A Conversation with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
AT: There were people who worked with you in commercials. I think you mentioned it earlier but I wasnít there when you mentioned it. Ho Yuhang, he worked with you?
PR: Yeah he was my assistant when I [would] shoot in KL. I shot a few commercials in KL. I shot three actually, and two of them were banned.
PR: Banned, yeah.
AT: In KL?
PR: Yeah in KL. And when I shot in KL, I actually shot for Yasmin [Ahmad. Malaysian director of Sepet]. She was the Creative. And I shot her films, three of them.
AT: You shot it as in, she was the Creative Head, and you directed it?
PR: Yeah, she came up with the idea. And then I was the one who would say I donít like this or I donít like that, we [would] change it together, and then I direct the commercial. And we always talk. Every time we meet, we talk about our work for only about ten minutes but the other two hours we always talk about feature-films, because sheís really obsessed with films. Sheís like a fucking encyclopedia. She knows every film by Satyajit Ray. And we like each other very much. I would like to think that just the fact that I continue to make films; Iíd like to think that maybe that inspired her a little bit. Every time I would see her I would see ďYasmin you should make a film! You should make a film; please make a film. Next time I see you I want to see a scriptĒ. So we would always talk about that. And Yuhang was my assistant, my AD.
AT: Have you seen his films?
PR: Not yet. But I want to see Sanctuary, I really want to see it.
AT: Itís quite good. Itís funny because his personality is so funny, heís such a character, but his films are all very, very serious.
PR: He is a very serious guy. And heís a very good friend with Tsai Ming Liang. Which is funny because I mean Tsai Ming Liang only makes comedies! Tsai Ming Liangís films are so funny. And Yuhangís is, from what I heard, is so serious,
AT: Heís quite the comedian now, whenever heís at film events. They screened Sanctuary at SIFF, and there was a lady in the audience who asked him ďif you had to pitch this film, how would you pitch it? If you had to try to sell it, how would you sell it?Ē. And then heís like [in imitation accent] ďI wouldnítĒ. And the lady says ďBut if you had toĒ, and Yuhang replies ďI wouldnítĒ (Pen-Ek, in Yuhang imitation ďI wouldnítĒ [laughs]). ďItís not the type of film people will make money from. Itís not a good idea for me to try and sell it. It would be cruel. I canít do it.Ē [both laugh hard], ďI make it because I like itĒ.
But were there other filmmakers that ADíd for you, in Thailand?
PR: No, no. My AD has been trying to make films for such a long time, and I keep discouraging him.
PR: I keep discouraging him: ďThereís no way you can make a film. You should be a producerĒ. But my crew, itís like the same crew on every film. So weíve been together for a long time. Because itís easyó you have people who actually grow up with you. They understand your taste. And at their own department, now, theyíve become much better than me. That I donít have toÖ
AT: ..give them instructions anymore.
PR: Yeah, Iím not even worried. So I can work more with actors and really focus on the film. It really helps..
AT: Did you like a lot of Thai cinema growing up? Had you been exposed to Thai cinema?
PR: Not so much, because I left Thailand when I was really young, when I was like 15, 14. And that time, like I told you, I was not very interested in cinema. I was interested in soccer. I was in the soccer field everyday, from morning to night. I wanted to be a soccer player. That was a big thing for me. But just after I had become more interested in films, I went back and looked at a number of them. The classic Thai films.
AT: I wanted to ask you. Iím sure youíve been asked before. It is about your place in Thai cinema. You said yesterday that you make films with a Thai audience in mind. But sadly, sometimes, theyíre not there. Itís quite similar with some Filipino directors. I cite him a lot, but I think heís one of the best in the Philippines right now, Lav Diaz.
PR: Right, right.
AT: He makes films for Filipinos, but his audience is very limited. [His films have only] a few screenings. How do you feel about that? How does that work for you?
PR: I donít feel anything. I have a small following in Thailand. I mean, these people always watch my films. Yes, of course I wish for a bigger audience and stuff. Because you know, my films, even those that are personal stories, and have personal angles, when it's released in Thailand, itís a big release.
AT: A wide release.
PR: Yeah. Itís a big release. Because the money is from a big studio. So they figure ďwe might as well just release it bigĒ. So itís a big release, and theyíve always lost money. Because the prints themselves [are so expensive]. So with Invisible Waves weíre going to do a small release for the first time. I kind of forced them to do that for the first time, to experiment with that. To be honest, Alexis, I donít think about these things. I donít have any resentment, I donít feel bad, or anything like that at all. For me, itís already good enough that you can make your next film, wherever, the money comes from. Because now, Iím not unknown, Iím known in Thailand, in Thai cinema, Iím known. But it works in reverse, it gets harder to get finance. Because the fact that you are known, in a way you have defined yourselfó that ďthis is meĒ. So for studios to say ďlets give him moneyĒ [is rare], theyíll give it to someone younger instead, who actually has no record.
AT: But who they canÖ
PR: Yeah, maybe they think theyíll manipulate them. Or even if they canít manipulate them, at least they donít have a record. Where for me, I have one. And actually with my first three films, especially Monrak Transistor, everyone suddenly had hope that ďoh maybe heís learned his lesson, heís going to do something commercialĒ. And then when Last Life came out they were all shocked because, itís my worst box office in Thailand.
AT: But your first three films they at least made their money back?
PR: No. Not in Thailand. They made their money back overseas.
AT: But not in Thailand. In Thailand they were allÖ
PR: No. They all lost money. Even Monrak.
But for me, itís good enough to continue making films.
AT: The tension that I see, like with Lav Diazís filmsóhave you heard of him? He made a film called Batang West Side and one called Evolution of a Filipino Family
PR: Mmm, mmm, mmm [agreeing while drinking]
AT: His films are quite esoteric. The fact that you make an 11-hour film limits your audiences. Even among hard core film fans, it limits your audience! So the tension that I see with him, and I understand his points. But he says ďI make films for Filipino people, period. It goes to festivals and stuff, but Iím making them for my people.Ē And the tension there is taking steps in the work itself, not after its finished but in the work itself, to appeal to those people. Is that something that you consider?
PR: I think at the end of the day you have to admit that you make these films for yourself. I think, in the end. Because people like Diaz, or even Apichatpong. Like Apichatpong, heís a visionary. He is a real visionary. He is an artist. Iím not. The way I make films is purely out of curiosities. Thatís the only thing that drives me. I donít plan my career, I donít have a career. Each project that I work on is just a combination of what I want to say at the time, what question I have in life, what Iím obsessed with at the time, plus, things that are forced upon me. And then I combine them, and see what I come up with. And thatís the way I make films.
Because Iím not a visionary, I hope, and I work towards that one I would have my own film language, my own voice, that is what I hope for. But since Iím not trained to do this, while Iím making these films, Iím also learning how to make films. So for me curiosity is the biggest thing for me. I would stop making films if Iím not curious. ďMaybe you should try to do this. Maybe you should try to do it and see what happensĒ I donít have, and I donít want total freedom. If I had total freedom, I wouldnít know what to do with it. Even when I have freedom, I myself sit down, and give myself restrictions. You can say those are challenges, depending on how you look at it. But, so I make films that way. [There are] certain things that people force upon me, and I look at it and say, ďis it acceptable?Ē. If it is not acceptable I say no, and I donít get to make a film. Or then we move on to another choice or whatever. But if I look at the choice, the thing being given to me, and then I say ďthatís acceptableĒ, or ďI want to find out too what would happen if I put this thing in my filmĒ, then I say yes. So at the end of the day I donít even have time to think about who I made the film for. Except I made the film for my curiosity. But yes, Iím a Thai filmmaker. First and foremost. So, it doesnít matter if my help, even half of it speaks in Japanese, itís made by Thai blood. And that reflects in how long you hold a shot. How you place your camera. How you cut. A thai person would cut a film differently than a Japanese, or an American.
AT: Even with Christopher as a DP?
PR: I think, itís not really my job, to think about all these things. Itís hard enough to make the film, to finish it, and have it come out as something thatís good. For me thatís already a big challenge, everytime. So yes, I donít really know who I make the film for. But Iím a Thai filmmaker, so itís inevitable that Thai people would look at my work. But Iím not totally ignored in Thailand.
AT: Prabda said, when I interviewed him, that when your films come out in Thailand, itís like an event. Youíre on the cover of every magazine, youíre on the cover of a lot of things in Thailand. But a lot of the films, like youíve mentioned, have been commercial failures.
PR: Yeah, Iím more famous than my films, in Thailand. Itís a sad thing, but what can you do? You have to do these publicities because you want people to see your films. Even when Russia bought my film, when they were about to release it, I had to go to Russia to do press. Just because I want them to do well. Iím not going to see any one dollar of it, but if more Russian people can see how Thai people eat their meals in a movie, thatís a good thing, you know. And what they wear. I really do a lot of publicity. I hate it, I donít like it, but I try very hard to do it.
AT: You were talking about the Thai film industry now, and your disdain for it yesterday. What are your thoughts about the Thai film industry?
PR: Itís all hyped. You know, now, people shoot films for the trailers. They shoot footage for the trailers. Not for the film. And my friend had read somewhereó the guy who designs posters for meó not in a Thai magazine, but in a foreign magazine, that actually the Thai film industry does the best trailers. And we do. But the films are shit. But for them, no. In the past three years it's been proven that if you really blast the shit out of advertising, people will come and see the film. They donít care if people talk badly about the film after people see the film. They donít care, they already got 100 Million Baht, 80 Million Baht, the first weekend or whatever. For them that matters, and for me thatís really dangerous. I respect what I do. I donít take it seriously in the sense of academic serious, but I take it very seriously artistically. Aesthetically and artistically. The problem with Thai film and Thai society is that film is not art. Youíre even reluctant to call your film, Ďfilmí, when you promote it in Thailand, you have to call it movie. Because movie comes with popcorn. So for Thai people, film is pure entertainment. Itís entertainment. And I have no problem with that, because, like I said, I like Notting Hill [laughs]. Among other things, I do like it. And I like Meet the Parents [laughs], the first one. I thought it was really well done. The script was well-written. Good direction. For me I have no problem with film being entertainment, but I canít accept it being pure entertainment; I canít. For me itís art. No matter what you doó you can do the most commercial films, but, there has to be an artistry there. I never liked Steven Speilbergís films, but every time he has a new film out, I go and see it. And I have to say that even his crappy ones like War of the Worlds, there are moments in there that are pure genius.
[someone interrupts] Excuse me, do you know where is Stamford House?
AT: Stamford House? Iím not sure, sorry.
PR: No, weíre not from here [laughs]
[continuing] You know, like Minority Report is really gripping. And that scene where he took his eyes out and he had to look for them, and thereís all these bugs start crawling and he was in the bath tub. Every single shot in that sequence is pure genius. Okay, we donít talk about the end of the film because itís crap, but for one hour of that film, or that movie, it was incredible. Because it has artistry. Even in the biggest commercial film, there has to be an art in it. And I donít believe in that Ďeveryone can get to make a film nowadaysí. This comedian walks into a studio and they give him like 10 Million Baht to make a film, or like 50 Million Baht to make a film; to make people laugh and things. But imagine if I walk into a hospital and I saidÖ
AT: ďGive me a knife!Ē
PR: ďI want to try surgery. Do you have any patients? Iím going to try cutting him up.Ē No one will let you do it! Because you have to learn the craft, or you have to learn the science. Film is the same! When you start to give money to all these people to makeó itís not even a movie, itís, you donít know what it is, itís a show or whatever it isó then, it hurts. And thatís very dangerous. The Thai film industry. They said ďOh weíre doing really well. The whole world loves us. Look at Ong Bak, look at Tom Yung Goon Ē. But, I mean, come on. So that worries me. It doesnít hurt me, but it really worries me. I donít know why it worries me, but it does.
AT: How do you feel about working with other Thai filmmakers. You did the voiceover in Citizen Dog, and you showed Wisitís first film in Monrak. Are there are select directors you like in the Thai film industry?
PR: Yeah, weíre all friends and we try to help each other, because nobody helped us. And people like Wisit, you know, whatever you think of his films, I donít think his films are perfect, but heís a voice. He is. And I always joke that heís the Thai answer to Tim Burton. Because he doesnít compromise. I like people like that. And whatever I can do to help him, and [he does] whatever he can do to help me, because thereís only like five or six of us that kind; we have to help each other. I helped Nonzee, edited one of his films, so yeah we do help each other. And sometimes I donít even like his films, but that doesnít matter. The individual films donít really matter..
AT: You still respect ĒhimĒ.
PR: Yeah, because each film is an experiment. I think when you talk about filmmakers, when you talk about the art of cinema, you talk more about what is here and what is here [points to head and heart], rather than what is out here. And that is why people like Jim Jarmusch, I like him very much. I mean, some of his films are not that good. But how many people are like that now in the world. So when you meet people like this, you have to respect them. And when I respect someone, and they ask me to do something, Iíll do it. Immediately, Iíll do it. And itís a nice feeling to help each other. Because when you do something like I do, you are trained to be selfish most of the time. You are conditioned to be very selfish. You only think about yourself, you only think about what you do. Most of the time. I think when you can do things for other people itís a very good feeling. You choose who youíre going to help; who youíre going to do it for. And you donít even question it. You donít even say ďNo, but I donít even like this filmĒ. You donít.
AT: You donít want to impose yourself. Itís his work.
PR: You donít. Because people like this, the numbers are too little, in our lives.