Death in the Land of Smiles

A recent biopic about the last executioner in Thailand explores the extremes between killing and redemption.

There are as many ways to kill as there are to die. When it comes to state-mandated executions, there are preferred methods that take place either as messy public spectacles on scaffolds and squares or in private settings in chairs and on gurneys, more clinical, therefore ostensibly more humane. Here in Southeast Asia, state-funded killing is a mixed bag.

Cambodia abolished the death penalty in 1989; it was suspended in 2006 in the Philippines, though it remains on the books. In 2014, Myanmar (Burma) officially commuted all death sentences to life in prison.

In Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore, the condemned are hanged, though Brunei has not executed anyone since 1957. In 2013, Malaysia had a per capita execution rate of one execution per 9,433,333 persons. In 2014, Singapore had a per capita rate of one execution per 2,495,000 persons.

The situation in Laos is murky. The compilers of Cornell University Law School’s online database DeathPenaltyWorldwide.org are “unsure whether Laos applies a mandatory death penalty.” While prisoners are still condemned to die, there have been no confirmed executions since 1989.

In Indonesia, where executions resumed this year after a brief moratorium, the situation is clearer: inmates are executed by firing squad. According to Death Penalty Worldwide, “The prisoner has the choice of standing or sitting, and of whether to have his eyes covered by a blindfold or hood. If following the shooting the prisoner still shows signs of life, there is one final shot to the head.”

Vietnam also uses firing squads: “According to older reports, the prisoner is tied to a wooden post and has his mouth stuffed with lemons. A firing squad of five to seven people is called in. As the prisoner is dying, an officer fires a pistol shot through the condemned’s ear,” reports Death Penalty Worldwide.

Since 2003, Thailand, the so-called “land of smiles”, has used lethal injection. Previously, the condemned were shot to death. The last shooting execution took place on 11 December, 2002. The executioner was named Chavoret Jaruboon. A remarkable biopic film about his life, aptly named The Last Executioner, was released last year. To watch it is to venture not only to an exotic land, but also into the agonizing soul of a musician, Buddhist, husband and father, who was paid to kill people the State had decided should die.

A Brief History of Execution in the Land of Smiles

Chavoret was a guard at Bang Kwang Prison, the notorious “Bangkok Hilton”. It should be noted that his full-time job was as a guard and that his role as executioner amounted to a part-time gig that he took for extra money. An entire year could pass between one execution and another. For each he was paid 2,000 baht (roughly $60US at the current exchange). In total, from 1984 to 2002, he executed 55 people.

Here’s how the condemned were executed at Bang Kwang. They were led into a small room where they were blindfolded then hog-tied to crossed beams, their back facing the executioner. A screen was pulled between them, and the attendant doctor fixed a black bull’s eye printed on cardboard on it above the prisoner’s heart.

From 1935 to 1984, the weapon was a Bergmann MP 34/1 submachine gun, chambered for 9mm parabellum rounds. The gun was fixed into position on a stand that vaguely resembled a cotton-candy machine. After 1984, the more modern Heckler and Koch MP-5, also chambered for 9mm, was used along with, and this is peculiar, a silencer.

As Chavoret explains in his 2011 memoir with which the film shares a title, “The Bergmann was very loud, and the bang usually freaked out the second guy if there was more than one execution. (With the silencer) I could even check the gun was properly aimed by trying it out a couple of hours before the execution took place.”

A three-man team managed each execution, with one aiming the gun after it had been fixed in the stand, another holding a red flag, and a third who pulled the trigger when the flag dropped. Thai law mandated that 15 rounds were in the gun’s magazine, though fewer were usually required. Since the weapon is a high-speed automatic, the number of bullets fired would be different each time, so that one prisoner might receive six while the next would receive eight, and so on, though apparently Chavoret usually fired in three-round bursts. In the book, he is very specific about how many rounds he fired at each execution (he counted the ejected brass).

In effect, this created a one-man firing squad. The ritualistic shooting team is a holdover from the days when condemned prisoners were beheaded. In his book, Chavoret admits: “I must say that I could have not have chopped off someone’s head with a sword—there is no way on earth I would have been able to do that.”

He also highlights the class system at work in the old days, when “if the condemned was a member of the Royal Family or a high-ranking officer then a better class of execution was required—they would be beaten to death with a sweet-smelling stick.”

Chavoret himself died of cancer in May 2012, age 64.

Interpolations and Interpretations

The Last Executioner had its global premiere at the 2014 Shanghai International Film Festival, where it was only one of 15 films invited to compete for the prestigious Golden Goblet Awards.

The film is not, it should be noted, an adaptation of Chavoret’s memoir. The screenwriter, an American named Don Linder who has lived in Thailand for many years, was kind enough to exchange emails with me, and explained how he researched the story, of which the memoir forms only a part.

Linder told me, “The first time I met Chavoret was when he was on a three-person panel in Bangkok. What impressed me was he looked nothing like what I imagined an executioner to look like – no black hood, no scythe. Instead he was in a polo shirt and khakis – someone you might be sitting next to in Starbucks. He was a man who very much believed in duty – to his family, to his job, to almost everything in life – and expressed a similar devotion to the judicial system. Whether these were huge rationalizations or his core beliefs I can’t really say. I did a lot of suspending of disbelief to accept his premises, and ultimately believed that this is what Chavoret really believed.

One of the most powerful experiences for me was when I was at Khun Tew’s (his wife) home and Khun Chulee, their daughter, took out from an ordinary drawer several of the actual targets used, complete with bullet holes, and Chavoret’s very copious and obsessive notes on the back. This was truly creepy.”

There are several scenes in the film that do not appear in the memoir, but Linder explained that these scenes were often related to him by close associates.

“Some of them were told to me not only by Chavoret, but also by the many people associated with him whom I interviewed, including his wife, daughter, and sons; his prison buddies; the drummer from his band when he was 19; his monk-confidante; a childhood friend, and others.”

How did Linder choose which stories to include?

“Often they were added or modified for dramatic effect and to advance the story. As is often the case, getting the same stories from multiple sources produces a Rashomon-like effect of different memories, sequences, etc. Because I was unable to verify them with Chavoret himself (he died before production started), I did a combination of trying to sort through the various “truths” plus writing what felt best for the story line, without making anything too outrageous. Because it is essentially a biopic, I often have to remind people that it’s a feature film, not a documentary, and as such certain scenes were modified and/or made up.”

For example, early in the film there is a scene with a fortuneteller who tells a young Chavoret that his destiny is to “work with death”, yet this is not related in the memoir.

“I’ve gotten to the point where even Im’ not sure what’s in the book, what Chavoret and others told me, and what was my fictionalizing. Whatever the source, the prophesy on his 15th birthday is 100 percent true, and of course, quite heavy for a 15-year-old. The way I heard it, his father took him to a monk who read Tarot cards. For the film, the decision was made to show it as the old Thai way of diving fortunes through hot wax dripped into water. That method was more dramatic and more exotic.”

There is also a harrowing scene of Chavoret laying in a coffin in a temple with strings tied and crossed above him while monks chant off-screen.

“This is a Thai Buddhist ritual whereby going to certain wats (temples) and lying in a coffin with string tied over you and monks chanting over you is a way to divest yourself of bad karma. Chavoret told me he actually did this, and I chose to make it into a frightful experience for him. The original scene was even more ominous, with the monks slightly sinister, but we cut it down.”

The film is mostly shot on location, which greatly enhances the impact of the story, but was Linder able to shoot in Bang Kwang prison itself, including the execution room?

“Actually, almost none was shot in Bang Kwang. Tom Waller (the director) had attained all the permits and paid all the fees, and the first day of filming he showed up with the actors and crew. The person in charge, and the one who had signed off on it, for no obvious reason refused him entry. Finally they negotiated that Tom and the cameraman could have ten minutes in the yard with no actors — just for location shots.

Fortunately the wat adjoining Bang Kwang had the big yard which served as our prison yard, and shared the walls and guard turrets with the prison, so we were able to make it look authentic. The wat pretty much gave us free rein and were very helpful. Also, it was good because we were able to shoot the red door between the prison and the wat through which they passed the executed prisoners, from the other side. The door we shot was the real thing, but of course we couldn’t open it or shoot into or out of the prison, so most of what you see in the film is a small plywood replica.”

In the film, the symbolism grows over time. Characters we see early on and assume are real people metamorphose, by the third act, into either symbols or projections of Chavoret’s mind. Some of these are taken directly from Thai folk culture; for example, one of the prison guards is related to the St. Peter-like character of “Yama” who judges people’s karmic value at death based on their actions in life. Did Linder write these symbolic attributes because it was something he had discussed with Chavoret, or were these embellishments for the narrative of the film?

David Asavanond as The Spirit (The Last Executioner)

“The figure of Yama, who was slugged in the script as ‘The Spirit’ was played by David Asavanond, who won the Thai Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 2012 film Countdown. David is one-quarter Thai and three-quarters French, and studied and acted in New York City for many years. People often asked why we used a farang (white person) for Yama, but that didn’t figure into the choice – Tom just felt he was the best actor for the role. There are two more characters, Yama’s helpers, the Yamatoot. These three characters were added by me for dramatic and visual effect. Chavoret only mentioned once that a spirit had appeared at the foot of his bed, but in general, he was not, like many Thais, obsessed with spirits and ghosts.

As part of my research, I found two websites in English that offered Thais’ accounts of their near-death experiences. One which especially grabbed me for its ordinariness was a story of being picked up on the street by the Yamatoot and taken to an office building where they went up in the elevator to a businessman’s office. The businessman was Yama. I loved this ‘reality’ and fashioned David’s role, especially the scene when Chavoret is taken to the dark office where Yama is in a suit, swamped with paperwork.”

There is one episode in particular that appears in both the film and the book that makes a lynchpin for understanding the character. The background is that a young woman named Ginggaew was convicted of kidnaping and murdering a little boy. She had been his nanny and the murder occurred when the kidnapping, which was planned by her boyfriend after the family fired her, went wrong. At trial, the boyfriend admitted to killing the child and always maintained Ginggaew’s innocence in his murder. Nonetheless, she was condemned.

In his book, Chavoret records that he shot her ten times. But this doesn’t kill her, a fact the executioners don’t realize until her “corpse” starts making noise as she slowly suffocates on the blood filling her chest cavity. The solution is to strap her to the execution cross, ragged and mortally wounded, and shoot her again. Fifteen more bullets are pumped into her and that finishes the job.

Chavoret voices objections that demonstrate how he thinks of his duty: “She was executed by summary order, issued by the Prime Minister. This meant that there was no opportunity to build up a defense and appeal for leniency in a court room. She was sentenced to death by the government and that was it. If you asked me whether I agreed with this I would have to say no. I think if it had gone to court it would have resulted in her being sentenced to life imprisonment.”

In the film, this horrific sequence is depicted in such a way that Chavoret’s doubts are very clear. Linder told me,

“I used this execution only as an expression of Chavoret’s very infrequent doubts about what he was doing, but which never interfered with his duty. Absolutely nothing in the film is written as a commentary on the death penalty. In fact, I struggled with the end of the film, whether his bad karma outweighs the good, whether he ends up in hell or heaven. I made the choice not to choose because I didn’t feel qualified to make that choice, and I thought it was better drama to leave it in the balance, literally as well as figuratively.

Of course, Ginggaew’s failure to die immediately raised all sorts of questions about her guilt or innocence and the ensuing karma, and it makes a good symbol. (The truth is more mundane: she had dextrocardia, a rare medical syndrome in which the heart points to the right side, so the initial rounds did not hit her heart).”

In the book, Chavoret addresses these issues in a scatter-shot manner that, when taken together, provides a glimpse of his view on the matter of karma and killing.

“It was against my religion to kill another human being, or anything at all.” Yet, he says, “I could not afford to loose my job. I had to feed and clothe my family. I was only the last piece in the puzzle that is the Thai justice system.” “You only create bad karma if your intention was bad. If I had enjoyed the killing I would be worried now, but my conscience is clear.” “I always felt truly sorry for the condemned and things like Ginggaew’s prolonged dying will never leave me.”

As for the condemned, “The convicts on death row are swamped in bad karma and the executioner is doing them a favor by sending them on to their next incarnation for the chance to redeem themselves.”

Vithaya Pansringarm as Chavoret Jaruboon (The Last Executioner)

Moving Pictures

The visual style of the film borders on the psychedelic, which grooves well with the exotic and intense subject. Shot on Sony RED digital cameras, with a tight framing that often maintains a hand-held first person point-of-view, the film often has the spontaneous feel of a news story. While the images are sharp and crisp in the nearly hyper-realistic colors that digital produces, the overall effect is unnerving and dreamlike. This plays well into the third act of the film, which is soaked in symbolic imagery.

Actor Vithaya Pansringarm channels Charvoret to an uncanny degree. A trained dancer and a black belt and teacher of Tae Kwon Dohe, he knows how to use his body to great effect. He won Best Actor at the Shanghai Film Festival. Possessed of a placid face, he can signal deep emotions with subtle expressions. Placed in high-pitched dramatic scenes, he still manages to convey his character’s inner reactions without resorting to bombast.

Indeed, Pansringarm was one of the best things in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2013 film Only God Forgives, where his gravity helped center an otherwise wispy story. In contrast, in The Last Executioner he must act as a center of moral turmoil amidst a story based on grim facts. After watching him at work, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing Charvoret.

The elegant Penpak Sirikul as Chavoret ‘s wife Tew nearly steals the show. She did some cheesecake shots for men’s magazines in the ’80s before turning her attention to serious acting (she works a lot in Thailand, but foreign audiences might recognize her from the unfortunate The Hangover Part II). She seemingly effortlessly portrays the strength and vulnerability involved in being married to a man publicly known as a professional killer.

Kudos also to the make-up artists: We watch Charvoret and Tew age over several decades in the film and the makeup is completely believable, enough so that it is hard to judge the actors’ real ages.

There are some points where I must find fault. As an academic and a fiction writer I’m a stickler for details: they get the guns wrong in the film. As noted above, they were a Bergmann MP 34/1 then later a HK MP-5. In the film they use a Thompson M1 submachine gun and an HK G3 rifle. The latter weapon fires single shots and adds to the tension of watching Chavoret’s expression when he pulls the trigger, but it doesn’t reflect the real and horrendous trauma to the flesh a submachine gun causes. Rifles puncture – machine guns shred.

Since this is a movie, it’s also a financial enterprise, which means product placement. Singha beer was a sponsor and because of this, it’s the only beer visible—and mentioned by name—in the entire film. In the real Thailand there are of course many other beer options, and to only see this one brand in the film eventually becomes heavy handed. But that is the price of making movies, and a vivid reminder that what we see on screen, all the magic manipulation of sound and vision, is always bound by a production budget.

Books, because they are much less expensive to produce, allow authors greater flexibility in sorting and filtering reality to portray a lived experience. By reading Chavoret’s frequently chatty memoir alongside the more dramatic, symbolic version of his life in the film, a different narrative begins to emerge, a hybrid of the two accounts. Because this hybrid narrative requires an active participant to shuffle and interpret facts, it leads to greater depth of insight than either the book or the film can offer on their own.

Given the Thai dialogue, esoteric subject matter and use of visual symbolism, The Last Executioner will be classified as a “foreign art house film” by non-Thais. Despite some critical attention in industry magazines, such as Elizabeth’s Karr’s positive review in The Hollywood Reporter, “Thai star Vithaya Pansringarm anchors producer-director Tom Waller’s unconventional biopic” (18 June 2014), a small budget film that explores the lived experience of real people in faraway lands will struggle for distribution.

The director told me that it would have its European premiere at Udine Far East Film Festival in April of this year and possibly other festivals will follow.

“Eventually we hope to be available in other territories either on iTunes, or some other form of Video-on-Demand or DVD,” Waller said hopefully. Remember his plaintive tone when they start rolling out commercials next year for yet another US$200 million cinematic thrill ride about toy robot cars from outer space.