Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Review: Gunman (Mue Buen)

  • Directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol
  • Starring Sorapong Chatree, Ron Ritthichai
  • Released in 1983; DVD with English subtitles released by Mangpong (out-of-print)
  • Rating: 3/5

Gunman starts out great, with a handheld camera shooting from a perspective of a man on a motorcycle who then walks into a cafe, shoots someone then gets back on the bike and rides away.

Cut to the interviews of the people in the cafe. No one seems to be able to describe his looks. He was short. He was tall (coming from a short person). He was young. He was old. He was handsome. He was average looking. But they all seem to agree -- the man had a limp.

So the cops go after everyone who limps. They collar a gimping guy on the street with a briefcase. The case spills open, dumping dildoes, vibrators and dirty magazines all over the sidewalk. Okay, let's go. Meanwhile, a man is at a shop window nearby. He turns and walks away. He's limping.

It doesn't seem possible this is the gunman, a former sergeant, Sergeant Sommai. A mild-mannered cripple who works as a barber. A loving single father to a sick son. The ex-wife comes to visit. She's a real bitch, a dimwit. Turns out she left him when he was captured after being injured in the secret war in Laos. Lucky for him, she has a sister.

Meanwhile, there's the Black Hand, Police Inspector Thanu (Ron Ritthichai). His nickname is because he wears a black glove on his gunhand. Legend has it if he's wearing the glove, he's going to kill you. The Black Hand is a publicity hound, keeping photographers around and taking them on his arrests.

Turns out the Black Hand and the Sarge were Army buddies in Laos. Also, the Black Hand has developed a flamboyant personality to cover up the fact that he's a coward. He's henpecked at home by his wife.

Eventually, the two will meet again, but by then the story has twisted around to ridiculously improbable (and melodramatic) proportions. But some decent action makes up for it. Particularly good was a flashback to the secret war in Laos that was reminiscent of the scene later echoed in Platoon when Willem Dafoe's character Sgt. Elias was abandoned.

Some entertaining supporting players also help. Like the doofus head barber in Sommai's shop, whose wife is always shrilly yelling at him at the top of her lungs, calling him an old goat. Or the female police officer on the Black Hand's special branch detail. She goes undercover to play a bargirl in one scene, and proves to be a deadeye with the gun (but the Black Hand takes credit for her kill). Later one, she's seen back in uniform, working the typewriter during an interview. Also, the driver of Sarge's motorcycle turns out to be a mute.

Here's more on the film, from Thomas Richardson's interview with Chatrichalerm for his now-defunct Thai Film page, courtesy of the Wayback Machine:

The opening shot of The Gunman is from the back of a motorcycle. Did you shoot that?

I had a camera on my shoulder, a sun-gun on my helmet, on the back of the bike. It was dangerous, but the driver was a motorcycle racing champion, quite a good driver. Incidentally, that is the exact spot where another man was shot. Exact same place.

I really like that shot. That was the first shot I had seen of any of your films. And I had seen some other Thai films which had disappointed me. So when I see this shot I think,"OK, a travelling night shot." Then suddenly, it becomes all these things. No longer is it just a car. In the beginning, it could be the point of view (POV) of a car. Then, when you pull into the parking lot of the hotel, it becomes obvious that it is a motorcycle from the way it turns in. And then the walking.

You have to walk like a one-legged man, limping along. And then you go into the lobby-- This scene is relative. When you watch it, you should be thinking of it in terms of your own perspective. If you're tall, you would think, "The suspect must be a short man." If you're fat, he's a thin man. It's kind of fun, doing that. It was my mistake to do it in the nighttime, the daytime would have been more effective because you have to go through two light changes -- from yellow light at 5000 Kelvin to indoor light at 3200 Kelvin -- and shoot the guy in the coffee shop and walk back in broad daylight. We could not use the Steadicam, because you cannot fit it on the back of the motorbike. We did it in three takes.

Which one did you use?

I used the third one. Because after the third one I wouldn't do it again. It was pretty risky. You practically blind, when you get off the bike you have to walk into the coffee shop shoot the man and walk back -- back on the motorbike with your eyes on the viewfinder, you have to do all the focus-pulling yourself, it was pretty painful. But that was still an easy shot. There is still a more difficult shot in The Gunman. It would be a perfect shot, but there was a bit of jarring, so I had to break the shot up. It would be nice to have it all in one single shot, a helicopter shot, from a man's face up until the enemy soldiers have cut him off. That's a handheld shot with a zoom lens, Angenieux zoom, 50mm-500mm. An anamorphic handheld, sitting in the helicopter with the guy holding the back of my seat. Do the closeup on the face, zoom out, and the rest. A person had to hold a mic to my lips so I could tell the helicopter pilot exactly what I wanted. Pretty painful shot, I think. We have a lot of painful shots in that film.

Where did you shoot this scene?

Saraburi province. Had to cut the shot. There was a little jiggle. Some critic said that I copied the shot from Platoon. But it was years before Platoon. It's difficult because you have to center him the whole time, zoom out at the right time, pull the focus.

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