Tag Archives: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

CAPSULE: “MARTIN SCORSESE’S WORLD CINEMA PROJECT, VOL. 2”

DIRECTED BY: Lufi O. Akad (Law of the Border), Lino Brocka (Insiang), Mario Peixoto (Limite), Ermek Shinarbaev (Revenge), (Mysterious Object at Noon), Edward Yang (Taipei Story)

FEATURING: Tsai Chin (Taipei Story), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taipei Story), Yilmaz Guney (Law of the Border), Hilda Koronel (Insiang)

PLOT: This box set contains six newly restored art films from across the globe, most of which have never been released separately.

Stil from Limite (1931)
Still from Limite (1931)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “World Cinema Project” is an initiative to preserve films from around the world (especially the third world) which have cultural value as relics of their particular times and places, but which alone lack the commercial appeal necessary for market forces to do the job. While there are some curious obscurities in this second set, none of them are strong enough to demand a separate review, much less contend for a spot among the weirdest films of all time.

COMMENTS: Of the six random entries in the latest installment of the -led film preservation, surprisingly, half of them include elements that might spark the interest of fans of weird cinema. We can deal with the three others quickly enough. 1966’s Law of the Border is a “Turkish Western” about smugglers on the Syrian/Turkish border who try, and fail, to go straight as sharecroppers. A work of social realism, but with action-oriented gunfights, it’s somewhat confusing as narrative and rudimentary as cinema. The Filipino melodrama Insiang (1976), about a pretty but much-abused slum dweller who devises a complicated revenge plot against her embittered mother and a much older seducer, fares better, engaging the viewer’s interest and sympathies. Edward Yang’s Tapei Story (1985) is standard arthouse fare: a stately but not exactly gripping social drama about urban ugliness and alienation, generational clashes and changes, and so on. It may well win over intellectual-minded drama-hounds with its realism and cynicism, but it gave me a distinct “been there, done that—only now in Taiwan” feeling.

The three less conventional entries deserve slightly more attention, although none of them have quite enough weird weight to merit a full review (though if any spark your interest, by all means chase them down). Limite is a legendary Brazilian silent film, long thought lost and even now missing crucial elements, which turns out to be underwhelming. It’s the only film of Mario Peixoto, who was only twenty-one at the time. It’s “poetic” and “meditative,” which is to say, slower and more obscure than it needs to be. Peixoto shows a good deal of talent, with a gripping contextless opening image of a handcuffed woman which could have come from a lost Buñuel/Dalí collaboration and a humorously inventive tracking shot where the camera outpaces its wandering subject, then doubles back to catch up with her as she leans against a post, resting. Mostly, however, it’s composed of a lot of scenes of a scraggly threesome languishing in a lifeboat, with largely dialogue-free flashbacks explaining how they got there. Overlong and unclear, with many superfluous, indulgent camera experiments, it seems more like a first draft of a good movie rather than a completed masterpiece.

In a way ‘s Mysterious Object at Noon is the outlier in the set, since “Joe”‘s fan base is large enough that his 2000 feature debut has long been available on video (although this release marks its first appearance on Region A Blu-ray). It is doubtlessly a strange film, nonetheless, even by Joe’s standards. A narrative/documentary hybrid, the concept is that the director goes on a road trip through rural Thailand, inviting the people he meets to add a new chapter to a story. He films some of these sequences as mini-movies, stages another as a play, and spends a lot of time simply interviewing the participants. Unfortunately, the tale they come up with, about a crippled boy, his live-in teacher, and an alien, is disjointed and absurd in an uninvolving way; Mysterious Object is only interesting on the slightest formal and intellectual level. The experiment is ultimately a failure, though a noteworthy one.

1989’s Revenge, a Kazakhstani effort made during the glasnost period, is the set’s biggest surprise. The movie was made under the old Soviet apparatus but orphaned, with no funds for distribution or promotion, when that empire dissolved only two years later. It’s a sprawling near-epic of a man literally conceived as a tool of revenge for the murder of the sister he never knew, bookended by Buddhist parables. Born to be a poet but fated to be an avenger, mystical occurrences dog the boy’s journey from Korea through China to Russia in pursuit of his sister’s killer. It’s a strange and spiritual plea for poetry above worldliness, lit by outstanding cinematography and draped in vivid period costuming. Had more of the movies in the set been unexpected revelations like this one, this edition of the “World Cinema Project” might have earned a general recommendation.

While each of these films is significant in some way, they aren’t, as a lot, overlooked masterpieces. There’s a reason that none of them were considered commercial enough for a standalone release. (The exceptions, perhaps, are Mysterious Object, which was previously released on DVD, and Limite, which could have been marketed to hardcore cinema historians as a lost cult film). As a purchase, the set is hard to recommend except to the most dedicated film scholars with an overabundance of disposable income. The movies have so little uniting them that even if you were intrigued by three of these titles, that would still leave you paying for another three you had little to no interest in. Highbrow cinephiles may feel obliged to salivate at this buffet, but sadly, the spread elevates diversity above quality.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At once indispensible and flawed, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 2 is best viewed as another fine product from the hopefully ongoing collaboration between Criterion and the WCP, even if the grouping of films remains, as with the first set, little more than incidental.”–Clayton Dillard, Slant

CAPSULE: CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram

PLOT: Soldiers struck with an inexplicable sleeping sickness are housed at an old school, and a housewife volunteer develops an empathic bond with one young victim, which may involve entering his dreams.

Still from Cemetery of Splendor (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fans of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who mercifully nicknamed himself “Joe” for the benefit of Western audiences) know exactly what to expect from his latest experiment in dream cinema: long takes, quiet moods, the blurring of the line between the real and unreal, and mundane dramatics that subtly slip into the surreal. Cemetery will please those he’s already won over, but his Palme d’Or winning breakthrough Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives makes for a better representative of his sleepy, spiritually weird style. We wouldn’t rule out adding another of Joe’s movies to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies down the road, but it will need to venture farther into the bizarre than Cemetery does.

COMMENTS: With four minutes of nearly silent establishing shots—showing sleeping soldiers being shipped by the truckload to the makeshift hospital, and our limping protagonist making her way up the wooden planks of the porch on her way to volunteer duty—Weerasethakul throws down the gauntlet to viewers’s attention spans. This introduction is followed by an initial half-hour that seems composed mostly of long and medium shots of young men sleeping, with middle-aged women quietly sitting by their bedsides watching over them, and a lunch break to introduce the fact that one of them has psychic abilities. (We also, for reasons only Joe could explain, watch a man poop in the woods).

The movie, set in a leafy Thai jungle and scored to the hum of insects and distant rumbling backhoes, lulls us into a peaceful mood. We might be forgiven for wondering if we have fallen asleep ourselves and are dreaming when things start to change. Does the soldier Jen watches over, Itt, briefly wake up and take a meal with her? Maybe, maybe not, but surely two dead princess don’t visit her at a picnic table at the dinosaur park to share fruit and explain a possible origin of the sleeping sickness. And we might doubt that the psychic licks Jen’s deformed leg as a form of therapy. And when amoebas appear drifting among the clouds in the sky, you can be absolutely sure it’s a dream.

Cemetery of Splendor never goes anywhere, so there’s nothing to wrap up. The soldiers, and their caretakers, simply sleep and dream on, and at some point Weerasethakul decides to turn the camera off. A paradoxical offering from a Valium-toned auteur, Cemetery of Splendor is simultaneously minor and profound, inconclusive and whole. It’s a film you’re proud to have seen, but in no rush to watch again.

For those not yet ready to wake up, the 2016 Strand DVD includes a “making of” featurette and deleted scenes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[Weerasethakul’a] movies work best when they’re washing over you, even when — in fact, especially when — things get weird.”–Matt Prigge, Metro

100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

AKA Uncle Boonmee

“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before  me.”—Title card at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

FEATURING: Thanapat Saisaymar, , Sakda Kaewbuadee, Kanokporn Tongaram

PLOT: On his plantation in rural Thailand, the dying Boonmee is visited by living relatives and the ghosts of his past. As they ease him into death, the story is interrupted through vignettes that may represent his memories of past lives.

BACKGROUND:

  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul considerately refers to himself as “Joe” when speaking to Western audiences.
  • Uncle Boonmee is loosely based on a 1983 book by Phra Sripariyattiweti, a monk from Apichatpong’s hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand.
  • The film is a feature-length component of Primitive, Apichatpong’s ongoing multimedia project, which also encompasses a number of video installations and the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua.
  • Received the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Jury president Tim Burton described it as “a beautiful, strange dream.”
  • Sakda, who plays Boonmee’s nephew Tong, and Kanokporn, who plays his nurse Roong, played characters of the same names in Apichatpong’s earlier films Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours, respectively. In both cases, it’s unclear if they’re meant to be the same characters.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s chock-full of beguiling, whimsical imagery, the single most memorable sight in Uncle Boonmee is that of a princess in a lagoon, undulating with pleasure as she receives oral sex from a catfish. (Unsurprisingly, the words “catfish sex” became synonymous with Uncle Boonmee‘s brand of weirdness immediately following its Cannes premiere.)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Critics sometimes identify Apichatpong’s style as a mix of


Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

surrealism and neorealism, and this is a handy skeleton key for getting at Uncle Boonmee‘s weird nature. The film contains plenty of enigmatic images and seeming non sequiturs, but they’re framed as natural, even welcome steps in the cycle of life and death. The characters accept them nonchalantly, going along with the film’s dream logic and implicitly entreating viewers to do the same. No clear border separates the mystical from the mundane. And two hours in, when it feels like you should be totally inured to Uncle Boonmee‘s disorienting twists, along comes a denouement that renders everything else normal by comparison.

COMMENTS: An ox, having escaped its tether, strolls through the forest at twilight.  Eventually, Continue reading 100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

GUEST REVIEW: UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010)

Guest review by Kevyn Knox of The Cinematheque.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by the Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (now there are a couple of mouthfuls-and-a-half) is certainly not a film (or filmmaker) for everyone, but if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who can appreciate this dissident director’s young, but deeply-seeded oeuvre, then you will most certainly like this latest film by the man affectionately called ‘Joe.’  Perhaps the director’s best, most fluid work yet, matching or perhaps even surpassing his esoteric treatise on love, Tropical Malady, and his most heralded work, the subtly sublime Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee (as we will shorten it from here on out) is a grand fable that not only incorporates the folktales we have come to expect from this director, but also the personal and political concerns that have also become a staple for good ole ‘Joe’.

Keeping with tradition (traditions of Thai folklore and of Apichatpong’s stream-of-consciousness works) we get the story of a dying man who is reunited with his family—both living, dead (and in-between)—and the rituals and rites that come with both living and dying (and in-between). We also get, again keeping with tradition, an otherworldly tale that involves mysterious, red-eyed Sasquatchian creatures roaming the jungles of Thailand.  The cinematic works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul can be alluded to (though by no means explained or defined) by the paraphrasing of a cherished Hollywood classic—talking monkeys and tigers and bears, oh my.  The filmmaker’s style of sociopolitical (and oft-times autobiographical) movie making, with his slow, wandering camera, lazily weaving between reality and fantasy as easily as between rural and urban or modern and classic or male and female, and his non-preachy philosophizing—a style that the auteur has captured and made his own—is in top form in Uncle Boonmee.

Still from Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)Basically (and the story is subversively basic, or primal, if you will) this is the story of the titular uncle, who finds himself dying and invites his sister-in-law and nephew to spend his final days together on his jungle farm. Shortly thereafter, the ghost of Boonmee’s dead wife shows up to help him get through his illness; shortly after that, Boonmee’s long-lost son returns, in the aforementioned Sasquatchian form (the director calls these creatures ‘Monkey Ghosts’). The film gets even weirder from here on in—wonderfully weirder, that is. It was the first appearance of these ominous monkey ghosts, shortly into the film, that sealed the proverbial deal for this critic. After all this, we join Boonmee in what may be his final moments (or may not) deep inside a cave that seems to be the darkened womb of Weerasethakul’s storytelling. A definite mythmaker, Apichatpong, with his unnatural naturalness wholly intact, has managed to deepen my already heartfelt love for his work.

In my initial look at the succulent Uncle Boonmee (written just after viewing the film at last year’s New York Film Festival), I said this of the film: “The proof in the pudding, so to speak, of the mystical quality of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema, is when you can introduce a talking catfish into the middle of your story (in a seemingly unrelated episode to the rest of the film) and have him ‘pleasure’ a young melancholy princess beneath a beautiful waterfall, and never once does it seem out of place or extraordinary; merely a natural extension of the director’s mythmaking style of filmmaking. When von Trier had his ravenous fox growl out “chaos reigns” in Antichrist, it was meant to be as antagonistic as the filmmaker himself. In Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong makes it seem like just a natural thing that happens all the time. A talking catfish that goes down on a princess? Sure, why the Hell not.” And I still agree all these months later—why the Hell not.