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About Pen-Ek Ratanaraung

Thai cinema has come into its own, featuring films with a fresh vibrancy that often characterizes cinematic new waves. The films of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang constitute a major part of this rising body of work, garnering him much critical acclaim and, hence, establishing him as a significant figure in global cinema. Born in Bangkok in 1962, Ratanaruang began his career when he moved to New York City in 1977 to study at Pratt Institute and later to work as a freelance illustrator and designer. New York City provided him the exposure to the cinema of Bergman, Fellini, Ozu, Jim Jarmusch, Woody Allen, and Aki Kaurismaki. Upon returning to Thailand, he worked as an art director for five years before directing his first feature Fun Bar Karaoke in 1997, which debut in Berlin and went on to screenings in the festival circuit. His marvelous second film, Ruang Talok 69 (6ixtynin9), won him special recognition in Berlin and at the Hong Kong Film Festival in 2000. While Monrak Transistor (2001) is probably his most accessible and charming film to date, it is Last Life in the Universe (2003) that has cemented his reputation as one of the freshest directorial voices in Thai cinema. The film was shot by Christopher Doyle, the renowned cinematographer of Wong Kar-wai’s films. Invisible Waves is Pen-Ek’s much anticipated new film, scheduled for release sometime this year.

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has a knack for capturing the mundane, the everyday, and the expected, and then making them fresh and new for the audience. In Ruang Talok 69, the sad story of the female protagonist Tum, having been retrenched during the Asian economic crisis, turns into a tale of murder, intrigue, and female empowerment. The seemingly predictable melodrama of Monrak Transistor is made immensely entertaining and engaging through the quirky acting and fabulous Thai soundtrack. And what would be a Pulp Fiction-inflected gangster flick in Last Life in the Universe turns into a philosophical musing on intercultural connection in the midst of social alienation. All the major characters in these three films occupy marginalized positions in Thai society, which ironically is becoming increasingly “connected” through media, telecommunication, and computer technology via circuits of globalization. The alienation of these figures thus presents a discourse of personal “disconnection” in contradiction to the dominant ideology of progress through connectivity. The body and its desires provide sites for material “reconnection,” which Ratanaruang deploys powerfully with shocking narrative turns, intense imagery, and poignant representations. This reading of Pen-Ek’s filmic corpus can only begin to suggest the rich thematic and interpretive possibilities that his works offer.

Kenneth Chan
Assistant Professor, Nanyang Technological University

    

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