At 40 years old, even if he hadn't won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the filmmaker Thais know as Joei (or just plain Joe to Westerners), could still claim to a list of amazing achievements, if he wanted to.
But he's the kind of guy who just wants to keep working. On to the next thing. Whatever it may be.
Critics, cinephiles and scholars are all discussing Apichatpong and his work.
At the recent 6th Annual Southeast Asian Cinema Conference in Ho Chi Minh City, no less than two papers were presented on Apichatpong and his films. Philippa Lovatt from the University of Glasgow offered a look at last year's Primitive exhibition in Liverpool in Here Lies Memory: the Haunted Landscape of Nabua in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Primitive. Dianne Daley from RMIT University, Melbourne, offered An Empathetic Analysis of Time and Space in Films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a thought-provoking look at how Apichatpong's films seek to fill space, observe it or even transform it, as opposed to the commercial, Hollywood approach of simply devouring space and eating up time. They are like science fiction, without the lasers. Though a spaceship does turn up in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee.
Apichatpong's name is being lumped in with such cinematic titans as Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Eric Rohmer, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Terrence Malick and Robert Bresson, among a movement of directors mood-heavy movies, known as "contemplative cinema", "slow films" or even, in the words of Tony Youngblood, "Cinema Anima". In a recent piece on The Film Talk, Youngblood writes:
If most films race through the rapids and plunge over the waterfall, Weerasethakul’s movies float lazily down a quiet brook, occasionally meandering down side streams and getting caught in tangles of vines. Like all of the directors in this list, Weerasethakul knows how to pluck an inconsequential detail and imbibe it with all the life and emotion of the characters. One such moment happens in Syndromes and a Century when a classical guitarist plays a piece at an outdoor concert. It is the most moving musical performance I have ever seen in a fictional film.
Film School Rejects' Culture Warrior offers more about slow movies in Why You Should Know Slow Joe. Landon Palmer takes a look at Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, and then says:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is simply one of many contemporary filmmakers who use the deliberate pace to achieve something unique and challenging. For whatever its motivation or outcome, slow cinema is still one of many formal choices that challenge cinematic convention, and films like Joe’s stand as evidence of the potential achievement slow cinema can encounter.
There's more being said about Apichatpong in a recent Newsweek article. There's even quotes from the man himself:
Raised in the northern Thai city of Khon Kaen, where his parents were doctors, Weerasethakul credits a grade-school teacher for encouraging his interest in art. “He gave us free time and lots of creative materials to play with,” he recalls. After finishing an architecture degree from the local university in 1994, he attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving his M.F.A. in film in 1997. In the U.S., where he stuffed envelopes to make money, he experienced the same kind of freedom he enjoyed in elementary school—“[but] this time, freedom of cinema,” he says.
Freedom of cinema has often eluded him in Thailand. When he made Syndromes and a Century, a tribute to his parents’ courtship, authorities ordered him, oddly, to cut scenes of a monk playing guitar, doctors boozing at a hospital, and a doctor making out with his girlfriend – changes he unsuccessfully fought for two years. Frustrated, Weerasethakul began work on Uncle Boonmee, part of a larger multimedia project called Primitive ... The title refers to “going back to when we lived in caves,” as well as “how we live here in Thailand, politically [and] psychologically,” says Weerasethakul.
It's a great article.
I'm kicking myself that I didn't go see Primitive when it was staged in Paris, Munich or Liverpool. Hope I get to see it someday soon.
Meanwhile, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is still having nightly screenings at the SFX Emporium cinema in Bangkok. I've heard it's still packing in audiences and is on track to earn an even 1 million baht.
That seems like a pretty good birthday present.