Essays (book reviews)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul,
edited by James Quandt
(Austrian Filmmuseum/Synema, 2009)


In the remarkably fickle world of international film festivals – Lav Diaz and Miguel Gomes are in, Bruno Dumont and Wong Kar-wai are out – Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul impresses us with his staying power: five features since 2000 (Mysterious Object at Noon, Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), each more ambitious and impressive than the last. Plus – an essential multi-tasking skill for the portfolio of the post-postmodern artist – a ceaseless stream of short-form video works and audiovisual art gallery installations.


No one who has ever met this guy named Joe (as he is happy to be known, and as the writers of this book are pleased to call him), however, would be rushing to describe him as a careerist. Softly spoken, thoughtful, with a very personal (and not especially theoretical) relation to his work, Apichatpong lives to create.


His films, which usually change course 180 degrees between conception and completion, are thoroughly organic, taking every advantage of accidents, improvisation, elements brought in by collaborators on both crew and cast; he speaks of the experience of the shoot itself (of which he gives an indelible portrait in the 2005 short Worldly Desires) as more rewarding, more alive than the finished product. Three texts by Apichatpong add significantly to the achievement of this new book in the outstanding series co-published (sometimes in English) by the Austrian Filmmuseum and Synema.


To get the measure of Apichatpong, it seems, one needs a mixture of cultural studies (for the complex and intricate Thai background), art criticism (for the restless multimedia drive), and film studies. Editor James Quandt, who provides ninety pages of text as well as an interview and (differently) an ‘exchange’ with the filmmaker, is especially strong (as a regular Artforum writer) in the second area  – he deftly applies the international Biennale-style artspeak of hybridity, shape-shifting and border-crossing to the work.


For the cultural context, Quandt wisely brings in such impressive local experts as Kong Rithdee and Benedict Anderson, the latter best known as author of the oft-cited 1983 social study Imagined Communities. And a generously lengthy Annotated Filmography brings in the voices of gifted critics from around the world, including Luis Miranda and Bert Rebhandl.


But, for all the erudition and illumination on display, Apichatpong remains – and his films offer the handy metaphors – a mysterious object, elusive beast, or ghostly spirit. As virtually every contributor to this book is painfully aware, it is all too easy to collapse into waffly, mystical mumbo-jumbo when celebrating these films and videos, taking refuge in evocations of unfathomable mystery and cryptic poetics – or opting for the predictable draw-the-circle game of ‘kindred spirits’ in contemporary world cinema: Hou, Jia, Hong, Alonso …


It is fun to read, for instance, the celebrity-cameo from Tilda Swinton (in correspondence with Mark Cousins). But this is the same old ethereal song, as she muses how her children, when older, will “need these archaeological remains of sentient – cohesive – possibilities, of post-choice harmony, these reminders of the natural order of gesture, of faith, of acceptance.” Say what?


Despite flickers of concrete discussion, I found it hard, from this book, to get a firm grasp on exactly how Apichatpong stages, frames, cuts, mixes and treats his images and sounds. Several contributors make tentative moves beyond psychobabble by drawing up lists of meaningful elements for further research and articulation, as in this beauty by Quandt (on Mysterious Object at Noon):


An inadvertent catalogue of modes of transit (track, train, car, jitney, elephant, boat, and jet plane), of Thai superstitions (protective amulets and necklaces) and uncanny beings (spirit houses, ghosts, witch tigers), of ways of storytelling (writing, talking, drawing, singing, signing, filmmaking), and types of abandonment and abuse …


At least Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a book that leaves you wanting more, and believing firmly in the inexhaustible depth of the work – an impression that would surely please the filmmaker, and which he will no doubt nurture in his future creations.


© Adrian Martin July 2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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