One afternoon toward the end of the millennium, Apichatpong Weerasethakul pointed his video camera at the sun. A strange thing happened, and he liked it. Flooding through a bank of windows into a lens set open on the floor, the bright light triggered a wild pulsation in the image. Writhing strands of digital glitch thrashed in the frame, reaching and retracting like the tentacles of an epileptic squid. The rhythms morphed, kaleidoscopic swirl giving way to a volley of diamond shards, electric-blue undertow, an unexpected burst of red.
Apichatpong chose 17 minutes of this footage and dubbed it Windows (1999). Last seen in the “Views From the Avant-Garde” program of the 2005 New York Film Festival, this fortuitous ephemera returns this week in “Mysterious Objects: The Films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul” at Anthology Film Archives. Selected by critic/programmer Jed Rapfogel, the survey includes around a dozen shorts and two recent features by this rising star of the international art house: the experimental romantic diptych Tropical Malady (2004), and a limpid, enigmatic memoir about Apichatpong’s parents, Syndromes and a Century—recently voted sixth-best film of the year in the Village Voice/LA Weekly Film Poll.
Distinguished by their inventive mix of fiction and documentary modes, Apichatpong’s eccentric narratives sparkle with fleeting natural phenomenon, unplanned gestures, happy discoveries. The filmmaker embraced this poetry of the happenstance right from the start, as evidenced in Windows and fellow juvenilia in the Anthology series: Thirdworld (1997), Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves (1995), Malee and the Boy (1999). All derive from a crucial period of study at the Art Institute of Chicago, where, after taking a degree in architecture from Khon Kaen University, the young Thai native pursued post-graduate studies in filmmaking. American avant-garde cinema proved a vital catalyst to Apichatpong’s innately dialectical imagination, which soon turned to a fusion of Western modernist tradition and Eastern folkloric/spiritual legacies.
Enter Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), an enchanting portrait of life set in the Thai countryside, which derived its daisy-chain structure from the principles of Exquisite Corpse, the sequential, collaborative narrative game invented by the Surrealists. Blissfully Yours (2002) deployed Warholian strategies (extreme duration, indeterminate characterization) to evoke the physical, psychic, and social fluctuations among a trio of day-trippers picnicking in the jungle. Tropical Malady (2004) elaborates on the jungle fantasies of Henri Rousseau, the numinous watercolors of Charles Burchfield, and the animist poetics of Jean Cocteau.
Apichatpong sharpens the eye, alters perceptions, opens up fresh pathways of the mind: Syndromes and a Century sent me floating from the theater and into the pages of Henri Bergson’s theories of matter and memory. Esoteric as the work may be, the motivating impulse is never willfully obscure, always rooted in affection. Syndromes is a metaphysical feast, but its deepest satisfaction is the radiant kindness of its vision. The whole movie operates on the wavelength known to Guy Debord when he announced the “very simple” method of his very eccentric memoir, Panegyric. “I will tell what I have loved; and in this light, everything else will become evident and make itself well enough understood.”
With Syndromes, Apichatpong’s art reaches a level of visionary lucidity that defies comparison to anything but its predecessors. (Careful eyes will find reincarnated figures from Malady throughout.) It also marks his departure from the jungle, stage for the richest wonderments of his work to date. Apichatpong’s short-film masterwork, Worldly Desires (2005), commemorates that affair with a title card dedicating itself to “Memories of the jungle 2001–2005.”
Worldly Desires takes the form of a meta–”making of” documentary for an imaginary film whose premise consists, so far as we are given to see, of little more than a line spoken by one of its actors: “Once upon a time a young couple fled into a jungle.” This narrative is full of distress—moonlight scrambles through thick vegetation, anxious quests for a legendary tree—but the story of its making is pure Apichatpongian bliss: a breeze in the canopy, the delicate blip of moths against a fluorescent tube, a crew member relaxing on a stump, the sudden parting of a cloud.
The 40-minute piece opens with the nighttime shooting of a ridiculously infectious pop number, twice reprised before the end, which serves to bridge this jungle goodbye to the parental love song of Syndromes: “Love like my mother and father,” the chanteuses sing, “will I be as lucky?” Other scraps of dialogue offer earthy ballast (“I forgot to bring the mosquito repellent”; “I don’t like foreigners except for Keanu”) or else send it all soaring to the ether (“Is the location very deep?” “As deep as you like” Indeed.).
Apichatpong will attend the Friday program and will reportedly replace the previously announced Luminous People (2006) with the New York premiere of Emerald (2007), a 12-minute short originally conceived as a single-channel video installation for the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Per the tantalizing description at Apichatpong’s website (kickthe machine.com), Emerald aims to infuse a decrepit hotel in central Bangkok with new memories vis-à-vis the scenario of an early 20th-century Buddhist novel about a pair of lovers reincarnated as stars who while away the centuries telling each other stories until they fade from the galaxy. Sweet!
Thank Dior—j’adore!— for My Mother’s Garden (2007), a curious little bewitchment commissioned to celebrate a collection of the house’s extravagantly whimsical jewelry. Adept, as ever, with neatly proportioned space and unusual effects of scale, Apichatpong contemplates the gems in severe close-up, encircling them with shadow as if specimens under microscope. “The pieces in the collection are inspired,” he writes on kickthe machine.com, “by various types of dangerous flowers and carnivorous plants.” Enter an image of his mother sliding open a window onto a broad-leafed garden. Abruptly arrested in freeze-frame, animated tendrils sprout from her head. Au courant for winter 2008: dewdrops, grasshoppers, hypothetical cellular formations, turquoise, octagons, sketchpad doodles.
I’m digging Anthem (2006), too—and pledge allegiance to Apichatpong’s dream of screening it before every movie begins. In Thailand, that honor goes to a royal anthem, the lyrics of which (“no one shall rob them of freedom!”) sound a mite hypocritical given the Ministry of Culture’s recent absurdly restrictive censorship of its native cinematic genius. See Freedom Against Thai Censorship (FACT) at facthai.word press.com to learn more, though you’ll search in vain for what could possibly have merited suppression in the exceedingly sweet and gentle Syndromes.
Reprising his trademark two-part format, Apichatpong proposes a sly and joyful “Cinema Anthem” that opens with a pair of women at a table overlooking a muddy waterway. They chitchat over a pop-song “anthem” playing on their tiny boombox and wonder if its “power” can reach the gym across the canal. It sure can. The volume leaps as we switch to a massive warehouse and start to orbit a variety of group activities: climbing, dancing, badminton, aerobics, and the efforts of a film crew, setting up lights, checking lenses, ensuring that all goes as planned in the production of their “Audio-Visual Purification Service,” so that it earns the right to be “Certified for All Theaters.”