Mobile Men: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Migrant

By Rob Dennis

mobile-men-apichatpong-weerasethakul.jpgMobile Men, 2008

However much he might be revered for his pantheist lyricism and formal gamesmanship, politics is rarely far from the surface in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s body of work. Perhaps it is no surprise that a filmmaker who has seen so many of his works censored by his own government would be such a keen thorn in their side. A consistent concern for Apichatpong has been the shameful treatment of many of the migrant workers arriving in Thailand from Burma, Laos and other neighbouring states. The period since the 2006 military coup has seen a steady deterioration in the rights of these migrant workers who power Thailand’s economy. A number of governmental decrees in Ranong, Rayong, and Pang Nga provinces have made it unlawful for migrants to go out at night, carry mobile phones, and ride motorbikes.

This is the backdrop of Apichatpong’s new three minute video Mobile Men. Commissioned by Art for the World, a UN aligned NGO briefed with fostering artistic understanding of human rights, as part of a larger portmanteau project Stories on Human Rights (which includes similarly concise works by such artworld / cinema straddling figures as Marina Abramović, Jia Zhangke, Pablo Trapero and Dominique Gonzales Foerster), the completed work premiered last December, just in time for the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

The video shows us two young men: one tattooed, the other in knockoff Converse. The pair sit in the back of a moving truck, shooting each other with a handheld camera. They film each other’s bodies and clothing, passing the camera back and forth. Eventually it finds its way back to the filmmaker (briefly glimpsed) who points the lens at the naked chest of one man, then at the tattoos of the other. “Cool, huh? These are my tattoos. I got them to impress the girls. The pain was so intense I cried out…” He lets out a thunderous roar, removing a microphone taped to his chest and reattaching it to his upper arm tattoo. Shots of the filmmaker and the microphone highlight the artifice of what would otherwise appear as an intimate, unrehearsed outtake.

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For these men mobility itself is something like a political act. The title could serve as a double pun, alluding to the edicts banning the ownership of mobile phones (the video itself has the snatched look of a mobile movie) as well as the restrictions in individual travel. But as much as an act of defiance against the military authorities, the transformative act of movement equally offers a release from the dismal realities of the static world (we might remember a scene in Tropical Malady, an earlier feature, in which one character rides through the grim Thai streets at night, avoiding bricks hurled at him by feral pedestrians.)

Where these men are going is not clear. We might imagine a journey to drudging work in an unregulated factory or rice field; but the presence of a director puts lie to any such documentary reality. The actuality of the trip is all important, like Min and Roong’s pastoral drive in Blissfully Yours, or Keng and Tong’s tandem joyrides in Malady. The truck itself is another recurring image: in Malady soldiers laugh and mess about in the back of a pick up.

Speaking of Mobile Men the director positioned the vehicle as “a small moving island without frontiers where there is freedom to communicate, to see, and to share.” These men feel secure in their environment, but travel comes at a risk. On April 10th last year, in the Ranong province of southern Thailand, 54 Burmese migrants suffocated while being transported to work in the back of an unventilated truck.

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Apichatpong: “In my recent short film, the main actor is played by a migrant worker from Shan state in Burma named Jaai. The shooting of this film provided me with a great opportunity to learn from his stories. He is one of the lucky ones who have decent jobs and is content with his new living conditions. But there exist many others who are still living in the opposite circumstances. This film project, Mobile Men, is a portrait of Jaai. By the act of making the film, I would like to instil and capture his confidence and dignity. It is not about storytelling, but about a man who is full of life.”

Holding the camera and directing themselves, these mobile men attempt to control their own image. And yet the director seems to enjoy toying with conceptions around observer and observed. Apichatpong watchers will note a persistence in many of his preoccupations: the wilful confusion between reality and fiction, the refusal of authorship and narrative control and the fixation on the male figure.

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Jaai’s scream at the end of the video comes across as something of a Ginsbergian howl - a vociferous reclamation of virility and beauty, as much as a pained lament. Clearly, Apichatpong’s idea of a victim is far from one dimensional. Echoing Min (another Burmese immigrant) in Blissfully Yours, the other participant in this new work appears as mute, perhaps reflecting the powerless sufferance of the migrant population. He repeatedly points to himself, as if demanding acknowledgement of his own existence. The video embraces its central contradiction (a portrait of a man content in life to illustrate the opposite) with perverse glee, and offers a provocative - but no less resolute - account of the global failure to protect human rights.

Watch Mobile Men here.

Rob Dennis is a film writer based in London.