Where to begin with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

A beginner’s path through the lucid-dream cinema of Thai master Apichatong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul.

13 June 2016

By John Berra

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Why this might not seem so easy

Newcomers to the spellbinding cinematic realm of Apichatpong Weerasethakul – often known simply as Joe – can be perplexed by its sedate rhythms, casual slippages in time, and evocations of various states of consciousness. Thailand’s leading auteur also has a preference for open-ended narratives rooted in local mythology which refrain from the kind of cultural orientation often expected by touristic arthouse patrons when venturing beyond their usual screen territories. At once earthy and otherworldly, the unique texture of his cinema hints at a mystery waiting to be solved.

First impressions may suggest a cinema of contrasts (past/present, fact/fiction, rural/ urban, young/old, unrequited love/erotic pleasure) as Weerasethakul pays tribute to a resplendent landscape where tradition and modernity harmoniously co-exist. His films certainly have a universal quality, whether focusing on the way in which stories are passed from person to person in Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), a fledgling love affair in Tropical Malady (2004), or the interactions between doctors and their patients in Syndromes and a Century (2006).

Cemetery of Splendour (2015)

Further visitations reveal densely layered portraits of Thai culture, spiritual beliefs, and political anxieties that engage with the national psyche through reference to folklore and unpleasant periods of history that lurk in the shadows of his serene compositions. The spirit world is traversed in Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), while his latest work Cemetery of Splendour (2015) finds a volunteer nurse treating a group of soldiers who have been afflicted with a strange sleeping sickness, having been commandeered as infantry for an endless war in another dimension. Weerasethakul’s eight features constitute just one aspect of a tantalising multi-platform oeuvre as he has also made short films, music videos and video installations. Some of these projects are more explicitly politicised than his features, notably the ‘Primitive’ installation, which examines a remote village that, in 1965, was ambushed by the government in an attempt to eradicate communist conspirators.

The best place to start – Syndromes and a Century

Syndromes and a Century is arguably Weerasethakul’s most accessible work, a diptych that essentially tells the same almost-love story in two locations (a countryside hospital and a modern facility in Bangkok) where affections between colleagues are expressed but not consummated. Taking his recollections of his parents – who met while working at a rural hospital in Khon Kaen – as his starting point, the director proceeds to add people from his daily life, such as a Buddhist monk and his dentist, conflating past and present, while illustrating Thailand’s urbanisation. His love of landscape is evident in an early scene that has a new doctor being given a tour of the hospital, only what starts as a piece of exposition becomes a meditation on the surrounding environment as Weerasethakul’s camera pans away to observe the countryside while the induction continues off-screen.

Syndromes and a Century (2006)

Music is an integral element for Weerasethakul, with his later Mekong Hotel (2012) being set entirely to gently lulling guitar music. The first half of Syndromes and a Century favours a tranquil natural soundscape that gives way to the industrial hum of the second, but the film’s mid-point is a lovely musical sequence in which the dentist performs a traditional Thai folk song at an outdoor concert before allowing his guitar player an extended solo. It’s the kind of beguiling digression that asks the viewer to just go with the flow.

Alternatively, one could get a sense of Weerasethakul’s aesthetic by sampling his shorts that are available online. Luminous People (2007) links the world of the dead with that of the living as a family takes a trip down the Mekong River to scatter the remains of a dead father. The jubilant Mobile Men (2008) consists of a continuous three-and-a-half minute shot of two young men riding in the back of a moving pickup truck who wholeheartedly embrace the moment. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009), a precursor to Weerasethakul’s 2010 feature that was also part of the ‘Primitive’ project, has a camera panning hypnotically around the homes of a deserted village as actors read out letters to the titular yet unseen resident, a man who has had multiple reincarnations.

What to watch next

Blissfully Yours (2002)

Backtrack to Blissfully Yours (2002) wherein illegal Burmese immigrant Min (Min Oo), his older Thai lover Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram), and her married friend Orn (Jenjira Jansuda) escape from their worries by spending a hazy afternoon at a secluded countryside spot. Despite the languid vibe, the film has a political undercurrent emphasised by its location (an area between Thailand and Myanmar) and the character of Min, who needs a certificate of good health to secure work but is suffering from a strange rash on the upper part of his body that may have been caused by hiding from the Burmese authorities in a septic tank.

Next, take a walk into the metaphysical jungle with Tropical Malady, in which rural worker Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) is wooed by soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), only for this charming romance to segue into the tale of a forest ranger (Lomnoi again) tracking a tiger spirit (played by Kaewbuadee when in human form). The courtship of the first half, which charms with its naturalistic emphasis on small, telling gestures, is retold through folklore symbolism in the second. It’s admittedly a cliché to state that environment is as much of a character in cinema as human protagonists, but in Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours nature is an active agent, a suggestively eroticised force that lures people into its shrouded paradise to get better acquainted with their desires.

Tropical Malady (2004)

It will then be time to experience the sublime reveries of the Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which revolves around the last days in the life of the title character (Thanapat Saisaymar) as he considers the reasons for his illness while being guided through past incarnations by the spirits of his dead wife and lost son. This is not a ‘puzzle film’ that requires the viewer to identify specific connections between Boonmee’s past existences; rather, it is a phantasmagoric celebration of the random nature of dreaming that asks to be savoured, not deciphered.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Where not to start

The ‘black sheep’ in Weerasethakul’s filmography is The Adventures of Iron Pussy (2003), a scrappy spoof of 1970s Thai action movies that was made to keep his company Kick the Machine afloat. Shooting on cheap digital video, Weerasethakul achieves the requisite retro look, but it’s easy to agree with the director’s honest assessment that his heart wasn’t really in it. Also, the film’s satirical reference points are so localised that, for those unfamiliar with the ‘golden age’ of Thai cinema, this pop entertainment is probably less accessible than the director’s supposedly opaque meditations, which can be freely interpreted by contemplative cineastes.

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