The films of the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul do not strive for narrative clarity or thematic transparency. His most recent film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, yet unreleased in the United States, won top honors at the 2010 Cannes film festival. Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006) – films available on DVD – all won prizes at major festivals such as Venice and Cannes. These three are all broadly speaking narrative films. Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), also available on DVD, is an experimental documentary.
The experience of watching a Weerasethakul film is special. They seem to induce a calm, meditative state in the viewer, where normally small details in the images and soundtrack take on vivid significance. The slow pace of his work recalls Andrei Tarkovsky, although Weerasethakul’s films aren’t as talky. Another influence on his work, conscious or not, is undoubtedly Terrence Malick, whose films pay so much attention to the beauty of the landscapes that encompass the stories. Both Malick and Weerasethakul have a highly oblique approach to telling stories and their films unfold in a series of loosely connected episodes. Watching Weerasethakul’s narrative films is a little bit like watching one of Malick’s films stripped of its guiding voice-over narration.
In Mysterious Object at Noon Weerasethakul travels around collecting stories from people living in Thailand. From these he creates his own, imagined scenarios. Although it is markedly different from his narrative films, Mysterious Object at Noon introduces some of the themes and stories that recur in all of his work. In one moment of the film, a woman sees a doctor and tries to get some medication for her relatives. The medical visit becomes a motif that is repeated in each of the films (except in Tropical Malady, where it is a visit to a veterinarian). Perhaps Mysterious Object at Noon is the beginning of a key feature of Weerasethakul’s films: they unfold in episodes, one not always obviously linked to the other. In this sense these films can be understood as one collective work, where an episode from one film could conceivably take place in another film and the effect would be more or less the same.
In Blissfully Yours a young woman and her Burmese lover spend a lazy, erotic afternoon in the forest. The Burmese man has a strange malady that causes his skin to itch and flake, and like many elements of Weerasethakul’s films, it is never explained. In the forest they meet their older friend, a woman also having a tryst in the forest until her lover runs off to chase the man who stole his motor scooter. As with his other narrative films, there are long stretches with little or no dialogue, and the ambient noises of the forest create a kind of musical soundtrack that lulls us into the film.
Tropical Malady, like the other narrative films but in a perhaps more drastic way, is divided into two distinct parts. In the first, a young soldier on forest patrol becomes attracted to a young man living in the country. Although the two become very close, the young man avoids the soldier’s romantic advances. Tropical Malady is more experimental than Blissfully Yours. In this first part Weerasethakul plays with the relationship between sounds (ambient noise and dialogue) and images. Weerasethakul rarely uses a score in the traditional sense, although there is a recurring song that figures inTropical Malady. The ambient sounds – street noises, dialogue from off-screen people, traffic, sounds from the forest – often overwhelm the dialogue, and the lines spoken seem like nothing more than mumbles. Weerasethakul fixes his camera attentively on his subjects without directing and guiding our attention the way Hollywood cinema typically does. For example, in one small sequence in Tropical Malady, a man and a woman subtly glance at each other on a bus. Weerasethakul uses alternating medium close-ups, a thoroughly classical pattern established by Hollywood, but the effect is unlike anything from Hollywood because our attention is diffused by the traffic sounds and the images behind the characters that we see through the windows of the bus.
The second part of Tropical Malady only loosely relates to the first. A soldier who may or may not be the soldier from the first part hunts a legendary beast in the forest that can take the form of humans. Using title inserts, Weerasethakul gives us the mythical context. For nearly 50 minutes, not a word is spoken. Each frame is filled with beautiful, lush foliage, and the constant noises of the forest make up a sonic landscape that creates a dream-like atmosphere. Sometimes Weerasethakul uses a shallow focus, so that the subject in the foreground is clear while the background becomes a painterly blend of the colors and shapes of the jungle. Other times each minute detail is in sharp focus, while still other times there are extreme long-shots of the mountains and surrounding forests. Each frame becomes a carefully and beautifully captured photograph brought to life.
Syndromes and a Century takes the medical theme introduced in Mysterious Object at Noon to the extreme. The first part is set in a country-side hospital where a romance occurs between doctors. The second part features versions of the sames characters, only this time the setting is a modern hospital in the city. A great deal of the sequences are some kind of medical consultation, and Weerasethakul films these in long fixed takes with few cuts. There are far more indoor sequences in Syndromes and a Century than in the other films, but these are just as visually compelling as the nature imagery. By carefully framing his characters in doorways, windows, and other geometric shapes, while also paying attention to the colors of their costumes and the objects in the rooms, Weerasethakul creates dynamic compositions. Often, the foliage in the background seen through a window or a door creates a hazy, colorful backdrop to the action. In Syndromes and a Century, Weerasethakul continues his experimentation with sound and image. This time, dialogue is very clearly recorded, even if the characters are off-screen. For instance, in the opening sequence, some doctors walk down a corridor while the camera fixes on an image of the landscape behind the hospital, and even though the characters are off-screen and we can’t identify them by their voices, we still hear each word. In addition, a new sound element is introduced in Syndromes and a Century. As with all the films, there is very little music properly speaking, but this time Weerasethakul uses non-diegetic (that is, not from the story world) sounds and textures to create an ambient soundtrack. These sounds mesh beautifully with slow, graceful tracking shots of a modern Thai city and of the sterile hallways of the hospital.
The story elements of Syndromes and a Century, as with all of Weerasethakul’s films, are only obliquely developed. A story of unrequited love is suggested by a few conversations, but is never resolved or even clarified. A friendship with homosexual undertones between a dentist and a monk is alluded to as well. In the end, the narrative is almost insignificant, and it is more about the state Weerasethakul’s images and sounds incite in the viewer. His films resist easy readability and conventional plot structures, and they engage a spectatorial response that I’ve never quite felt before with any other film. Clearly, they continue to gain critical attention; in addition to the many prizes won at major film festivals, all of Weerasethakul’s narrative features were ranked as some of the best films of the past decade by the journal Film Comment –Syndromes and a Century was ranked #4. Weerasethakul is someone to watch for and to study closely, as his films have undoubtedly already earned their place in film history.