Last May, at the New Museum in New York City, Apichatpong Weerasethakul appeared with experimental filmmaker Bruce Baillie. Baillie, who is 80 years old, is losing his memory. During the two and a half hour long event, he rambled and fumbled for words. He explained that he has trouble speaking at night. Sometimes the audience was able to supply something that suited him—the Tibetan Book of the Dead, for instance—but sometimes not. (In search of an Irish playwright who wrote about language, he rejected crowd favorite Samuel Beckett.) Weerasethakul, small and shorn, with elegant posture, sat in patient silence. “Any loss is just as interesting as any gain,” Baillie mused. He described himself thus: “I’ve already gone off the frame.”
Weerasethakul credited Baillie’s Quick Billy (1971) as a major influence on his own Tropical Malady (2004), a romance between a soldier and a sweet young man that, halfway through, becomes a kind of spirit-animal documentary. What he learned from Baillie, he explained, is that with the change of a reel, you can change the direction of the film. The “karmic opera” Quick Billy follows three reels of impressionistic color, nature, and home movie with a parodic black-and-white short about a quick-draw gunslinger in the Old West, complete with title sequence. Baillie described the fourth reel as a revisitation of the first three. “The reels could have gone in any order,” he said, “but this is the order I chose.” It’s not, he went on, that Quick Billy “returns” to the beginning—it’s that it never leaves off beginning.
Beginnings are traditionally what we are eager to get past—the middle is sport; the end, satisfaction. To not leave off beginning means refusing almost all conventions of narrative: rising and falling action, character development, resolution, story itself. To not leave off beginning might mean to move in a circle, but it also might mean to run in place. Or, as in the case of Quick Billy, it might mean changing tactics so dramatically that the creation of cumulative meaning is short-circuited. Whatever the method, a continual beginning is likely to be less concerned with links than with repetitions or symbols. The cuts and excisions that in traditional narrative sever lived time in order to create its facsimile—a more perfect experience of time, unified by motif of theme—instead draw attention to themselves as inadequate. Under these circumstances, for good and ill, a viewer is much more aware of how long something lasts—how long it keeps beginning, let’s say. A film like Quick Billy doesn’t really “build” to something. It builds to itself.
Weerasethakul’s narratives are more traditional than Baillie’s—his reels could not really be put in any order—but of art filmmakers working today, he is probably the most interested in how editing destroys, and enhances, lived time. His five features to date—Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century (2006) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)—are obsessed with how one episode, one bundle of images, connects to the next. Certain themes and motifs recur across them: the Thai countryside; the army; monks; doctors and clinics; musical performance; public aerobics; immigration; wild animals; erotic love. But the ongoing preoccupation, quietly pulsing beneath the insect choruses and the canopies of leaves, is where to lay the seams, how to fit the parts together. They are not so much explorations of memory—which would indicate a thing dispensed with and overcome—as enactments of remembering, mental editing.
These are very slow, irruptively weird movies, where ugly faces break spontaneously into gorgeous, toothy grins and no one screams and runs away when a monkey-man shows up to dinner. Weerasethakul’s films present a challenge to the normal grammar of criticism, which strives to articulate what a work is “about.” What they are “about” is less interesting than what they are about to get into, or turn into. Abandon all attempts at allegory—The film is “really” about cinema, or It’s “really” about the nation. First you have to figure out what you’re looking at. In the realm of Weerasethakul, “I wonder what’s really happening?” becomes, “Is something happening?” Rewind: Did that boy just turn into a tiger?
Weerasethakul is one of a small number of Thai directors working outside the commercial studio system. His company, Kick the Machine, promotes experimental and independent cinema, and he is a force in the Free Thai Cinema Movement, an anti-censorship group. His films explore their own making—he’s known for using amateur actors who improvise dialogue, and whose characters sometimes share their real names. They also mine his own past. He has said, for example, that Syndromes and a Century has elements of his parents’ own courtship (they were both doctors). Syndromes is a brightly lit sickroom. The mood is even, but the plot is disconnected. The first half is the story of a female doctor in a small rural clinic; the second half concerns a male doctor in a big-city hospital. The same actors are featured, playing what cannot be the same roles. Are these people other people? How did they go from being one person to being someone else?
Uncle Boonmee—an experimental Buddhist film that won the Palme d’Or in 2010, the year before Terrence Malick’s experimental Christian film did—is intended to be more straightforward than his other work. It’s a kind of children’s story, based on a book Weerasethakul received from a monk. “Straightforward” is a relative term. The plot concerns Boonmee, who is dying of a kidney ailment. He lives in the country, where he oversees a bee farm and is tended to by a home health worker named Jaai, an illegal immigrant from Laos. One night at dinner, while sister-in-law Jen and nephew Tong are visiting, Boonmee’s dead wife Huey materializes at the table. She is soon followed by a visit from their son, Boonsong, who Boonmee has not seen in many years, and who has turned into a red-eyed monkey ghost.
The reels change and we meet new characters, including a homely princess who makes love with a catfish in exchange for beauty. Presumably, this is one of Boonmee’s past lives. The story, like all Weerasethakul stories, advances not by any necessary logic or law of causality, but by changes in location or mood. There’s not a lot of “acting.” The people he works with command presence, but the pacing and cinematography and dialogue do any affective work. He makes nature films; he turns people into landscapes. Uncle Boonmee is filled with hills and mountains and trees and waterfalls, but also with Jen’s lumbering limping body; the scoliotic curve of Tong’s back as he sits, Indian-style, on the porch; Boonmee with tubes like vines draining and replenishing the waters in his body.
Uncle Boonmee has been haunting Weerasethakul for several years. In Tropical Malady, one of the protagonists mentions “my uncle who can recall his past lives,” all the way back 200 years. Boonmee’s lives all take place in Isan province, in the northeast of Thailand, where Weerasethakul is from. He’s said that he had to return to that region, which he had forgotten, to build memories before he could make the film—it was a kind of recovery project. The feature is related to Primitive, an eight-screen video installation that recently had its American premiere at the New Museum. Primitive references a violent confrontation between communist farmers and the army that took place in Nabua in 1965. It explores the impact of that history on the area’s children and teenage boys.
The half-hour, two-screen title installation has a male narrator. As a child, he saw lives and personalities in balls of light in the jungle, and thought these lights were animals. When he was older, though, he had a dream, and in the dream he learned that all those lives were connected, and that he himself was the connection. They were his lives. I don’t think this boy is “supposed” to be Boonmee, exactly. The Primitive videos aren’t “background” or “extra” to the feature Uncle Boonmee—I don’t even want to say they are its past lives. It’s more that they exist simultaneously, like stars in the same lunar plane or plants growing out of the same patch of ground.
“Characters” are traditionally separate or separable; Weerasethakul’s—descendants of the displaced of Nabua—are not characters so much as they are palimpsests of folklore or legends or their environments. And yet, he makes that self, that fading changing husk of different personalities and circumstances, the center of life. The Primitive boy’s world hangs together because he finds himself everywhere reflected in it. Not that the work visually demonstrates this connectedness. It is only a reported fact. The shots are atmospheric and shadowy—they bleed together, with only the powerful red and pod shape of one of the episodes sticking out. As far as the camera is concerned, there may be masses of youthful bodies, but there are no continuous selves to track in time. This thing that finds itself in the jungle is invisible, unrecordable.
Weerasethakul hasn’t created a full-blown myth with a rich series of dramatic events whose meaning can be staged and restaged. Such “characters” are hardly significant enough figures to sustain a constellation of work. These are only phrases of drama, footnotes—Boonmee and the boy both had a past life as a princess who hid her face so her people would not know she was ugly. It’s barely enough to remember. But remembering is all Weerasethakul does with it. If you happen to have seen Uncle Boonmee, you will feel a spark of recognition during Primitive. If not, you might not even notice that the princess is something to be noticed.
Weerasethakul is fascinated by phase changes, by transformation, the effect of one image altering and advancing the one that came before. He calls the problem of chronology “reincarnation.” That sounds like a figure of speech, but Weerasethakul is in many ways obdurately literal. He insists, for instance, on showing the princess make love with the catfish for what feels like a rather long time. When reading a myth or even looking at a sculpture or painting, you can skip over the nitty-gritty of interspecies romance. Uncle Boonmee makes you endure it in time. The princess arches back and the catfish flops noisily between her legs because the movie wants you to think about which parts go where. Likewise, the boy’s self is no metaphorical tissue in Primitive, it is the material reality of the work, in the same field of being as the clash between the army and the farmers. These are Weerasethakul’s facts.
His camera, however, doesn’t show the change between forms; it merely registers that change has occurred. It languorously holds on the first thing, and then languorously holds on the second. The in-between is off-screen, lost to time, non-existent. This is particularly true of Uncle Boonmee, which has fewer pans and tracking shots than almost any other film I’ve ever seen. This is especially remarkable given that the 17-minute video Letter to Uncle Boonmee consists almost entirely of slow pans and tracking shots that circumnavigate and describe the interior and exterior of a small wooden house.
This kind of discontinuity belongs to the logic of still photography as much as it does cinema. So it’s fitting that Uncle Boonmee briefly turns into a series of stills. This happens when Boonmee recalls another kind of past life, a dream, of a time machine and the “future people” who, armed with only a beam of light, can make the “past people” disappear. (This is also an element of Primitive.) As Boonmee narrates this fable about cinema, the film yields to a succession of photographs of soldiers in various poses. The scene recalls Boonmee’s explaining to Jen that his illness is punishment for having killed too many communists; it also echoes the first scene of Tropical Malady, which features soldiers photographing themselves with a dead body in a field.
When he introduces photography, Weerasethakul doesn’t employ it as a Godardian gag, slapping the photos on the table like so many playing cards. He doesn’t collect the world by breaking it into pieces. Instead, the film becomes the photographs. It’s the problem of Weerasethakul, writ miniature: We know how we get from nothing to something (we see Huey materialize) and how we get from something to nothing (we see Boonmee die). But how do we get from one thing to another thing? How do spirits transmogrify? All that we know is that they do.
Something is sticking, though, and it’s this: If Weerasethakul’s movies are everything I think they are—mysterious, haunting, inventive—in a word, good—why do they make me fall asleep? And why are his own characters so often falling asleep? Is there something about being in a Weerasethakul film that is as somnolent as watching one?
Uncle Boonmee is strangely riveting; it’s also a linear story through a time signature that is altered but recognizable. His other works fragment into pure trance; they ask you to lose what’s happening, to become unstuck from the flow. The fantastic elements are disjointed and slow, separated with nature shots that the camera holds for just long enough for you to forget what you saw in the previous scene. It makes you drowsy.
Sleep is a way of giving up. At the end of Tropical Malady, our characters have gone too deep in the jungle, and neither they nor we can find our way out. Every time I watch this movie, I fail to keep my eyes open. My consciousness becomes debilitated by effort. But I always snap into awareness when I hear the voice of a monkey talking to a soldier. I know this soldier from the first half of the film! He is Keng, he loves the boy Tong. But maybe he is not Keng, but a man who looks like Keng? Or perhaps he is Keng and not-Keng. This man who may or may not be Keng, or may or may not be Keng and not-Keng, is tracking a tiger that may or may not be Tong, but is certainly a powerful shaman, transformed into a tiger, “a creature whose life exists only by the memories of others”—the rememberings of others, which never stop beginning. Or maybe the tiger who may be Tong is tracking the man who may be Keng.
The monkey sounds like a bird, and his speech is written on the screen. The monkey says, “Soldier! The tiger trails you like a shadow. His spirit is starving and lonesome. I see you are his prey and his companion. He can smell you from mountains away. And soon you will feel the same. Kill him to free him from the ghost world. Or let him devour you and enter his world.”
For an artist so interested in memory to create films that disrupt your ability to hold a memory of them in your head while watching them is noteworthy. But perhaps the hypnagogic is unjustly maligned. People talk about falling asleep during a movie like it’s a bad thing. But it can be very hard to relax; it may in fact be a compliment to say a film puts you so at rest that it puts you down. I, for one, never have nightmares when I sleep with a movie. It’s just a dead black-out—time destroyed. “Have you been meditating as I advised?” the doctor asks in Blissfully Yours. “Yes,” Orn answers. “And then I fall asleep.”
Weerasethakul, like Bruce Baillie, loves shooting nature—but it’s his neon moments of modernity, set against the dense foliage, that sparkle and flicker and come alive. His movies are very dark, sometimes too dark; when the natural light breaks in, or the fluorescents warm up, the film itself seems to turn on. The tiers of Boonmee’s funeral altar, lit up and pulsing like a beautiful orange and green wedding cake. The fluorescent bulbs and flaming soccer ball of the short “Phantoms of Nabua.” The lovely outdoor aerobics classes of Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. The expanses of green he returns to again and again, so green it hurts to look.
The two worlds of the city and the country butt up against each other: The idyll of the country is always within a day’s drive. But they also infiltrate one another. Monks sneak away from the temple for a hot shower or dream about being DJs; dentists moonlight as country singers. Reality anywhere is always flexible, accommodating. It seems no less remarkable to me that a man would become a monkey than that a boy would shyly come onstage to join a chubby cherubic beauty in her early 40s, wrapped in a purple dress and shimmery gold stole, to sing a song for his lover in Tropical Malady—and that this boy would turn out to be a very pretty singer.
At the New Museum event last spring, a young man in my row asked if the two directors considered their movies to be spiritual. Baillie answered first and longest. He talked about the sun and uniting with the sun and “The Big One,” but the gist seemed to be that for him, the material world—the world of shirts and buttons—is unimportant, and the spiritual world is all that matters. Weerasethakul had a different answer. He said that it was all spiritual.
At the end of Uncle Boonmee, Jen and Tong’s spirits go on a kind of holiday, leaving their bodies back at the motel. For a soul-on-vacation, Jen looks awfully pondering. She and Tong sit in a multicolor confection of a blinking, twinkling café, where a karaoke machine promises entertainment that they tease each other about delivering. The scene’s impact has nothing to do with attachments to these characters. It has nothing to do with the movie’s plot. It has nothing to do with anything we have seen before. It is a totally atmospheric achievement. It’s a sensuality of light, sound, and human faces. The impact is kinetic in nature. Gorgeous pop music swells. For the first time, something is ending, and something—it feels like a different movie altogether—is about to begin.