Living Memory: James Quandt on Apichatpong Weerasethakul

By Quandt, James | Artforum International, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Living Memory: James Quandt on Apichatpong Weerasethakul


Quandt, James, Artforum International


WE HAVE SEEN THEM BEFORE: the austere bedroom whose windows frame a vastness of grass and swaying forest; lozenges of light mysteriously shimmering in nighttime jungle; the young monk tired of isolation, yearning for human contact and popular diversion; an old woman weeping in bitter loneliness by a river; the sacred cave where souls are reborn; a Buddhist funeral bier gaudily lit like a Coney Island ride to the great beyond. The work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has always been one of recurrence and reincarnation--of characters, images, and settings, returning both within and between films, transmogrified but recognizable as their former selves. A conscious summa of his cinema until now, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (which opens at Film Forum in New York on March 2) serves as precis for Apichatpong initiates and as primer for his novices. The former will recognize his favorite actors and tropes, his motifs of illness and unwanted solitude, his seamless, spectral shifting between the actual and the otherworldly. Neophytes, drawn perhaps by the film's surprise win of the Palme d'Or last year at Cannes, may be confounded by the work's narrative detours and abrupt alterations of tone, and by the ordinariness of the extraordinary: a soul migrating from a water buffalo that escapes its tether (in the pre-credit sequence) into the body of a dying man and thence, possibly, into a pebble-faced princess, whose story suddenly hijacks the otherwise relatively linear narrative; or a long-lost son returning home as a furred "monkey ghost," his eyes glowing ember-red in his Wookiee-like head. ("Why did you grow your hair so long?" his aunt inquires of his hirsute self.) So serene and unblinking is Apichatpong's treatment of the supernatural that the viewer may identify with the nonplussed Laotian worker Jaai, who declares early in the film, "I feel like the strange one here."

With Boonmee, an account of the last days of a farmer expiring from kidney failure, Apichatpong once again draws on his autobiography with its somatic concerns and rural locale; his father, a doctor, died of a similar malady, and the film is set in Isan, the poor northeastern region of Thailand where the director grew up. (The gentle ministrations of Jaai, who methodically tends to Boonmee's dialysis in long, fixed shots, bespeak the director's intimate knowledge of the apparatus.) Forgoing the diptych structure that became a trademark (and eventually a burden) of Apichatpong's previous features, which start over, sometimes precisely at midpoint (as in Syndromes and a Century [2006]), Uncle Boonmee also differs from his earlier cinema in its explicit broaching of Thailand's political history. Boonmee claims that his illness is karmic payback for his role in killing Communists during the government's brutal suppression of agrarian protests, a point both emphasized and somewhat dodged by a director whose films have hitherto been mostly politically oblique. Boonmee killed with good intentions, insists Jen, his sister-in-law whose father also eliminated agitators. "You killed the Commies for the nation, right?" she asks, the question left hanging in the unsettled air.

Viewers unaware that Uncle Boonmee is part of a multiplatform project called Primitive, a series of films and installations that address the legacy of the Communist suppression in Isan from the mid-1960s into the '80s, will no doubt be baffled by the unexplained interpolation, considerably later in the film, of a montage of still photographs of young men in army dress. A vestige of an earlier version of Uncle Boonmee, the montage not only recalls similar moments (influenced by Chris Marker's classic La Jetee [1962]) such as the flurry of stills of Cholburi in Syndromes and a Century, but also briefly conjures its own ghost and literally serves as memento. The military-garbed youths, who gather around someone in a gorilla suit for a portrait reminiscent of the soldiers-and-corpse group shot at the outset of Tropical Malady (2004), represent Isan locals whose parents or grandparents were persecuted or murdered during the purge. …

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