Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s underseen debut feature screened last week at the ICA. Keifer Taylor reflects on the film and Weerasethakul’s subsequent career.
In 1997, at the start of career of relentlessly beating the drum for Thai independent cinema, a young Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his film crew commenced a lengthy excursion across the country. Beginning in the north and ending in the south, various locals were asked to contribute towards a story concerning a wheelchair-bound boy and his tutor, Dokfah. Once these wildly imaginative tales were gathered, a fictional interpretation of this deeply collaborative effort was filmed, although financial restrictions held back completion until 2000. The result was Mysterious Object At Noon (Dokfa Mai Meu Maan), a strangely beautiful, ever-expanding medley of content and form, rhythmically exploring Siamese culture and the process of filmmaking. Even at this fledgling stage, with numerous shorts to his name, Weerasethakul’s themes and style were already established.
Typically, due to the Thai industry’s philistine outlook, the film suffered domestically, benefitting instead from overseas exposure. This would also be the case for Weerasethakul’s later work, which was often butchered by the censorship committee. Premiering at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Mysterious Object At Noon received awards in Vancouver, Jeonju and Yamagata. Cherished at other festivals, it went fairly unnoticed beyond this circuit, and has long been available only as an expensive region 1 DVD. The recent theatrical screenings of a digital restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation and the Austrian Film Museum should precede a more accessible home video release.
There are obvious cinematic precursors to Mysterious Object At Noon. Shohei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes (1967) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) are just two examples, but Weerasethakul’s docu-fiction outreaches its precursors in many ways, gradually weaving a unique fabric of multiple layers in the fashion of a game of Exquisite Corpse to create an engaging study of Thailand’s historical background and mystical collective unconscious.
Before the invented tale of Dokfah and her paraplegic student starts to take shape, a prolonged shot guides us through a city (presumably Bangkok), accompanied by a pop song and a radio play on the subject of lost love. We then come across a woman, weeping as she recounts her father’s attempts to sell her to her aunt and uncle. The director then goes on to ask her if she has another story to tell, either fact or fiction, and the story of Dokfah and her pupil begins, with the much older woman conducting a lesson – a story almost immediately extended and complicated by further tellers. The lesson is cut short when she leaves to go to the bathroom. After some time, when she doesn’t return, the boy looks for her and finds her unconscious on the floor. Whilst trying to revive her, he sees a mysterious, round object roll out from under her skirt. Inexplicably, the object becomes a young boy. At one point a group of villagers transforms the fable again. The amusing impromptu staging of their continuation, performed outdoors, proposes the boy has now turned into the teacher.
Perhaps stemming from Weerasethakul’s Buddhist faith, transformation is an integral concept within his work, both stylistically and thematically. In 2002’s Blissfully Yours (Sud sanaeha), after a purposely delayed credit sequence slides into the narrative (at around 35 minutes) a glum, urban world becomes a rapturous trip to a jungle. In a sequential build, the style breaks free from its stiff framing with languid movements and handheld camerawork. In Tropical Malady (Sud Pralad, 2004) a fractured narrative of romance between a soldier and village boy shifts to a feverish odyssey in an ominous jungle. Both lovers are present, though the latter, now the spirit of a tiger shaman, stalks the former. Syndromes & A Century (Sang sattawat, 2006)also contains dual realms, this time with the dialogue and characters of the first half being identical to the second; the only difference being their location. In this respect, the title of 2010’s Palme D’or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives speaks for itself.
The dualities and transformations of Mysterious Object At Noon are perpetuated by its startling structure. Simultaneously, a participant’s telling and the director’s fictional piece will interlink, juxtaposed with silent intertitles and overlapping sounds from other activities. A segment from Thai television news also slips in, suggesting that Dokfah in fact abducted the child. As these distinct models and imitations of reality are tangled, the fictionalised account is interrupted by a short break to set up the next scene. The director walks into the frame, leaving the 16mm camera rolling, casually documenting the process of this playful undertaking. Weerasethakul’s propensity for surprise doesn’t end here either. When the film’s closing credits appear it is transformed once again into a short, gentle observation of children playing football, entitled At Noon.
The collections of thoughts, fantasies, ideas and representations that makes up Mysterious Object at Noon are never less than intriguing, but can also feel ovwerwhelming, and one may begin to feel that Weerasethakul is biting off more than he can chew within the scope of one film. But on the whole, Mysterious Object At Noon fully reflects the maverick filmmaker/artist’s fond interest in cinema and his native landscape – an interest that pervades his succeeding features, shorts and installation projects. It’s also a compelling record of a young director’s search for his voice and a possible answer to the origins of his inspiration, deep in the heart of Thailand.
“Double Visions”, the first UK gallery exhibition of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, can be seen at Anthony Reynolds Gallery London until 17 May.