The Strange Tale of Thailand’s Last Executioner

It remains to be seen whether “The Last Executioner” wins a prize at the Shanghai International Film Festival where it was premiered on June 15, but this Thai-language, English-subtitled production is surely one of the more unusual movies to hit Asian screens this year. It was inspired by real events and the life of Chavoret Jaruboon, the last Thai to use a gun for judicial killings.

The movie’s unlikely origin lies in the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. It was there in 2007 that New York-born writer and photographer Don Linder met Chavoret at a panel discussion on prison life and conditions in Thailand.

Chavoret was then heading the foreign affairs division of Bangkok’s notorious Bang Kwang Central Prison, famously dubbed the “Bangkok Hilton” by westerners. It was a role he had assumed after retiring from his role as the prison’s executioner in 2003 when the gun, a Bergmann 9 mm machine pistol, was replaced by lethal injection.

Linder became fascinated by Chavoret, interviewing him at great length and listening to the former executioner’s guitar and renderings of Beatles, Elvis and other 1960s music. Indeed Chavoret’s first love in life, and first career, was music, a youthful rock and roller who played to GIs in Thai bars during the latter part of the Vietnam war before marriage and family forced him to seek more stable income as a prison guard who eventually graduated to executioner, paid an extra Bt2,000 (US$61.55) for each. Over 19 years he killed 55 people.

Chavoret’s story is well known in Thailand thanks to his high-profile role as foreign affairs head and with a public personality that brought him invitations to TV game shows and embassy parties. His autobiography The Last Executioner, published in 2007, provides the title for the movie. But it was not until after Chavoret’s death in 2012 that Linder met by chance with Tom Waller, a Bangkok-based Anglo-Thai film producer. Waller had never met Chavoret but was fascinated by his story and its potential as a movie. So Linder set to work on a script.

The focus is on the conflicting aspects of karma, or fate. Thus Chavoret is led to the job to provide for his family. He is at all times devoted to his wife and children, gains satisfaction by doing an unpleasant job efficiently. He mostly manages to keep a wall between killing people and following a normal life with his music, his family and nights out at restaurants and karaoke.

But occasionally the killing spills over into remorse and he is haunted by The Spirit, for the film given human form as a well-dressed guy who keeps reappearing as if to remind of the good and bad aspects of Chavoret’s fate. Nor is life to be comfortable for him after the killing ends as Chavoret dies a painful death from intestinal cancer but leaves a happy family legacy.

Director and co-producer of the film, Tom Waller, said the biggest problem in making it was “how to integrate the character of the Spirit as a constant in the film without making it hokey or too much like a typical Thai ghost film.” But it is not just about karma and spiritual issues. There are execution scenes and the love story of Chavoret and his wife Tew. And there is his love of music.

The lead character is played by Vithaya Pansringarm, an accomplished actor who has appeared in western as well as Thai movies. An environmentalist and holder of a black belt in kendo. Tew, Chavoret’s wife, is played by Penpak Sirikul, a 30-year veteran of Thai movies, and The Spirit by David Asavanond, a Thai-French actor who was named Best Actor in the 2012 Thai National Film Awards. The Bangkok-born, UK-educated Waller, 40, has been making movies off and on in Thailand for a dozen years in interludes between his day job of making “Survivor” TV programs, music videos and working for Hollywood’s Millennium Films.

“The Last Executioner ” is one of 11 films chosen for Shanghai’s Golden Goblet competition whose judging panel is headed by Chinese actress Gong Li. Awards will be announced on June 22.