13 December 2009

The Decade List: Ploy (2007)

Ploy – dir. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

In my first semester of college, I took a course on contemporary Thai cinema that left a lot to be desired. Of the nine films we watched, only three crossed into the territory of “acceptable:” Tanit Jitnukul’s Bang-Rajan, Nonzee Nimibutr’s Nang nak and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s 6ixtynin9. I don’t think the professor cared for Apichatpong Weerasethakul and, at the time, Blissfully Yours was only available in a censored version. None of the three films were particularly enthralling and, in fact, fit perfectly well with the class’ inadvertent thesis that the basis of Thai cinema was nothing more than the disgorgement of the more prominent film epicenters of Hong Kong, Japan and the United States.

My opinion began to alter from that denouncement after seeing Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, where the director’s interests shifted from the Tarantino-esque 6ixtynin9 to a Wong Kar-wai-inspired tale of love and loneliness (I’m really not sure what to do with the generally tedious Monrak Transistor, which Ratanaruang made between those two). While doing your best Wong Kar-wai still placed Thai cinema in the ghetto of mimicking other countries’ cinematic exports in my mind, it was the first step toward getting rid of the negative opinion I held (Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady would officially wash my mouth clean of that). Ratanaruang eventually reached the apex of his transformation toward personal art cinema with Ploy in 2007.

A married couple returns to Thailand for a funeral after living abroad in the United States for close to a decade. Wit (Pornwut Sarasin) owns a restaurant in the US with his wife Dang (Lalita Panyopas, wonderful in only her second film role after playing the lead in 6ixtynin9), a former actress who still gets recognized in Thailand. Their marriage looks to be on its last legs. Dang is unsatisfied and constantly suspicious that her husband is having an affair, both of which have given her a secret taste for booze; Wit is withdrawn from Dang and appears to have eyes for other women, including a beautiful, frizzy-haired teenage girl named Ploy (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) whom he meets at the hotel bar and invited back to the room, much to Dang’s frustration.

From the very start, Ploy walks the line between reality and fantasy, made even more idiosyncratic by the intercutting of Wit and Dang’s proceedings with a lusty sexual affair between the hotel’s bartender (Ananda Everingham) and maid (Porntip Papanai), whose scenes were promptly removed by the conservative Thai censors for its national release. The film moves at deliberate pace, which one would expect from Ratanaruang’s previous films, and is achingly beautiful, with the return of director’s frequent cinematographer Chankit Chamnivikaipong providing his finest work in the film’s minimalist panorama, after Christopher Doyle shot both Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves.

The best explanation I’ve come up with for what occurs during the film is that of an Ambien nightmare. The overnight flight provides the initial sense of displacement, as the couple arrives sometime in the early morning hours at the hotel. Possibly imagined scenarios transpire during the couple’s first hours back in Thailand, all of which make for a truly alarming, sometimes unsettling visceral experience. Though certain elements like Wong Kar-wai’s influence on some of the visual landscape and a scene where the maid breaks out into song à la Tsai Ming-liang, Ratanruang takes Ploy into places where a simple association to other films isn’t really likely, and as a whole, it stands as an unrivaled achievement for the director. Ploy unfortunately has never made an official theatrical run in the US, arriving at a time where two of the biggest champions of Asian art cinema, Palm Pictures and Tartan Films, were having financial difficulties.

With: Lalita Panyopas, Pornwut Sarasin, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Porntip Papanai, Ananda Everingham, Thaksakorn Pradabpongsa
Screenplay: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Cinematography: Chankit Chamnivikaipong
Music: Hualampong Riddim, Koichi Shimzu
Country of Origin: Thailand
US Distributor: N/A

Premiere: 21 May 2007 (Cannes)
US Premiere: October 2007 (Chicago International Film Festival)

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