Avant-pop marches on—and with his unpronounceable name, unknown intentions, and casually uninflected camera placement, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is well positioned to hold the banner high.
There are other contenders—the German miserablist Fred Kelemen, the Nigerian home-video maker Tunde Kelani, even born-again Gus Van Sant—but the 34-year-old Weerasethakul, Thailand’s leading (Thailand’s only?) experimental filmmaker, a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute with a production company called Kick the Machine, and a two-time prizewinner at Cannes, is the reigning faux primitive on the international festival circuit. His ultra-durational strategy deploys long takes, blunt editing, and awkwardly apparent non-actors, in the service of minimal narrative situations that seem neither staged nor “found.” Bad filmmaking or an artfully artless breakthrough into something else?
Scarcely dour, Weerasethakul’s movies are suffused with an odd sense of cine-euphoria and promote a particular comic bafflement. Mysterious Object at Noon, the title of his first feature, applies to his entire project. (His movies are no easier to follow or, indeed, find in Thailand.) Mysterious Object, which had its local premiere at the Voice/BAM series in 2001, followed by a run at Anthology (and is available on DVD from Plexifilm), documents a free-floating narrative that has apparently been improvised—by disparate interviewees—in the manner of the surrealist party game wherein artists take turns working blind on a collective drawing. Eventually concerning a disabled child and his (never seen) visitor from outer space, this episodic tale incorporates all manner of local soap operas, video games, and folktales—not to mention the other random distractions that a Thai afternoon might provide.
Weerasethakul has never had a film in the New York Film Festival (or even New Directors), but his second feature, Blissfully Yours—which topped the 2002 Voice critics’ poll for best undistributed movie and placed again last year—shows six times this weekend at BAMcinématek as part of the “Village Voice: Best of 2003″ series. Interviewed in these pages several years ago, Weerasethakul described Blissfully Yours as a “sweet romance” that would last three hours and unfold in real time. The concept was eventually modified, but at two hours, it remains a profoundly unhurried movie. Many scenes are only a single shot, often in a moving vehicle. Romance, however, is in the air—and on the ground.
The movie is set on Thailand’s northwest border. Min is an illegal immigrant from Burma, afflicted with psoriasis; girlish Roong and her older co-worker Orn look after the taciturn refugee. The movie begins with Min getting a medical examination; after 45 minutes or so, it inexplicably shifts gears—providing opening credits and a perky samba—as Min and Roong drive into the jungle, Flintstones knickknacks bobbling merrily on the dashboard. They pick berries and find a scenic spot to picnic. Roong kisses skittish Min, but contact is uncomfortable for him. The couple are fending off ants when Weerasethakul cuts to Orn and a man unglamorously fucking somewhere else in the forest. It’s part of the movie’s charm that the viewer is also lost in the woods. Finished with her tryst, Orn wanders off downstream to stumble upon Roong blissfully servicing Min. Later, Roong spends long, dreamy minutes playing with Min’s penis or just gazing up at the clouds in the sky.
A deadpan, self-consciously prehistoric version of Jean Renoir’s rueful idyll A Day in the Country, Blissfully Yours is unconscionably happy. The enchanted forest is even more pronounced in Weerasethakul’s new Tropical Malady, also set in northwest Thailand. The less explicit but equally eccentric love story involves a Thai soldier and a peasant boy, and the mood is even more archaic. The jungle is filled with a variety of spirits, human and animal. Surely the first movie to subtitle a talking monkey and win a prize at Cannes, Tropical Malady is unlikely to make Weerasethakul a household name—but it confirms his status as a giant of fourth-world cinema. Look for it next year at BAM.