Headshot review: Tribeca Film Festival 2012

Headshot is both the title and metaphoric description for Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s (Last Life in the Universe, 6ixtynin9) latest mind-melting noir thriller. This is non-linear storytelling, people, so let’s keep alert and on our toes, shall we?! By the by, it also happens to be a moody and atmospheric cinematic treat, so buckle up, we’re going in …

Right from the start, Headshot grabs you with is enigmatic shots, a clever mix of close-ups, and low and obscure camera angles. The soundtrack chimes with portent while drama and expectancy hangs thick in the air like cigarette smoke in a windowless room. Characters drive through city streets that are either beset by grey, sulphurous skies or dramatic downpours.

Set amid this landscape is Tul’s story. It is the tale of an honest cop who falls foul of his own good intentions and the political will of the bureaucrats who hold power. Tul (Nopachai Jayanama) faces immediate pressure to back down over a drug-bust arrest that ended up with his partner dead. When he won’t play ball, the authorities decide that they’ll try and make him.

For Tul, the road from here on in is a twisted one. He spends time in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and is then forced into life as a hitman for an organisation that maintains it is doing good – by only killing corrupt, evil people. What compounds the despair in Tul’s journey is that following a hit that goes wrong, he’s left seeing the world upside down – the bullet spinning his vision of life around by 180 degrees.

Ratanaruang seems to delight in swirling around in the film’s timeline, jumping pre- and post-bullet attack. It can be a dizzying feeling but you’re never lost for that long. He’s also keen to throw in some visual humour at Tul’s expense, using the fact that his world is upside down to show him watching TV with the set turned on its head. There’s even a joke following a torture scene – where Tul is left hanging upside down by his feet. A mistake by the henchmen, perhaps?

The script definitely has a philosophical agenda, with Tul’s voiceover being used to reflect on his own feelings of good, evil, empowerment and corruption. And there are spiritual moments too; this is an action drama that has a contemplative undertone. Ratanaruang also shows a deal of bravery, as well as directorial command, by letting many of the scenes play long and quiet; words hang in the air, eyes are downcast but the camera doesn’t flinch, it lingers before it cuts away.

The nature of translation and subtitles does mean that subtlety – if indeed it’s intended – can often get eaten away, and Headshot does suffer from clunky dialogue and several scenes of embarrassingly obvious exposition – it’s as if they’re aware you may have got lost a couple of minutes back, so here’s a quick recap. Still, even when it’s bad, it’s no worse than your average multiplex thriller – and most of those don’t have this level of creativity in the tank.

If you’re looking for reference points before dipping in to Headshot, then Hong Kong thriller(s) Internal Affairs and South Korean oddity Oldboy may give you an insight. But there’s plenty to get stuck into with Headshot that comes from its own originality and attitude.

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