The phrase ‘world turned upside down’ is frequently used to describe how a person’s life is dramatically affected by events that are as sudden as they are unexpected. Yet it is taken more literally in Headshot, a terrific thriller that director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has summarised as a ‘Buddhist noir’. Tul (Nopachai Jayanama), an honest Bangkok police detective, makes a major drug bust that should elevate his career, but the ring leader has familial ties to the political system, and it is instead Tul who ends up doing time on a trumped-up charge. After being released from prison, Tul’s disillusionment with judicial procedure leads him to become a hitman for a shadowy organisation. While disguised as a monk to take out his latest target, Tul is shot in the head. Coming out of a coma three months later, he now sees everything upside down, prompting reassessment not only of his abilities as a professional killer, but also of his attitude towards life and society. However, quiet retirement is not in the cards, as an underworld figure has a score to settle with Tul’s employer and kidnaps the visually-challenged hitman with the intention of torturing him until exact location information is provided. Tul manages to escape, carjacking the surprisingly calm Rin (Sirin Horwang) as a means of fleeing the city. A cross-country chase with a brief sojourn at a temple ensues, with Tul trying to figure out who exactly is in hot pursuit, while wondering if he will ever see normally again.
Headshot marks a welcome return to international prominence for Ratanaruang, whose recent efforts, Ploy (2007) and Nymph (2009), were little-seen beyond the festival circuit, and this is his most accessible film since the much-admired Last Life in the Universe (2003). Working from the 2007 novel Rain Falling up the Sky by Win Lyovarin, the director strikes an atmospheric balance between noir style and the unhurried mood pieces that have become his speciality. Headshot rarely deviates from its thriller template in narrative terms, but Ratanaruang is as interested in Tul’s shifts in perspective as he is in the twists and turns of the source material. Seeking a moral compass, Tul tries to work both within and outside the law, ultimately deciding that, ‘justice doesn’t exist in nature’, and accepting the Buddhist belief that the secular world is as cruel as it is random. In this respect, the philosophical lineage of Headshot can be found in such films as Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), in which characters are granted an earthly afterlife en route to enlightenment. The premise of a hitman who sees everything upside down could become a mere gimmick, with a less-skilful director potentially over-using the visual device in the manner of a first-person shooter, but Ratanaruang inserts just enough point-of-view shots to remind the audience of Tul’s condition. Readjustment is otherwise noted through telling details: the previously agile protagonist now moves clumsily and turns photographs upside down in order to see them properly.
As in his earlier films, Ratanaruang is operating in complete harmony with his collaborators, particularly leading man Jayanama and cinematographer Chankit Chamnivikaipong. Jayanama’s performance emphasises Tul’s impressive physicality, while also addressing his gullibility and vulnerability: this is an individual who is defined by his relationship to the system, whether as a servant or in opposition, constantly searching for the right set of rules to follow but only finding self-doubt. Chamnivikaipong subtly adjusts Ratanaruang’s signature exploration of space for the director’s dalliance with the thriller genre, finding noir dread in such locations as ad-hoc hospitals, apartments, gas stations, late-bars, warehouses, and the forest where Tul has a showdown with the henchmen on his tail. With heavy rain obscuring everyone’s sight, the odds are edged in Tul’s favour, although the forces of nature threaten to confuse audience understanding of this deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Yet the smooth camera-work ensures constant awareness of Tul’s strategic position in relation to his pursuers, resulting in a gripping set-piece that does not require any rapid-fire editing. Further noir pleasures come in the form of alluring leading ladies Horwang and Chanokporn Sayoungkul, the latter playing a prostitute who has a role in Tul’s incarceration. Both are perfectly cast as characters whose coolly pragmatic approaches to problematic situations contrast with the spiritual flux of the hero. The term ‘art-house thriller’ is somewhat self-contradictory, yet entirely appropriate with regards to Headshot: meditative and suspenseful in equal measure, Ratanaruang’s karmic shoot-‘em-up is one of the best films of the year.