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.
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.
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