Mysterious Objects in 2016: The Past, Present and Future Films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Cemetery of Splendor

Mysterious Splendors: The Films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul
February 29-March 10 at IFC Center
Mekong Hotel
Directed By Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Opens March 4 at IFC Center
Cemetery of Splendor
Directed By Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Opens March 4 at IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Made in 2012 but previously unreleased stateside, Mekong Hotel (2012) is without doubt a deep cut of a movie—a whimsical exercise bereft of direction but saturated with the sensual languor we’ve come to expect from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films. It’s also an ideal pivot around which to arrange a retrospective of the Thai director’s spectacular work. After all, the 61-minute Mekong Hotel is spiritually equidistant from the two poles, early and late, of Apichatpong’s career, with one foot steeped in the style of each: from the playful, ad-libbed experimentation of his earliest effort, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), to the mature style of his latest films, anchored as they are by the drolly benign—but still wholly spellbinding—rapport between chthonic spirits and the everyday of Thailand’s hospitals, temples, farms, and military barracks.

Filmed a year after his Palme d’or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Mekong Hotel is less a self-supporting film than a distinctly larval one, stitched together from scenes (and rehearsals for scenes) from an aborted, earlier project called “Ecstasy Garden.” The film’s action is set in the titular hotel, poised overlooking the river of the same name. A very real flood confines the film (and its filming) to the location, trapping all involved in the midst of the hotel’s incumbent people-eating spirit-ghost. Mekong Hotel is set in motion by this play between what’s real—the flood, actors’ conversations about its regional consequences, Apichatpong himself shown honing the film’s relaxed guitar score with its performer—as well as what’s decidedly not—Jenjira Pongbas, playing the carnivorous ghost, nibbling on a bulging, bloody mound of intestines with comical avarice.

Mekong Hotel is thus often labelled a “docu-fiction.” But this formulation—a favorite in the critic’s arsenal—is still too brittle to harness the film’s winking, swirling sense of play. Apichatpong’s tricks firmly place both terms—documentary and fiction—within quotation marks, as in an early scene involving a performance—or a rehearsal?—of a bit dialogue, after which the actors turn to the camera in a unison so spookily contrived—at once facetious and uncanny—that it defuses the whole “breaking of the fourth wall” thing instigated in the first place.

Apichatpong’s oeuvre is rife with similar effects—he is, in this respect, a master of miniature subversions, constantly tweaking genre convention, discreetly upending clichés, and lodging subdued political protests in the otherwise tranquil folds of his films.

Mekong-Hotel3

For instance, the tenuousness of the distinction “fact/fiction” in Mekong Hotel is mirrored by the way, elsewhere, he quietly liquifies the distinction “narrative/experimental.” This has less to do with Apichatpong’s working habits—going from feature film to gallery-destined video installation and back again—and more with how he so effortlessly traverses that terrain in the space of a single film. He does so most astonishingly in Tropical Malady (2004), where a chronicle of a budding romance between a young soldier and a country boy gradually bleeds into an animist free-for-all of light, color, and ambling poetry.

Likewise, Apichatpong’s films consistently poke holes in the arthouse clichés which his detractors summon forth to belittle his work. If smoldering long takes and tightlipped performances signify an arty ponderousness and a counterfeit profundity, then Apichatpong attends these filmmaking conventions with a rare unpretentiousness while also reworking them for exquisite, original results. The long takes in Syndromes and a Century (2012)—the longest lingering on little more than a gaseous swirl entering a vent for upwards of three minutes—should have a plodding, uneasy inertia about them. Under Apichatpong’s charge, however, they radiate a loving patience and a weird, balmy litheness. A montage of old statues and bright hallways midway through the film is so beguilingly alien, encouraging the illusion that DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s camera is levitating of its own accord.

Apichatpong’s films are also pockmarked with microscopic political agitations—many of which go unnoticed, both because their reference is often obscure (to westerners) and because the placid surface of his films is so seldom disturbed, and devoid of anxiety, giving little indication that, in fact, not everything “under the hood” is equally as tranquil. In a 2012 interview Apichatpong likened the state of Thailand to that of a sinking ship. Just last year he questioned his own artistic integrity for being unable to openly say certain things—owing to the Thai government’s persecution of critical opposition and the country’s staunch enforcement of “lèse majesté.” Nevertheless, his films deftly reckon with a number of weightier items, from Thailand’s reception of the Laotian migrant workers (Blissfully Yours [2003], Uncle Boonmee) to the economic rezoning projects that entail the forced evictions to clear land for new developments—as in Cemetery of Splendor, in which forklifts can be seen ripping up earth in preparation for a fiber-optic cable company’s takeover of a local school-hospital complex.

This political urgency gives Cemetery of Splendor, Apichatpong’s latest, a new proportion and a starker, ruffled feeling. The difference, again, is a muted one. There are still ghostly visitations, still hospitals, and still Jenjira Pongbas. Still present, too, is Apichatpong’s trademark vividness of palette—the intercalated layers of thrilling greens and blues of trees and sky, as well as the twilight purples and reds that make palpable the rustling mysteries of the nocturnal. Apichatpong is peerless in how he uses sound to give expression to the mute eloquence of things, and his latest film is no exception. If in Cemetery the sleepy town of Khon Kaen can be considered a character, then the film’s sound design faithfully serves as its voice.

Notwithstanding all this, Cemetery is noticeably less sun-soaked and dreamy than any of his earlier feature films, and feels rather wide awake, even though the film revolves around a troupe of narcoleptic soldiers and their somnambulant jaunts through cafeterias and malls. And although sound and color are still stunningly expressive, gone are the forays into those fragrant, magical zones where the aural and visual reach a heightened intensity—as in the thorny, enchanted forest peopled with monkey ghosts from Uncle Boonmee. In Cemetery the journey into the forest takes the form not of a phantasmagoria but of a kind of history lesson—Jenjira’s character walks through the trees singling out monuments—of natural catastrophe (the waterline on a tree of a historic flood), sentimental remembrance (a statue that recalls her first kiss) and traumatic history (the nook where she hid from bombs). This clamoring of history runs alongside the exposition of myth—a medium accompanying Jenjira’s character delineates the space of an ancient palace once installed in the very same expanse of forest. The sequence spins a palimpsest of mythic past and rich, if wounded, historical density; hand in hand with its presentation runs the threat of its effacement. Apichatpong has expressed worries for the future of his native Thailand, even wondering if he will even work there again. Nonetheless, Cemetery sustains his characteristic warmth and lightheartedness—replete with boner sight gags and cum quips—even when something like an elegiac presentiment of exile is unmistakably in the air.

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