Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A different auteur: Apichartpong Weerasethakul

Congratulations to Thai film director, Apichartpong Weerasethakul, for winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2010 for his film "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Life".

I remember that as I was watching one of Apichart's film, "Tropical Malady" at TIFF, after it had won the Cannes' Jury Price in 2004, in the dark trying to understand what he had wanted to say with his movie, I'd noticed quite a number of viewers who'd just simply given up and walked out. Of course, they were under the pressure of a film festival where one only wanted to see as many films that attracted one as time could permit. I toughed out quite a number of cringes and perplexities... to be surprisingly rewarded by a few really subliminal forest and country scenes. I was transported across time and space to moments in my own past when I, myself had commuted with Thailand's many beautiful nature scenes. One memorable beautifully shot scene of a huge tree swaying in the moonlight had made the whole movie worth watching. I left the cinema that night wondering if a viewer who had never been in such an atmosphere before would have felt something similar to what I'd felt. The story he was trying to tell itself, though, made no sense at all. Apichart's skill was not in narrative.

A year later, I made an even greater effort to understand Apichart's films by watching "Syndromes and a Century" and even bought a DVD one of his first movies, "Mysterious Object at Noon", from Bay Street VDO, one of Toronto's blessing for those who are intrigued by different kinds of film. 

Apichart is skilled at evoking memories of a time past.  His movies aren't about contemporary Thailand, but he portrays a Thailand that informs many of our present moments in such an intriguing way that you end his movies asking questions about your own perceptions of those times, or even asking about your perception about perception. 

I think what the jury at Cannes this year voted for was a "yes"; the world of cinema is ready for  surrealism from a Thai point of view.  Apichart's win and the timing of his win was as surreal as his movies. Under the fall of volcanic ashes, his themes of death and dying, belief in reincarnation, belief in a world where other forces besides human's co-existed amongst us, were like a sad mystical echo for those lives lost in the streets of Bangkok.  His memories expressed in Uncle Boonmee's story came from another time in Thailand's history when ideals also fell under conventional forces of repression. Ideals that were eventually proven false but still its loss painfully felt for those who had experienced it. I suppose this is an artist's way of putting out that big question, "Why?"

I hope to see more of Apichart's work. Even if I will be left full of questions, and his work is likely not going to so well-accepted in Thailand. I hope it is the inspiration needed for many more younger generation Thai filmmakers to have the courage, drive and commitment to one's conviction to come out and do something different, and bring more of Thai cinema to international attention.

PS.  For those who would like to read an extensive account of Apichart's win at Cannes, please read Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal.

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