Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Messages Without Meaning

The Films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who mercifully calls himself 'Joe', is currently the subject of a short retrospective at what we used to be able to call the National Film Theatre in London. Despite only having made five features so far, he fully deserves this attention, as one of the most audacious and original filmmakers currently at work, and for having significantly raised the profile of Thai cinema (his film ‘Tropical Malady’ was the first Thai film to win a critics’ prize at Cannes).

Perhaps his easiest film to digest is his most lengthy, the languid ‘Blissfully Yours’ which essentially unfolds in real time. It is ostensibly a tale of how a leisurely afternoon of al fresco sex is interrupted, but its subtle evocations of tensions and emotions, gradually revealed without dramatic confrontation or violence, is rather majestic. The lush attention to detail in the photographing of landscape and location is a genuine pleasure too. Whilst the deliberately slow pacing and lack of dialogue will seem unfamiliar to western audiences attuned more to the exaggerated action and the snappy scripting of American cinema, ‘Blissfully Yours’ seems remarkably conventional when placed next to his other works.

‘Tropical Malady’ is extraordinary, baffling, possibly visionary and certainly impressive. Its first half shares some of the subtleties and romanticism of ‘Blissfully Yours’, focussing on the blossoming romance between an unemployed illiterate city boy and a soldier. It strikes me as interesting that this film has been welcomed under the banner of ‘gay interest’ cinema, as this love is presented in an entirely matter-of-fact and non judgmental way. There is no reference whatsoever to identity politics, the relationship seems playful and tender without anguish or deliberation, and family members seem largely accepting and unquestioning. The most explicitly sexual moment comes when the two young men kiss and lick each other’s hands, an extraordinary moment of natural and unforced eroticism. Joe also demonstrates his brutally dry sense of humour with occasional deployments of camp – the hilarious duet between Sakda (the city boy) and a cabaret singer is a particularly brilliant moment, as is the diversion to an aerobics workout.

Yet after that moment of tantalising erotic play, Sakda mysteriously walks off into the darkness, the screen goes pitch black for ten seconds or more, and the film suddenly and quite unexpectedly changes direction. There’s a brief interlude exploring animal sprit myths, before Sakda and Keng reappear, Keng as a soldier at first chasing, and then being chased by, Sakda’s tiger spirit. There is little or no dialogue in this section and minimal music, yet the tension and claustrophobia is palpable. Joe achieves this through slow but deliberate camera movements, close-up shots expressing fear and bewilderment, and with a naturalist’s attention to the detail of the jungle.

Eventually, Keng the soldier learns more about his situation and his fate, communicating with a monkey to understand that he is both ‘prey and companion’ of the tiger. Ultimately, he must decide whether to free Sakda’s spirit by killing him, or allow himself to be devoured by him, and therefore enter his world. The final confrontation between Keng and the tiger is both mind-boggling and gripping.

What is all this about? The opening of the film may give hints as to its explanation, with an intertitle displaying a quotation emphasising the bestial nature of man that must be subsumed. So, what is Joe saying is bestial in this film? Is it the tender homosexual love depicted in the film’s first half? This seems unlikely, given that the film ends emphasising, in a unique way, the union between Keng and Sakda, and it seems unlikely that Joe would have portrayed the relationship so affectionately were this his underlying intention. I personally felt the film was emphasising that human relationships come with a peculiar combination of innocence and animalistic desires, the latter sometimes needing to be contained, but Joe himself offers no such clear explanation. It may also hint at the shifting patterns of domination and subservience within relationships too, and the extreme measures required to achieve genuine equality. Whatever it is actually about, ‘Tropical Malady’ is a compelling and fascinating film and quite possibly a masterpiece.

It also makes a lot more sense when placed next to ‘Mysterious Object at Noon’, Joe’s debut feature, pretty much unscreened in this country before now. This is shot entirely in black and white, and shares some of the blurring of fiction and documentary that characterised Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Close Up’. It is a similarly challenging and effective film – even when it appears matter of fact, beneath the surface, there is a world of mystery, fascination and intrigue. The film shows Joe and crew travelling around Thai villages, attempting to make some kind of documentary about Thai life and culture. The result is the unfolding of a magical realist fairytale, narrated and elaborated by the people the crew meet on their journey, sometimes even acted out by them. It gives some context and background for the deployment of folk tale and mythology in ‘Tropical Malady’.

This offers no explanation whatsoever for ‘Syndromes and a Century’, however. This is Joe’s most recent film, and his contribution to the Mozart-inspired ‘New Crowned Hope’ project to which Tsai Ming-Liang also contributed the similarly outstanding ‘I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone’ (showing at the NFT in November). I must admit that Tsai’s film affected me far more on an emotional level – ‘Syndromes…’ does seem rather formalised and cold by comparison. Perhaps this is where its relationship to musical composition lies – in its emphasis on repetition, extended themes, motifs and developments. It is certainly puzzling and memorable.

I don’t share the sentiments of The Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw that it is a ‘transcendentally happy’ experience though, nor do I agree with translator and critic Tony Rayns that it is an easy watch. There are moments when it is deceptively light, and this may be when the film is at its most accessible and charming but, taken as a whole, it maintains a dangerous balancing act between being hypnotic and being soporific, and any meaning or explanation is, in this case, completely elusive. There are also images that are exceptionally disquieting and unsettling – as claustrophobic and unpleasant as anything in a more conventional horror movie.

It is set consistently in a hospital – although the initial calm rural setting eventually gives way to a murkier, far more oppressive urban location in the film’s second half. Whilst it shares its bifurcated structure with ‘Tropical Malady’, it does not share that film’s sudden lurch to a radically different scenario – instead it repeats earlier scenes in different contexts, sometimes with words and themes echoed by different characters. Occasionally, there are even strong visual echoes such as the astonishing image of a large extractor pipe sucking in vapour in the second hospital’s terrifying basement, which reflects back on an earlier image of an eclipse. It’s almost as if nature is being channelled into man’s activities. The effect is both provocative and perplexing.

The film mostly seems to be dealing with unrequited affections, although this is not necessarily it key theme – the central female character, Dr. Toey, is doggedly followed by a colleague clearly besotted with her, whilst she attempts to divert him with stories about her own unfulfilled romantic feelings. There is a sketchier subplot about the hospital Dentist, also a semi-professional singer, and his growing infatuation with his Buddhist monk patient. The one relationship that appears to be based on reciprocated feelings is also fraught with tension, with the two parties clearly wanting very different paths in life. The relationship is possibly even meaningless when set against the other unconsummated romantic crusades, which Joe invests with more significance.

The first half of the film, with its hospital corridors seemingly unusually tranquil, has a feather-light touch and is really rather beautiful. It is essentially a series of wry, humorous vignettes but it sustains a casually elegant flow.

Both halves begin with Dr. Toey interviewing a new doctor, Dr. Nohng, for a job. In the first half he seems rather lost and detached, but in the second, he adopts a far more significant role, exploring the hospital’s unnerving basement, confronting a mentally disturbed patient with carbon monoxide poisoning, and invited to drink from a bottle with some ageing female doctors. It seems that all the lightness of the first half has vanished – in this dense, urban location with its high rise buildings, there is oppression, frustration and confusion in abundance.

Weerasethakul has described ‘Syndromes…’ as a ‘recreation of the lives of his parents’, both of whom were themselves Doctors, and his own memories of the hospital environment as a child. To this, he has added little by way of explanation. Is this film simply a rather languid and dreamy exploration of alternative realities or is it playing with Buddhist notions of reincarnation?

Joe has also said that his films are ‘about nothing’. Yet, the very fact that they are so haunting and immersing suggests otherwise. I found ‘Syndromes…’ his strangest work so far, at once both heart-warming and fearful. ‘Tropical Malady’ is completely extraordinary, vivid, powerful and imaginative. I would suggest these are films about everything and nothing.

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