Pen-ek Ratanaruang Retrospective at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco 4/4-4/21

Pen-ek A sign that you are a cinephile is the giddiness experienced when awaiting director retrospectives coming to your town.  Such retrospectives allow you to familiarize (or re-familiarize) yourself with the body of work of a particular director in the way only successive screenings can allow.  You are immersed in the oeuvre, sensing narrative themes and parallel set, scene, and shot layouts in ways that allow for each film to play off the other.  It’s an incestual intertextual kind of thing that allows weekend or month long scholarship for those of us who miss university life now that we must manage our finances in more sorrowful working stations.

As one of two recent Yerba Buena Center for the Arts events sponsored partly by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the last being the New Filipino Film Series last year, “Thai Dreams:  The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang” provides San Franciscans with a month of weekends (from April 4th-21st, to be exact) of Ratanaruang’s captivating cinema, along with providing Ratanaruang’s first visit to San Francisco.  He will be attending the Thursday April 4th screening of Headshot (2011) at 7:30pm and the Sunday April 7th screening of Nymph (2003) at 2pm.  The event is curated by YBCA Film Curator Joel Shepard, who also worked on the New Filipino Film series.


The retrospective title of “Thai Dreams” is best exemplified by the film Ploy (2007), which screens on Sunday April 14th at 2pm.  The film begins with a long international plane flight of a couple returning to Thailand from America to attend a funeral of the grandfather of Daeng (Lalita Panyopas).  Such long international flights put us into a state of limbo consciousness from the jet lag that makes us feel like we’re sleepwalking, if not fully dreaming.  The disoriented couple arrives late enough in the evening where sleeping might disrupt your adjustment to the time change.  While Daeng tries to sleep, her partner Wit (Pornwut Sarasin) steps out for cigarettes and coffee at the bar of the hotel.  It is there that he meets the eponymous Ploy (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, in her debut film), a 19 year-old with a 70’s teased afro who is waiting on her mother to meet her at the hotel later the next day.  Since the hour of mother/daughter reunion is some time away, Wit offers the amenities of his hotel room until that time.  Bringing such a young, pretty stranger back to his hotel room causes tensions between Daeng and Wit, tensions inspired by histories we slowly learn.  Throughout the film, we are taken in and out of dream states, sleep dreams, day dreams, dreams of desire, dreams of fear.  It isn’t always clear what’s a dream and what isn’t, similar to how cinema itself is a dream and not a dream simultaneously.

This dreaminess carries through each of Ratanaruang’s films.  Directors who often reuse actors and actresses can enhance this dream state because such re-use further encourages films to bleed into one another, impacting our ability to recall full differentiations between films.  Ratanaruang casts Panyopas in Ploy and 6ixtynin9 (1999); Asano Tadanobu appears in Last Life in the Universe (2003) and Invisible Waves (2006), each of which are lusciously lens-ed by Christopher Doyle; and Ratanaruang’s Thai Tadanobu doppelganger Nopachai Chaiyanam is in Nymph and Headshot.  I know that there might be certain limitations regarding with whom Ratanaruang can work, but the effect of crossing borders between each separate film world is still there.


I am not an ‘expert’ of Ratanaruang’s films.  This retrospective offers me the opportunity to soak into his cinema.  What I’ve found from what I’ve seen so far is how Ratanaruang’s tone lulls you into his narratives.  From the jet lag of dreams in the aforementioned Ploy, to the score and forest scenes of an atypical horror film about a possibly possessed tree in Nymph, to the shifting narrative of the upside-down world of former cop turned vigilante’s hit man in Headshot, Rataranuang brings you into his worlds through your senses, rather than relying alone on the logic of dialogue and plot.  His films are felt, making them more suited for cinema than home media.  So even if you’ve curated your own retrospectives of his films on your computer, “Thai Dreams:  The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang” warrants seeing them amongst other sentient seated beings at YBCA in April.

For more information about individual film screening during “Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang” and tickets, visit YBCA’s video and film events page: