Wednesday, February 1, 2012

9th WFFBKK review: Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbours

  • Directed by Rirkrit Tiravanija
  • Starring Lung Neaw
  • Thai premiere at the 9th World Film Festival of Bangkok, January 26, 2012; no rating
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 2/5

Following the trend of visual artists breaking into making feature films that has been largely spearheaded by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a contemporary of his, Rirkrit Tiravanija, offers a counterpoint of sorts to the magical realism of Apichatpong's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Rirkrit has his own "uncle", an elderly Chiang Mai laborer and farmer named Neaw. But Rirkrit's debut feature, Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbours, has few magical moments. Basically, it's 2.5 hours of Rirkrit and his Mexican producer Cristian Manzutto following Neaw around with their cameras, not blinking as the old man goes about his day sleeping, bathing in the river, getting dressed, eating, drinking, smoking and praying. His sufficiency lifestyle involves wandering around the hills and forests of rural Thailand, foraging for food, subsistence farming and chatting with friends.

Rirkrit, a Hugo Boss Prize recipient and honoree of the Thai Culture Ministry's Silpathorn Award for visual art, is known worldwide for his "relational aesthetics". His exhibitions have seen him serving up spicy curry dishes for his guests. He's used Neaw before in art projects, among them an eight-hour video loop.

And like that eight-hour video, which had Neaw picking his nose, combing his hair, dozing and eating, the feature documentary Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbours would perhaps best work as the accompaniment to a larger art exhibition. Because as a movie that you have to sit down and stay awake for in a cinema, Lung Neaw is a challenge. And after watching it, I felt as if I'd just been the victim of a hoax by Rirkrit, which is perhaps his intent, to hoodwink film-festival viewers in Venice and Bangkok into becoming part of his art project.

"It is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people," Rirkrit is quoted as having said one time about his work.

And what you would have seen following the screening of Lung Naew was people walking out of a theater, shaking their heads, wondering what the point was.

And maybe that's the point.

The film is broken up by intertitles with slogans like "no fire, no ash" and "tomorrow is another day" in big block letters. I could easily see the slogans silkscreened in huge black letters on a white T-shirts and sold for high prices in clothing boutiques, maybe for charity.

Only occasionally does Lung Neaw offer what might be called excitement in contrast to the paint-drying, like when Neaw grooves to a song by Thai alternative rock band Moderndog on a tinny little radio while laying in his rice-field shelter. (He was actually listening to a Thongchai "Bird" McIntyre song, but Rirkrit preferred to involve his hip pals in Moderndog than pay for the rights to use the Bird song.)

It's only towards the end, when Neaw is finally resigned to the camera and starts engaging it, do things pick up, with Neaw talking a bit more and revealing a little about himself and his 60-plus years of hard living. He then goes for a pop of rice whiskey and reels and staggers off down the road.

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