by Brian Bergen-Aurand World-renowned Ethnic-Chinese, Thai independent filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul (born 1970) has composed one documentary, six critically-acclaimed feature films, and more than forty-five short films, videos, and photography installations since the early 1990s. He has won the Un certain regard prize (2002), Prix du jury (2004), and Palme d’or (2010) at the Cannes film festival. In 1999, he co-founded his own production company, Kick the Machine, which has produced many Thai experimental films and videos and a large number of other visual arts projects. The company has also served repeatedly as a co-organizer for the Bangkok Experimental Film festival. With this body of work, Apichatpong has come to be recognized as a leading figure in the Thai new wave as well as within contemporary global independent cinema and international film festival circuits. In addition, his themes and ideas have made him an important voice in discussions of transnational queer cinema, ethnic-Chinese and north-Thai minority arts, and human rights, humanitarian, and disaster relief filmmaking.
Critics have responded to Apichatpong’s works through several lenses, almost all focused on border zone perceptions of itinerant excess and exclusion—considering both displays of such perceptions and perceptions of such displays. They have addressed his films, videos, and other visual works’ unconventional narrative structures, complex spatial and temporal relations and designs, haptic ambient sound, and deployment of nature and rural locations. They have commented on his deployment of Buddhism and other religious and mythological systems, queer embodiments and kinship structures, dreams, popular local cultures, and animist and post-humanist philosophies. Most often, critics have fixed these lenses on the foreign and domestic bodies displayed most often at work or labor. With Apichatpong’s own insistent imagery of bodies in contact—with the natural world and with one another—these perceptions are most often filtered through critical lenses magnifying the corporeal aspects of these films and the borders they break, leak into, or violate and the affects such bodies in contact effect. Although I have not seen all the short films Apichatpong has distributed and exhibited, here is a list of the five films I have seen that best demonstrate the affects of breaking, leaking, and violating carnal borders.
5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, 2010). This film won the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, and at times it is easy to see the sheer brilliance of this depiction of the last days of Uncle Boonmee, who is sick and dying, and those who gather around him to see him off, including his dead wife who returns as a ghost to guide his departure and, Boonsong, his lost son who returns as an ape spirit to help as well. Along with these altered bodies, the film also displays the medicalized body of Uncle Boonmee as he undergoes treatments and, at the half-way point, cuts to a fantasy about a princess who wears a veil to cover her facial scars. Staring into a pond, she sees her face transform as the scars are smoothed over, and then offers herself to a catfish, with whom she copulates and shares a sexual epiphany. In this way, the film dissolves the borders between memory and history (especially of the troubles in Northeastern Thailand), human and natural, lived and fantasized, and immanent and transcendent. It is also confuses easy separations of past, present, and future–especially in its combination of at least six filmic styles–ranging from early cinema to documentary to melodrama to epic fantasy–and Apichatpong’s concern with shooting it on film, something he fears has no future.
4. Blissfully Yours. (Sud Sanaeha (literally “supreme passion” or “complete intimacy”), 2002). Made mildly infamous by its full frontal male nudity and vivid (if still somewhat obscured) sex scenes, this film displays some of the most longing shots of the male body I’ve seen. Min has illegally crossed the Burmese border into Thailand to seek work, but he has developed a skin ailment that forces him to seek medical advice–along with a medical certificate for employment, which he cannot obtain because he lacks proper identification. We meet him during a doctor’s consultation, where Roong–who dislikes her husband–looks after him and at him. We see him again sitting in a waiting area where a man caresses his leg while asking him to stay for lunch. Then, we see him once more, with Orn, his girlfriend who has paid Roong to help keep Min’s illegal status a secret. Orn and Min drive into the jungle, where he strips to his boxer shorts to cool off, and they share an intimate picnic. Min remains in his boxers throughout the rest of the movie; Roong and her clandestine lover appear in an adjacent part of the forest, where someone steals their motorbike while they make love; and Orn eventually performs oral on Min, while Roong watches from afar. Everyone stares at and caresses Min, devouring him with their eyes and hands, as if crossing the border changed him from subject to object, from mundane human to exotic creature. With all its emphasis on liminality and fantasy, the film ends with the most prosaic of statements: “December 2001. Min is in Bangkok while waiting for work at a casino on the Thai-Cambodian border. Roong got back together with her boyfriend and they sell noodles in a town not far from Bangkok. Orn continues working as an extra in Thai movies.”
3. Mobile Men. (2008). Created as part of the Stories of Human Rights / Art for the World series, this 4 minute short displays three men in the back of a truck speeding down a road in rural Thailand. One of the men is played by a worker from Burma named Jaai, another is Apichatpong. None of the men speak at first, but tell stories about their possessions and their bodies through their movements and gestures. They point at and caress their hair, their clothes, their shoes. They also move and gesture with the camera around the back of the vehicle, a means of transport which “simulates a small moving island without frontiers where there is freedom to communicate, to see, and to share,” says Apichatpong. Eventually, the man embodied by Jaai shows off his bare chest and defiantly/elatedly shouts into the wind that has overwhelmed the soundtrack up to this point. It is, Apichatpong claims, a film about “the extinction of species, of voices, of tradition, and of cinema.” I think this is a film that moves against such extinction. (Watch this film more than once, trust me.)
2. Tropical Malady. (Sud pralad (literally “Monster”), 2004). Many critics place this film atop their lists of favorites by Apichatpong as well as their lists of favorites of contemporary global / independent cinema and favorite international queer cinema. It is certainly worthy of all such praise. Tropical Malady contemplates love-sickness and lust, the intersection of rural and urban worlds in Thailand, and the intersection of natural, unnatural, and supernatural desire and corporeality. The film itself is cut in two–the first half about a soldier who lusts after a young man from the countryside; the second half about a forest ranger in pursuit of a tiger/shaman who shape shifts throughout the tale. The actors from the first half also play the characters in the second half. Are they alternative versions of the same characters? The film collapses and crosses all the borders it establishes between actors, characters, landscapes and locations, corporeality and desire, until it seems most to be a meditation on this one line of dialogue, spoken by the ranger: “Monster, I give you my spirit, my flesh, and my memories.” Who is the ranger? Who is the monster? How can one give one’s spirit? One’s flesh? One’s memories?
1. Mysterious Object at Noon. (Dogfahr Nai Meu Marn (literally “Dogfahr in the Devil’s Hand”), 2000). Documents the stories told about, Peaw, a boy who uses a wheelchair and his strange teacher, Dogfahr, who may or may not be an alien or be possessed by an alien who fell from the sky at noon. “Once upon a time… at noon” frames this exquisite corpse film, where different people from different locations around Thailand add to the tale begun by a woman selling vegetables from the back of a truck, who may or may not have been sold by her parents for bus fare. Nothing or everything in this film about corporeal narratives may be true–about the boy, the teacher, the wheelchair, the woman, the elders who chime in, the schoolgirls who sign their episode, the actors who perform theirs, or the schoolboys who push and shove as they kill off the characters at the end. This is one of the best films I have seen about the relationship between cinematic documenting and erasing of bodies, of stories, and of cultural expectations.
For more on Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul and other aspects of contemporary Thai Independent filmmaking and visual art, see KICK THE MACHINE’s homepage for a start.