Berlin Film Festival Review: ‘Headshot’ is Confused But Not Concussive

By  · Published on February 16th, 2012

Based on Win Lyovarin’s novel, Headshot (Fon Tok Kuen Fah) is a noir assassin story that features a killer who takes a bullet to the brain – leaving him seeing the world upside down. Considering that it’s from Thailand, has a crazy premise and involves violence, there’s a word of warning that should come along with writer/director Pen-En Ratanaruang’s film: it’s far more drama than action film.

For whatever reason, Ratanaruang and company chose to abandon anything about the story’s gimmick that makes it viable and loaded down their structure with faulty flashbacks and confused caricatures. It’s a fairly standard crime story with wasted potential, but it has a leading man that comes close to making it worthwhile.

Tul (Jayanama Nopachai) is a hitman, but he used to be a cop. The good kind. Unfortunately, the good kind of cop often goes after the wrong kind of bad guy, and Tul’s apprehension of a powerful politician’s brother leads him first to be bribed and then outright blackmailed, leading to a prison sentence. With a firm sense of morality but lost faith in the system, he turns to the enigmatic Dr. Suang (Krerkkiat Punpiputt) who doles out names and photographs of bad guys who need to meet the wrong end of a bullet.

That’s all well and good. It’s great in fact, but the presentation of that story is overly difficult and filled with padding.

The biggest crime the movie commits is jumping in time without much of a reason. Linear storytelling might seem too bland, but it would have done wonders here. Instead, we get scenes where context perfectly explains what’s happened to Tul, followed not by a brief flashback to enforce it, but a lengthy flashback sequence that places on display what we already know. Had they given details or used the opportunity to deliver an action sequence (or anything really), it would have made the film more muscular, but instead the long stretches come off as flat and uninteresting. Somehow, Ratanaruang did better with Telling than with Showing, and the result is a bit like being asked to listen to the lecture after passing the test.

On that same front, a great aggravation comes from the gimmick – Tul’s new-found sight. Without it, Headshot is fairly unremarkable, but with it, it’s maddening. Ratanaruang does nothing with it. There are a few POV shots where the entire screen flips upside down, but that’s about it. You would imagine that this profound change would affect the character greatly, but besides some early difficulty, he barely shows any signs that he has a problem. You’d also imagine that learning to cope and move around with the new angle on life would give him some sort of advantage with its mastery, but it doesn’t. The only ability Tul possesses comes from his early cop days where he practiced moving around with his eyes closed. So how does he win in fights? He has to hope he’s close enough to a light switch. You’d also imagine that a hook as innately visual as that would make a cinematographer and director squeal with delight, but there’s simply no evidence of that here.

Beyond that, Tul is affected internally by his ailment, but the production doesn’t do a good job putting that shift on display. After all, it’s difficult to show what’s happening inside a character’s mind in a visual medium, especially when he spends most of his time alone. As a stand in, Tul often stares off into the distance or at drawings or photographs. He narrates in voice over. He works out a lot while in jail.

Of course, this lack of emotional discovery is made more difficult by the sheer amount of things that happen to him. There’s the blackmail which involves the death of a woman he has sex with within moments of meeting her, the jail time, his life as an assassin, his life as a monk, and the shot that almost killed him. Where the entire film seems to focus on that near-death experience changing him, its his switch from cop to assassin that’s actually powerful. He may claim the shot to his brain figuratively changed the way he sees the world, but he himself doesn’t show any trues signs of change after it. It’s as if the character is asked to evolve twice in one story, which is interesting, but simply fumbled.

On the plus side, the handful of action scenes are shot capably with gun blasts and quick movements, but having a hero who does best fighting in total darkness doesn’t exactly make things easy.

It’s wholly unfair to judge a movie on what it could have been, but few films place their potential on a pedestal and fail to engage it like Headshot. All the unique advantages and challenges that come with a man who sees upside down went untouched and unanswered. To judge the film as is, without any worry about how another director might have taken a different take, the entire thing still comes off as dreadfully average and unnecessarily sloppy in its construction.

Rising above all of the shortcomings is Nopachai, a charismatic lead who shines with subtlety. Amidst a sea of flat characters (the femme fatale hooker Joy played by the ironically un-flat Chanokporn Sayoungkul, the mysterious assassin boss Dr. Suang, the revenge-seeking guy setting everything into motion), Nopachai turns Tul into something flawed and fully realized. He has a ton more screen time to do it, but it’s a credit to his abilities that when shoved into a paint-by-numbers noir, he can emerge as a powerful force that elevates the material.

As a result, it’s not completely a waste. Tul is a killer without viciousness, and Nopachai brings him to life in ways that are often fascinating. Still, with a director who celebrates the elements of the story that can’t be shown on screen while shunning a visual concept that seems perfect for the medium, perhaps this is one story that should have stayed on the printed page.

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