A puzzle narrative, firmly constructed and filmed with disarming simplicity, Ploy belongs to the bored-couple-in-distress genre of which Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky is a classic example. This time the husband and wife are not travelers in a strange land but well-to-do Thais returning after many years to Bangkok to attend a funeral. Unlike Bowles’s North Africa, the mysterious otherness that tests the couple’s marriage in Ploy has no culturally specific features. From the wordless opening in the business-class section of a plane, Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe, Invisible Waves) sets his film in a muted-palette modern void (airport, hotel, and the lair of a mad artist) whose blankness suggests an experimental laboratory; and indeed the film can be seen as an experiment, a moral one.
The denizens of this comfortable, inexplicable world at first seem innocent, maybe unconscious (each of them falls asleep during some part of the story). The title is no ruse: the figure who can be called the central character, since she most perfectly embodies the state of being that’s common to all of them, is Ploy, a waifish young girl whom the husband meets in the hotel coffee shop and invites back to his suite. Equipped with a face and body that could belong either to a child or to a young woman, Ploy has an ambiguous innocence that compounds the sexual tension she brings into the married couple’s lives. Her acceptance of the older man’s invitation might mean just a desire for a few moments of rest, or it could be a conscious move in a game of mutual seduction.
Pen-ek shows Ploy as if she were the projection of the other characters: seductress, daughter, rival. She represents, not so much the innocence that the older couple has lost, as the questioning of that innocence, the likelihood that the very concept of innocence is illusory. The dangerous and deadly turn that the narrative takes unexpectedly in the last third of the film, as the wife incautiously ventures outside the hotel, is a playing-out of the darker consequences of this critique.
Earlier, this turn is anticipated by a disturbing dream sequence: the wife picks up a pillow, apparently intending to smother the sleeping intruder, an intention she proceeds to carry out even though (or because?) Ploy mistakes her hostility for kindness and reaches up from the couch to caress her arm. Then a visitor appears at the door: an unknown young woman carrying a baby, who asks to see the husband and then disappears. Finally Ploy, alive, emerges from the bathroom.
This dream contaminates the rest of the film, raising the possibility that any narrative line, any sequence of gestures and movements, may perhaps be unfolding in the private imagination of one of the characters rather than in an objective reality they all share. The dream also makes clear the imaginary status of Ploy’s existence. Driven from the fiction by violence, Ploy reappears, split into the separate roles of the husband’s possible mistress and the child he may have fathered. The central gesture of both the dream and the film is the caress (characteristically ambiguous: is it sexual or not?) Ploy offers her aggressor: the dream world’s gift to the real one, the sign of innocence renewed in spite of the knowledge of corruption.