In The Last Executioner, Vithaya Pansringarm plays Chavoret Jaruboon, a death-row prison guard who ends lives while remaining a devoted family man.
Chavoret Jaruboon, the last employee of Thailand’s corrections system to carry out the death sentence by gun, enjoyed an unlikely pre-prison career as a wayward rock and roller who played guitar in bands entertaining American GIs on R&R in Thailand during the Vietnam War.
When the young Chavoret fell in love and started a family, he traded in his troubadour lifestyle for that of a uniformed guard at Bangkok’s harshest prison, Bang Kwang. All prisoners at the infamously nicknamed ‘Bangkok Hilton’ wear leg irons for the first three months of their sentences, while death row inmates wear irons permanently welded around their ankles.
When a state executioner retired in the 1980s, Chavoret found himself cradling a deadly 9mm automatic rifle instead of a guitar. Peering down the barrel of the gun, which was fitted with a silencer and mounted on a stand, the devoted family man eventually executed 55 people, including three women, firing up to 15 bullets through their backs and into their hearts.
Although not a religious man – Chavoret was born to a Muslim mother and Buddhist father who had three wives – he nevertheless struggled with the ethics of carrying out his duty, and made heroic efforts to keep his family sheltered from the everyday stress, which included incidents where executions went wrong, and death came slowly and painfully.
When the state changed the execution method to lethal injection, Chavoret retired, and became something of a celebrity in Thailand as a talk-show guest and author of several books on his time at Bang Kwang, including a comprehensive biography in English called The Last Executioner. Sadly, the ex-executioner didn’t enjoy his retirement and fame for very long. He ordained as a Buddhist monk to atone for his grisly career, but died soon after being diagnosed with stomach cancer.
Such a unique life makes perfect movie material, and after producer-director Tom Waller finished reading the straightforward and, at times, chilling account of Chavoret’s transformation from rocker to state-sanctioned killer, he moved quickly to request film rights from Chavoret’s family.
“How does a man given the task of taking so many lives reconcile with his karma?” Waller muses when asked why he decided to direct the film. “That’s what initially interested me most in making a film inspired by his story.
“After speaking to his widow and family, I realised there were different layers to this man.
“Not only was he a dutiful servant of the state, but he was also a wonderful husband and a loving family man. Raising his family was the reason he entered the prison service in the first place. It paid more bills than playing the guitar would but working at Bang Kwang prison ultimately led to living with demons inside his head.”
Waller commissioned New York-born, Chiang Mai based writer and editor Don Linder for the screenplay. Before he met Waller, Linder had attended one of Chavoret’s a public appearances, where he asked him a series of tough questions on karma and Buddhism.
“I spent months interviewing a wide range of people associated with Chavoret,” says Linder about how he prepared for writing the script. “His family – his widow Khun Tew, his daughter Chulee, and his sons – were incredibly generous with their time and gave me access to all kinds of photos and artefacts, including some of the actual cardboard bullseye targets, complete with bullet holes and Chavoret’s notes on the back.
“I also interviewed the drummer in his first band, his childhood friends and a monk who was his confidant. Besides reading all his books in English and articles about him, I viewed about 50 hours of video covering TV interviews, news programmes, morning talk shows, home videos and even a game show.”
Actor Vithaya Pansringarm – who in the highly stylised Ryan Gosling vehicle Only God Forgives portrayed a sword-wielding policeman who slices evil characters according to their misdeeds – was an obvious choice to take on the Chavoret role.
Now in his 50s, Pansringarm had worked with Waller before as the lead in Mindfulness and Murder, playing an ex-cop Buddhist abbot who investigates corruption and murder in his Bangkok monastery. Based on an English-language novel by author Nick Wilgus, Waller transformed the story into a Thai- language film which won Best Director for Waller, Best Actor for Pansringarm and Best Supporting Actor for Wannasak Sirilar at the ThrillSpy International Film Festival in Washington, DC in 2010.
In fact it was while travelling together to a Siberian film festival in support of Mindfulness and Murder that Waller and Pansringarm first talked about making a film based on Chavoret’s life. This was well before Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn cast Pansringarm in Only God Forgives.
Asked about the similarities between Chang, the character he played in Only God Forgives, and Chavoret in The Last Executioner, Pansringarm says: “Neither character kills out of hate or anger, but rather out of a sense of responsibility. They are trained killers, but they remain humble and duty-bound.” The soft-spoken Pansringarm, who holds a fifth-degree black belt in kendo and trains regularly with Thailand’s kendo association, could be talking about himself.
Music also links both characters with the actor. Chang, the angel of death in Only God Forgives, hits the karaoke stage during his down time and in The Last Executioner Chavoret is not only seen playing in bands as a young man but continues to sing at prison events and karaoke clubs.
IndieWire’s The Playlist cited Pansringarm’s karaoke scenes in Only God Forgives as one of the top movie music moments of 2013.
“I played guitar when I was younger, and I like to sing, so I was comfortable handling the musical parts for both films,” Pansringarm says.
Penpak Sirikul, notorious in the 1980s for her sultry, erotic glamour photos, and more recently acclaimed as an exemplary actress in such Thai films as It Gets Better (2012), plays Chavoret’s wife.
Talking about Sirikul’s contributions to The Last Executioner, accomplished amateur chef Pansringarm makes a culinary comparison.
“You know how the addition of saffron to certain dishes takes them to a whole new level? Just a little bit completely transforms the overall flavour, adding colour and class. That’s what Penpak did for our film. She’s a veteran actor and was very professional.”
A character that shadows Chavoret throughout the film, appearing in various guises, visible only to the executioner and muttering morally pointed, sarcastic one-liners over his shoulder, is played with relish by Thai-French actor David Asavanond. Asavanond wowed audiences in 2012 with his screen-chewing portrayal of a sadistic, drugdealing hipster named Jesus in the New York-set horrorthriller Countdown. The role earned him the Best Actor award at the 2012 Thai National Film Awards.
Moving towards international recognition and distribution, De Warrenne Pictures is sending the film to compete in several prominent international festivals.