Friday, June 8, 2007

Review: Ploy

  • Written and directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang
  • Starring Lalita Panyopas, Pornwut Sarasin, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Porntip Papanai, Ananda Everingham, Thaksakorn Pradabpongsa
  • Premiered May 21 during the Director's Fortnight at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival; censored version opened in Thailand cinemas on June 7, 2007
  • Rating: 5/5
A languorous daydream, dragged out by jetlag and a before-noon vodka binge, Ploy is sure to leave you out of sorts, but happy, or at least bemused.

The sixth feature film by Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Ploy is the story of a middle-aged Thai-American couple who return to Thailand for the first time in years to attend the funeral of a relative.

Arriving at Suvarnabhumi Airport at 5 o'clock in the morning after 20 hours of flying, the bleary-eyed couple checks into a hotel. It’s one of those trendy boutiques, with a lot of bare concrete and nicely appointed rooms, but hallways that are out of a horror film.

Dang, played by the incomparable Lalita “Mew” Panyopas, just wants to sleep. But her husband, Wit, is restless, and heads down to the hotel bar to buy a pack of smokes. In the bar, Wit strikes up a conversation with a young, frizzy-haired girl named Ploy. She says she’s waiting for her mother to arrive from Stockholm. Soon, the pair are sharing coffee and cigarettes and listening to Photo Sticker Machine on Ploy’s iPod. Wit then invites Ploy up to his and Dang’s room, so she can get cleaned up and take a load off. But as soon as Dang opens the door and sees young Ploy, it’s obvious that Wit has made a horrible lapse in judgment.

Feelings of rage and jealousy are seething deep inside Dang, and while Ploy uses the toilet, Dang demands that Wit get rid of the girl. But to the girl, Dang is actually quite sweet, and can’t bring herself to confront the urchin.

It’s the kind of character that Mew, with her distinctive appearance – she’s taller than she looks – is made to play. One instant she is a calm sea, and the next a raging storm – you can never tell what she’ll do next. It’s pure excitement to watch her work, and great to see her on the big screen, where she hasn’t been since Pen-ek’s 1999 black comedy, Ruang Talok 69.

Surrounding Mew is a great ensemble. Wit is played by first-time actor Pornwut Sarasin, whose day job is executive vice president at Thai Namthip – the company that sells Coca Cola in Thailand (at the press screening there was free-flowing Coke Zero, which was surely not a coincidence).

Ploy, played by Apinya Sakulcharoensuk, is a gem. Turned 17 on May 27, she’s full of wide-eyed innocence, but carries an air of mystery that’s a bit disconcerting. An Afro mop that's straight out of the Boondocks adds the crowning touch to her character.

As Wit and Dang talk over their eight – no it’s seven – years of marriage, there’s a Greek chorus of sorts in nearby room 609: Ananda Everingham, portraying the silent, weary bartender and leggy Porntip "Cartoon" Papanai, a sex bomb of a maid (she played Dao in Monrak Transistor), are having a play-acting tryst. It’s an erotic counterpoint, which in screenings during the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes two weeks ago, was reportedly quite explicit. It has been re-edited by Pen-ek so innocent Thais – and the Board of Censors – won’t be offended.

The proceedings unfold dreamily, and full of surrealism and surprises. It’s never certain just what is reality and what is a nightmare, sort of like the sleep-deprived state you’re in after a 20-hour long-haul flight.

Ploy is a bit of a return for Pen-ek, who scripted this film himself, after doing the pan-Asian existentialist odes Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves with writer Prabda Yoon, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

He’s back in Thailand, working with his old cinematographer, Charnkit Chamniwikaipong, with Lalita again as his lead actress. But everything Pen-ek has done up to now – from Fun Bar Karaoke, 6ixtynin9 and the musical-comedy Monrak Transistor to the weirdness of Last Life and Invisible Waves (which, for the record, I liked), has led to Ploy – it’s a natural progression for him. And surely, whatever comes next, will be just as full of wonder as Ploy.

(Originally published in The Nation Weekend on June 7, 2007, Page 17)

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