A jungle in Thailand at night, filmed in one long shot. There are the murmurs of nature. Lights flash onto a clearing – the spotlights of a film crew. A pop song begins; a woman in white shuffles centre stage from the wings, miming to the song, followed by four dancers. The song – Nadia’s ‘Will I be lucky?’1 – is about love, and the singer’s fear that she may not experience the love that her parents had.
This opening shot, presented without credits, titles, or any other means of viewer orientation, offers the purest distillation of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema. The subtitle of Worldly Desires – ‘for memories of the jungle, 2001-2005’ – returns us to the period of the director’s breakthrough features Blissfully Yours (S̄ud s̄aǹeh̄ā, 2002) and Tropical Malady (Satpralat, 2004), both of which are set in and around the jungles of Khao Yai National Park, about 125 km northeast of Bangkok. In these two-part films, the jungle setting displaces a naturalistic, socially- and economically-ground milieu with a more mythic, magical, or allegorical space, where emotions and desires held in check by the obligations of ‘real life’ are given free rein, to liberating or terrifying, and always self-endangering effect.
This context seems to be subjected to bathos in Worldly Desires, as the initially hushed, mysterious and timeless jungle gives way to tinny pop music and the unglamorous mundanities of filmmaking, with bored, irreverent crew members, cumbersome equipment and transport, and makeshift accommodations. A film shot by day parallels the music video shot at night, centres on two lovers fleeing through the jungle and has its breathless melodrama consistently curtailed by repeated takes, fluffed lines, breaks for camera set-up, and images mediated by a viewfinder or in rushes. Images charged with mythopoeic force, such as the tiger in Tropical Malady, are recycled as kitschy images on a crew member’s t-shirt.
But Apichatpong’s cinema is not one of disenchantment or irony – or if it is ironic, the irony serves to re-enchant, to recalibrate viewers’ deeply held aesthetic and ideological assumptions. The spell of the ‘timeless’ jungle in the opening shot may be broken by ‘cheesy’ pop and commercial imperatives; certainly many serious-minded writers are bewildered by Apichatpong’s taste for ‘sappy’ Thai pop.2 If, however, like Apichatpong, or Noel Coward, or Dennis Potter, you believe pop music is not tinny or sappy; if you think such music, as well as being gorgeous, melodic and catchy, serves as a collective receptacle for otherwise unspoken or repressed emotional desires, then the opening sequence becomes something different, and casts its magic over the rest of the work. You notice that the video is shot through a frame made by the fusion of tree branches and spotlights, nature and technology in perfect harmony. Later, a heavily mediated sex scene in the melodrama, watched by crew members in grainy images on a small monitor rather than directly, regains a powerful erotic charge through duration, sound, suggestion, and point-of-view.
Apichatpong is neither sentimental nor naïve – a ‘mist’ that shrouds the forest and impedes visibility is pollution generated by exhaust fumes rather than some supernatural agency. The aggressive off-screen shouts of a crowd evoke the kind of political unrest that would lead to a military coup in Thailand the following year. The five young performers in the music video, always filmed in one long shot so as to never be individualised as women, are on one level, disposable, exploitable and reified victims of the culture industry. But they are also mythic, as mythic as the Buddhist statues or folk paintings that recur in Apichatpong’s work. They become forest sprites – a Thai equivalent of the Greek dryad – or guardian spirits, or tutelary deities, who emerge Brigadoon-style for a brief period to illuminate humanity, before returning to darkness. It is they, and not the controlling film crew, who guide the movements and encounters in light and dark that comprise the bulk of the film, and who disrupt human hierarchies, like Puck and the fairies in Shakespeare’s forest-set A Midsummer Night Dream. Far from simply miming to someone else’s pre-recorded song for actual and virtual publics, the performers are engaged in their own private ritual, as confirmed by the last of the four appearances that punctuate the film when they perform without music, their stylised movements transfigured into folk dance, religious rite or performance art. This unexpected ‘depth’ behind the performance was there all along for us to see and hear, if only our assumptions about silly pop music had not occluded it from us. In hindsight, the song has additional importance as a ‘trailer’ for Apichatpong’s next feature Syndromes and a Century (S̄æng ṣ̄atawǎat, 2006), a film about the early love lives of his parents. Worldly Desires is, therefore, Janus-faced, looking back to Apichatpong’s previous work while anticipating its next stage.
Worldly Desires was made as part of the Jeonju International Film Festival’s Digital Project series, and straddles Apichatpong’s work in narrative film and video installation. Apichatpong’s video works tend to share many of the themes, motifs, settings, actors and stylistic approaches of his features but, extracted from overarching narrative, psychological or other structural requirements, allow discrete gestures or situations to resonate for their own sake. Unlike the dispersed viewing experience offered by galleries, however, Worldly Desires retains the fixed single screen of the conventional cinema experience.
Cinephiles watching Worldly Desires may be reminded of another internationally beloved Asian auteur, Abbas Kiarostami. Particularly, Through the Olive Trees (Zīr-e Derakhtān-e Zeytūn, 1994), an earlier self-reflexive work about film and forest, about the destabilising encounters of technology and nature, the public workplace and private desire, the director and her subject, and the professional and the amateur. After his early arthouse successes, culminating in the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Taste of Cherry (Ta’m-e gīlās…, 1997), Kiarostami’s career was arguably deflected when he was co-opted by the ‘Art World’, his talents frittered away on negligible ‘projects’ for elite cultural institutions and high-minded supra-national agencies. Of course, such a move is a response to the decline in cultural import of the arthouse feature, and the need of the filmmaker to go wherever the funding is. Nevertheless, Apichatpong may be in danger of following Kiarostami’s negative example. Despite beginning with the Cannes triumph of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, 2010), few would suggest that the last decade in Apichatpong’s work is anywhere near as satisfying – or lovable – as his first. He could do worse than revisit Worldly Desires, a rare moment in his work where the imperatives of commissioners and cinephiles aligned to produce an artwork as complex yet as engaging as his feature films.
Worldly Desires (2005 Thailand/South Korea 43 minutes)
Prod Co: Kick the Machine Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul (director of film within the film Deep Red Bloody Night: Pimpaka Towira) Scr: Sompot Chidgasornpongse & Apichatpong Weerasethakul Phot: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom & Apichatpong Weerasethakul Ed: Sompot Chidgasornpongse & Apichatpong Weerasethakul Prod Des: Akekarat Homlaor
Cast: Chanchai Amonthat, Thanatporn Vejchayom, Priya Wongrabeab, Sirapa Theansuwan, Siriporn Chernjit, Atjimarak Songsangjan, Utchalaluk Songsangjan
- Apichatpong had previously used three of Nadia’s songs in Blissfully Yours. Tony Rayns, “Touching the voidness: films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul”, in James Quandt (ed.), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Vienna: SYNEMA, 2009), p. 143 ↩
- Tony Rayns, “In loving memory”, Sight and Sound 17:10 (October 2007), p. 47 ↩