Death fantasies abound in the films of Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang, so how is it that they often seem so life-affirming? "Many books say death is relaxing," narrates the suicidal librarian in Ratanaruang's 2003 breakthrough, Last Life in the Universe, which opens on a hanged man dangling from his own ceiling. Early on in 6ixtynin9, from 1999, a newly unemployed young woman imagines guzzling all the chemicals under her bathroom sink and then putting a revolver in her mouth. (Subsequent visitors to her apartment actually fare much worse.) Eight years later, the same actress, Thai soap star Lalita Panyopas, appears again as a jealous and jet-lagged wife in Ploy, very much wanting to suffocate the teenage girl her husband has invited to freshen up in their Bangkok hotel room. Normally, such devitalizing events should not inspire exhilaration. But this is the Ratanaruang touch.
As is revealed by YBCA's three-week retrospective — starting Thursday, with the director in person Thursday and Sunday — lots of corpses have been hauled through Ratanaruang's films over the years, not least those protagonists he afflicts with zombiefying emotional isolation. If a Ratanaruang specialty has emerged, it's a mystical sort of thriller: spare, slow-paced, caressingly shot, and narratively contrary to genre clichés. Headshot, his so-called "Buddhist neo-noir" from 2011, does indeed seem at times like some mad-science cross between a mindfulness seminar and a first-person-shooter. It's incongruously satisfying.
To view his films by the batch is to behold how this gifted director has refined his style by embracing subtlety and strangeness. Even at its cheekiest, Ratanaruang's lethal violence never seems glib, perhaps because he considers it a potent metaphor for human estrangement. It's as if he sees the death wish — a cathartic expression already well suited to the language of movies — as an altered state of consciousness, and therefore also a source of illumination. "It will be like taking a nap," the narrating librarian informs us. "Before waking up refreshed and ready to begin your next life." Only one way to find out. J.K.