Cinema of Thailand


Krabi 2562 (Ben Rivers, Anocha Suwichakornpong)

Like The Sky Trembles, Ben Rivers’ collaboration with Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong is a largely fictional, contemplative piece in 16mm and is inspired by the sights and people of the eponymous province in the south of Thailand. This work evolved out of the installation the two filmmakers developed for the Thai biennale, an event referred to in Krabi 2562. The film is a mosaic-like snapshot of the region constructed with a dozen or so characters: a mysterious tourist from another province who may be scouting locations for a film shoot, the petite guide who walks her through the history of important spots, the owner of her hotel who claims to have had supernatural encounters, the old owner of a country house she visits, the proprietor of a defunct movie theatre she finally disappears in, an ad filmmaking crew shooting on an island, and a Neanderthal couple living in the caves apparently in the same time line as the other characters. Not to mention several other outsider figures spending their summer vacation on the islands. Every one, though, seems to have some legend, story or a bit of personal history to recount.

Rivers and Suwichakornpong frame the action from a distance, with the characters of interest typically relegated to the background. Mixing interviews, vignettes of characters engaged in everyday activity or interacting with each other in refreshingly awkward dialogue and shots of the landscape, Krabi 2562 is a freewheeling work that’s always spiralling away from its ostensible plot: the disappearance of the woman. There are also a few “invented” sequences, such as a team of scientists looking for biological samples on the island. Politics is suggested through the sound of soldiers marching through the city and the film opens with an ironic-sounding scene of a school assembly where children pledge their allegiance to the religion, monarchy and the country. But these shards of information don’t necessarily fit together within a single discursive framework. What they evoke are possible histories about the region, where past and present, real and fictional, the living and the dead seem to coexist. This imaginative historiography of the film rests in an uneasy tension with its touristic aspect: though the long, meditative shots of landscapes and human activity capture the rhythm of life particular to the Krabi province, it’s not hard to see that they are also intended as promotional material for the region.

Color-blind (Ben Russell)

Shot in Brittany and French Polynesia, Ben Russell’s Color-blind opens with extreme close-ups of painted canvases that abstract figures in the painting into zones of clashing colours. Flashing on the screen are lines from a letter by Breton painter Paul Gauguin, in which the painter confesses that what appeals to him in this nude portrait of a young girl “on the verge of indecency” are the lines and forms. Speaking about his choice of colours, he adds that, in the mind of the Tahitian girl depicted, the phosphorous colours of the canvas stand for the souls of the dead. Russell’s practice has taken him to different corners of the planet and the ethical challenge in Color-blind remains the same: how does one represent the Other without exoticizing them? His response is to locate his own work critically in an uninterrogated tradition of Western representations of the Marquesas islands. But Russell’s response also involves showing the islanders as living under modern conditions and forms of knowledge. This prologue with Gauguin’s letter, setting up the theme of the outsider’s exoticization of the native, gives way to current day glimpses of the Marquesas islands: a modern music concert, commercialized dance classes, shooting of films with local men dressed in leaves, an old craftsman making a curio in his workshop. These impressions, presented without additional commentary or text, evoke an idea of preservation of tradition predicated ironically on catering to outsiders’ idea of the Polynesian culture.

Color-blind is an exploration of the history of outsider interventions in modern French Polynesian history. The legacy of French colonization is, of course, omnipresent. In a series of interviews, Russell shows a set of cards (presumably a triggering image or colour) to European and native participants, asking them to utter the first word that comes to their mind. Though the ideas are adjacent, there are important differences in nuances between the response in French compared to those in Marquesan (cf: Raúl Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale). A native tattooist talks about the outlawing of the practice by colonisers while a Frenchman expresses guilt over France’s atomic tests on the island. A German scholar discusses the work of historian Karl von den Steinen as the first written history about the Marquesas islands. A while into Color-blind, we get fades into and out of details in Gauguin’s canvases, copies of which hang in a local museum. The juxtaposition of documentary footage from the islands with representation of native bodies in these paintings throws into question Gauguin’s choices, which for all its glowing palette, seems no less colour-blind than the girl whose perception the painter presumes to be colour-naïve. It also places Russell’s own film in the outsider tradition, harking back in cinema to at least Murnau and Flaherty.

Mittelmeer (Jean-Marc Chapoulie)

French artist and filmmaker Jean-Marc Chapoulie’s Mittelmeer opens with shots of the Mediterranean Sea as filmed by closed-circuit cameras mounted on beachside hotels. The images evoke ideas of journey and mythical adventures, and the film is indeed offered as a tribute to Jean-Daniel Pollet’s Méditerranée. But these intimations of the timeless are pierced by history, the shot of a road by the Riviera calling to mind the July 2016 attack in Nice above all. Mittelmeer soon confirms the hunch as it trains its attention on the surveillance of public spaces and the public’s access to this surveillance footage. Like Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, Chapoulie’s film politicizes the stretch of geography that summer vacationers take to be a site of fun and relaxation. The Mittelmeer in Mittelmeer is a zone embodying the conflicts of our time. It is the burial ground for scores of refugees and immigrants who try to make their way into Europe and thus a border to be surveyed and protected by the state. It is also a preeminent channel of commerce, especially for large oil companies, the movement of goods across waters being more streamlined than that of people. The same containers become housing in the strictly monitored jungle of Calais.

In this regard, Peter Hutton’s At Sea and Godard’s Film Socialism are points of reference. In one passage, Chapoulie discusses the origin of piracy in the sea, relating it with the migrant inhabitants of Arcadia and noting that it was also the origin of theatre. And so he goes, constantly hopping from one set of ideas to another, from the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in public spaces, to the revolutionary theatre of protestors in the Middle East, to the relation of crude oil to history of imagemaking, to early Lumière films of people fishing and vacationing at beaches, to an American company manufacturing a device to detect shooters based on bullet sounds, to Syrian revolutionaries taking down public cameras. To be sure, these are all interrelated ideas, and stimulating ones at that, but there’s no sense that Chapoulie is synthesizing them into an essay with a central line. He constructs the film wholly from existing footage, at times colour-manipulating it, and adds an original sound mix to them, consisting of a multi-genre musical selection and amplified sounds of actions we see on screen. Also present are three human voices. Chapoulie regularly converses with his son about the images on screen, adding an element of fatherly pedagogy and virtual family vacation to the proceedings. There’s also the voice of Nathalie, a friend-collaborator, who furnishes critical commentary and personal musings. I might be underestimating Mittelmeer, but it’s a work that should’ve been better than it is.

Years of Construction (Heinz Emigholz)

Years of Construction is the first Emigholz film I’ve seen, so I don’t have a framework to access this 29th entry in the filmmaker’s Photography and Beyond series. It’s however a very strong work on its own merit. Charting the demolition and the subsequent reconstruction of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim between 2013-2018, Years presents an architecture in flux. There’s no voiceover or text, we don’t get to know anything about the institution or the building, and the film remains vehemently fixed on the material details of the transformation. Emigholz films the building from countless number of vantage points, sometimes with a Dutch angle and always from a non-intuitive point of view. These unusual compositions, nevertheless consisting of strong, expressionistic lines, serve the same purpose as many of the artworks in the museum: to slow down our eyes and force us to reflect on the architecture which is otherwise experienced simply as a negative space to the artwork. Cutting on matching movement, Emigholz accords about five seconds to each shot, no matter the amount or importance of the details it contains. This all-levelling gaze and cubist superposition asks an ontological question: can a building be completely described? But for Years of Construction, another question lies beneath: what distinguishes a building from its surroundings?

Emigholz puts in dialogue notions of indoor and outdoor all through Years. Each of the film’s six segments begins with the museum’s “exterior”—the face it offers to the surrounding city—before moving inside. He films its façade from across the park opposite, while deep-space interior shots of the museum often show the world outside. The statues in the park don’t have the aura that sculptures in the museum have, and this idea of the museum as a context-provider is at the focus of Years. Reminiscent of Berlin in Walter Ruttmann’s city symphony, Mannheim in Emigholz’s film transforms in a manner comparable to the museum: depopulated at first, it serves as a space to be filled, just like how the photograph-like shots devoid of movement in the film’s first passage give way to the busy action of dinosaur-like machines chomping on steel and concrete. Finally, Years explores the intersection between contemporary architecture and sculpture—two domains that have swapped their classical functions—as articulations of space and volume. The museum architecture, like the modernist sculptures in it, modulates visitor movement through and around it. By familiarising us with the building over 90 minutes, Emigholz obliges us to notice it in action when the museum is finally reopened for public in 2018: the sculptures now become the negative space to the architecture.

Unpublished

The striking feature of recent cinema is the scattering, disappearance even, of human presence, or at least the suppression of the individual, his dilution, his erosion, his erasure, his atomization, I don’t know what the right word is. In order not to compromise myself too much, I’ll speak of “rarefaction”.

 

The situation manifests itself in many forms.

Firstly, there is human erasure to the advantage of the animal. We have in this category some of our successful documentaries, Winged Migration, Microcosmos. But the phenomenon has expanded: the contagion also impacts fiction (The Bear, The Big Blue and its dolphin, Two Brothers and its tigers, Roselyne and the Lions¸ The Fox and the Child). We sense here a desire to seek “nature” in general, rather precious in an era marked by technology. Moreover, Jacques Perrin, the producer of the two aforenamed documentaries has also produced Himalaya, which shows life in a current-day society, but one untouched by civilization. Annaud, the man behind The Bear, also tackled Quest for Fire and His Majesty Minor, a prehistoric super-production, a nostalgia for barbarism that paradoxically requires the most sophisticated technical means.

The predominance of the animal over man already existed in Hollywood cinema in a more specific way through Rin Tin Tin, King Kong, the Disney factory and the products of MGM, which glorified the dog Lassie, the cervid of The Yearling, the nag of National Velvet, the MGM that was, by far, the most reactionary company in Hollywood.

We find a similar equation in France.

Brigitte Bardot, who admirably campaigns for seals, reveals herself through her Mémoires to be rather close to certain racist stances. It’s also true that there still exist canine competitions based on… the purity of breed. Love for animals and racist or right-wing behaviour (cf. François Nourissier) are often interrelated, just like how the love for sport or nature frequently coincides with a reactionary or pro-government ideology.

This massive animal intrusion in cinema is enabled by the very principle of the film exhibition system. Children often go to cinema with their loved ones, which makes for a large viewership. It’s thus a very, very profitable market, much more than that of children’s books, which only children read.

And what the child likes is animals. Many animals are of kids’ size, or even smaller (canaries, dogs, cats). The child can hence dominate them, whereas he is at the mercy of adults. He can even tame a large animal (there are ten-year old mahouts), generally and logically more stupid than the kid.

The infantilization of the entire cinema audience is hence a given, even though most animal films are made specifically for kids. The cream of the crop would be to make films for children that are not too stupid and which even adults can appreciate (Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Demy’s Donkey Skin). Mind you, adults love showing their parental love by going to idiotic movies with their kids. It allows for quid pro quos like this: “You forced me to go see 101 Dalmatians. Now, you’ll help me by staying out of trouble.”

Animal and children’s movies have the advantage of lasting forever: a ten-year old child will go see Snow White in 2009 or in 2039 as much as in 1939. No need for expensive remakes, necessary on the other hand for fiction films, dependent as they are on new stars and modern costumes. Hence, colossal profits.

We see then that man’s erasure to the advantage of the animal, if it’s increasingly frequent in cinema, doesn’t offer much of interest. It’s pretty low-brow stuff.

 

On the other hand, there exists a temporary distancing of man, a distancing that I’d call “tactical”, which can turn out to be very productive. We find it in classical American cinema. It’s not a distancing of man in general, but an obscuration, a withholding of the hero, specifically at the beginning of a film. The hero doesn’t appear until several minutes, sometimes half-an-hour, into the film, and we find it hard to spot him. A good example would be the beginning of Sergeant York, where we don’t immediately recognize Gary Cooper, who appears at the end of the second reel, deep in the frame, somewhat hidden. The beginning of the film helps depict the ambiance. The other characters of the film, always blended into the story, seem to have been picked up on the spot, played as they are by less-known actors. The viewer hence has an impression of reality unfolding. A while later, there is the sudden entrance of the hero, who is not only the beloved star, but apparently also someone like the others whom we’ll have the pleasure of recognizing (we had paid to see him, we aren’t conned, phew!), someone who is close to you and anchored in the reality of a quasi-documentary. It’s the same device we find in Raoul Walsh, notably in A Lion is in the Streets.

This also corresponds to the structure of the classical novel: twenty or thirty pages of presenting the place, the milieu, the era, the secondary characters, before coming to the protagonists. It is, for example, Balzac’s approach in The Duchess of Langeais, whose main action starts very late.

We find this tactic in Tavernier’s films such as Captain Conan or Safe Conduct. The device doesn’t work as well in Conan given it’s not Gary Cooper, but less-famous actors, like Philippe Torreton or Didier Bezace, whom we don’t necessarily recognize. When it’s Gary Cooper, we at least understand right away that he’s the hero…

In every sequence of Safe Conduct, thanks to a colossal effort, Tavernier succeeds in making his hero, Gamblin, emerge after a few seconds in an ambiance that’s already carefully developed. Gamblin becomes part of the reality. His character becomes incontestable, irrefutable.

This initial erasure of the protagonist is a brilliant dramatic trick that glorifies his future presence all the more.

We find an even more modern approach that begins with Purple Noon (Réné Clément, 1959), where, in the middle of a police plot, the camera loses track of the story and lazily shows various stalls of a fish market—a nice diversion that Pierre Kast will repeat in 1978 with Le Soleil en face.

The principle will be amplified in Antonioni. In L’Avventura (1959), the heroine, Lea Massari, mysteriously disappears from a small island. The other characters will spend a good part of the film looking for her in vain (there will be a similar disappearance of the heroine mid-film in Hitchcock’s Psycho, made three months later, but it turns out better: we see right away that she is murdered).

And there’s the astounding ending of L’Éclipse (1961): Antonioni leaves the star couple Alain Delon-Monica Vitti once and for all to linger for about ten minutes on urban still life, roads, buildings, cars, trees etc., forgetting human beings altogether.

I confess that I don’t appreciate most of Antonioni’s films; they are boring, but I must acknowledge that he set a precedent, that he started something. He’s a precursor. In my opinion, he paid the price. But his influence, as well will see later, seems incontestable. He is singlehandedly responsible for the existence of more elaborate works his colleagues and imitators will produce.

Godard’s entire career seems to constitute a quest towards an increasingly provocative and radical erasure of man, of the individual, of the actor. Starting from the omnipresence of Anna Karina or Belmondo, he’ll proceed, step by step, to diminish the human being, to exclude him, forget him, to deny his identity. For a start, the dubbing of Belmondo by Godard himself in Charlotte et son Jules (1958) was prophetic. And later, there were the long theoretical speeches made by an invisible actor over the image of a silent worker in the middle of Week-end (1967). And even more drastically, the non-performance of the two superstars Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, often filmed from behind, in Tout va bien (1973): the presence of stars and their vacuity for the sake of the form; their fall from the pedestal… we can also wonder whether it’s the imposture of the star system or the minimalism proper to each human being, a simple atom lost in the world, that the film expresses. Or maybe both at once.

Godard will go farther with Nouvelle Vague (1990), where Alain Delon—decidedly destined for the suppression his personality seems to cry out for—occupies an insignificant place compared to the invasive trees, who will be the only stars of Germany Year Zero (1991).

 

Long live oaks, down with penguins. Such is the lesson of modern cinema1.

These films by Godard belong to his Maoist or post-Mao period, and so it wouldn’t be surprising to find a very similar perspective of man in Asian or Chinese filmmakers2.

 

To simplify things, I’ll take three examples (but there are many more): Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 1996), Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006) and Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2006). I’m certainly a little embarrassed to put in the same Asian bag filmmakers from distant places separated by three-thousand kilometres, different languages and belief systems. It reminds me of my guide in Peru, who clubbed the Spanish and the Finnish under the same word: “Europa” … But as we will see, there is nevertheless a number of commonalities.

Hou’s film certainly shows us human beings throughout its runtime. But our perspective of them is seriously disturbed by the mise en scène, which makes sure that we only see very little of them. They frequently remain in the shadows, they are filmed from behind, women’s faces remaining covered by their hair. And all this in vast, static group shots, in which humans appear lost. Characters have an important and animated discussion in the background, somewhat concealed and hardly visible, while in the foreground we clearly see a dog and a man who are simply eating. A while later, we see a rather dramatic scuffle deep in the frame. And there’s absolutely nothing in the foreground. Sequence-shots are often filmed from up high, which allows to pack more people into the frame and reduces human beings to puppets. Long sequences interrupt the story to show us a car or a motorbike in transit (line in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours) or to present the city’s neon lights.

The image of the broken-down car with the protagonists in it is reduced to nothing by the darkness of the night. The petty intrigues of the principal characters are all the more diminished, minimized, revealed to be Lilliputian compared to the grand fresco of life, often centred on the car or the motorbike.

This is what surfaces from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film as well. Shots of green nature or of modern buildings break the fragile story containing two plots. The female character is only a stray reflection within the general image of the meadow. The unsettling, surrealist, round orifice of the airduct robs the actors of their star status. Perhaps to prevent the risk of our identification with the actor, the film changes its story midway, as is always the case with Weerasethakul. There are two vague centres of interest, one after the other. The relationship between them remains rather feeble, as in Still Life, which I’ll come back to. This predilection for the diptych or the triptych format is affirmed even more evidently in Hou’s Three Times, and the Singaporean Khoo’s Be with Me and Twelve Storeys. A single story would give too much importance to the individual, who must always be embedded in a collective fresco encompassing other humans and the universe.

We shouldn’t be surprised to find this importance of the collective and of unanimity in the China of Still Life, but it could seem more surprising in a Thai filmmaker and in the Taiwanese Hou, who, it is true, was born in continental China. It’s perhaps that communism has established itself all the more easily in these lands because the mental and religious ambiance of the Asian continent is inherently predisposed to facilitate this galloping collectivism. The suppression of man seen in films from the Far East can also be explained by the fact that Asian religions endure better than Christianity, torpedoed by triumphant individualism.

In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, we find not only this scattering of the individual within the shot or the film (like in Hou), but also the increasing importance of the natural, temporal element, which make us forget about man a little. Syndromes is firstly the story of natural or artificial landscape, of the sun and the moon, just like how Blissfully Yours was the story of the Edenic forest and river, of their repetitive and haunting sonic ambiance. In Blissfully, characters exist through a part of their body—like in Bresson—and not through their face or their thoughts, rather mysteriously for us.

What counts especially is “time”. We might see an immobile character for eternity. What’s important is not the character, but the time that flows—a sprawl alien to the norms of film production.

 

Still Life makes this constant of Asian cinema even more evident. It involves, first and foremost, showing the relationship of man to the world3, his real, miniscule place within the universe. The two plots narrated here, which are finally the same despite their surface inversion (the search for the lost spouse is undertaken, in the first part, by a man and, in the second, by a woman), are a pretext to a quasi-documentary revelation of exterior world.

The word “pretext” is perhaps excessive since these plots are not uninteresting, nor devoid of meaning. But it’s that this expansion of romantic problems doesn’t last long since we feel that, beyond the temporal limits Jia sets them, it’s all likely to collapse into soap opera or melodrama.

Jia can thus end up, thanks to a discreet common thread represented by one character or another, with a “smooth-flowing” presentation, like the Yangtze River, of a cosmic whole that includes, among other things, light effects (the illumination on the bridge), the fascination of a new spectacle provided by the destruction and submersion of a city (a theme that Villier’s and Giono’s Girl and the River, Kazan’s Wild River and even Dovzhenko’s Poem of the Sea could exploit well), the customary plots, schemes and fights in contemporary China, a certain natural and artificial fantasy based on an astounding dialectic. I’m thinking of the building that collapses without warning in the background to the discussion between two protagonists and of the rocket that takes off while, in the same frame, a woman hangs her laundry on a cord. We have here, in the same shot, neorealism and Star Wars at once.

And the mutation of the city (thanks to a destruction that’s a nice change for us from the interminable, gigantic constructions offered by industrial, super-spectacular cinema) only reinforces the feeling of mutation of the characters during the time that has passed before the beginning of the film and which is invoked here.

Finally, in Jia’s work, the erasure of man, of the protagonist, is part of a general, cosmic plan for the film that requires that no single element—psychological, thematic, visual or aesthetic—be preponderant.

Of course, this rarefaction of the individual remains somewhat theoretical since each image is filmed by a team of invisible human beings, since the landscape of cities and fields has been elaborated by man. But let’s remember, on the other hand, that the films where we only see heroes talking in tight shots are often lazy and empty of humanity.

It’s clear that this insertion of the individual bit by bit into the film’s body, an uncommon sprinkling, is likely to unsettle western audience, used as it is to follow the hero’s journey from beginning to end, to whose eyes all shots without the protagonists or without humans are “longueurs”.

But our excessive glorification of individualism, beyond all ideological positions, opens up only limited and beaten paths in cinema in 2007, compared to all the perspectives that this new insertion into the filmic work offers: fragmentary, implicit and in outlines. The fixation on the individual has nothing do with a purported cinematic ontology, it was already brilliantly broached by some of our occidental filmmakers and by the loss, which I’d label Bressonian, of the fundamental role of the actor, doomed by Hollywood to cover up the shortcomings of a false, unbelievable and conventional American script through his art, his body language, his facial expression, his phrasing and his rhythm.

 

1Note the importance of trees in Straub and Serreau (Saint Jacques… La Mecque). Trees that outlive man.

2Antonioni was to make a long documentary on China himself. This new Sinophilia (cf. Ivens or Bertolucci) succeeds a return to India started from 1950 onwards by Renoir, Rossellini, Malle, even Lang and Cukor.

3Jia’s cinema, and Far Eastern cinema in general, make a more pertinent use of stereoscopy than Hollywood, too preoccupied with easy effects: man in the middle and, on the right and left of the screen, the rest of the world.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Experimenta

The ninth edition of Experimenta, the now-biennial experimental and avant-garde film festival of India helmed by Shai Heredia, took place between 25th and 29th of November in Bangalore. Besides the international competition section, the roster consisted of sidebars on the politics of film form, the materially violent personal films of Louise Bourque (curated by Lauren Howes), the digital-video and television-based experiments of Bjørn Melhus (himself), the tranquil cine-haikus of Helga Fanderl (herself) and contemporary Indonesian (Akbar Yumni) and Filipino experimental cinema (Shireen Sono), each of them introducing me to unexplored territories of the avant-garde. The festival also sought to respond to the recent happenings in the country and show solidarity with the student protests at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Three realizations from the festival:

  1. Although a forward-looking curiosity to explore what the formats of the new century have to offer finds a salutary counterpoint from a tendency to militate for film (Melhus’ cinema, always in conversation with the latest technological developments, and Fanderl’s Super-8 partisanship that includes the act of changing-reels as part of the presentation), the exigencies of festival programming and the ease of breaking in to the filmmaking scene has, at least in this festival, rendered digital video ubiquitous (only 4 of the 30 films in competition were made on film, and these too were projected digitally).
  2. Dictatorship and state repression, for better or worse, continue to be very productive frameworks to work within and supply artists with perennial inspiration. The Philippines has come a quarter century since the Marcos regime, Indonesia’s been recovering for 17 years since Suharto’s fall and Thailand’s reeling from last year’s military coup. The films from these countries in the festival all respond to them in ways direct and oblique.
  3. Apichatpong’s opened a Pandora’s box.

(The following are some notes on 23 of the 30 films in competition. I could not see the rest and will update this post if I get to see them any time soon.)

 

32 AND 4 (Chan Hau Chun, China, 2015, 32min)

32 And 4Chan’s diaristic digital work is divided into chapters named after family members and unfurls as a process of piecing together of familial history. Through various confrontational interviews with her mother and father, the filmmaker attempts to understand their failed marriage, her strained relation with her step-father and the violence that has structured them both. Chan’s decision to put her entire life-story on film is a brave gesture, but the film closes upon itself, satisfied to be a melodrama valorizing personal experience over broader frameworks. (Consider, in contrast, the rigorous domestic formalism of Liu Jiayin or the socio-political tapestry of Jia Zhangke’s early work.) Chan misses the forest for the lone tree. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

BEEP (Kyung-man Kim, South Korea, 2014, 11min)

BeepBeep assembles anti-communist propaganda material from the 60s and the 70s commissioned by the South Korean state that was based on the mythologizing of a young boy, Lee Seung-bok, slain by North Korean soldiers. With the unseen, absent boy-hero at its focus, Kim’s film depicts the dialectical manner in which a nation defines itself in relationship to an imagined Other. Kim makes minimal aesthetic intervention into the source material – our relation to it automatically ironic by dint of our very distance from the period it was made in – restricting himself to adding periodic beep sounds to the footage, producing something like a cautionary transmission from another world.

BLACK SUN (Truong Que Chi, Vietnam, 2013, 12min)

Black SunBlack Sun opens with a composition in deep space presenting a metonym for a country in the process of development: high-rise buildings in the background as a pair of actors in period costumes rehearse a scene in the foreground. In a series of Jia Zhangke-like vignettes of Saigon set in middle-class youth hangouts scored to pop songs and television sounds, interspersed with images of a metamorphosing city, we see the distance that separates art from reality and the middle-class from the changes around it. The film culminates in a complex, home-made long take following the protagonist across her house and out into the terrace, where she dances, presumably to the eponymous song.

CLOUD SHADOW (Anja Dornieden & Juan David Gonzalez Monroy, Germany, 2015, 17min)

WolkenschattenThe most challenging and elusive film of the competition I saw is also the most hypnotic. Cloud Shadow gives us a narrative of sorts in first person about a group of people who go into the woods and dissolve in its elements. The film is obliquely a story of the fascination with cinema, of the trans-individualist communal experience it promises, of the desire to dissolve the limits of one’s body into the images and sounds it offers. With an imagery consisting of sumptuous tints, and nuanced colour gradation and superimpositions, the film enraptures as much as it evades easy intellectual grasp. The one film of the festival that felt most like a half-remembered dream.

DOG, DEAR (Luca Ferri, Italy, 2014, 18min)

Dear DogFerri’s teasing, playful Dog, Dear appropriates the filmed record of a Soviet zoological experiment in the 1940s in which scientists impart motor functions to different parts of a dead dog. In the incantatory soundtrack, a woman – presumably the animal’s owner – repeatedly conveys messages to it, with each of them prefaced by the titular term of endearment. Ferri’s film would serve sufficiently as a blunt political allegory about the dysfunction of communism, but I think it’s probably fashioning itself as a metaphysical question: the dog might well be kicking but is he alive? His physical resurrection will not be accompanied by a restoration of consciousness. He will not respond to his master’s voice.

ENDLESS, NAMELESS (Mont Tesprateep, Thailand, 2014, 23min)

Endless NamelessPut together from footage apparently shot over twenty years at a Thai army officer’s residence, Tesprateep’s film shows us four conscripts working in the general’s garden. We witness their camaraderie, their obvious boredom, the empty bravado in entrapping small animals and intimidating each other. The misuse of power by the officer in employing these youth to mow his lawn reflects a broader militaristic hierarchy, as is attested by the youths’ casual violence towards the animals and their brutal torturing of a prisoner. Endless, Nameless recalls Claire Denis in its emphasis on military performativity and Werner Herzog in its juxtaposition of idyllic nature and seething violence, all the while retaining an immediate critical concern.

FICTITIOUS FORCE (Philip Widmann, Germany, 2015, 15min)

Fictitious ForceIn Fictitious Force, Widmann incidentally poses himself the age-old challenge of ethnological cinema; how to film the Other without imposing your own worldview on him? The filmmaker smartly takes the Chris Marker route, avoiding explanatory voiceover for the rather physical Hindu ritual he photographs and instead holding it at a slightly mystifying – but never exoticizing – distance. Widmann’s film is about this distance, the chasm between experience and knowledge that prevents the observer from experiencing what the observed is experiencing, however understanding he might be. Fictitious Force’s considered reflexivity carefully circumvents the all-too-common trap of conflating the subjectivities of the photographer and the photographed.

FISH POINT (Pablo Mazzolo, Argentina, 2015, 8min)

Fish PointFashioned out of footage that the artist shot during his visit to the titular natural reserve in Ontario, Fish Point comes across as an impressionist cine-sketch of the locale. The film opens with Daichi Saito-esque silhouettes of trees against harsh pulsating light – near-monochrome shots that are then superimposed over a slow, green-saturated pan shot of a section of a forest. This segment gives way to a passage with purely geometric compositions consisting of alternating browns and greens and strong horizontals and verticals. Forms change abruptly and tints become more diffuse and earthly. We are finally shown the sea and the horizon, with a rough map of the area overlaid on the imagery.

HAIL THE BODHISATTVA OF COLLECTED JUNK (Ye Mimi, Taiwan, 2015, 7min)

Hail The BodhisattvaA music video for a song that reportedly riffs on a holy chant and the traditional cry of the local ragman, Ye’s film starts out with shots of old women and men lip-syncing to the titular melody before turning increasingly darker. The rag picker of the poem progresses from accepting material refuse to buying off diseases, emotional traumas and even intolerable human characters. Ye builds the video using shots both documentary and voluntarily-performed that portray everyday life in Taiwan as being poised between tradition and modernity. The junkman of the film then becomes a witness to all that the society rejects and, hence, to all that it stands for.

IMRAAN, C/O CARROM CLUB (Udita Bhargava, India, 2015, 14min)

ImraanSet in a suburban Mumbai slum, Bhargava’s film takes a look into one of the reportedly many carrom clubs in the area where young boys come to play, smoke and generally indulge in displays of precocious masculinity. Where Imraan, the 11-year-old manager of the club, seems reticent before the camera, his peers and clients are much more willing to perform adulthood in front of the filming crew. While some of them are acutely aware of the intrusive presence of the camera, urging their friends not to project a bad image of the country, the film itself seems indifferent about the ethics of filming these youngsters, asking them condescending questions with a problematic, non-committal non-judgmentalism.

MASANAO ABE – CLOUDGRAPHY (Helmut Völter, Germany, 2015, 5min)

CloudographyVölter’s visually pleasing and relaxing silent film is a compilation of scientific documents of cloud movement over the Mount Fuji recorded from a static observatory by Japanese physicist Masanao Abe in the 1920s and 1930s. Abe’s problem was also one of cinema’s primary challenges: to study the invisible through the visible; in this case, to examine air currents through cloud patterns. The air currents take numerous different directions and these variegated views of the mountain situate the film in the tradition of Mt. Fuji paintings. The end product is a James Benning-like juxtaposition of fugitive and stable forms, a duet between rapidly changing and unchanging natural entities.

MEMORIALS (Korou Khundrakpam, India, 2014, 25min)

MemorialsThe most narrative film of the competition, Memorials situates itself in the tradition of 21st century Slow Cinema with its elliptical exposition, stylized longueurs, (a bit too) naturalistic sound and its overall emphasis on Bazinian realism. A young man revisits his father’s house long after his passing and starts discovering him through the objects of his everyday use, while a dead fish becomes the instrument of meditation and grieving. Though rather conventional in its workings, Memorials offers the details in its interstices fairly subtly and touches upon the usual themes of inter-generational inheritance and posthumous rapprochement, while also gesturing towards a necessary break from the past.

NATEE CHEEWIT (Phaisit Punprutsachat, Thailand, 2014, 20min)

ExperimentaPunprutsachat’s work is a straightforward document of the protracted rescue of a water buffalo from a man-made well on a sultry summer afternoon by dozens of village folk. Shot with a handheld digital camera and employing mostly on-location sound, the film presents to us the efforts of the villagers in chipping away at the edifice, restraining the animal from agitating and finally allowing it to go back to its herd. Natee Cheewit attempts to encapsulate the idea of eternal struggle between man and animal and, more broadly, between nature and civilization. The remnants of the demolished pit and the dog wandering about it are reminders of this sometimes symbiotic, sometimes destructive interaction.

NIGHT WATCH (Danaya Chulphuthiphong, Thailand, 2014, 10min)

Night WatchNight Watch is reportedly set in the days following the military coup in Thailand in May, 2014 – a period of state repression dissimulated by triumphalist propaganda about reigning happiness. Chulphuthiphong’s debut film showcases one quiet night during this period. Jacques Tati-esque cross-sectional shots of isolated apartments and office spaces show the citizenry complacently cloistered in their domestic and professional spaces, much like the sundry critters that crawl about in the night. Someone surfs through television channels. Most of them are censored, the rest telecast inane entertainment.  Night Watch underscores the mundanity and the ordinariness of the whole situation, which is the source of the film’s horror.

REPLY; REPEAT; REPEATED; DELETE; FAVORITE; FAVORITED (Ouchi Reiko, Japan, 2014, 6min)

reply repeat repeatedA rapid editing rhythm approximating the audiovisual assault of the information age, a visual idiom weaving together anime, pencil-drawing and Pink Film aesthetic and a soundscape consisting of reversed audio and noise of clicking mice and shattering glass defines Ouchi’s high-strung portrayal of modern adolescent anxieties. In a progressively sombre, cyclic series of events, a teenager navigates the real and virtual worlds that are haunted by sex and death around her. Ouchi’s pulsating, mutating forms and her preoccupation with the hyper-sexualization of visual culture are reminiscent of Nobuhiro Aihara’s work and the spirit of Maya Deren also hovers above in the film’s centralization of the female body and mind.

SCRAPBOOK (Mike Hoolboom, Canada, 2015, 18min)

ScrapbookOne of the high points of the festival, Scrapbook consists of videograms shot in 1967 in a care centre in Ohio for autistic children with commentary by one of the patients, Donna, recorded (and curiously re-performed by a voiceover artist at Donna’s request) in 2014. Donna’s words – indeed, her very use of the pronoun ‘I’ – not only attest to the vast improvement in her personal mental condition, but also throw light on the psychological mechanisms that engender a self-identity. For Donna and the other children-patients filming each other, the act of filming and watching substitutes for their thwarted mirror-stage of psychological development, helping them experience their own individuality, reclaim their bodies. Bracing stuff.

SECOND SUN (Leslie Supnet, Canada, 2014, 4min)

Second SunCanadian animator Leslie Supnet’s hand-drawn animation piece is an extension of her previous work First Sun (2014), with the monochrome drawings of the latter giving way to bright primary pencil colours. Like its predecessor, Second Sun extensively employs basic geometrical shapes to represent cosmic phenomena and is scored to an exhortative percussive soundtrack hinting at a ritual, a summoning. The figures move strictly horizontally or vertically on checkered paper as though underscoring their mathematically precise cyclicity, with the central solar circle spawning clone stars, moons, planets and an entire solar system. The overall impression is that of witnessing a trance-inducing cultic invocation.

THE ASYLUM (Prapat Jiwarangsan, Thailand, 2015, 10min)

The AsylumAccording to the program notes, the project brings together a real-life DJ who has lost her job after the coup d’etat in 2014 and an actual illegal immigrant boy from Myanmar at a secluded pond in the woods to allow them to do what they can’t in real life. We see the DJ perform for the camera, talking with imaginary strangers, giving and playing unheard songs, while the boy is content in tossing stones into the moss-covered pond. Like a structural film, The Asylum, alternates between the DJ’s ‘calls’ and the boy’s quiet alienation, taking occasional albeit unmotivated excursions into impressionist image-making, to weave a vignette about ordinary people made fugitives overnight.

THE BACKYARD (Yusuf Radjamuda, Indonesia, 2013, 12min)

The BackyardA Kiarostami-like narrative minimalism characterizes Radjamuda’s naturalistic sketch in digital monochrome of a lazy holiday afternoon. A young boy perched near the window of his house engages in a series of self-absorbed activities, while actions quotidian and dramatic, including a hinted domestic conflict, wordlessly unfold around him off-screen. A series of shallow-focus shots rally around a wide-angle master shot of the backyard to establish clear spatial relations. Literally and metaphorically set at the boundary between the inside and the outside of the house – home and the world – Radjamuda’s film is a pocket-sized paean to childhood’s privilege of insouciance and to the transformative power of imagination.

THE LAST MANGO BEFORE THE MONSOON (Payal Kapadia, India, 2015, 19min)

THe Last Mango Before The MonsoonThe shadow of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is strongest in Kapadia’s three-part work about the cycles of life, death and reincarnation and the interaction between mankind and nature, between the real and the surreal. Set in various regions of India and in multiple languages and shot predominantly between dusk and dawn, the film has a beguiling though mannered visual quality to it, with its appeal predicated on primal, elemental evocations of the supernatural. While Kapadia’s superimposition of line drawings on shot footage to depict man’s longing for and transformation into nature demands attention, the film itself seems derivative and a bit too enamoured of its influences.

THEY’RE NOT FAVA BEANS, THEY’RE SCARLET RUNNER BEANS (Tânia Dinis, Portugal, 2013, 10min)

Fava BeansA potential companion piece to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014), Dinis’s digitally shot home movie unfolds as a commentary upon itself. Consisting of scenes from the everyday routine of the filmmaker’s animal-loving grandmother, overlaid with a spontaneous conversational commentary on them by Dinis and her rather talkative and humourous granny, the film is partly a tribute to the latter personality and partly a reflection on the capacity of cinema to preserve memory of people, time and place. Like in Porumboiu’s movie, cinema furnishes the possibility of continuity between generations and the opportunity to meditate on the similarity and difference between them.

WHAT DAY IS TODAY (Colectivo Fotograma 24, Portugal, 2015, 13min)

What Day Is TodayAt least as formally innovative as Rithy Panh’s The Missing Image (2014), What Day Is Today, made by a young film collective from Montemor-o-Novo based on testimonies from older compatriots, digitally carves out from newspapers and newsreels human figures that act out the history contained in them. Charting the course of Portugal from the fascist period, through the Carnation Revolution and up to its Eurozone woes, the film depicts a nation which overcame oppression, poverty, superstition and inequality only to lapse into a passive consumerist catatonia, in the process abandoning the vision of the revolution and letting itself be hostage to a host of external economic forces.

WIND CASTLE (Prantik Basu, India, 2014, 14min)

Wind CastleWind Castle opens with a complex composition made of an unfinished (or destroyed) building behind a burnt crater, with the moon in full bloom. We are somewhere in the Indian hinterlands, a brick manufacturing site tucked inside large swathes of commercial plantations. Basu’s camera charts the territory in precise, X-axis tracking shots that form a counterpoint to the verticality of the trees. Noise from occasional on-location radios and trucks fill the soundtrack. A surveyor studies the area and trees are marked. ‘Development’ is perhaps around the corner. But the rain gods arrive first. Basu’s quasi-rural-symphony paints an atmospheric picture of quiet lives closer to and at the mercy of nature.

(Images courtesy: Various film festival websites)

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