Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul likes to say that Mysterious Object at Noon is really about “nothing at all.” So much for documentarians only wanting to tell the truth. Modestly produced but expansively imagined, the film (screening at BAM Friday through Sunday as part of the Voice Best Undistributed Film series) was shot on 16mm in black and white, then blown up to 35mm for international exhibition. That a Thai film—particularly an experimental one—actually anticipated an international reception is strange enough: Until last month, when the flamboyant cowboy melodrama Tears of the Black Tiger became the first Thai film ever to play at Cannes (where it was promptly snapped up by Miramax, God help it), the number of Thai movies intended for export on an annual basis was roughly equivalent to the number of Samoans in deep space. Far from an empty vessel, the film encourages an ever increasing proliferation of odd topics and perspectives. Its Thai title, “Dogfar in the Devil’s Hand,” could refer to the type of overwrought, underproduced, and impossibly clichéd melodramas that have historically made up the bulk of Thai cinema, but there’s nothing archaic about the way it superimposes bits of local television dramas, pop songs, daily-life dilemmas, and improvisatory Thai theatrical conventions over the deranging pretext of André Breton’s old party game, the Exquisite Corpse.
Not that there’s anything inherently Thai about Breton’s famous “automatic writing” template, where writers sequentially contribute words to a text, largely oblivious to what came before (even though Thailand’s fine-arts community has long been absorbed by the Surrealist visual imaginations of Dalí and Tanguy). But then the 31-year-old Apichatpong—born in the small northeastern city of Khon Kaen and educated at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago—isn’t your typical Thai guy. For starters, he’ll ask you to call him Joe.
“I’m interested in the possibilities of involving both fact and fiction in one film,” Joe said at the Rotterdam Film Festival, where his film debuted a year and a half ago. “But I wasn’t thinking much about revolutionizing the narrative method when I started making this film. In some ways, I think the movie turned out to be really rather old-fashioned.” Spiraling out from Bangkok across a variety of sandy southern and rural northern extremes, Mysterious Object at Noon searches out everyday people—fish sauce vendors, wizened grannies, video-game-saturated schoolchildren—who are willing to reveal bits of themselves for the camera, and to contribute a fragment to the film’s evolving story about a paraplegic boy and his unpredictable tutor, a woman named Dogfar. Initially observing his subjects at a modest verité remove, Joe then steps in to direct and intercut dramatic re-creations of the freely associated narrative strokes they’ve supplied.
Strange as all this might sound, stranger still is Joe’s position in contemporary Thai film culture, where the terms film and art rarely coincide. Cofounder of the Bangkok-based Kick the Machine, an artist-run film production and distribution company focused on young experimental filmmakers, and codirector of both the Bangkok Experimental and Short Film and Video film festivals, Joe has already earned a reputation as Thailand’s leading supporter of new filmmakers. Joe is currently at work on his first fiction feature, Blissfully Yours, a three-hour-long love story that unfolds in real time. “It’s just a sweet romance,” the director remarked last week via e-mail. “No politics.” But given the film’s setting—a picnic on the extremely volatile Thai-Burmese border—it sounds suspiciously like one more of Joe’s sweet little nothings at all.