Yeah, Bangkok has me again.
But I was in New York City for four days last week on the tail-end of a whirlwind escape to the U.S. that also took me to Illinois to watch baseball games and go sailing, and out to California to soak up Los Angeles culture and drive around in the Mohave Desert looking at cacti.
The main reason I went to the States this year was to check out the exhibition of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Primitive at the New Museum. The timing of my visit meant I was too late to catch Apichatpong himself in residence in NYC. Nor did I get to see any of the "Blissfully Thai" movies at the the Big Apple's Asia Society, or listen to the "conversation" between Apichatpong and fellow Thai indie filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang.
Though I was glad to make contact with a member of the Thai Artists Alliance there, and they're hoping to do great things with Thai filmmakers and artists. And, gosh darn it, I didn't make the time to get over to the Anthology Film Archives for a repeat viewing of Uruphong Raksasad's Agrarian Utopia.
But seeing Primitive was probably enough. It blew my mind. Taking up the museum's entire third-floor gallery, it's a lot to take in. The seven-channel video installation is wall-to-wall Apichatpong. It's like walking into one of his movies, which is cool, and yes, even blissful, but also scary. Lightning strikes and a howling dog in one of the videos reverberate throughout the gallery, and it's pretty unsettling.
Of course, if things get too weird, you can always adjourn to another room and clamp on the headphones to jam to Moderndog while watching the video I'm Still Breathing.
Another video, a two-channel work, is an extension of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, with the uncle in a voiceover, talking about how he was a black-skinned princess or a wolf or whatever.
I visited the show twice, spending a couple of hours each day watching the videos and attempting to absorb it all. There's an iPod you can borrow from the museum's main desk, in which Apichatpong offers commentary about his show, and I recommend taking advantage of that service.
While the New Museum's show feels spacious, I somehow got the feeling that I'm missing something that had been part of Primitive in its incarnations in Munich, Liverpool and Paris.
I keep hearing that Primitive, or parts of it anyway, might come to Bangkok. But I'm glad I went to New York City to see it there.
You can read more of my ramblings about it an article for The Nation.
Primitive is at the New Museum until July 3.
Meanwhile, Apichatpong will serve as president of the jury of the cutting-edge, experimental Orizzonti (Horizons) program at the Venice Film Festival.
A festival statement praises Apichatpong for having "built a career that straddles both art and cinema, which has rapidly led him to be considered one of the most important young international directors and artists, and a key figure in new Thai cinema. His films poetically explore the themes of memory, politics and social issues."
His Syndromes and a Century was in the main competition at Venice in 2006.
Other jurors in Venice will include Italian director Carlo Mazzacurati on the Luigi De Laurentiis Venice Award jury for first films, Roberta Torre on the Controcampo Italiano section and Darren Aronofsky heading the main jury.
Apichatpong was among the official guests of the Midnight Sun Film Festival, which ran from June 15 to 19 in Sodankylä, Finland. He gave a morning conversation that went like this:
”There was a helicopter flying like a bird above water - a beautiful image. Since then I have been attracted to the floating experience.” This is how Apichatpong Weerasethakul (born 1970) described his first cinema experience.
As a child Weerasethakul adored Steven Spielberg, Hong Kong kung-fu films and B horror movies. “I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. When was it again? I think I was seven. I created my own movies by creating the unseen films in my imagination.” After his architecture studies Weerasethakul started studying film in Chicago.
Weerasethakul, who was raised in a small town hospital area, described how strongly his childhood landscapes affected him. ”As you grow older childhood becomes more vivid. But the human mind is always objective. As Gabriel García Márquez said, memory is very vivid but may not be true.” Weerasethakul’s doctor parents are present in his films as references in the dialogue or as a photo on a shelf.
”In my childhood we believed in spirits and ghosts. Each tree had a name. In film people are immortalized. In my films there is re-incarnation of actors but also of the story. I copy and paste from the same script.”
And there's more. Read the rest at the festival website.
Lastly here, Apichatpong is name-checked in an article for Time magazine by Andrew Marshall on The Hangover Part II, and how the Hollywood film seemingly got away with stuff that Thai filmmakers aren't allowed to do. Here's the paragraph:
While brainless foreign movies get the prime-ministerial seal of approval, Thai filmmakers receive scant government attention — except from prudish censors. In his 2006 film Syndromes and a Century, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul showed monks playing a guitar and with a radio-controlled toy. The censors told him to cut these scenes. Apichatpong balked, and it was two years before a heavily edited version of the movie was released in Thailand. While celebrated abroad, Apichatpong remained relatively unknown at home until his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year.
There's a monk in Hangover 2 drinking shots of liquor and snorting coke. Another monk hauls off an d whacks Zach Galifianakis with a stick, which reminded me of the scene with the nun in The Blues Brothers. But I guess the Thai censors let those shenanigans slip by because the monks weren't dressed as Thai monks – they looked more like Tibetan monks, Marshall says.
In my own review of The Hangover Part II I alluded to the same disparity as Marshall does, but didn't get specific. I figure most readers here would know where I was coming from. But perhaps not.