s a product of this system and he knows it. Penpak and Thanyarat Praditthaen as his daughter Chulee do their share of developing Chow as a devoted husband and father, but this is Vithaya’s film start to finish.

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If there’s a knock on The Last Executioner it’s the final act, which follows Chow’s search for forgiveness and acceptance as a monk and fatal illness. While both do serve to tie the film together as a narrative, parts of the final 20 minutes feel disjointed, almost as if they were tacked on. It’s a minor quibble in an otherwise compelling and challenging story. The technical specs courtesy of a multinational crew are strong.

Production company: De Warrenne Pictures          
Cast: Vithaya Pansringarm, Penpak Sirikul, David Asavanond, Thanyarat Praditthaen,
Director: Tom Waller
Screenwriter: Don Linder
Producer: Michael Pritchett, Tom Waller
Executive producer: Anteo Qunitavalle
Director of photography: Wade Muller
Production designer: Pongnarin Jonghawklang
Editor: Sawit Prasetphan
Music: Olivier Lliboutry
No rating, 95 minutes