“The world is full of crooks,” says the protagonist of Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s 2011 film Headshot. “Doesn’t matter how many laws or jails we create…. justice does not exist in nature.”
This cynical sentiment underlies Headshot, Pen-ek’s 9th feature film, a dizzying revenge thriller that reflects upon the country’s current unrest, and expresses, more profoundly, a widespread frustration with Thailand’s dysfunctional political status quo as well as the desire for change.
If Pen-ek’s recent documentary Paradoxocracy offers a more instructive primer on the country’s confusing political history, with its cycle of coups and counter-coups, alternating between military dictatorships and civilian rule, Headshot is a darker, more existential meditation on the moral gray zones of “so-called Thai democracy,” as a recent Op-Ed in the Bangkok Post termed it.
Culminating in the military coup d’etat that took place last week, political unrest in Thailand has been building to a fever pitch over the last six months: Since November, anti-government and pro-government protests have lead to the deaths of twenty-seven people and hundreds of wounded; in February, snap elections were disrupted by demonstrations and deemed invalid; and this month, Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of controversial populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra, was indicted on corruption charges. Add to these specific instances the generally accepted view that police, politicians and voters are all on the take, and you get a generally derisive attitude towards the country’s systems of power. As Pen-ek himself admitted in a 2012 interview, “I live in my country, and I see how corrupt the politicians are and stay above the law…. Everybody’s aware of this in my country.”
Headshot echoes this chaotic political landscape with its intricate tale of a cop-turned-killer. Early in the film, we see the protagonist, Tul, gunned down during an assassination attempt of a corrupt politician. Tul survives a shot to the head, but with one major side effect: He can only see upside-down.
An obvious metaphor for the country’s topsy-turvy ethics, Tul’s visual impairment is shown at select points in the film. But there is already a pervading sense that the country’s moral center is out of whack: a minister’s brother gets busted for drug trafficking and tries to bribe Tul; a successful businessman smuggles alcohol, supplies prostitutes to politicians and is “acquitted on murder charges,” notes Tul, in his noir-ish voice-over, “because of his connections with a big political party.”
Throughout the early parts of the film, Tul intones a hardboiled lone avenger’s narration, offering observations about humanity’s inherent depravity like: “Some scholars say the answer lies in education. But our country’s history shows that these corrupt individuals are highly educated people. Combating evil according to the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ should be the real solution.”
Tul himself is a walking embodiment of the blurred lines between good and evil. While he begins his circuitous journey as an incorruptible policeman, he soon gets turned around into an assassin, and eventually finds tentative redemption as a Buddhist monk. But within the film’s jumbled narrative timeline, it’s not always clear whether he’s cop, killer, monk, or simultaneously all three.
Like the classic post-war film noirs of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Headshot incorporates a heavy dose of disillusionment, a couple femmes fatales and the feeling that powers-that-be exist far beyond the reach of the protagonist. Even the trope of the hero’s perception is common to the genre: From Lady in the Lake to Dark Passage (both from 1947), these films frequently place the viewer within the detective’s narrow field of vision—one that, while not exactly upside-down, is frequently compromised.
In Headshot, Tul’s sight also becomes an ironic comment on the country’s political awakening. “Before I saw things like everyone else,” says Tul, late in the film. “Now I have to look at everything attentively, seriously, and I see things clearer.”
Tul’s ambition to set things right—first in society, and then within himself—appears to mirror the filmmaker’s own goals with his film. “Sometimes I feel like him, and I should go out and kill these [corrupt] people,” Pen-ek has said. Then again, he continued, “In a way, by making a film I’m taking justice into my own hands, too.”