Cinema of Thailand


Allow me to begin with a cliché: 2010 has been an insipid year at the movies. I really struggled to come up with this list because it just didn’t feel like there were many contenders for it. The tail of this list is shaky at best and I wouldn’t want to defend it with all my heart, I think. I’m not saying that there were no great films made in 2010. One bizarre phenomenon of the recent years has been the growing time difference between the world premiere of a film and its distribution/release. Movie lists this year have been almost entirely made of films that actually premiered in 2009 (or earlier) and, going by the trend, it wouldn’t be really a surprise if the 2011 lists consisted wholly of movies that premiered in 2010. (This list, however, is based on world premieres alone). This is not a wild thought at all, considering how stellar the list of filmmakers who premiered their films this year, without a release, has been. (Trust me, there are about 50 big titles that haven’t been mentioned in many of the lists. My biggest misses this year include The Strange Case of Angelica, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Nostalgia for the Light, The Ditch, Meek’s Cutoff, Get Out Of The Car, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Aurora and The Four Times, among others. Rest assured that I’ll drop an updated list here around March, hopefully). Given this, 2011 is truly going to be one hectic year for film buffs, with dozens of vital films from both years to be seen. Fasten your seat belts.

 

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesThat Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the greatest feature by the Thai director is only worthy of a footnote. It is, in fact, what Nathaniel Dorsky calls Devotional Cinema. Boonmee is a work that amalgamates the process of film, human metabolism and the intermittence of our being like no other. Treating life as one continuous entity without a beginning or an end, where death and reincarnation are just various modes of existence, Boonmee so lovingly examines how these modes are integral to functioning of film where, in each frame, the past dies, yet persists and projects itself into the future. Furthermore, the film is also Weerasethakul’s response to the recent upheavals in his country where the political past of the country seems to resist death, reincarnating itself in kindred happenings of the present. Weerasethakul’s picture is at once a tribute to national cinema of the past, an elegy for film and a welcome note to digital filmmaking. It is at once a return to nascence and a leap into the future. Uncle Boonmee is cinema. Uncle Boonmee is cinema.

2. Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, France/​Switzerland)


Film SocialismEven if Godard confirms the rumour that he’s going to call it a day, there’s nothing really to get vexed about. That’s because he has produced a body of work that is yet to be discovered in its full form, qualitatively and quantitatively. Film Socialism is not his last film because it is his last set of films. Yes, like that gargantuan video work of the 90s about the history of cinema, Film Socialism is a work that reconfigures and renews itself every time one sees it. It might all seem like a loosely connected set of arbitrary images, sounds and words. But that’s because arbitrariness is in its very DNA. If not anything else, it is “about” arbitrariness – of value, of ideologies, of laws and of languages – and the death of grand truths. Itinerating between the 70s style agitation, 80s style humanism and 90s style lamentation of his works and with a novel appreciation for individual images, words and objects, Film Socialism is simultaneously a summation of his career and an undoing of it. From the self-deprecating opening line of his first feature, to the “No Comment” 50 years later, Godard has probably said everything in between. Film Socialism is his signature.

3. Honey (Semih Kaplanoglu, Turkey/Germany)


HoneyYoung Yusuf always looks up to his father. Literally. This might be partly due to his undernourishment, but it is also because he refuses to grow up. The final and the finest film in Kaplanoglu’s trilogy, Honey evokes the experience of childhood, or rather the experience of its end, like a few films do, intertwining reality, memories, dreams and anxieties of the age. It so affectingly captures what it means to be thrust into a fatherless world: a family without father, a film without a hero, a universe without God. (The previous film in the triad deals with Yusuf’s relationship with his mother). Yusuf’s conversations with his father, themselves, resemble private confessions to a higher power. Kaplonoglu’s picture is somewhat of a paradox. The reverse chronological structure of the trilogy prompts psychoanalysis while Honey itself is, cleverly, non-reductive. Like Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Honey is a film about childhood confronting adulthood against its own wishes. Ana dares to leave behind her childhood. Ahmed survives the confrontation. Yusuf refuses to grow up.

4. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy)


Certified CopyAbbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, at its worst, is a rundown of modern western philosophy, especially its key questions about perception, beauty and the self. So allow me to steal some from old Fred to sum up the film: “Artists alone hate this lazy procession in borrowed manners and left-over opinions and they reveal everyone’s secret bad conscience, the law that every man is a unique miracle; they dare to show us man as he is, unique even unto each move of his muscles; even more, that by strictly in consequence of this uniqueness, he is beautiful and worth regarding, new and incredible, as every work of nature, and never boring.”. Kiarostami probes the validity of every clause above and keeps examining what the ideal way to live is and whether there is an ideal way at all. Does one understand the world through grand mechanisms and regard what one sees and hears as abstractions of invisible truths or does one confront these concrete objects as they are and deem the ideas uniting them as abstract and removed from experience? Kiarostami’s film is an irresolvable tug-of-war between subtexts and surfaces, accidents and forethought, conservatism and radicalism and, well, form and content.

5. My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine/Germany/France/Netherlands)


My JoyI can’t believe I’m including this patently cynical, relentlessly dystopian and ideologically simplistic film in this list, but the talent and craft here are undeniably overwhelming. Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy is a film that threatens the uniqueness of Uncle Boonmee in that it too collapses historical time to sketch the sociopolitical portrait of a country that has ceased to progress and is moving around in circles of betrayal, oppression and violence. Its causes might be varied – residual bureaucracy, newfound market economy, WW2, Cold War – the manifestations nevertheless, Loznistsa suggests, are the same. Echoes of a scene are felt in another, similar situations and outcomes permeate historically different periods and essentially nothing changes except costumes and period details. It’s as if the director and the set of actors are trying in vain to recreate another age that might offer escape. Loznitsa uses interruption itself as a stylistic device wherein the genre (road movie “detours” into a sci-fi nightmare) and the narrative (character identification killed) are disrupted for treatises on power and its abuse. As presaged in the opening scene, it is the director as tyrant and the audience as victim.

6. Of Gods And Men (Xavier Beauvois, France)


Of Gods And MenAt a time when blanket rejection of all religion is the most advertised and subscribed worldview, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men comes as a much needed dose of sobriety. A worthy successor to that staggering Winter Light (1963, plugs to Bergman galore), Of Gods and Men is a expertly mounted tightrope act that strikes a tense balance between faith and reason, individualism and collectivism, idealism and materialism and democracy and authoritarianism. True to this spirit of philosophical investigation, the best shots in the film are composed like tableaus from ancient Greece, of which either God or the audience is regularly made a part. The stance here is, clearly, neither pro-religion nor anti-terrorist. The film is neither a critique about the perversion of religion by politics nor a lamentation about the loss of faith in a Post-Enlightenment world. It is about what Faith means to the individual. The monks in the monastery are neither theists deluded by the promise of a paradise nor victims caught in the vortex of international events. They are merely Kierkegaardian knights who leap beyond rationality to discover what it means to be human, to be mortal, to believe.

7. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA)


Shutter IslandAn hommage to Alfred Hitchcock among others, and possibly a remake of Vertigo (1958) as well, Martin Scorsese’s atmospheric wonder Shutter Island is about the absolute loss of control, about not being able to know whether you’re awake or dreaming, about being swept off solid ground and left floating and about the agony of losing everything that was dear to you. For filmmakers, especially ones as authoritative as Hitch and Scorsese, this fear of losing hold is so palpable and justified. Set in post-war America, where red signaled danger in more ways than one and where either you were crazy or the entire world around you was, Scorsese’s film has someone or the other consciously playing roles throughout. The sense of artificiality and instability is accentuated all through with tribute-providing rear projection and matte backgrounds. As literalized in its story, Shutter Island is also a battle between modernist paranoia and postmodernist schizophrenia wherein the director’s playfulness is pitted against ambitions of serious, personal expression. And I’m sorry to spoil it for you, but there’s no twist in the film.

8. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhang-ke, China)


I Wish I KnewThe greatest filmmaker of the last decade continues to do what he does best: make great films. Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew, a cousin to his previous film, is a symphony of city symphonies. The sheer scope of Jia’s investigation and the humungous historical and geographical ground he covers is daunting. Walking a thin line between state propaganda and personal vision, dispassionate observation and critique and aesthetization and respectful documentation, Jia has created a film that might look like the most reverential and non-committed of all his works. Like his last film, Jia probes how the older Shangainese’s history and identity has inextricably been linked with that of the city and the state and how the younger generation seems to have found the luxury to be apolitical and the freedom to move beyond. Globalization isn’t so bad after all. Or is it? One could arrive at two wholly different films by just editing the film in two different ways – one film that the state wants Jia to make and the other that we want Jia to make. Jia’s probably made the film he wants.

9. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)


The Social NetworkAs the marketers of old studio films would say, The Social Network is a film for everybody. It truly is a film for every ideology, every reading and every level of engagement. The film is whatever you want it to be. There’s something about Sorkin’s Zuckerberg that’s both seductive and repulsive. His triumph is one that’s both inspiring and horrifying. Barring the last scene of the film, which probably kills off the ambivalence thus far and impresses itself on our memory of the film a little too heavily, the film does a remarkable balancing act, placing immense trust on the details for the maintenance of this ambiguity. It doesn’t have as much to say about how we live our lives online as it does about how we generally live in a world infested by final clubs of every sort, all the time conforming to popular ideas about the price of genius. That’s why The Social Network works much better when read as a slightly metaphysical tale, displaced from its context, than as a critique of the new world. There’s a vicious, Greenberg-like bitterness about this new phenomenon no doubt, but there’s also a sense of optimism beyond its control which acknowledges that there might be a way out after all.

10. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, USA)


Scott Pilgrim vs The WorldA hundred years from now, when social researchers (or aliens, if you are a Mayan) attempt to find out about this little curiosity called the internet, they will refer not to Fincher’s white elephant but this wicked termite that has volumes to say about how most of us perceive the world today. If The Social Network is about Web 2.0 as seen from outside, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the same experienced from within. If Fincher’s film is the Facebook movie, Wright’s is the Twitter movie. There is barely an action, a line or an event that is allowed to complete. Everything that is marginally superfluous or even implicit is edited out. Information travels at the speed of light and it is, more often than not, trivial, useless and self-parodying. Time and space melt down to form a unified, nearly irrational warp zone where there’s almost no difference between reality and dream. This confusion of identities, so typical of our era and often alluded to in the film, is reflected in the pastiche-like nature of the film which borrows as much from web design and TV commercials as it does from comic books and video games. Devilishly inventive, “sublime”.

 

(Image Courtesy: Various)

Dokfa Nai Meuman  (2000) (aka Mysterious Object At Noon)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thai

“Now, do you have any other stories to tell us? It can be real or fiction.
 

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s maiden feature Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) is an instant success. Loosely based on the game Exquisite Corpse, originally conceived by the surrealists, wherein the participants of the game take turns to advance a storyline, Weerasethakul’s film shows us the director and his crew traveling throughout rural and urban Thailand, picking people at random, presenting them with an audio tape that contains the narrative of a story as told by its previous bearers and asking them to further the tale in whatever way they like. The “story” in the film begins with a physically challenged kid, taught at home by a visiting teacher, who notices a strange, round object roll down from his teacher’s skirt one day, which later transforms into a mystic boy with superpowers! Wait till you see what this already bizarre setup mutates into. The “characters”, who narrate the story, almost run the gamut and include a sober tuna fish seller who, she believes, has been “sold” to her uncle, a talky old lady whose cheerfulness seems to conceal a tragedy, a gang of timid teenage mahouts who seem straight out of a Jarmusch movie, a troupe of exuberant traveling players, each of whom would have a quirk or two if probed, a bunch of TV show participants, two deaf and mute girls who seem to be the most excited of the lot and a bevy of primary school kids whose imagination would, literally, leave one speechless.

The original Thai title of the film, apparently, translates to “Heavenly Flower in Devils’ Hands”, evidently, calling attention to the film itself. It is undeniably true that what starts as a beautiful emotional drama is unfortunately mutilated and metamorphosed into a tale of fantasy, then, mystery, horror and romance. But, surely, this “heavenly flower” is not of much interest compared to the devils which hold it. Mysterious Object at Noon is, perhaps, closest in style and intent to Abbas Kiarostami’s Homework (1989), in which the director brings down a whole nation sitting in a stuffy room with a bunch of first graders (Actually, Weerasethakul’s whole body of work tempts one to equate him to Kiarostami, especially given his penchant for cars and roads!). Here, as in Homework, the initial objective of the filmmaker, eventually, turns out to be one big MacGuffin. The ultimate point of the movies is not to investigate whether the kids complete their homework promptly or if the story streamlines into a smooth narrative ready for Hollywood, but to draw out a portrait of a society derived from these first hand accounts. Weerasethakul’s movie may be a joke derived out of a simple afternoon game, but what it does, in effect, is to draw the cultural landscape of a country, not by taking a didactic top-down approach but by examining the most basic fears, desires, anxieties and interests of common folk who form its social structure.

Essentially, Mysterious Object at Noon examines the function and power of stories as cultural artifacts and explores how stories preserve and reflect the spirit of the age they originate in, much like every art form – major and minor. Additionally, Weerasethakul’s film acknowledges the tendency of these stories to undergo transformation through the years as they pass from one social class, age group, ethnicity and way of life to the other. These stories may get corrupt along the way, may absorb elements from real life and even end up losing their original meaning, but, in any case, they serve to perpetuate culture and build links between generations (One kid in the final segment recites a story about an uncle who recites to his nephew a story about an uncle and a nephew. Presumably, this story was told to him by his uncle). These stories may be passed on in the form of books, paintings, photographs, modern recording media (a la audio tapes, which are used in this film to record the story) and word-of-mouth, as Weerasethakul’s film indicates by turning on and off sounds, images and texts in an incoherent fashion. But, whatever the form, each version of these stories carries an imprint of the narrator’s sensibility and world view. With some effort, from each story, one should be able to reconstruct the realities of the world the narrator lives in and vice versa. Like the image of the railway tracks, which are parallel but seem to be converging at infinity, that punctuates the film, these stories, although appearing to be all over the place on the surface, have one point of convergence – they all help out in sketching the collective consciousness and the collective unconscious of a particular culture at a given point in time.

Moreover, by actually making a film out of the concocted story, Weerasethakul concludes that cinema, too, is one such medium that could well function as a sociological document and which the posterity can use to understand their own history from very many perspectives. By merely filming in black and white, Weerasethakul takes his film one step away from reality and makes it seem like an antiquated object that is being preserved for a long time. And like these stories that shape-shift with time, Weerasethakul, call it a running gag, makes certain folk tales and myths repeat themselves across his filmography, albeit in different avatars – another one of his many similarities to Kiarostami. The humourous father-daughter duo, who talk to the doctor about the old man’s hearing problem, reincarnate in the director’s next movie Blissfully Yours (2002). The story about the two greedy farmers and the young monk, which makes an appearance in the hypnotic Tropical Malady (2004), resurfaces with a more violent outcome in Syndromes and a Century (2006). And the tale about the shape-shifting “Witch Tiger” that the young boy begins to narrate at the end of Mysterious Object at Noon forms the entire second half of Tropical Malady, needless to say, in a completely transformed tone. For a writer-director who has consistently soaked his films in the themes of permanence of history and mythology, recycling of human memories and behaviour and the existence of a common binding spirit across generations, this gesture just can’t be considered as a mere prank.

Mysterious Object at Noon consistently reinforces and reminds of Weerasethakul’s preoccupation with juxtaposition of cultural extremes. Often in the director’s films, aptly highlighted by the “traveling shots” filmed from the car’s front and rear windows, we find ourselves wondering whether we are going forward in time or backwards. The very first shot of this film presents us everything that would become the director’s trademark in the following years. This single four minute point of view shot from inside a car presents us a host of extremes placed alongside each other. The car starts out on a broad highway, amidst tall buildings of the city, and takes a serpentine route to gradually arrive at a sparse and quieter suburban locale. The vehicle is that of an incense and tuna fish seller. He is broadcasting an advertisement using loudspeakers attached to the car, endorsing his brand of incense sticks, citing its virtues, and asking people to use only this brand while worshiping Buddha. This blatant lie on the soundtrack counterpoints the truth of the photographic image, which is also much more banal and undramatic compared to the fictional stories we hear on the car radio. Furthermore, by using an advertisement marked by scientific terminologies and latest capitalistic strategies to endorse a product used in a religious ritual, Weerasethakul brings total modernity and total antiquity – the future and the past – together to provide a broad outline of a country in transition (Tokens of American influence on contemporary Thai culture are abound in Weerasethakul’s films). Later, the director goes on to further explore the volatile boundary between reality and fiction and the object-mirror image relationship that they share with each other – using both the film within the film and its making-of. As it turns out in Panahi’s The Mirror (1997), reality deviates as significantly from fiction as it resembles it (The mystic kid seems, in actuality, far from being mystical and is more interested in KFC and comics).

Weerasethakul prefers to be called a conceptual artist rather than a film director (He cites Andy Warhol as a major inspiration). This tendency of his is most manifest in Mysterious Object at Noon, wherein he is content is merely triggering a chain of events and persevering to see what evolves. There is no manipulation of the mise en scène, the plasticity of the image is never harnessed and the camera is employed at a purely functional level. Weerasethakul does not even polish the gathered fragments and simply joins them, leaving all the interpretation to us. Shot in digital, cinéma vérité style, using handheld, and no with predetermined script, Mysterious Object at Noon oozes with documentary realism. Like he does in most of his films, Weerasethakul keeps exposing the tools of his trade in an attempt to disillusion us from the belief of watching an alternate reality and to reinforce the fact that this movie indeed takes place in our world. At one point in the film, the director himself enters the frame to adjust the lighting for the film within the film he is shooting. As a result, he lets us see both the creation and the creator – the image and the process behind its construction – much like he does with his script and its authors in Mysterious Object at Noon. However, Weerasethakul’s self-reflexive moves do not end here.

The film’s title should, appropriately, be cleaved into “Mysterious Object” and “At Noon”. Weerasethakul, after presenting us the major part of film dealing with the “mysterious object”, adds an epilogue titled “At Noon” shot in the director’s hometown of Panyi, whose quiet nighttime images we are already acquainted with thanks to the director’s earlier film Thirdworld (1998). This one is a completely freewheeling, heavenly segment in which we witness a group of boys playing soccer in the afternoon, kicking the ball into a nearby pond and taking a bath in the process of retrieving it. This is followed by vignettes of people having lunch and a bunch of younger kids, before being called by their mother for lunch, tying an empty tin can to a dog’s neck and watching the poor animal go berserk due to the noise the can produces. They say that the essence of life lies in boredom. Likewise, Weerasethakul seems to be of the opinion that the most interesting things in life arise out of these dead times in the afternoon (one needs to just look at the director’s next film for proof). And like these kids who seem conjure up fascinating things from the most commonplace of objects, Weerasethakul, too, realizes a movie completely out of the “dead time” of his characters’ lives, creating something magical that only cinema could have brought to life. In a way, Mysterious Object at Noon is an elegy for the stretches of time we’ve lost in planning ahead, the times we’ve cast off in the pursuit of “higher” goals and the dead times we’ve killed in order to move into lifeless ones.

Also published at Unspoken Cinema

Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thai

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