In his fascinating, sometimes languid film 'Headshot,' director Pen-ek Ratanaruang ('Last Life In the Universe') takes the all-too familiar tropes of the hit man thriller genre, and turns them (literally) upside down with a story that mixes the isolation and solemnity of 'Le Samouraï' with the philosophical ponderings of 'Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?'
What starts out as a simple, engaging neo-noir hit man piece, evolves into a meditation on the cost of corruption, the meaning of true justice and the inefficacy of the modern-day penal system. Along the way, 'Headshot' examines some metaphysical questions that, although they go largely unanswered – or in their revelations, occasionally feel flat – manage to make the film like a more invigorating and affecting experience simply for having been asked.
'Headshot' is not you typical Asian hit man flick, and considering how the region has largely rewritten the book on the genre, that's saying something. The film begins with former cop Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam), disguised as a Buddhist monk on a mission to snuff out a corrupt politician named Jaran Jittanya. Tul's bullets hit their mark, but unfortunately, the hit man is struck down in the ensuing crossfire. Three months later, Tul wakes from a coma to find that his vision now renders the world upside down; the increasingly beleaguered assassin wonders whether the cause of this bizarre malady is the bullet that entered his brain, or some form of karmic retribution for his occupation.
Adding a sense of spontaneity to the film is the remarkably precise way it plays with the storyline's chronology, ricocheting around multiple points of its character's story to grant a glimpse into Tul's life, without causing the already unhurried narrative to slow further by forcing it to unfold in a linear fashion.
The story jumps back, revealing Tul as a nigh-incorruptible cop, who, after refusing to take a bribe to undo a drug bust involving the brother of a high-ranking politician, winds up being blackmailed to ensure his cooperation. Tul's response to this new threat is to beat the well-dressed scofflaw with a folding chair and spend the next several years in prison. Once there, Tul begins writing letters to an author who goes by the name Demon (Krerkkiat Punpiputt), and just so happens to run an underground organization whose intent is to do away with the corrupt individuals whose evils are, as Demon sees it, ruining society. Demon (also known by his real name, Dr. Suang) offers Tul a job as one of the group's assassins – or as he puts it, "assassination experts." Tul refuses, initially, but after the loss of his prostitute girlfriend, Tiwa (Chanokporn Sayoungkul), begins his new life as a "morally righteous" hit man.
The film swings wildly between timelines (pre-head wound, post-incarceration, etc.) and Tul's final transformation – offering viewers little clue as to the narrative's position beyond the length of Tul's hair, and the occasional fleeting glimpse of his unique perspective. Later, as 'Headshot' progresses toward its conclusion, Tul meets (hijacks) a young woman named Rin (Sirin Horwang), whose lackadaisical response to her assailant's continued presence strains credulity, until certain disclosures about her, and those hunting Tul, funnel each timeline into a more cohesive whole.
Besides its surprisingly metaphysical nature (which may or may not be an attractive quality, depending on your tastes), what may truly help draw viewers in, is the spectacular cinematography of Chankit Chamnivikaipong, whose dark (really dark) and atmospheric take on the material heightens not only the tormented hit man stratum of the film, but also manages to augment the deeper questions of justice and morality, as they are framed by this incessantly violent world Tul finds himself in.
Admittedly, 'Headshot' is centered on a rather convoluted story, but to its credit, the film manages to present something new and contemplative to the narrative. Not everything works – in fact, a mixture of fascinating metaphors and inspiring cinematography are largely all that anchors the film – but, despite the sometimes slight philosophic underpinnings (the infrequent use of Tul's upside down vision as a metaphor serves as a prime example), 'Headshot' offers up a unique take on a tired genre that should appeal to fans of both action flicks and introspective pieces alike.
As a testament to the possibilities of the RED camera system, 'Headshot' is a simply gorgeous film with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that, a few instances of banding aside, is quite a sight to behold. Director of photography Chankit Chamnivikaipong proves that when placed in the hands of a competent cinematographer with the time, patience and mastery of his or her craft, images on RED can be just as striking, if not more so, than their celluloid counterparts. Overall, the transfer is spotless, without a hint of noise or any other pesky artifacts present during the film.
From the very first image, 'Headshot' is presented with extraordinary clarity and depth that creates a truly lifelike image filled with rich features and textures. Faces are abound in fine detail; craggy lines, pores and stubble all stand out astonishingly well, which adds to the overall sense of dimension. Colors, too, are lively and vibrant, highlighting everything from sunsets and cityscapes to the bright orange of the monks' robes. While Ratanaruang likes to keep things cold and dingy in the city, when the film moves into the country and forests, it is alive with vivid greens and lush earth tones.
Ratanaruang enjoys placing his characters in dark settings – perhaps as another method of the film's exploration of the nature of morality – but the image rarely looses any detail in such low light. There are some banding issues present; once during an encounter between Tul and Tiwa, and another while he and Rin are driving along at night. Though they are immediately noticeable, there are plenty of scenes that manage to reproduce black levels more evenly, so while the issue is unpleasant, it is thankfully not a problem throughout the otherwise remarkably good looking film.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is in perfect synch with the film's tendencies to vary wildly from explosive gun battles, to quiet scenes of a more pensive tone. Dialogue (both original and dubbed) comes through cleanly and is prioritized well, though the English dub does have the unnatural quality that accompanies such things. Still, dialogue that isn't part of the main character's narration is carried across several different channels dynamically – the best example of this being the nighttime shootout sequence in the forest.
Speaking of shootouts, though it is not your average hit man film, it is part of the genre nonetheless and the mix here does not disappoint when it comes time to let the bullets fly. Sound effects ring out, and as the intent is to illustrate the destructiveness of violence, when the trigger is pulled, the audio mix lets the viewer know. Surround effects are well placed, with directionality and imaging immersing the viewer in all of the carefully choreographed action. But it's not wall-to-wall gunplay in 'Headshot.' And as such, the dynamic range also manages to capture smaller sounds like footsteps on dried leaves and rain falling on the hood of a car, or a canopy of trees in the forest with remarkable clarity.
Often as solemn as the character of Tul himself, the audio mix also presents the film's meditative score without overpowering other elements of the soundtrack, or simply fading into the background. A well-balanced mix is another aspect to this finely crafted film that was carefully preserved for its transfer to disc.
Films that can successfully manage to explore a theme – even while their narratives occasionally stumble – have an evergreen quality that makes them worth watching more than once. 'Headshot' certainly fits into this category with its compelling look into the variability of morality, as it pertains to the ills of society and what, ultimately, is a solution or merely an additional detriment. Augmenting the film's storytelling is some truly gorgeous cinematography that manages to run the gamut from sublime to ambiguous, but never fails to remain captivating throughout. 'Headshot' sometimes relies more on clever craft that a wholly original storyline and convincing script, but despite these issues, it remains an intriguing film from a dynamic storyteller that is well worth a watch.