Saturday, May 14, 2011

Strange Films I've Seen: PLOY

Pen-ek Ratanaruang does a brilliant job of conveying that misty cerebral impermanence of jetlag in his 2007 film Ploy. It screened as part of Asia Society's spring program "Blissfully Thai", a pretty wicked little run of post-2000 films curated by La Frances Hui and containing stuff like Ploy that, to my understanding, has never been properly screened in New York. This was my first time seeing Ploy and only the second time I've caught a Pen-ek work in theaters (the other was Invisible Waves, his 2006 sorta sequel to international "mega-hit" — and, incidentally, one of my favorite films ever — Last Life in the Universe, and that was purely by luck, at the 2007 and final Thai Takes Film Festival). So despite Pen-ek's internationally renowned vision, and particularly that one-two punch of Last Life… and Invisible Waves, w/ Tadanobu Asano as lead (co-starring model sisters Sinitta and Laila Boonyasak in the former and Kang Hye-jung in the latter — perhaps you know her from Park Chan-wook's Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance??) and Christopher Doyle's typically trippy cinematography, his films rarely get play stateside. I'm pleased for his countryman Apichatpong Weerasethakul, winner of last year's Palme d'Or at Cannes, who does get play here despite remaining firmly outside the Thai mainstream (plus Apichatpong's oeuvre tends toward long-takes a la Hou Hsiao-Hsien, not exactly "easy viewing") — but I quite honesty wish for more Pen-ek. Whether it's his "old" (circa '99) crime drama 6ixtynin9 or more recent works like Ploy and Nymph, Pen-ek deserves to be seen.

So obviously I couldn't miss this one. It fulfilled my longing for Pen-ek's stylistic mono no aware, of people in big-city, nondescript Thailand, drifting through life, disappearing into the margins, despite the happiness they have all around them but are unable to feel. In broad strokes, Ploy is about two couples with love hangups. One is the leads Wit (Pornwut Sarasin, playing a restauranteur who's lived in the States for 10+ years) and Dang (Lalita Panyopas, who played the lead in 6ixtynin9, as a "former actress" — amazingly tongue-in-cheek!), fresh back to Bangkok to attend a funeral and jetlagged as hell. We see maybe a second of twilit freeway before they're deposited into an ordinary business hotel near the airport, yearning for some shuteye. Wit smokes Seven Stars habitually, so one of the first things he does is head to the bar downstairs to buy a pack, plus hang out there — he's not ready to sleep or doesn't feel like staying upstairs with his wife. She searches for a key to their suitcase in Wit's jacket pocket and discovers a scrap of paper w/ a phone number and woman's name (Noy) scrawled on it. Dang's got this thing where she believes Wit to be a Don Juan, or at least dissatisfied w/ their lack of sex life and is getting it from somewhere(one) else. We learn they initially hit it off in the states when she was still married to her former husband. Plus she has a thinly veiled drug and alcohol problem (cocaine stashed in her makeup bag, which Ploy steals, plus she sneaks vodka into her coffee). Wit, in leaving his wife upstairs in the hotel room, has this childish aversion to holding her and telling her he loves her — he says he feels like a parrot doing that day in and day out — yet he's well aware that's all she needs. The other couple may or may not exist, which might sound like a trip but it's the truth: the leads Dang and Wit are suffering jetlag and their consciousnesses drift in and out, so the scenes with the younger couple may exist only in dreams, or some idealized reality. But they're worth exploring: a hotel maid goes through this complicated routine to have clandestine sex w/ her hook-up, the hotel bartender. She swipes a guest's suit from the dry-cleaners downstairs, ducks into an empty hotel room (parking her cart outside w/ a lime-green shopping bag tucked around the handle like a flag), hangs the suit up in the closet, and hides in the shower. He arrives just later, changes out of his bartender's uniform for the ill-fitting suit, and lumbers into the bathroom to "accidentally" discover her. Whereupon they have lots of unbridled sex. So we've got one couple who's been married seven years (Wit keeps thinking it's been eight years) who quarrel pettily (she doesn't trust him, he won't hold her); and we've another couple, real or not, whose foreplay ritual is a complete game.
Let's add some fuel to this fire, via the lovely Apinya Sakuljaroensuk in her acting debut, as the lithe and afro'ed Ploy. She saunters up to Wit at the bar and bums a cig off him. She's dressed kind of like a girl skater: baggy low-slung jeans, seemingly hand-made cropped T-shirt, headphones and bangles anointing her figure. Ploy waits for her mother to arrive at 10:30a from Stockholm so as it's like 6a she's got time to kill. They have a drifting conversation (Ploy names her favorite Thai reggae singer and they share earbuds) and head upstairs so she can freshen up in their room and take a nap. Thus begins probably the longest four hours of Wit's and Dang's lives, dulled by jetlag, w/ Dang staring down this spacey PYT entering their hotel room. As Ploy showers, Dang orders her husband to dismiss the girl immediately. He refuses and she taunts that she'll throw her — which Wit laughs off, knowing that Dang is too concerned with saving face. This pisses her off even more. They each sleep fitfully, Ploy sacked out on the sofa, Wit and Dang as far apart as possible in the bed. Dang has hallucinations and nightmares of smothering Ploy with a pillow, then being visited at the door by a young woman (with child) claiming to be Noy. She and Wit spar about their marriage, his lack of emotion, her lack of trust, and Dang storms out of the hotel room. Ploy joins him in bed — not like that — and they have another long, though much more intimate, discussion on relationships and love.

Pen-ek uses this beautiful melodic drone as a backdrop to the film's subtle soundtrack. It played a similar presence in scenes from Last Life… but it's nearly constant, an easy tone that drifts in and out of the film like the characters' consciousnesses. He exercises restraint in the filming, too, which is as beautiful as Doyle's cinematography but w/o that glossy sheen. The camera holds back so characters, husband and wife, husband and girl, girlfriend and boyfriend, can just go at it — or better yet, say nothing at all. Their looks, body language and movements in space tell much more than words, adding this palpable tension to Wit and Ploy in bed together, or the almost repeated beginning and end shots of Wit and Dang in a taxi ride, she resting her head on his shoulder.