SIFF Day 4 – Vengeance and Redemption

Thailand’s FRIDAY KILLER gives hit-man movies a genre work-out and SUN BEATEN PATH treks doggedly across the sparse landscape of Tibet…

Suthep Po-ngam in FRIDAY KILLER

>>> เป้ ท่าทราย (FRIDAY KILLER) (Thailand, 2011, 104′) Dir./Scr. Yuthlert Sippapak – DP. Tiwa Moeithaisong – Music. Origin Kampanee – Edit. Tawat Siripong – Prod. Tawatchai Panpakdee/Yulthert Sippapak [Screening in Golden Goblet Award competition]

This darkly comic, at times meditative and even poetic, action drama is an immediately engrossing and effortlessly enjoyable presentation from Thai director, Yulthert Sippapak. Shot as the first of a trilogy of complementary but unconnected hit-man stories, FRIDAY KILLER was deemed too uncommercial by its production studio and distributor, Phranakorn Film, to begin the trilogy commercially. Sippapak’s follow-up, SATURDAY KILLER (screening in SIFF’s Thai Week block), was released last year as the first installment of the trilogy and some reports suggest that FRIDAY KILLER might even be bumped to the end of the trilogy’s distribution once SUNDAY KILLER is completed. Why this should be the case is surely a question of Phranakorn Film’s perception of the Thai market, for FRIDAY KILLER lacks not for depth, drama, entertainment value or magnetic performances.

Legendary hit-man Pay Uzi (veteran Thai comedian, Sutep Po-ngam, in Buster Keaton Mode), known for making his hits only on Fridays, walks out of a long prison sentence into the blade of another contractor on the same day that police constable Dao (Ploy Jindachot) is handed a sealed letter, addressed to Pay Uzi’s given name, by her dying mother. Finding Pay Uzi unconscious and bloodied outside the prison, Dao takes him to hospital, where he reads the letter in her absence and realizes that the reason for the love of his life leaving him 28 years ago was to spare their daughter the dangers of growing-up in a hit-man’s family. At Dao’s home Pay Uzi inadvertently kills the man Dao believes to be her father, whilst trying to prevent him from raping Dao’s girlfriend. This sets in motion Dao’s pursuit of Pay Uzi to his hometown of Chanbari, where gang-boss, Meng, is buying votes for his election to government office, as well as contracting every hit-man he can to go after Pay Uzi.

Though FRIDAY KILLER never lets its soundtrack stray too far from the minimal, sustained drones and bass rumbles that characterize the sombre, meditative manners of both Pay Uzi and Dao, there is much comic levity between the deeper character moments and minimalist gun battles. When Pay Uzi returns to his old house, he finds it inhabited by the world’s most dangerously insane Tarantino fanatic and all of Meng’s interactions with his seedy crew of lieutenants and assassins are played for laughs in unexpected places (watch how effortlessly a grenade can silence a room full of poseur bad-asses). Contrasting the ludicrous gangsters of Chanbari, Sippapak is masterful in the composition of sublime moments, such as Dao going for target practice on the weir of a river, then lying back into the cascading water as her girlfriend tries-out the assault rifle. Further to this, it should be noted that Sippapak and editor Tawat Siripong’s sparing but precise use of non-linear editing elevates the narrative eloquence of the film far above what one would normally expect of a hit-man thriller, even in the post-Tarantino film market. Perhaps most important to both the film’s dramatic and comedic success is Pay Uzi’s eloquently deadpan confrontationalism, which is at its most powerful in a scene where he stands-down the advances of Meng’s political campaign manager, whose job it is to regurgitate Meng’s mantra that any Thai can be bought. On completing his retort to the bribe offered for his vote, Pay Uzi backs-up to take his shot (Pay Uzi’s terrible vision is a powerful element within almost every shoot-out and the story is richer for it).

Sippapak has an assured and confident voice as director and an intuitive visual sense; bringing his history as an architect and interior designer onto the screen in alternately layered and wide-open uses of architectural space. FRIDAY KILLER is a fine antidote to slick Western hit-man stories and essential viewing for fans of genre-bending cinema.

I will be reviewing SATURDAY KILLER this Saturday (how appropriate).

Yeshe Lhadruk in THE SUN BEATEN PATH

>>> 太阳总在左边 (THE SUN BEATEN PATH) (China, 2011, 88′) Dir.Scr. Sonthar Gyal – DP. Wang Meng – Music. Dukar Tserang – Edit. Sonthar Gyla/Qian Lengleng – Prod. Sonthar Gyal/Li Xing/Lu Yuanyuan/Sang Jie [Screening in Asian New Talent Awardcompetition]

THE SUN BEATEN PATH establishes itself as a film of tiny movements within vast spaces from the very beginning. The pace of the film is set by the time taken to walk the long Tibetan road to Lhasa, where the near catatonic Nima (Yeshe Lhadruk) is returning home after a pilgrimage of redemption in which he has prostrated himself along the same road. Cinematographer Shonthar Gyal’s debut as director is impressive in its visual deliberation and dedicated exploration of grief. The back-and-forth cutting between Nima’s state prior to his pilgrimage and his return journey creates an engaging narrative method to explore its impenetrable subject. Inherently, this is a film demanding great patience from its audience but there are rewards for allowing one’s-self to become invested in the fate this character, given to so few words for his screen time.

Nima’s grief and his journey are the result of his role in the tragic, accidental death of his mother (Lhakyed Ma). Though Nima’s family and neighbours do not blame him for their loved one’s death, Nima cannot forgive himself and remains in a detached, barley living state, even after his pilgrimage is complete. On the road he is joined by a life-worn old man (Lo Kyi), who takes it upon himself to ensure that Nima does not remain a lost soul in the wilderness.

The old man battles persistently against Nima’s withdrawl from the world and though the connection between the two seems one-sided, the characters’ moments of verbal and physical interaction more than earn their weight within the story. As one might expect, this is an old man filled with stories and fables, and it is these short nuggets of wisdom that are key to unmasking the wider theme of enlightenment and the patience that it has for those willing to embrace life.

Gyal’s use of his actors’ faces is striking in close-up and blended with great clarity of purpose into the bare, yellow landscape of Tibet. Nima has one side of his face blistered by sun burn and when the old man draws his attention to the dangers of this, Nema’s realization that he doesn’t know his own face anymore is the first crack in the prison he has built himself. The absence of landmarks, aside from the road, is such a distinctive element of the film’s visual palette, and yet when buildings do appear, they seem so spare and sparsely coloured, despite the glorious decoration characteristic of Buddhist monuments. At the penultimate point, Gyal makes an inspired and heart-rendingly beautiful choice of image to instigate Nima’s decision to finally return himself to the world of the living. THE SUN BEATEN PATH is a film of minor movements and small concessions to its characters and audience, but it is by no means visually minimal despite the featurelessness of the landscape that characterizes it.

THE SUN BEATEN PATH trailer (Tibetan dialect – English subs)

^ FRIDAY KILLER (Thai – English subs – SPOILERS!)

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