Now Playing: Apichatpong Weerasethakul retrospective
A few days ago, before Apichatpong Weerasethakul (henceforth referred to by his nickname "Joe") hit Columbus, Wexner associate curator Dave Fillipi plugged his upcoming retro by saying "nobody is making films like this right now." At the time, this sounded like a ringing endorsement, but with the benefit of hindsight it was also a warning- abandon your expectations and be prepared for the possibility that you wouldn't be down with his work. Personally, I loved all three of his features, but judging by the grumbling audience members following Friday's first film, BLISSFULLY YOURS, this was hardly the concensus.
Joe's work isn't about creating a conventional narrative, or even much of a narrative at all. The closest he gets to a story-driven work is his debut feature, MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON (2000). And even then, the film isn't about its plot but rather about the on-the-spot creation of a story. Near the beginning, after hearing the sad tale of a woman's abandonment by her father, Joe encourages her to tell another story- "it can be real or fiction." She begins the tale, and then the filmmakers travel to another town, where an old woman is asked to continue formulating the story, and so on. At various points during the film we see the story re-created- staged as a conventional filmic scene, performed by a theatrical group, even recounted by a girl using sign language. As much as the film is a study of different styles of storytelling (each person brings a different perspective to the story) it's also a peek into Joe's style of collaboration, in which he seeks the input of others rather than sticking to his own vision (that he prefers the credit "conceived by" to "directed by" is telling).
Joe's two most recent films, BLISSFULLY YOURS (2002) and TROPICAL MALADY (2004), are even less steeped in narrative. Both films are essentially mood pieces, and both films focus on characters who move from a more modern urban setting into the jungle. The significance of this move, however, is different for both works. In BLISSFULLY YOURS we see an oblique love triangle containing Burmese immigrant Min, his young girlfriend Roong, and an older woman named Orn, whose interest in both of them is something of a mystery. In town, they have to concern themselves with mundane issues- money, work, and above all time. But when Min and Roong take a trip into the jungle (with Orn arriving on the scene later), these become non-issues. Time slows to a standstill, creating a kind of idyllic existence for the characters, and the future is the last thing on anyone's mind, least of all the audience's. Joe films the jungle as a modern-day Eden, with lush green vegetation and a clear, cool stream, and the fact that Orn's husband disappears and she has to walk through industrial waste to arrive at this paradise only underlines how special it's meant to be.
By contrast, the jungle of TROPICAL MALADY symbolizes man's deep animal instincts, which he invariably seeks to transcend. In the film's early scenes, we see two young men- a soldier and a country boy- who have a somewhat tentative relationship. They care about each other and enjoy each other's company, but they're somewhat hesitant in a physical sense. In the film's transcendent second half, the country boy disappears, and the soldier is transferred to a jungle outpost to stalk a tiger that has been slaughtering livestock. This extended sequence centers around a legend of a former shaman who could metamorphose into a tiger, and the soldier finds that the bloodthirsty animal is none other than his former lover, who has lost the ability to keep his animalistic nature in check. At one point the soldier is told that he has two options: kill him and release his spirit, or be devoured and become one with him. The film never tells us which option comes true, opting instead for an ending that emphasizes the cyclical nature of this struggle.
The strange thing about Joe's work is that it's impossible to peg what makes it unique. I've summarized some of the film's main points, but that's hardly the same thing as sharing insight into them. Detours both artful (the sketches interspersed throughout BLISSFULLY YOURS) and comedic ("The Dolphin Who Wanted to Die") aside, I believe ultimately that Joe's work creates a uniquely filmic experience that resists being reduced to descriptions, and evokes emotions for which a precise word doesn't exist. Doesn't make what I felt while watching them any less real though.
MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON: ***.
BLISSFULLY YOURS: ***1/2.
TROPICAL MALADY: ***1/2.