Battling the waves
Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang talks about his instinctive approach to filmmaking and why his latest movie is his darkest to date
Cutting edge: Once again, Asano Tadanobu plays a Japanese expat lost in Southeast Asia's subconscious terrain.
Surviving trans-continental journeys is a physical requirement of an able filmmaker. Pen-ek Ratanaruang knows this, and come February the pressurised air of a jet's cabin will surely fill the director's healthy lungs. On February 14, Pen-ek will be present at the Berlin International Film Festival for the world premiere of his latest movie Invisible Waves, which made the cut into the Official Competition. Two days later, the director and his cohorts - Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu, Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, screenwriter Prabda Yoon - will be shipped (business class, of course) from subzero Germany to join the gala opening of the Bangkok International Film Festival 2006, where the film will have its local premiere at Paragon Cineplex.
Less than 24 hours after they've landed, the gang will again be leaving on a jet for Berlin, eating some more cold in-flight food and clocking in another 11 airborne hours, just in time for them to show their faces at the awards ceremony of the European cinefest on February 18. And sure enough, Pen-ek will have to fly back home the next day with a thirst to fill his lungs with ground-level air.
The jet-lagged trance the director will have to endure is perhaps the same feeling his audience will have while watching Invisible Waves, Pen-ek's darkest film to date. Its stark, mouldy look is a cushion to the story full of noirish twists and guilt-plagued characters, and the whole package marks a vital step in the Thai auteur's career when the movie was hand-picked for the competition at Berlin, the first Thai film in 25 years to receive such an honour. The film is scheduled to open in Thailand in late February.
Ready to shoot: Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang on the set of his latest movie
Once again, Pen-ek's leading man is a Japanese chap lost in Southeast Asia's subconscious terrain. Asano plays Kyoji, a Macau-based chef who flees to Hong Kong and Phuket on a mysteriously deserted cruise ship after he's murdered his Thai boss's mistress. On the ship he meets a half-Thai, half-Korean woman (played by Korean actress Kang Hye-jeong) and runs into a jolly hitman sent to whack him. Kyoji first wanders the labyrinthine bowels of the ship, then gets stuck in an old Phuket hotel before his final destiny is decided once and for all.
Real.Time has featured interviews with Pen-ek several times; my first chat with him was in 1998, and I'm still having a fun time talking to this man whose long, sometimes irrelevant drift reveals some cool insights about the idea of contemporary filmmaking - and about his own labyrinthine expedition into the unknown artistic dream-land.
In "Invisible Waves", what need you were trying to satisfy as a filmmaker?
Perhaps the need that for once my film will make some money! No, I mean for me my filmmaking career is like a journey. If I'm going somewhere, that place is where my movies finally acquire a certain language, a certain thinking process, it's where my movie resembles a world of its own. But before I get there, I'm happy with the fact that I'll have to go on making the journey. I'm not a very disciplined person, so I change direction all the time, and I often find myself straying from the path I've set myself. But then again, I guess it's much more fun this way - to search for something, to get close to it then get lost again. Maybe it's not so fun knowing exactly what your goal is or where your destination will be.
Is "Invisible Waves" in any way a continuation from your previous film, "Last Life in the Universe", which also featured a Japanese man who get tossed around by fate?
I didn't mean it as a continuation, but because I've had the same team from Last Life back to work with me - Asano and Chris Doyle especially - we feel like we've already started something together and we should go on doing it. I like Last Life a lot but I'm not totally happy with it, so with Asano and Chris back on board I thought we all could improve what we did in our previous effort.
But if you're talking about the fact that the leading character in Waves is tossed around by fate, then it's the same for all characters in all my previous movies, from Fun, Bar Karaoke, to 6ixtynin9 and Monrak Transistor. In Waves, my first idea was to make a movie that looks like a movie, you know, like in a film noir. But I'm not sure if that's what I get at the end!
Pen-ek: "Everything I do is inevitably an experiment."
I have no intention of setting myself on a course to making darker pictures. Many depressing things happened to me around the time I tried to get this movie made. I had the script ready, but the process of financing it and trying to get all the diverse elements together was so complicated. My love life, too, wasn't exactly satisfying to say the least! I guess all these things were channelled into the tone of the movie. I didn't mean to make a dark film, but if it turns out to be one, then that's what it is.
"Invisible Waves" is not exactly a thriller, a drama or a love story. It seems to have a bit of everything as the story progresses.
It's a story of self-punishment. I was thinking a lot about guilt, maybe because I felt guilty all the time. As a director, you're trained to be selfish person, since everybody has the job of satisfying your demands - to give you the script you need, the location you want, the image you have in your head. But at a certain point, I felt wrong about it all. And then I realised I was shouldering all this guilt. Perhaps the story in the film, about this man who feels guilty for the crime he's forced to commit, says something about my state of mind too.
In all your films, a female character is integral to the mechanism of the plot. Likewise in "Waves", though I think the female character in this film has a smaller influence than in your other movies.
I once said that I wanted to make Invisible Waves a Clint Eastwood movie, you know, a kind of macho-man movie. But for me, I never created my characters based on their sex. I mean, I didn't think of them as a man or a woman, and when I write a part for a female character, I don't try too hard to understand how a woman thinks. In Last Life, my feeling is that the male character, Kenji, ended up looking more like a female who needs protection from his woman, who becomes more and more like a man in the house.
You shot the film on location in Macau, Hong Kong and Phuket. Did these places influence the story and the mood of the film?
Very much. I made my first three movies in a conventional way: I wrote the scripts and went out to find the places that would suit the pictures I had in my head. That means I was the centre of the process, and everything had to be found to fit my vision. But since Last Life and especially in Waves, I tried to see more, to listen more, to take more from what's available on the set, on location. I fixed the scripts several times after I had scouted the locations in Phuket and Macau. In this way I was influenced by Chris Doyle's working method. He's a cinematographer who can't just sit down and listen to me describing the story; he has to go out to confront the space and let his ideas develop once he sees what he has to shoot.
There's a scene in a hotel in Waves. When I went down to inspect an old hotel in Phuket, I found the place had a similar mood, a strangely time-frozen quality, as in the cruise ship scenes. So I rewrote the script to emphasise the idea that the character will always get lost, on a ship or in a hotel. It's as if he's cursed to wander without direction, as if he's stuck in a horror movie. I wouldn't come up with that hadn't I felt the location.
"Invisible Waves" has a heftier plot than "Last Life", but at the same time it's also more ethereal, almost fantasy-like in a way. Is there any point while you were making the film that you had doubts that it would all turn out to be a futile experiment?
I feel it all the time! I started making movies because I am curious. I didn't start making movies because I had a fixed idea of what I'm trying to do. Unlike [Thai directors] Wisit [Sasanatieng] or Apichatpong [Weerasethakul], who are visionaries, who know exactly what they want to do with cinema, I never have a clear vision. Hence with this attitude, everything I do is inevitably an experiment. If it's a futile experiment, that's what it is. I just don't know any other approaches to filmmaking besides this one.
Like I said, it's all a journey. And when I'm on a journey I am curious to go into some strange alleys, just to see what it's like. I'm happier this way. Of course, the outcome is important because there are people who put in a lot of money for my movies. At the end my finished work is a product that needs to be sold. But I believe that technically, I'm not so bad as a filmmaker, so even though my experiment doesn't really work out, the film won't come out so bad.
In both "Last Life" and "Waves", your stories deal with characters who exist in certain places though they also exist in a void where nationalities and languages are not concrete. It's especially so in "Waves", with the main character drifting into different countries and speaking different tongues. A lot of people will comment, even criticise, that this is not a Thai movie.
I've been travelling a lot and I have a lot of friends in different countries who speak different languages. When my film is shown in Thailand, there are people who like it and who don't like it. When my film is shown in, say, Bolivia and Somalia, there are people who like it and who don't like it. I've had less belief in race or nationality, in the colour of your eyes or the language you speak. So, for me it's easier to classify humankind not according to countries but to taste, and more than ever people with the same taste in movies, music or books feel they belong to the same race.
This is your darkest film to date, both in terms of style and storytelling, and especially in the destiny of the characters.