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August 11, 2006

Two by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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Mysterious Object at Noon/Dokfa nai meuman
Apichatpong Weerasethakul - 2000
Plexifilm Region 0 DVD

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Tropical Malady/Sud Pralad
Apichatpong Weerasethakul - 2004
Strand Releasing Region 1 DVD

This Saturday, I will be initiating the first of several films presented at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in conjunction with "Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee". If there are readers of this blog in the Miami metro area, I hope you come by and say hello. Dana Keith, director of the cinematheque will also offer free coffee.

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Of the handful of Thai filmmakers known in the west, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is probably the most acclaimed and, for me, the most difficult to fully understand. Unlike Pen-Ek Ratanaruang or Wisit Sasanatieng, Weerasethakul is not interested making films with obvious narrative structures. The two films currently available on DVD are the work of someone more interested in observing human activity from a distance. There is a narrative of sorts in both films, but of the sort that requires the audience to look and listen, essentially demanding more than passive viewing.

It is not surprising that Weersethakul's films are not popular in his native Thailand, where horror movies frequently rule the box office. With his company Kick the Machine, Weerasethkul and other like-minded film-makers are exploring ways to redefine the concept of Thai cinema, both looking toward the future and honoring the past. Weerasethkul's films are specifically about being Thai, with a narrative structure that is indirect, seemingly meandering.

Weerasethakul has stated that Mysterious Object at Noon was inspired by the Surrealists' "Exquisite Corpse". Weerasethakul bills himself as a story editor rather than a director on this film. Several people narrate a story about a young boy, elaborating on different parts of the story or the characters. The film is not quite a documentary as much as it could called an assemblage of different narrators alternating with observations of life in the Thai countryside. While the first woman who begins the story needs to be prodded, the film ends with children who enthusiastically add detail on top of detail.

The more widely seen Tropical Malady is somewhat more conventional, but also achieves direction by indirection. There is an early scene where one of the characters, Tong, is flirting with a young woman on a bus. From there the film emphasises the soldier Keng's flirtatious pursuit of Tong. Weerasethakul wanders between scenes of Keng wandering through Bangkok and Tong with his country neighbors. Most of the first half of the film takes place during the day, ending with Tong and Keng kissing each other's hands and Tong seen disappearing into the night. This ending provides a kind of seque to the second half which takes place almost entirely at night. Weerashethkul uses Thai folklore as a beginning point with Keng hunting, or being hunted by, a tiger that may have the spirit of Tong. The second half also owes some of its visual style to Henri Rousseau with its people and creatures barely seen peeking out of the jungle, while Weerasethakul also cites Jacques Tourneur. In spite of the idiodsyncratic and personal nature of Weerasethakul's storytelling, Tropical Malady is understood more on an intuitive than intellectual level.

Posted by peter at August 11, 2006 07:39 AM