What does it mean to sign off a letter with the phrase blissfully yours? What would it mean to translate an afternoon of bliss into a two-hour film?
Blissfully Yours is Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s second film and was the first to bring him international critical acclaim, winning the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2002. Blissfully Yours is a naturalistic film which unfolds over a single day and is told in two parts, the first in the city and the second in the forest. It follows three characters: Min (Min Oo), a Burmese immigrant with a mysterious skin condition; Roong, his lover who works in a factory (Kanokporn Tongaram); and Orn (Jenjira Pongpas) a middle-aged woman who is being paid to help Min. The appearance of Pongpas is significant, for she will go on to collaborate with the director in almost all his subsequent films.
The film remains a singular and enigmatic work within his opus. It followed Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), a film based on the surrealist “Exquisite Corpse” exercise, in which a tale is told by non-actors each of whom adds to an unfolding story. Blissfully Yours is marked by the absence of the fantastical tropes that define Apichatpong’s more famous films, such as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives (2010). Nor does Blissfully Yours contain the overt visual references to Thai popular culture, from comic books and folk tales, to low-budget period dramas and Buddhist religious scriptures, which have characterised his oeuvre.
Instead, Apichatpong describes the film as an “emotional disaster movie” and at first this may seem odd. Where is the disaster which interrupts the idyllic summer afternoon in the forest? Perhaps a clue lies in the film’s origins. While filming an earlier project at the Bangkok Zoo the director noticed two teenage women being handcuffed and led away by the police. He later learnt that these were illegal Burmese immigrants and wondered: “Did the Burmese women enjoy the zoo as much as the other people there, before they were captured that afternoon? This question was the inspiration for Blissfully Yours – the idea of moments of happiness existing in an oppressive environment, the idea of a coexistence of lightness and darkness, of pleasure and suffering.”1 The political situation in Burma (or Myanmar) has only intensified since the making of the film notably after the seizure of power by the military earlier this year, making the screening of the film particularly significant.
The first 45 minutes of Blissfully Yours takes place in a world governed by labour, law and disappointment. The opening sequence begins in a doctor’s office where Roong and Orn attempt to secure a health certificate for Min so that he can apply for work. Min pretends he cannot speak so as not to reveal his limited grasp of the Thai language and his immigrant status. But as Min has no identification papers the doctor refuses. We then watch Orn speaking to her husband about their child who has drowned and pay a visit to the factory where Roong works, decorating small ceramic bunny rabbits. The emotional disaster is not something spectacular. It is a weight hanging in the background of the static long-shots which frame the consulting room and the factory. The disaster is outside the frame, but it defines the rhythm of the lives lived inside it.
The film begins to take a different direction as Min and Roong drive into the countryside. The scenes in the car are reminiscent of those shot by the great Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami, in Taste of Cherry (1997) or Ten (2002). We find ourselves sitting in the backseat looking out the window or seated between the protagonists staring out over their shoulders onto the road ahead. It is here that the film’s intimacy, an intimacy that is at times almost unbearable, truly begins.
During the car trip the title credits finally appear, after the radio is turned on and a cover of Marcos Valle’s “Summer Samba (So Nice)” by Thai pop star Nadia bursts through the speakers. The credits appearing this late into the film seems to suggest, “Here is where the movie really begins!” We hear a voiceover from Min, now speaking in Burmese, explaining that he wanted to take Roong for an afternoon in the countryside after she worked overtime the night before. “Her hands were sore, so I promised to escape with her.” It is as if Apichatpong is subtly proposing a definition of cinema – stealing an afternoon of bliss away from the drudgery of work. While the long shots in the first part of the film carried a cold weight, the film’s equally long shots of the forest are sweetly languorous. Like Robert Siodmak’s People on Sunday (1930), Blissfully Yours belongs to a lineage of films that celebrate our precious moments of leisure.
In this regard Blissfully Yours is an unapologetically sensuous work. Sensuality is infused into every scene through the light of the sun, which Apichatpong describes as the main character in the film.2 The crew relied on natural light as the Khao Yai national park where shooting took place was too dense to allow for electricity generators. This solar luminescence supports the film’s overwhelming tendency toward the haptic. There is a sense that the camera offers a way to touch and be touched. It is a cinema of skin and fingertips. We not only see but hear the dry skin flakes which peel from Min’s body and in a rare close-up we see the mixing of vegetables and moisturising cream which the women rub onto his body. Feet gently caress in a moving stream and a nose nuzzles deep into an armpit.
The sense of touch is extended to the handwriting and drawings which are overlaid over images of the couple. Roong is teaching Thai to Min and these are his first attempts to write in the new language. By introducing writing into this afternoon, the film takes us out of the present. There is a sense of the afternoon as a reminiscence. David Teh describes Apichatpong’s work as a cinematic rendering of a Thai poetic form, the nirat. The nirat is a travel poem that takes an epistolary form and is addressed to a lover who is far away.3 Perhaps that is what gives these sleepy scenes their melancholic beauty, and what makes them appear even more fragile. The disaster is that this afternoon will not be repeated. We learn in the film’s final credits that Min leaves and Roong returns to her boyfriend. Orn continues as “an extra in Thai films”.
It is fitting that Pongpas will become Apichatpong’s muse and collaborator. When Orn stumbles across the lovers, we find ourselves in her place peeping through the foliage. While she is eventually invited to share a part of their afternoon, she remains outside their intimate universe. In the final scenes we see her quietly weeping as she watches the couple sleep beside each other. Is this the loneliness of the spectator? Or is this the melancholy that accompanies any moment of bliss; ineffable and unrepeatable and hence, the perfect subject for Apichatpong’s cinema of tenderness.
Blissfully Yours / Sud sanaeha (2002 Thailand 125 mins)
Prod. Co: Kick the Machine Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Prod: Eric Chan, Charles de Meaux Scr: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Phot: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom Ed: Lee Chatametikool Art Dir: Akekarat Homlaor
Cast: Kanokporn Tongaram, Min Oo, Jenjira Pongpas, Sa-gnad Chaiyapan, Kanitpat Premkij, Jaruwan Techasatiern