A Conversation with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is erasing borders. After three feature-films similar in tone and energy (Fun Bar Karaoke, 1997, 6ixtynin9, 1999, Monrak Transistor, 2001) he broke away in 2003 with the Prabda Yoon penned Last Life in the Universe, a melancholic study on alienation and cross cultural connectedness that starred Japanese actor Tadanaobu Asano and was shot by Australian-born cinematographer Christopher Doyle. His new film "Invisible Waves", currently in post-production, takes things a step further, reuniting the old team of Yoon, Asano, and Doyle, but adding to the mix a new location (Macau), and a new female lead (Korean actress Kang Hye-jeong from Old Boy fame).
Pen-Ek was recently in Singapore for the 5th Asian Film Symposium and Inaugural Forum on Asian Cinema, where a retrospective of his films were presented. A day after an intense and thorough panel session on his work, I sat down with Pen-Ek to discuss other things: his background, growing up, the Thai film industry, and why he makes films.
Alexis Tioseco: How are you doing so far here in Singapore?
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang: Great! To be honest, actually I told Bee Thiam just now that, when I was invited I expected to be bored with this thing, because I thought it would be so academic, and I've never been around nerds, you know what I mean? I thought it would be full of nerds, and I'm the only who like. I make films, but I'm not really like.
AT: Psychotic, or read deeply into it?
PR: Yeah, and it's like when I watch films it's either I like them or I don't have any [opinion]. I don't sit down and analyze it. One of my favourite films is Notting Hill. And I cried every time when I saw it. [both laugh]. But then again, you know, I also like Bergman's films. I mean for me, you know. [trails off]
AT: The way I see it you take them on a much lighter level. Like what you said [during the Q&A panel session the day earlier] "I won't die if I can't make films anymore".
PR: Yeah, I'll be sad, maybe for a few months, because I like it, I like doing it. I think I'm addicted to it; just to see this thing come alive. It's always exciting. Even when it doesn't work it's still very exciting. So I don't have that kind of. I don't go into a movie and analyze things. So I thought I'd be so bored and I wouldn't know what to do, you know, being around all these nerdy people. And- there's not a single session that I've attended that I didn't enjoy. It's still academic, but I think he balanced the guests quite well. I think he did.
AT: Yeah. Because there are no panels that are strictly academic. Sometimes there'll be academics, but there'll be a balance between the two sides.
PR: Right, right. Like the session you were just in right. The balance was really good, you know. And I think, let's say, without [Tan] Pin Pin, it would not be this. So it's like the session I was in this morning. Daniel, and me, we're the opposite, but we're almost the same. So I think he balanced the guests, luckily. I don't think he planned it, but luckily...it worked. So, so far I really enjoy every session I attend.
AT: And it's nice that the setting is quite small, quite intimate. So that even if there isn't a hundred people, even if there's twenty or thirty, it's still a nice feel.
PR: Yeah, yeah. And Zai, Zai Kuning's session was brilliant. That-- that for me was a revelation. He actually inspired me to make a film now.
AT: Something to do with a specific people or tribe?
PR: No. It's just that what I discovered was that, and I told Zai, "you know that you inspired me to make a film now?" And it's going to be really challenging, it's like because, he didn't like interviewing people right? So he just writes! He just writes all this text. "I asked him this, he said this. I asked him this he said this." He just writes them. And then sometimes he would show some shots that he shot. With his music. Normal sound. And the fact that he edited on iMovie, you only have two tracks, so you can't really do complicated stuff.
But I found his films really moving. So moving. And I found that the text really moved me. Because when I was reading those texts, I saw pictures. And he didn't even have to show it! But when you're reading the text, you kind of shoot the film in your head, according to his text. And I thought, this is fucking brilliant. Maybe I'll take it even further. So I'm thinking that I'm going to make a film with text.
AT: The whole film?
PR: Yeah! With text. But then again you could even take it further, instead of just one elegant text you can actually make the text pictures. Like when somebody shouts, the text really shouts. With different fonts.
AT: Yeah, the way it looks.
PR: So I'm really thinking, mapping out seriously a film, that is just writing. And the thing is people don't write anymore. People don't write anymore and don't like reading anymore. I think what really inspired me is that it was so brave that he did that. And it's not even out of bravery, it was out of necessity, because- he didn't have the interviews.
AT: Yeah, he just spoke to them, and then wrote from memory. There's actually this website [Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries Presents, see related links], where this guy, he's from Korea I believe, makes these flash things - I actually e-mailed him once but he didn't want to talk about his background or anything, as if to say "I think this is enough". I'll e-mail it to you, the link. And it's all text— text and sound and music. There's one that is really, really moving. The words move along with the beat of the music, it's akin to the music. But the whole thing is about when Korea was bombed [note: the title is OPERATION NUKOREA].
PR: Right. Right.
AT: And it's describing the events. And you know, you read it, you're just reading this text, which is actually quite long, maybe 15-20 minutes, and you're actually almost in tears by the end of it because of the picture it's painted in your head. It's really very, very moving.
PR: We can even go back and talk about Chris Marker's film, the one that inspired 12 Monkeys.
AT: Yeah, Le Jetee.
[waiter interrupts to ask if Pen-Ek would like more coffee]
PR: Those are all.
AT: Just still pictures.
PR: La Jetee. That was just still pictures, but it was so, so moving. So yeah, so far my trip has been a really wonderful surprise. Because I expected to be really bored, but now everyday is like, really good. Really cool.
AT: You mentioned that your parents lived in London.
PR: Yeah. My family.
AT: Did you ever live there?
PR: No I did not. Because, I was too small, I was just born, and they had to leave. I was too little. My father was still young at the time. They were young, and to just take care of the job, in a totally new place, new environment, speaking English, and my two older sisters—that would be too much for them already, so they kind of left me with my grandmother. With the idea that after they settle down, after like six months or a year, they'd come back and take me. So when they settled down, they wanted to come back and take me, but of course by that time my grandmother was so attached to me, to this little baby, that she said "no way, you're not taking him away from me" [laughs], so I never went. He worked for the BBC radio.
AT: What was he doing for them?
PR: I think he did sports programmes. Tennis and stuff.
AT: And then you went to study in the US for college?
PR: For high school first.
AT: Ah, for high school first?
PR: For high school first. I was kind of kicked out of my old school in Thailand.
AT: The boarding school that you went to?
PR: Yeah. Well not kicked out, they kind of asked me to leave. They didn't kick me out.
AT: Why? [laughs] What was it for?
PR: I. burned a teacher's house. [hesitant laugh]
AT: His house? [laughs]
PR: [laughs] Well yeah. We didn't want to burn the house. We wanted to burn the mattress. But the mattress was in the house. So. that's not. very good you know.
AT: You might. might get into trouble for something like that.
PR: Yeah, yeah. [laughs]. So I was kind of asked to leave. So I left. And I went to the States and went to High School.
AT: Where were you in the states?
PR: The high school that I went to is in a small tiny town near Philadelphia. For two years. I was the only foreigner in the whole town. So wherever I walked, people would come and look. Like "why is he walking with his eyes closed?" [laughs]. For the Americans your eyes were so small. [both laugh]
PR: So I was there for two years, and after that I went to New York to University. In Brooklyn. So I studied in University for four years.
AT: What did you study?
PR: I studied history. Art history. And when I finished school, I worked. I was an illustrator for about 2-3 years. Drawings and stuff. I worked in this design place. Graphic design.
AT: Hand-drawings and graphic design?
PR: Yeah, yeah. Well, that time was way, way, way before computers. So I did that for about three years, and then I left.
AT: What made you decide to go back to Thailand?
PR: I just missed home. I love New York, I really loved it. And the time that I was there was early 80's. It was the perfect time to be in New York. There was Andy Warhol. And the Ramones were at their peak. David Byrne just started out with Talking Heads. They were still playing in small clubs and things. So at that time it was great. Jean-Michel Basquiat just started. Keith Herring. And a lot of my friends were in the arts, in the visual arts. Actually the abstract expressionist just started. People like Barbara Krueger. So that time it was brilliant. Laurie Anderson was kind of, not starting, she was already established, but really at her kind of..
PR: Yeah, yeah. So everything that happened in New York around that time was just really, it just blows you away everyday. Everyday there was always someone doing something really groundbreaking. And then, I came home one summer to Bangkok, just for holidays, for like two months.
AT: Did you go to back to Bangkok often?
PR: [shakes head]
AT: Not often, or not at all?
PR: Since I've left, 18 years ago. I only went back once. Last year.
AT: Oh no, I meant when you were in New York, did you go back to Bangkok often?
PR: No, no. During the nine years I was there [in New York], I went back maybe twice.
AT: And then now you've barely gone back to New York.
PR: No. And I don't miss it. But when I go there, like last year, I really do enjoy it.
AT: You showed your films there?
PR: Yes. Last Life. To promote it, because it was going to be released there, so I had to go there. They put it in the Tribeca Film Festival, so I went there for that.
AT: So you really missed Bangkok and decided to go back?
PR: Yeah I came back one summer and I spent like a month, in Bangkok, and life was so great, and I kept thinking "what am I doing in New York?". I pay half my salary to the rent, and I have to do my own laundry. Sometimes you run out of underwear and you still don't want to do it, and you have to worry about what you will eat that evening. But when I was back in Bangkok the quality of life was really great, so I thought yeah I'll come back. And I went back without anything to do. A friend of mine just asked me to go. I was supposed to go and work in a refuge camp. At that time it was like 1986, so all the Cambodian refuges before they go to America or to Europe to live, they have to come to this camp at the Thai-Cambodian border, and in this camp there would be NGO's and volunteers, like what I was supposed to go to do. You teach them English, and teach them how to use toilets and things. It's really to prepare them to go to a western lifestyle or country. And I already got the job, but when I left New York I didn't go straight back to Bangkok, I went to Germany to visit my sister. And I took a two day trip to Berlin. And I just totally fell in love with Berlin. So I stayed. For six months.
AT: Six months in Berlin?
PR: Yeah. [laughs]
AT: I just went there for the first time this February for the festival. It's great.
PR: Right. And Berlin at the time that I was there, there was still a wall. The atmosphere was still really tense. Really strange place, I really loved it. So I stayed for half a year there.
AT: What did you do while you were there?
AT: Living off savings?
PR: Yeah. I made some money before I left New York, because of my work. So I made a little of money, I just lived off of that. Go to coffee shops and sit, and play chess with some people. Write. I go to the Bauhaus Museum often because I love the buildings. Just beautiful buildings.
So basically I kind of made an architectural tour, because I like architecture. Just watching architecture, and buildings and stuff. And that was great. So by the time I got back, a friend of mine had tracked me down, in Berlin. He was in Bangkok, but he managed to track me down through my parents, and he got a hold of me. And he said, "So what are you going to do when you come back?", and I said I'm going to work in this place, a refuge camp. So he asked me to come and see him when I went back, and he asked me to work in advertising, to help him. So I did. I didn't know anything about advertising, but it sounded interesting, so I went in and did it, and I never left.
AT: This was his company? A small company?
PR: No, no. He worked for a huge company. But he needed people he liked and that he could trust. So he asked me to go and work for him. I did, and I was in this advertising agency for like four years. And this same friend left, long before [the end of my four years], and he started a production house that shoots commercials, that makes TV commercials.
AT: What were you doing in the advertising company?
PR: I was an Art Director.
AT: Akin to production design?
PR: Art Director is for prints. You go on still shoots and you make your layouts and things like that. And you design posters and stuff. So when he started his small production house he asked me if I was interested in trying directing. I said sure why not. So I did, and for some strange reason, I could do it quite well [chuckles]. Without any knowledge, I could do it really well. I won a lot of prizes, and I loved it! I really loved it. I did that for like five years and then I made my first film. I wrote the script, and went to see people with money, and one day this studio gave me money to make it. And they still finance my films up to now.
AT: Same people?
PR: Yeah, same people.
AT: Before that, did you have any inclination towards filmmaking. Wanting to get into filmmaking, or wanting to direct?
PR: I love films. Since I was in New York, I was always going to see films. And actually, I discovered cinema there. Because before that I had no interest in cinema, in film. And even when I was in New York I was watching normal films, all these Hollywood films, and then one day I went to see 8 ˝, just because of the poster. This black and white poster with Marcello Mastroianni with that hat. And the poster was just so handsome. It was so beautiful. With the lettering of 8 ˝, and the 8 is really elaborate, really Art Nouveau kind of thing.
AT: And the background is the carnival, or the parade scene.
PR: Yeah. So I went in, by myself, and at the end of the film I was completely blown away. I didn't understand shit, I didn't understand at all "what is this?" you know, but. it was so sexy to me. It was so attractive. That was the first film in my life that actually sort of gave me the idea that—this guy can make films? This is film? Then I started to become interested in Fellini, so I'd see more films by him. And then that lead to Bergman, and Godard. And you know, the usual stuff, Truffaut, and Fassbinder. And, so I discovered this art cinema that I found really to my taste. Like [really excited] I really like this! I really like all these stuff. And half of them I don't understand. It's a big mystery that you don't even understand it but you find it so seductive, so beautiful. So in a way I sort of caught the cinema virus there. But of course I never had the idea that I want to do this, I couldn't. It's beyond your capabilities.
AT: Yeah, you mentioned during the talk that you thought it was something that geniuses did.
PR: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. You have to be a genius to make a film. Because all these films [were amazing].. how can you do this? So I just kind of kept it as my obsession. Watching films.
AT: So was it after success in advertising and directing commercials.
PR: Yeah, you see, when you go into directing commercials you kind of move a step closer because you're handling cameras and you're using dolly tracks, and you're shooting people, you have to direct people. You have to say "do this, do this, no do it slower, no do this". So you get into something like this and then at the same time I was watching two or three films a day, at home, smuggled copies. At that time it wasn't as available as now. So you have this itch, like maybe you want to do it. But every time you have this itch, when you're swamped again with advertising work, or you did something well on this one commercial. Then you forgot about this itch. And that happened for many years. Until one day. it doesn't go away. So it's slowly kind of becoming a disease. That in the beginning was just a rash. You go like that and it's gone. You put some cream on it and it's gone. But after a while, the germ got stronger. It wouldn't go away.
AT: You had been directing commercials for how long?
PR: About five years, then. So then I said maybe I should try to write a story, and try to make a film. And I did. And that was my first film. That's why I never made any short films or anything like that. I'm a little embarrassed about it now though, because now that I've become a little bit— people invite me to film festivals and people know me a little bit now, and they always say "Pen-Ek, can we do a retrospective of your short films?". Because everyone assumes I went to film school. I said. "I don't have any". [both laugh]
AT: "Here's my TV commercials!"
PR: It's a bit embarrassing. There was one question yesterday, the guy asked me "How come you started so late? You started your first film when you were 37", and I. didn't know what to say. [laughs] I mean, come on, I was doing something else you know what I mean! [laughs] As important as film. I was doing something else. I was living life, I was doing something. [It's] because nowadays film is so hip. And so is the case of 'young genius'. You're 22 and you make a break-through and now its so common. But in Asia, especially in Asia, most directors have to start very late. Because they had to work under someone for a long time. You have to work under like Shohei Imamura for 10 years before you get to make your [first film], before you even get to help him write it. So in Asia it's not that if you're clever you can make a film. Because in Asian film, intelligence and cleverness doesn't count. You have to be a bit more mature. It's about emotions, and it's about what life is about. That's what our kind of films are about.
So I made my first film. I made it without any expectations at all. I just kind of wanted to see if I like it. Not the film, but to see if I liked the experience. Because even if that film had been successful, and I didn't like the experience, I wouldn't continue. But it turned out the opposite. The film was not so good. But, I really felt natural doing it. Almost like I was born to do this. And I knew exactly how to do it now, next. So I continued. From then, I just kept at it.