Blissfully Yours (2002) — March 9, 2016
The first time I saw this, I was swept away by the languid happiness of the young lovers, the delicate rhythm of the 21st century A Day in the Country, where a single afternoon of happiness can define a lifetime. This time, I was caught up in Jenjira Pongpas’s older woman, her sadness and longing and most especially her trepidation at going into the water. It’s not so much that she wants the romantic connection the kids have found (though there is that element for sure), but rather the key exchange in the film comes with her husband, and her regret over the fact that the baby they had had drowned. This is why she fears going into the water, but she does it eventually (Jenjira’s performance is so nuanced here). When she sees Min and Roong, it’s not the love and sex that makes her cry, but the loss of her child. She acts as a mother toward them and gets rejected as such: Roong tells Min she’s crazy and that no one really likes her. Thus are all parents doomed.
Tropical Malady (2004) — March 11, 2016
“The tiger trails you like a shadow. His spirit is starving and lonesome. I see you are his prey and his companion. He can smell you from mountains away. And soon you will feel the same. Kill him to free him from the ghost world or let him devour you and enter his world.”
“A creature whose life exists only by memories of others.”
“And now I see myself. My mother, my father; fear, sadness. It was all so real, so real that they brought me to life.”
Syndromes and a Century (2006) — March 12, 2016
I’m continually impressed with how Weerasethakul resists the dogmatism of his dichotomies. Mostly a film about the differences between rural and urban life, and coming out in the end on the side of rural (or at least on the fusion of rural and urban that a robust public park system provides), he nevertheless finds room for nice moments of fellowship in the antiseptic Bangkok hospital (the ladies with liquor in the leg, the young man who plans to have the same life as everyone else, except it will take one year longer) as well as failed interpersonal connections out in the country (the several unfulfilled romances circling Dr. Toey and of course the legend of the farmers who find gold and get murdered for it (so different an ending from the same legend in Tropical Malady)). The now-famous shot of the vent near the end sums up this expansiveness (or ambivalence): it might be sending dust into the air, but it looks to me like it’s sucking the air out of the room. If so, that can be read as cleaning the air, an act of mechanical purification, clearing up the dust of construction; or it can be read as monstrous, a machine sucking the very life out of the world from the bowels of the hospital complex, the opposite of the orchids which snaked through the world around the country hospital. What I think makes Weerasethakul great is that both these readings are equally valid. His films are never just one thing, their worlds are too big for that.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) — December 11, 2019
The 2010s got off to an auspicious start in 2010 when Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or with Uncle Boonmee, a movie about a man dying of kidney disease who is visited on his idyllic farm by relatives both living and dead, human and ghost. After slowly building an international audience on the festival circuit throughout the 2000s alongside other directors like Jia Zhangke, Hong Sangsoo, Lee Changdong, Tsai Ming-liang and others loosely and inaccurately grouped under grasping titles like “Asian Minimalism” or “Slow Cinema”, Weerasethakul’s Cannes victory seemed to herald a new Golden Age, where East Asian cinema would finally takes its rightful place in the arthouses of North America alongside France, Italy, Japan and other countries that had dominated foreign film distribution here since the 1950s. That didn’t quite come to pass: while it’s easier to see Asian films in the US now than it ever has been, that’s largely the result of streaming services and international DVD shipping — a few notable titles aside, the theatrical circuit still heavily relies on the remnants of European cinema.
Weerasethakul’s influence though is increasingly strongly felt at festivals, where a new generation of directors ape his meditative rhythms and baffling paradoxes, but generally without the deadpan wit or formal sophistication (especially in his use of sound). Uncle Boonmee remains a stunning example of Weerasethakul’s inimitability. Its simple enough premise builds an entire spiritual ecosystem out of the patient accumulation of bizarre, often hilarious detail. Boonmee’s transition from life to death is a gradual and porous one, the jungle around him is alive with spirits, loved ones now dead, or ghosts who passed from the human world into nature (apparently via marrying animal spirits). In this border land, the boundaries between past and present, living and dead, natural and human breakdown completely — a dead wife nurses her sick husband, a prodigal son returns as a red-eyed Wookiee, a princess has sex with a catfish. After accompanying Boonmee on his journey through and into the earth, his (living) relatives return to the city irrevocably changed: one has even become a monk, though somewhat half-heartedly. But while they sit on the bed watching the local news, their spirits still wander off. In search of food, they find music.
Mekong Hotel (2012) — October 2, 2012
Mekong Hotel was one of my most anticipated films coming into VIFF 2012, the first feature by Apichatpong Weerasethakul since his Cannes-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It’s partly bits of a story Weerasethakul had written years ago about a young couple who are haunted by a pob ghost throughout their lives (pob ghosts are spirits that eat the entrails of animals and humans, like a Thai chupacabra I guess), but most of the film is simply Joe and his actors and composer hanging out at the eponymous hotel overlooking the Mekong River, the border between Thailand and Laos, chatting about politics and how high the water will rise in this year’s floods. The composer, Chai Dhatana, noodles his score on a guitar throughout the movie, an ambling, aimless tune with hints of Southern blues that evokes not only the endless flow of the Mekong, but the Mississippi as well, both rivers oft-flooded borderlands conducive to lazy afternoon conversations and where the line between myth and reality is a little more porous than it probably should be. I have written down in my notes the line “device to allow your spirit to wander”. I don’t remember the context, who said it or what the device is, but it seems to me that that describes Joe’s movies pretty perfectly.
Cemetery of Splendour (2015) — January 1, 2016
You know that feeling when you just wake up and you aren’t quite sure if you’re still dreaming or not? That’s what watching an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film is like. He’s not the best filmmaker of sleep (that’s Tsai Ming-liang), or the best filmmaker of dreams (that’s David Lynch), he’s the best filmmaker of that in-between state.
“Why do they need so many mirrors?”
“Hunger for Heaven will lead you to Hell.”
“At the heart of the kingdom, other than the rice fields, there is nothing.”
“Before it disappears it bulges and changes shape, as if it knows, that when it falls, it would be an astounding sight to behold.”