Imagine that every time you went to the movies you had a chance to see your favorite short film, right after the upcoming attractions trailers and before the start of the feature film. For some of us that short film might be Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s The Anthem (2006). It’s not a new idea, of course. Many cinemas around the world screen bumpers, often animated, providing audiences with moviegoing etiquette guidance. In Thailand, it is the royal anthem “Sansoen Phra Barami” that has been performed prior to essentially all commercial cinema screenings since the beginning of the 20th century, when “an image of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) would be projected onto the screen via a magic lantern slide, while a band played the song.”1 While this song is no longer the national anthem (another tune composed by Phra Chenduriyang took its place after the constitutional monarchy was achieved in 1932) it continues to be played in the Kingdom’s cinemas. By the 1990s, consolidated exhibition chains would each strike their own 35mm prints showing images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej performing some of his royal duties as the anthem swelled. Since his 70-year-reign ended with his 2016 death, new (presumably digital) “anthem movies” featuring his successor King Maha Vajiralongkorn have premiered. Tradition prescribes that attendees rise to their feet when the royal anthem plays, an act of collective cinematic participation that may feel alien to a visitor to Thailand who is used to more passive engagement in their moviegoing.
Weerasethakul has stated “it is unacceptable to do anything that might tarnish the image of the King – that is out of the question – and there is already a law to punish people who behave thus.”2 At the time he made The Anthem, it was also a punishable offense to remain seated through these “anthem movies,”3 though rebellious teenagers and pro-democracy activists sometimes took the risk anyway. If Weerasethakul’s sympathies lay with some of these activists (or the teenagers), in devising his “alternate” anthem he effected a more oblique critique of this cinematic tradition. Exchanging relatively static imagery and a stately-paced soundtrack for energetic visual activity and an irresistibly jazzy pop instrumental, he creates a film that would be almost impossible to stand (or sit) solemnly for while watching. Dancing in place, or at least tapping your toes, would be more likely.
Weerasethakul is not the first to come up with an alternate anthem4 but this is surely the liveliest. We hear this two-and-a-half minute song twice; first emitted relatively quietly from a small CD player as three middle-aged women gather by one of the canals that inspired Bangkok’s nickname “Venice of the East” and discuss recent floodings, relationship troubles, and sour mangoes. One woman says it’s “the latest song by James”5, claiming she had the disc blessed by a monk and intends to play it at the small theatre she works at, though her companion has another idea. In the second iteration, the music becomes the entirety of the soundtrack and the image has cut to the interior of a large gymnasium, bursting with human motion captured in one extended camera movement swirling around the space. In conversation with Gridthiya Gaweewong, Weerasethakul reveals that The Anthem, like some of his earlier works, is “about how many things exist within the same locales…a large canvas with several layers”.6
The Anthem was intended to be shown in cinemas, but Weerasethakul has made other work that invites viewers to stand as they are able; an installation work like Phantoms of Nabua (2009) is best presented in a gallery space where the spectator is at approximately the level of the screen.7 For his installation Morakot (Emerald, 2007), a lantern hangs from the ceiling of a room, casting a green circle of light onto the gallery floor while its cord bisects the video image behind it. On the screen, we are shown the bedfeather-strewn rooms of a dilapidated hotel shortly before its destruction (the site now hosts the Metropole Bangkok), and we hear three voices recount their dreams; these are the voices of three actors prominently featured in several of Weerasethakul’s other films and videos: Sakda Kaewbuadee, from Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010) and many other works, Nitipong Thinthupthai (seen in Mobile Men, 2008) & Jenjira Pongpas, who appears in Sud Sanaeha (Blissfully Yours, 2002), The Anthem, and Sang Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century, 2006) under this name, and in the diaristic short Cactus River (2012) using her new name Nach Widner. Weerasethakul has situated the Morakot Hotel as a place of refuge during a time of hardship, specifically the period during the 1980s when Cambodian refugees fled into Thailand to escape the turmoil of their homeland.8 Since showing as an installation work in galleries around the globe, Emerald has been adapted as a single-channel video for cinema presentations.
Though Weerasethakul’s use of non-professional actors, found locations and long takes have aligned him with realist traditions, he’s very interested in showing us how cinema can be used to construct new worlds out of familiar elements. His works frequently illuminate how sound and image, once completely separate disciplines of cinematic history, are still only joined by a technological illusion. The Thai film industry was into the 1970s largely made up of 16mm prints produced without soundtracks, distributed to different regions of the country where musicians and vocal artists, not unlike the benshi of Japan up until the 1930s, performed dialogue in the local dialect. Upon the standardisation of 35mm distribution with locked dialogue tracks, the most skilled of these performers found work dubbing American and Hong Kong films for Thai release. If perhaps the disembodied dialogue of Emerald hearkens back to this tradition, other Weerasethakul works recall the silently-shot 16mm avant-garde films he was first exposed to as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. La Punta (2013) appears to conceptually tie to a film like Bruce Baillie’s All My Life (1966), which paired a single pan-and-tilt along and above a flowering fence in Caspar, California to a song recorded by Ella Fitzgerald in New York City three decades prior.
Commissioned to be part of an omnibus created for the Venice International Film Festival, La Punta marries a minute and a half of footage of driving (a common Weerasethakul motif) on a tree-lined rural road, through a rainstorm providing a layer of gentle abstraction to the image as water washes down the windshield. The soundtrack, however, was clearly recorded in a coastal area. From the title of the piece and the muffled but audible Spanish being spoken, we might guess in the Lima, Peru district that Weerasethakul visited in June of 20139 while in town for another film festival.
As a world-class auteur, Weerasethakul is frequently asked to contribute short videos to omnibuses produced by film festivals and other institutions; M Hotel (2011) was commissioned for the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society’s Quattro Hong Kong 2 (2011) and Footprints (2014) was created for a broadcast tied to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Venezia 70 – Future Reloaded (2013) asked no fewer than 70 contributing directors to imagine the future of cinema in one to two minutes, and a great many of the resulting shorts looked to cinema’s past at least as much as to what might come. If La Punta’s images come from Thailand and its sound from South America, then Weerasethakul seems to be imagining cinema as a reflection of a world that seems more easily bridged; perhaps he was even looking ahead to his newest, as-yet-unveiled first feature film shot outside the land of his birth: Memoria, said to be filmed entirely in Peru’s northern neighbour Colombia.
- Philip Jablon, Thailand’s Movie Theaters: Relics, Ruins and the Romance of Escape (Bangkok: River Books Co. Ltd., 2019), p. 14 ↩
- James Quandt, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Vienna: Austrian Film Museum, 2009), p. 179 ↩
- The offense was repealed in 2010. Khaosod English, “A Couple ‘Splashed With Water’ For Sitting Through Royal Anthem,” Khaosod English, 10 September, 2020 ↩
- “On occasions it was reported that Chinese cinemas surreptitiously showed the image of Dr. Sun Yat Sen and played the Chinese national anthem, which resulted in the police issuing warnings and prohibition orders.” Dome Sukwong & Sawasdi Suwannapak, translation by David Smyth, A Century of Thai Cinema (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2001), p. 110 ↩
- Presumably referring to Thai pop star Ruangsak Loychusak, although the music is credited to Chaibovon Seelukwa on the 2017 Sub Rosa CD & double-LP release Metaphors: Selected Soundworks From The Cinema Of Apichatpong Weerasethakul ↩
- He cites Mae Ya Nang (Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves, 1996), Dogfahr Nai Meu Marn (Mysterious Object at Noon, 2000) and Sud Pralad (Tropical Malady, 2004) as sharing this theme. Apichatpong Weerasetkaul, Apichatpong Weerasethakul Sourcebook: The Serenity of Madness (New York: Independent Curators International, 2016), p. 55 ↩
- “The boys appear life-sized and are presented on the same plane as the viewer, and this illusion invites us to become part of their realm.” Kerry Laitala, “Collection Rotation: Kerry Laitala,” SFMOMA Open Space, 20 February 2013 ↩
- It may be worth noting that the Morakot Hotel in a slightly later period was the last place where exiled Burmese politician U Hla Pe was seen alive, before being found shot through the head in a Bangkok suburb in June 1993. Human Rights Watch, “III. Thai-Burma Relations,” Human Rights Watch, Vol. 10, No. 6, September 1998 ↩
- “Meses después, algunos amigos caminamos despacio frente al brumoso mar de La Punta. Charlamos sobre el cielo, los amores, nuestros padres, la infancia. Apichatpong Weerasethakul camina con nosotros y es quien más se sorprende al oír ciertas historias.” Fernando Vílchez, “Balance 2013, según Fernando Vílchez,” cinencuentro.com, 1 January, 2014 ↩