Tag Archives: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

“Syndromes and a Century”

I have only seen seven or eight Thai movies. The four that I like least have all been made by writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the only Thai film-maker to garner international art-house attention. Like Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and to a degree Hong Kong director Wong Kar-War). I suspect masochism as at least part of the explanation for the favor he has found with critics.

Mysterious Object at Noon”  (Dokfa nai meuman, 2000) is very opaque; I’m not sure anything happens in it. “Tropical Malady (Sud pralad, 2004) is mystifying: something happens in each of its two halves, but I’m not sure what. “Syndromes and a Century” (Sang sattawat, 2006) makes some sense. There are some menacing shots of movement through the forest and clouds massing in “Blissfully Yours,” but I’m quite sure that little happens (except for some sex). Little happens at a very leisurely pace — a pace that makes snails seem like speed demons.

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The prolonged opening scene of a medical consultation with a female Western-medicine physcian looks ahead to “Syndrome,” which focuses on the director’s physician parents. Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) and Orn (Jenjira Jansuda) have brought Min (Min Oo) in. He is suffering from a rash. The two women answer the doctor’s questions to him. The younger (Roong) explains that they ran out of the lotion the docor prescribed and show the one she has been rubbing into his irritated skin, which the doctor says has exacerbated the problem.

After Roong leaves to go to work, the older woman (Orn) wheedles for a health certificate for Min. The doctor refuses to provide one — not because Min is too sick to be certified, but because she cannot issue one without some official identification.

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Plot spoiler alert (even though there is practically no plot!

Later, the viewer realizes that Min is not a native speaker of Thai. Although the movie is shot in Weerasethakul’s native northeast (Khon Kaen, in Issan) (and indeed the medical office in the first part is one of his parent’s), Min is an ethnic Karen from Burma (which is west of Thailand). Roong is teaching him to read and write Thai and I cannot tell if he has an accent that would give away his alienness. Roong is paying Orn to get papers for Min, but Min is fired from his job some time around the rolling of the opening credits (nearly 45 minutes into the movie).

Roong drives and drives and drives some more. Some of the time, she rubs lotion into Min’s arm and her own. After what seems an interminable drive, the car moves from paved to unpaved road (but seemingly at the same speed). The lovers set out for their picnic. Min removes his shirt and pants — though I would think that his skin condition would not be helped by contact with leaves and branches in the forest.

Somewhat surprisingly, he knows the way to a scenic overlook. The picnic spread is invaded by red ants. One (only one!) bites Roong.

Cut to a brown male rear humping (and humping and humping — nothing occurs quickly in this movie!). Finally the male finishes and it turns out not to be Min and Roong, but Orn and some never named man. Seemingly this man’s motorcycle is then stolen and instead of walking back on the road, Orn thrashes through the brush.

She spots a surgical mask on the ground. Personally, I would not pick one up if I saw one on the forest floor. And I most certainly would not put it on as she does!

Movie logic is not entirely abandoned, and instead of getting hopelessly lost (or dying from toxins rubbed on the surgical mask or ye olde jungle rot), she finds Min and Roong on a rock at the edge of a shallow river. Roong has just finished fellating Min (at least I think so: it is shot from behind Min and the only sound is flowing water). The fully dressed Roong coaxes the fully dressed Orn into the stream. They cavort and then hold up Min, while rubbing lotion onto his chest (the container is balanced on his belly).syndromes-and-a-century2.jpg

Eventually, they get out of the water. Roong wrings out her wet clothes and places them (in the shade…) to dry and puts on Min’s pants. Orn throws all the picnic good and containers in the stream an lies, steals a cigarette (and money?) and lies on the picnic cloth.

Roong extracts Min’s erect penis from his boxer shorts and fondles it for a while. (This time there is no guesswork/interpretation necessary: it is shot in closeup of her hand and his crotch.) Surely this was censored in Thailand. (“Syndromes and a Century” was never returned from the censorship board though it has no sex and no violence in it.)

The movie ends with a prolonged shot of Min’s right nipple and open armpit and part of Roong’s head not quite touching him.

End of plot spoiler alert (if you didn’t skip it, did you find any plot?)

 

Driving through a Thai town and out through the countryside has some interest, and the substitution of remedies by the patients has some humor — and Min Oo has a very smooth penis when it is extracted and displayed. The American DVD version is sixteen minutes shorter than the Thai theatrical release. I greatly doubt that there is a story that landed on the cutting room floor, and am fairly confident that the Thai verison was even more languid.

There is no music for the thrashing through the forest scenes (or the sex scenes, for that matter). For me, there is not nearly enough there there to merit spending 109 minutes watching. The time spent with Min and the two women trying to help him was not bliss to me. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who earned an MFA at the Chicago Institute of Art) has no interest in entertaining audiences, but also provides practically nothing to stimulate thinking about the setting or situation(s) of the undeveloped characters.

It’s art? Well, it’s “artsy” in the most pejorative sense (pretentious nonsense). It is not ‘artsy” in having beautiful compositions. The compositions and characters and (mumbled) dialog are undistinguished. Occasionally, there are segments of Min’s journal superimposed on the scenes in which nothing is happening, but there is nothing of particular insight in what he writes either!

Neither of the women seem to derive any satisfaction from any of the three sex scenes, though Min also does nothing to indicate enjoyment. He blocks Roong’s first seduction and is asleep or pretending to be asleep when she extracts and hardens his penis jsut before the movie stops.

I mentioned Tsai Ming-Liang at the beginning of my review. I could riff on similarities between his languid voyeuristic portrayals of emotionally inert characters (especially, the three of “Viva l’amour”). There is always a lot of water in Tsai movies, and the last half of “Blissfully Yours” has the river in which all the named characters dip. Those who find Tsai’s films absorbing might enjoy the shots of the women here picking dead skin off Min (and the joyless sexual servicing). I didn’t.

In what is billed as an “introduction” Apichatpong Weerasethakul is engaging (but the talking head is not quite in focus). At least here, he has a story to tell: a sacred tree advising going back to Bangkok for 2 1/2 months when the rains would end.

©2008, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Opaque Thai movie

I really wanted to like “Mysterious Object at Noon,” a very low-budget, 2000 experimental , black-and-white Thai film, because I am interested in Thailand, because I have seen few (3) Thai films, and because its creator (he does not think he should be credited as “director”), Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an interesting guy. Indeed, his own story, as he tells it in what is keyed as an “interview” on the DVD, is more interesting than the story of the film. Weerasethakul, who calls himself “Joe” in English, grew up in a small town in northeastern Thailand (Issan). He wanted to be a filmmaker, but studied architecture to please his parents. Then he went to film school at the Chicago Art Institute for three years.

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He is interested in mixing fact and fiction and has made two sort of traveling-around-Thailand “documentaries” that are, he says, “about nothing.” (The other’s American title is “Blissfully Yours.”) He is a founder of the Bangkok-based Kick the Machine, an artist-run film production and distribution company focused on young experimental film-makers, and codirector of both the Bangkok Experimental and Short Film and Video film festivals.

The idea for the film came from a French surrealists’ game called “e

” in which one artist drew something on paper that was folded to make what he’d drawn invisible, and the next continued a line from the first, the third from the second, and so on. The game was also played by surrealist writers with either the last word or the last sentence of one contribution visible to the next contributor. “Object” begins with the view through the windshield of a vehicle driving through Bangkok with the radio tuned into some soap opera. Then there is a woman telling a standard rural-born Thai horror story of being sold by her father (for bus fare) to an “uncle” who prostituted her. Weerasethakul is not interested in her story and asks her to tell or make up the beginning of a story.

She starts to tell the story of a boy in a wheelchair and his lovely young tutor named Doghafr. Weerasethakul then has some nonactors play the part, alternating with the talking heads of those who continue the story. Weerasethakul is even less interested in psychological motivation and realist narrative than Jean-Luc Godard at his most audience-flouting 1980s movies, yet he is showing people telling stories and interested in stories.

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The Thai title is “Dogfahr Ni Meu Marn” (Doghafr in the Devil’s Hand). Dogfahr is the tutor, but my only guess of what the reference to the devil’s hand might be is that it is her storytellers. I am sure that Weerasethakul told the storytellers he chose (by whatever criteria of selection he used) that there was a tutor named Dogfahr and a boy paralyzed below the waist.

The “mysterious object” of the English-language title is a ball that rolls out from Doghafr’s skirt while she is fainted (or dead) on the floor. It is an extraterrestrial being that takes on the guise of first a boy then a duplicate Dogfahr. The story gets even weirder when some schoolchildren take over and add a “witch tiger” and a magic sword.

Then there are credits…followed by nearly ten minutes centering on children playing soccer by the edge of a river. Weerasethakul is so perverse that it seems possible that the ball will not go into the river. It does (sorry if that’s a plot spoiler for you! but I’ll leave open the question of whether the soccer game turns into water polo…).

Although the primary influences (Godard and surrealists) are French, some of the arbitrariness and peculiar camera setups resonate with the often maddening procedures of postmodernist Taiwanese film-makers, especially Tsai Ming-Liang, and, most especially, “The River.” In both “Object” and “Blissfully,” a woman brings her elderly father to a female physician for a consultation that includes considerable bickering between daughter and father in front of the professional… and mysterious neck and ear ailments like those of the son in “The River.”

The medical consultation is the best part of the film; it has no discernible relationship to Doghafr or the storyline. Maybe the Devil’s Hand is responsible for the neck ailment? Weerasethakul also intercuts for no particular reason, a television interview of parents of an infant who survived a plane crash, protected by amulets that were lost in the crash…

So there are bits of Thai culture (including fish sauce refills, rebuilding spirit houses, and some working elephants), but I can’t imagine anyone learning anything about Thai culture(s) from a journey which mixes swings south of Bangkok with swings north after the initial driving within the capital city. I realize that the viewer is not supposed to know where s/he is, and that the film is intended to be “about nothing,” but, alas, the film is a journey I cannot recommend, though fans of “Mulholland Drive” who don’t care about production values might feel differently. For instance, Elvis Mitchell, wrote in the New York Times that “you’re likely to be utterly enchanted by this unique dish of entertainment that may be the beginning of a new art form: Village Surrealism. Mr. Weerasethakul’s film is like a piece of chamber music slowly, deftly expanding into a full symphonic movement; to watch it is to enter a fugue state that has the music and rhythms of another culture. It’s really a movie that requires listening, reminding us that the medium did become talking pictures at one point.” (A fugue state of mind, yes, but deft?)

 

©2003, Stephen O. Murray