“I like reading interpretations of my films”, says Apichatpong Weerasethakul. “In Thailand there is mostly film description but not criticism, so I find it refreshing to read what others think my films mean” (p. 131). It’s a convenient disposition, considering the verbiage that has amassed around the Thai filmmaker and video artist’s extraordinary output over the last decade: five features and more than two dozen short films, videos, and installations. His intimate, unhurried, and formally audacious cinema has beguiled audiences the world over and stirred controversy in his homeland. Yet no matter where critics try to place him, he inevitably slips away into a category of his own.
How do we describe what we do not understand? Indeed, where do we place it? Ever since his aptly named feature debut in 2000, Dokfa nai meuman (Mysterious Object at Noon), much of the critical response to Apichatpong has consisted of far-out analogies – “as if Charles Burchfield and Henri Rousseau were adapting a screenplay by the Thai reincarnation of Ovid” (1) – or awestruck vaguery: “elegant, puzzling, humorous” (2); “defiantly other-worldly” (3). Of Mysterious Object, Jonathan Rosenbaum confessed, “I forgot many details, simply because I didn’t have an analytical context in which to place it” (p. 212).
Critic and Cinematheque Ontario senior programmer James Quandt has given a great deal of thought to Apichatpong’s “syndrome” — the challenge of locating his work aesthetically and culturally, and more, what might be at stake in this process. He is not quite ready to accept our shortcomings. “Time and again”, he laments in his introductory remarks to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the first English-language monograph to be published on the filmmaker, “critics insist that Apichatpong’s films are anything but — rather, they’re poems, paintings, dreams, mirages — with little structure or narrative, a floating, ethereal inundation of exotic signs, unmoored in decipherable meaning” (p. 14). Thankfully, the characteristically circumspect Quandt is less interested in passing judgement than investigating it; he explains that his critique originates from an assessment of his own early writing on Apichatpong. Right away we are made to understand that this book bears the intriguing aspect of a personal project.
A steady stream of awards, commissions, and not an insignificant amount of controversy have followed Apichatpong since Mysterious Object, and both dedicated fans and curious observers will benefit from Quandt’s guidance through the complex and fascinating territory of his creative process, work, and public reception. Quandt’s expertise in Asian film and ardent viewership equip him well for such an undertaking, while his candour and relentless curiosity make for a stimulating and pleasurable read. The bulk of the book consists of his own substantial writings, covering each of Apichatpong’s features, as well as two interviews. Interwoven are contributions by critics, curators, academics, and the filmmaker himself. To the credit of Quandt, whose thoughtful arrangement allows each text to read as a minor revelation, this is a volume best read cover to cover.
For those with less patience — though I would anticipate few among enthusiasts of Apichatpong’s long-take cinema — the book is worthwhile for the filmmaker’s contributions alone. “Ghosts in the Darkness”, a memoir of his childhood in the northern town of Khon Kaen, appears in translation for the first time, and is an evocative discussion of his love of cinema and the popular movies of his youth. In “The Memory of Nabua”, Apichatpong describes his most recent project at the time of printing, called Primitive. Commissioned by three European arts organisations, the ambitious undertaking consists of two short films and seven installation videos contemplating a Thai village and its hidden history of communist resistance (4). In both essays, Apichatpong’s writing is consistently visual, contemplative, and generously illuminating of his process.
This gentle voice is in stark contrast to the barely contained rage of “The Folly and Future of Thai Cinema Under Military Dictatorship”, Apichatpong’s open letter to the Thai public and cinephiles worldwide. First published on the Thai Film Foundation website in 2007 (5), on the eve of a legislative vote on a new act that would institute a de-facto ban policy on moving image work in Thailand (6), the essay goes a long way in explaining Apichatpong’s cultural significance outside the rarefied international cinema circuit; at home, his unconventional films, political outspokenness and homosexuality make him a highly controversial figure. He appeals to both reason and national pride in a defence of open society and cinema as public art, lambasting the hypocrisy of the Thai establishment. The text should be required reading for anyone doubting the continued significance of the film medium worldwide.
Apichatpong may not have been auditioning for the role of defender of free speech in his socially conservative, politically unstable home, but it landed in his lap in 2006 when his feature Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century, 2006) was censored by Thai authorities. That the content the censorship board took issue with would appear tame and even banal to most viewers further illustrates the profound gap between context and interpretation that has been so disconcerting to critics (7). Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lasting contribution may be its efforts to bridge this; Thai critic Kong Rithdee and eminent theoretician and historian Benedict Anderson offer striking insights into what is perhaps best characterised as a culture war in Apichatpong’s homeland. In his essay “Cinema of Reincarnations”, Rithdee’s exasperation is as telling as his critical insight:
in this day and age it is still important, though it can also be a symptom of small-mindedness, to classify cinema, or any art, by clinging to the creator’s nationality. It’s weirder when we have to do this to convince our own compatriots. (p. 121)
The accessibility — both literal and figurative — of Apichatpong’s work lies at the centre of this conflict: who is allowed to see it, and who understands it? In an astounding, tour-de-force dissection of the complex Thai social order, ethnic tension, and political and religious power structures, Anderson offers an eye-opening assessment of what is truly at stake in this cultural discourse. A central figure in the establishment of modern Southeast Asian studies, Anderson has published extensively in the academic realm; recently, his personal interest in cinema has drawn him to the work of Apichatpong, who has in turn been strongly influenced by his thinking.
Both authoritative and necessarily open-ended, Apichatpong Weerasethakul lacks only an index — evidently a recurring problem with the otherwise standout Austrian Filmmuseum/Synema series of which the volume is a part. A biography, selected bibliography, and detailed filmography, including stills, artist statements and reviews, round out this thoughtful, rigorous, and mostly unpretentious (the unfortunate exception a painfully self-involved exchange between Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton) volume. Texts by Tony Rayns and Karen Newman offer insight into Apichatpong’s early films and short video work. But my favourite reading of Quandt’s project is as a case study, both of the problems of film criticism and the predicament of national cinema. Readers interested in either subject would be well served by perusing this book.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, edited by James Quandt, FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen vol. 12, Vienna, 2009.
- Nathan Lee, “Jungle Bliss”, New York Sun, 28 June 2005.
- Philip French, “Syndromes and a Century” review, The Guardian, 23 September 2007.
- Roger Clarke, “Tropical Malady” review, Sight and Sound, March 2005.
- A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009), currently screening at festivals and winner of two prizes at the 55th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, is a part of this series.
- See Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “The folly and future of Thai cinema under military dictatorship”, Thai Film Foundation website, 8 November 2007.
- The Film and Video Act has since been passed; censorship powers now lie with the Ministry of Culture, which has imposed a confusing new rating system. The new policy was tested for the first time in October last year, when Thunska Pansittivorakul’s This Area is Under Quarantine (2009) was banned from the World Film Festival of Bangkok. For further information, see Wise Kwai, “Thunska’s Quarantine is banned”, Thai Film Journal, 30 October 2009.
- Kong Rithdee, “Thai film director cancels film’s local release”, Bangkok Post, 11 April, 2007, republished on the Thai Film Foundation website.