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Surreally Yours: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cinematic Journey

By Kathie Smith

Surrealism was born in the intellectual alcoves of a post–World War I Paris with heavy intonations of theory and revolution, but also with an irreverent sense of play. As André Breton, one of the founders of Surrealism, described it: “Absolute non-conformism and universal disrespect was the rule, and great good humour reigned. It was a time for pleasure and nothing else.” An appetite for the absurd combined with a desire of “pure psychic automatism,” as Surrealism was defined in their manifesto, stimulated the creative salvos of this group of active artists and thinkers.

As part of their pleasure mongering, the Surrealists adopted a written game—a sort of Mad Libs of the day—they called the Exquisite Corpse. Played by several people, the game starts with a phrase on a piece of paper, folded to reveal only part of the text, and passed on to the next person to continue. Here’s a colorful example of one of the results of their free-associations: “Caraco is a beautiful whore: lazy as a dormouse and glass-gloved for doing nothing, she strings pearls with the turkeys of the farce.” Breton, along with his friends Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, and others, applied this principle to drawing, creating works that were often figurative but also disjointed, abstract, and sometimes out-and-out strange.

As a student, Apichatpong Weerasethakul saw some of these drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago and used them as a source of inspiration when he returned to his native Thailand to make his first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000). A knapsack of ideas assembled into a rambling road portrait, the film riffs off the Surrealists’ ideas of subconscious revelations and artistic revolution. He traveled from the north of Thailand to the south, asking people to construct a story by way of Exquisite Corpse. From person to person, Mysterious Object erects something close to a modern folk fable, as each storyteller continues where the last one left off. But the sporadic and fantastical collaborative yarn is only half the story in Weerasethakul’s documentary-fictional hybrid—the heart of the film is found in its languorous observations that meander under the pretext of storytelling, and the individual personalities that supplement the subtle, organic shifts.

On the festival circuit, many were quick to observe the unique qualities of this debut feature that clearly tinkered and challenged traditional narrative structure. Not unlike the Surrealists, Weerasethakul ignored the definition of subservient film form and freely opened up his project to accidental experiments. After debuting at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Mysterious Object at Noon went on to earn awards at festivals in Vancouver; Jeonju, South Korea; and Yamagata City, Japan. Falling in line with other innovative film presenters around the world, the Walker included Mysterious Object at Noon in 2001’s New Asian Currents program, which was copresented with the 19th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

Twelve years later and with a Palme d’Or feather in the director’s cap, it’s easy, and almost compulsory, to overstate the enthusiasm surrounding Weerasethakul’s early career in retrospect. His follow up, Blissfully Yours (2002), was an even more subdued film of nonaction, consumed with the earthly pleasures and muted struggles of a picnic by a river. Mysterious Object and Blissfully Yours were whispers in the white noise of early 21th-century cinema dominated by the likes of The Lord of the Rings in the mainstream and Amélie in the arthouse. Watching a trio of individuals relax in the textured, sun-dappled jungle, so brilliantly portrayed in Blissfully Yours, was not making headlines beyond the enthusiasts. But that narrow niche was powerful enough to bring the filmmaker to the Walker for a Regis Dialogue and Retrospective in 2004, an early celebration of a daring artist working in inventive, bold strokes that cinephiles now so readily embrace.

If one were to define a turning point from festival novelty to indie superstar for Weerasethakul, the spotlight could be cast directly on Tropical Malady (2004), included the 2004 Regis program. Malady was not only the first Thai film to be selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival, but also a critical triumph, able to take even the most weatherworn filmgoer’s breath away. As far as narrative films go, Tropical Malady is a work in which the baby confidently goes out with the bath water, creating a love story that even the Surrealists would have marveled at. Divided into an ambiguously structure diptych, it chronicles a tale of love before literally diving into the jungle, where the darker aspects of vulnerability are symbolically explored. The latter half of the film is cloaked in the mystery of a hunter being hunted, but by who or what is not altogether clear. Woven in are the subtle poetics that Weerasethakul is now known for, including one of the most beautiful and mysterious sequences set to film as its centerpiece: the charmed romance segues via motorcycle ride into the dark of night, accompanied by infectious pop music.

A very long list of awards, projects, exhibitions, honors, and appointments pepper the timeline since Tropical Malady and surround the making of his next two features, Syndromes and a Century (2006) and the Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). And Weerasethakul is not slowing down yet, as is readily apparent from his 2012 planner so far: an exhibition of Primitive at the Jim Thompson Art Center in Bangkok; another exhibition of For Tomorrow For Tonight at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing; co-curating, along with Tilda Swinton, the first edition of Films on the Rocks Yao Noi in Thailand; the debut of his newest feature Mekong Hotel at the 65th Cannes Film Festival; the online premiere of his short, dreamlike home movie Ashes, shot on a new LomoKino camera, for Mubi; serving as jury president at the 66th Locarno International Film Festival, where he also screened a new short film titled Sakda; and a collaborative installation with Chaisiri Jiwarangsan for dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Germany. And in October, the Walker Channel will begin a six-month exclusive online screening of his new short, Cactus River, which was commissioned by the Walker.

It seems unusual for a filmmaker to follow up a cinematic coup d’état such as Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or win for Uncle Boonmee with a smattering of small, artistically stimulating projects and a short, abstract feature like Mekong Hotel, but that’s exactly what he did. The result, a cache of personal yet experimental gems, feels far weightier than a market-driven feature that might come from another director. In a recent interview with Marc Menichini for Criticwire, Weerasethakul explained that he is savoring the freedom to shoot what he wants when he wants: “I feel like the filmmakers of the ’60s or ’70s who could just walk out their front door and start filming with their Super 8 or Bolex. And I think my filmmaking is getting closer and closer to how I live and to the people I’m associated with. The entire creative process is becoming more candid and more relaxed, in a way.”

If you go back to the conversation between the the artist and Chuck Stephens at the Walker’s 2004 Regis, Weerasethakul explained his experimental film tendencies even before heading to school in Chicago, finding satisfaction in simply filming the flame of a fire. Art school fostered this inclination, but when he returned to Thailand he realized, as he put it: “Structuralist film is not for Thailand.” That may be true, but with this eye toward his homeland audience, Weerasethakul has delicately tried to take what he found inspiring—not only in the structural films of the avant-garde but also the methods of the Surrealists—and meld it with a personal point of departure that involved his childhood fondness of Steven Spielberg as much as his nostalgia for growing up in the small town of Khon Kaen.

Exploratory in nature, his films built a bridge for a new, yet to be clearly defined genre that blurs the cinematic rules of dramatic pacing and narrative arch, gone gleefully topsy-turvy in the short but mesmerizing Mekong Hotel (his newest film assembled from an abandoned project called Ecstasy Garden). The path Weerasethakul is forging feels very much like uncharted territory. The undercurrent of influence can certainly be felt at film festivals worldwide, but the more important reverberations can also be seen in up-and-coming Thai filmmakers carrying new totems of experimental compassion, such as Sivaroj Kongsakul and his gentle film Eternity, and Anocha Suwichakompong with the extraordinary debut Mundane History.

So what’s next for Weerasethakul? While in Lorcano, he talked about his next project that will explore the dreams and memories of people afflicted with sleeping sickness and investigate the world’s greatest movie theater: the mind. “One day a monk asked me what I did as a job,” he told Criticwire. “I said I made movies, and the monk replied this was pointless since everything is in our mind. I agree: our mind is a projector.” For many of us, enlightenment is not in the cards; thankfully, we’ll have the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Photo: Chaisiri Jiwarangsan

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Mysterious Object at Noon, 2000

Courtesy Kick the Machine

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Blissfully Yours, 2002

Courtesy Kick the Machine

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tropical Malady, 2004

Courtesy Kick the Machine

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Syndromes and a Century, 2006

Courtesy Kick the Machine

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010

Courtesy Kick the Machine

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010

Courtesy Kick the Machine

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Mekong Hotel, 2012

Photo: ©Strand Releasing

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Mekong Hotel, 2012

Photo: ©Strand Releasing