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New-Wave Noir

Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang loves a bad relationship

Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang emerged on Thailand's film scene in the late 1990s and quickly established himself as a major figure in the nation's new-wave cinema with dark-humored urban dramas such as "6ixtynin9."

This decade, his films have explored emotionally complex relationships. "Last Life in the Universe" in 2003 propelled him to international recognition and Asano Tadanobu, the film's Japanese star, won the Upstream Prize for best actor at the Venice Film Festival that year.

The 47-year-old director studied art history at Pratt Institute in New York. In 1986, he returned to Bangkok, where he was born, and found work at an ad agency. Mr. Pen-ek began as an art director and later joined a production company called the Film Factory, where he started directing television commercials. He continues to work at the Film Factory.

"Nymph," his seventh and most-recent Thai-language feature film, had its premiere last month at the Cannes Film Festival and continues with the theme of troubled relationships. It opens next week in Thailand.

"Nymph" is about a modern, big-city couple whose marriage is facing problems. What happens in the movie?

It's a love triangle about a man, a woman and a female ghost, who embodies a tree in a forest. The spirit takes the husband away from his wife. It's more of a mystery than a horror story. The filmmakers have sided with the ghost in this film, therefore the humans in the film are scarier than the ghost.

What attracted you to the story of this particular couple?

Five Star Production
tha film
tha film

A couple with a stale marriage started its life in my previous film, "Ploy." This is sort of a continuation of that journey. In "Ploy" they just argued, but in "Nymph" the couple decide to take a vacation hoping it might improve their relationship. But the forest has a different idea for them.

What draws you to the theme of unhappy marriages?

I am preoccupied with bad relationships and lonely people. I think in the end it's just: What is happiness?

How have you evolved as a director?

I learned filmmaking by making films. I look at my early films and they really weren't subtle. My first three were driven by plot. For my fourth, "Last Life in the Universe," I wanted there to be no story -- I wanted to film mood. It was my breakthrough. It became incredible for me. I found a new style -- simple, minimal, very elegant.

What is your response to some critics who say you make art-house films primarily for foreign audiences?

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thai film
thai film

A reaction I get in Thailand is that people don't understand my films. I don't think the world is divided into foreign and domestic audiences -- I think the world is divided into taste. I find that the people who like my films are the same people who like the films I watch, who like the books I read and who like the music I listen to. I have a very faithful and loyal audience in Thailand.

What type of films do you like to watch?

I usually watch documentaries, and I love old black-and-white American films. But over the past seven years, I have seen very few new films. I loved (the 2007 French film) "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- that one really stayed with me.

What are you planning for your next film?

My last three or four films have become more and more personal. Whatever is in my head, I dumped in to the story. I think I have finished with that kind of film. I want to make a Hitchcock mystery -- a film that is completely impersonal. I really want to make the kind of film where people say: "I want to see that again!" My producer was so happy to hear that.

Write to Dean Napolitano at

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