Syndromes and a Century, 2006
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, published by the Austrian Film Museum and distributed in the UK by Wallflower Press, is the first book length study in English on the Thai filmmaker and gallery artist known to Western cinephiles under his affectionate pseudonym, Joe. Pleasingly, for a volume devoted to an artist whose work has often tackled bifurcated narratives, the book can be quite neatly split in two. The first half (after a aptly spirited introduction from Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton) displays editor James Quant’s exhaustive study of Apichatpong’s feature oeuvre so far (from Mysterious Object at Noon to Syndromes and a Century), with the second giving space to shorter pieces from Benedict Anderson, Tony Rayns, Karen Newman and Kong Rithdee as well as two interviews and texts from the man himself.
Quant’s own persuasive writing not only serves as an valuable overview of Apichatpong’s themes and preoccupations, but also as a much needed refutation of any off hand dismissal of the films as mere opaque ‘mysterious objects’. Joe’s cinema is a strange beast, no doubt, but not one that refuses interpretation. Neatly tracing a connecting line through a sometimes wildly divergent body of work, Quant expands upon many of Apichatpong’s multiple dichotomies: between urban and rural, documentary and fiction, sound and image, fine art and cinema. Here, even a seemingly atypical exercise in kitsch like The Adventures of Iron Pussy gets an auteurist defense. Sensing affinities with many contemporary artists (film and otherwise), Quant employs theories of ‘glocalism’ (being simultaneously global and rooted within a specific culture) to explore a cinematic lexicon that beguiles with its otherworldliness, whilst remaining grounded in specific socio-political realities.
Mysterious Object at Noon, 2000
The notion of Apichatpong being an international ‘festival’ director, pandering to a Western art house crowd at the expense of his own native audience, is rebuffed by local critic Kong Rithdee in his essay Cinema of Reincarnations, which explores the very Thai-ness of the work. (As he succinctly puts it “Apichatpong’s films do not need any proof that they’re Thai, because they are.”) Tony Rayns looks into the filmmaker’s personal belief system, drawing out Buddhist notions of ‘voidness’ as integral to understanding the manifold ‘maladies’ in Joe’s work. The ‘locality’ of the films is most keenly observed in venerated Asian scholar Benedict Anderson’s piece The Strange Story of a Strange Beast, which investigates the opposing Thai responses to Cannes Special Jury Prize winning Tropical Malady. Anderson’s research highlights how, contrary to expectation, urban (i.e. Bangkok) audiences mostly apathetic responses were contrasted with rural enthusiasm. In A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Karen Newman explores the endless doublings and reincarnations in Apichatpong’s installation work, finding ghosts in every corner.
Perhaps the book’s greatest asset is the trio of essays by Apichatpong himself. The first, Ghosts in the Darkness, published in English for the first time, is a very personal and moving account of his own formative cinematic experiences. In part a nostalgic reverie for the grand palatial cinemas of his childhood (now demolished, obviously), but also an impassioned defence of the indigenous populist filmmaking Thai audiences flocked to before the heavy-footed march of global film culture all but killed it. His much evident love for films like Paendinwipayoak (1978), a Poseidon Adventure style disaster epic with specific Thai flavourings, and respect for his more immediate ‘cultural’ forebears such as Khun Toranong Srichua and Thanit Jitnukul, shows a real generosity of spirit, and equally counters any thoughts of Joe‘s cinema emerging fully formed out of nowhere. The Folly and Future of Thai Cinema Under Military Dictatorship, an open and frank polemic directed at the Thai government, pleads for a rethink regarding the new Film and Video Act with its clause forbidding any film that would undermine “moral decency” or “the pride of the nation”. Seeing his own film, Syndromes and Century, butchered for such indiscretions as daring to show monks playing with remote control spaceships, Apichatpong rightly fears any system that would give the state the right to effectively ban any work that rubs the wrong way. Throughout the book, Apichatpong’s circuitous, but no less indelible, political ethos is witnessed again and again. A clear continuing concern is his own nation’s historical and contemporary abuses of its immigrant population, and those living in its border towns. Often drawn to Thailand’s fringe communities, the filmmaker’s most recent undertaking has been to explore his native North East and the areas bordering the communist Laos, specifically the town of Nabua, a black-spot of political violence in the 1960s. In The Memory of Nabau, he outlines the inspirations for his Primitive project, an ambitious large scale installation commissioned by the Haus der Kunst, Munich in partnership with Animate Projects and FACT Liverpool (where the project will appear later this year.) With this, as well as a new feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, nearing completion, it seems clear that Apichatpong’s restless energy shows no sign of flagging. Including an exhaustive and helpfully annotated filmography, Quant’s timely tome is an invaluable guidebook for navigating Apichatpong’s odd terrain.
Rob Dennis is a film writer based in London.