Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Blissfully Thai" Review: Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Ploy"

Ploy. 2007. Written and directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Produced by Rewat Vorarat. Cinematography by Charnkit Chamniwikaipong. Edited by Patamanadda Yukol. Music by Hualampong Riddim and Koichi Shimizu. Production design by Saksiri Chantarangsri. Sound by Akritchalerm Kalaynamtr.

Cast: Lalita Panyopas (Dang), Pornwut Sarasin (Wit), Apinya Sakuljaroensuk (Ploy), Ananda Everingham (Nut), Phorntip Papanai (Tum), Thakaskorn Pradabpongsa (Moo).

A Bangkok hotel is the backdrop for a crumbling marriage, a torrid love affair, and moody languorousness in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy, a film so ethereal that it nearly floats off the screen.  This is a mode Ratanaruang has favored in his most recent films: Last Life in the Universe, Invisible Waves, and his most recent feature Nymph.  His films now seem to be experiments in how minimal in plot, how elliptical and allusive in tone, and how much empty space and silence they can bear and still retain audience interest and substance.  Judging by some of his recent critical notices, the jury may be out on this, but as for me, I find both Ploy, and its follow-up Nymph, very beautifully made and fascinating, melancholy ghost(ly) stories of a sort.

The storyline of Ploy, such as it is, concerns Wit (Pornwut Sarasin) and Dang (Lalita Panyopas), a married couple returning to Thailand for a funeral, after living for 10 years in the U.S.  They arrive at their hotel at a troubled state in their marriage, having grown distant from one another, spending very little time together and no longer having sex, mostly arguing with each other.  Wit believes their love has reached its “expiration date,” and Dang suspects her husband of having an affair when he finds another woman’s name and number in his jacket pocket.  Unable to sleep (and perhaps as an excuse to get away from his wife for awhile), he leaves their room to get cigarettes and hangs out at the hotel bar.  There he meets Ploy (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk), a young woman with a frizzy halo of Afro-like curly hair, who is waiting for her mother to arrive from Sweden.  Wit invites Ploy to stay in their hotel room, to get cleaned up and wait for her mother, which greatly displeases Dang, who wishes to rest in privacy after their long trip.  As the film progresses, more tidbits of information about Dang emerge: she is a former film star who left the business long ago, and now appears to exist in a deep depression, which she assuages with heavy drinking, and (the film suggests) drugs.  While all this is occurring, a separate story details a hotel room tryst between a hotel maid (Phorntip Papanai) and a bartender (Ananda Everingham), a narrative thread which only has peripheral association with Wit, Dang, and Noy’s story, yet gets nearly equal screen time.

The minimalism of Ploy’s narrative allows Ratanaruang to visually indulge in varied ways, favoring long shots of its characters, and empty corridors that reinforce the sense of the drama that plays out against the hotel’s anonymous, antiseptic backdrop.  The maid and the hotel bartender serve as a counterweight to the distant and unhappy Wit and Dang, their sexual passion in stark contrast to the married couple who sleep as far apart as possible on their bed.  Although the film is named for her, we learn very little about Ploy, and she remains a mystery to the end; never explained, for example, are the bruises around her eye (which mirrors bruises Dang receives late in the film), or the male companion she leaves behind to go to Wit and Dang’s room.  Ploy shifts often between dream and reality, deliberately confusing distinctions between the two.  At least two major scenes in the film are revealed to be the dreams of Ploy and Dang, and this uncertainty about what we see in the film has a faintly unsettling effect.  Ploy ultimately lacks the lasting resonance of superior, earlier films such as 6ixty9, Monrak Transistor, and Last Life in the Universe; still, it has intriguingly odd visual and narrative touches and is never less than lovely to look at.

Ploy screens at Asia Society on May 13 at 6:45pm as part of the film series “Blissfully Thai,” which spotlights key Thai cinema of the past decade, including works by other major Thai directors such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul (last year’s Cannes Palme D’or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Blissfully Yours) and Wisit Sasanatieng (Tears of the Black Tiger).  Ratanaruang will have a Q&A after the screening, and will participate in a discussion on May 14 at 2pm with Apichatpong Weerasethakul at Asia Society to discuss their work and recent Thai cinema.  For info and tickets for Ploy, click here.  For info and tickets for Saturday’s talk, click here.

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