Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book review: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

  • Edited by James Quandt
  • Published by the Austrian Film Museum
  • Available from Wallflower Press.

Indie filmmaker and video artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul has often referred to his works as his "children". Indeed, most of his films credit him with a "conceived by" line, rather than the traditional "directed by".

A new book, covering the 38-year-old director's life and career up to now, can be considered the equivalent of Dr. Benjamin Spock's best-selling Baby and Child Care instruction manual.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is the guidebook to understanding the artist, and offers hints on your care and feeding as you watch his films.

Where did Apichatpong come from? Is his nickname "Joe" or "Joei"? Why did the opening credits of his Blissfully Yours finally roll 45 minutes into the film? Why are his movies Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century split into halves? Did he really make a movie called The Adventure of Iron Pussy? Why was Syndromes and a Century censored in Thailand?

The answers are in the book.

The 200-page volume fills a major gap in the sparse offerings of English-language reading material on Thai cinema. And it's only fitting that entire book be devoted to Apichatpong because he looms large in Thai cinema history.

Editor James Quandt gives an overview of Apichatpong's life and career. There are also heavily footnoted essays from scholar Benedict Anderson, art curator Karen Newman and critics Kong Rithdee and Tony Rayns.

The first chapter, "Two Letters", is by cultural critic Mark Cousins and firebrand actress Tilda Swinton. The two trade thoughts about Apichatpong, both having been severely bitten by his bug after they saw Tropical Malady (Sud Pralad) at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where it won a jury prize.

One of the most valuable chapters is by Apichatpong himself: "Ghosts in the Darkness". Apichatpong recalls his childhood growing up in Khon Kaen town. His parents were doctors. Some of his most cherished memories are of going to the cinema.

It's as much a history of him and how he became enamored by movies as it as a history of Thai cinema. He cites 1978's disaster movie Paendinwipayoak by Sompot Saengduenchai as a major influence, as well as 1979's romantic melodrama Plae Kao by Cherd Songsri.

Quandt gives a blow-by-blow of each of Apichatpong's features, going back to his 2000 debut, the black-and-white "exquisite corpse" documentary Mysterious Object at Noon (Dokfa Nai Meuman).

Mysterious Object became a cliche that film critics used to describe Apichatpong's work. Then his next feature Blissfully Yours (Sud Sanaeha) won the Un Certain Regard competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002.

From then on, "blissful" was term cropped up often in writing about the filmmaker's work.

Connections are pointed out, like a blue umbrella from Blissfully that pops up elsewhere, or the corpse of a man, clad only in underwear briefs, who's seen in Tropical Malady but was very much alive in an earlier movie.

There's also a survey and lots of images from his dozens of shorts, loops and video installations for art galleries -- his real bread and butter since feature films are costly endeavors.

His first short, 1994's 0016643225059, was inspired by phone calls he made to his mother while he was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago.

One of his most recent, the chilling horror documentary Vampire, was commissioned last year for a Louis Vuitton traveling exhibit. It was shown recently as part of the "Bangkok … Bananas!!" arts festival.

Another short is Mobile Men, made last year for the United Nations for its 22-segment Stories on Human Rights. It was shown recently in Bangkok as well, and you can watch that one on YouTube.

Despite his gentle, thoughtful nature, Apichatpong is an uncompromising, polarising figure in world cinema and in Thai society. The book offers insights as to why.

Best still to come?

After enduring the censorship of his Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has embarked on his most ambitious and political project yet –- Primitive, a multi-platform work that includes a large-scale gallery installation, at least two short films and an eventual feature.

The work is set in Nabua, a village in Nakhon Phanom province that in the 1960s was the epicentre of violent anti-communist purges by the government.

Apichatpong worked with teenage male descendants of the victims of the battles in forming his tale, which blends the story of a widow ghost with the pioneering protoscience-fiction cinema of Georges Méliès.

“Primitive is about reincarnation and transformation. It’s a reincarnation of presence (and absence). It’s also a reincarnation of cinema as a means of transportation as it was in the time of Méliès,” Apichatpong writes on the Animate Projects website.

It’s part of what his European backers are calling “the Year of Apichatpong”, that had Primitive exhibiting in Munich until May 17. It goes to Liverpool's FACT gallery from September 25 to November 29.

A short film, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, is touring the festivals, recently picking up two awards in Oberhausen. Another short, Phantoms of Nabua, can be viewed online at www.AnimateProjects.org.

There’s hope that a smaller-scale Primitive exhibition will come to Bangkok.

Future projects for Apichatpong include a video essay on Japanologist and film critic Donald Richie. Long term, Apichatpong and actress Tilda Swinton are e-mailing each other about a collaboration that will surely result in something beautiful and strange.

(Cross-published in The Nation on Sunday. Photo for The Nation by Ekkarat Sukpetch. Also thanks to Kriangsak Tanjerjarad for scan of book cover. And a big thanks to Apichatpong Weerasethakul for the gift of his book.)

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