Friday, September 19, 2014

Cinematic Hypnosis and the films of Weerasethakul

One of my favorite contemporary filmmakers is a Thai director named Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The name's a mouthful for sure, but he goes by "Joe" to facilitate his fans. Originally receiving a bachelor's degree in architecture before getting his master's in filmmaking, he's been making features since 2000. His filmography is a short list, but he's found considerable success, unexpectedly winning the Palme d'Or in 2010 for his mystical drama, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
In the Spring of 2011, I got to see this much-talked-about film at my local art house theater. They were only showing it for a week and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. It was my introduction to Weerasethakul, so I didn't know what to expect and the experience I got was like no other. Uncle Boonmee was a very different kind of film. A slow pace and loose storytelling drove a film of boundless mysticism and spiritual intrigue. There is no intense plotting and none of the characters hide shocking truths. It is languorous and the meaning is hard to discern on first viewing, but the film's relaxed quality was something that I found undeniably attractive. 
Boonmee, as well as other Weerasthakul films like Syndromes and a Century and Tropical Malady, is something special. Even the biggest art house fanatics must admit that some films belonging in the realm of "slow cinema" can try one's patience. For example, I believe Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse (pictured above) to be a masterpiece, a crushingly pessimistic work of desolation and futility. However, it is an extremely tough sit (You wouldn't be far off in calling it an endurance test). With the likes of Boonmee, though, I am completely soothed by the film's rhythms. Weerasethakul has such a way of using sound and environment to suture the viewer into his films and although I would definitely call him an acquired taste, his relaxed approach makes viewing and analyzing his work almost an exercise in meditation. 

I can't quite explain the draw of his films. They all very clearly take place in physical, tangible spaces (popular locations are jungles, open air houses, country fields, etc.) and yet, they also belong to a world in which many fantastical happenings are possible. Animals speak. Spirits visibly separate from bodies. Ghost monkeys with glowing red eyes roam the forests. On top of all this, the director likes to toy with reality, frequently mixing documentary with fiction (most notably in Mysterious Object at Noon and Mekong Hotel). The films are strange, distinctive and experimental and Weerasethakul's patience with the material allows the viewer to absorb the primal and spiritual energies that each setting emits. 
Weerasthakul on set.
I'm sure that many cinephiles have at least one inexplicably beloved film and Uncle Boonmee is that film for me. I never expected to engage with it the way I did and I never thought such a film would be so easy to watch (and re-watch) and settle into. As far as deciphering the meaning of it, I have written extensive theories and appraisals in my spare time, but in researching the themes afterwards, I've found certain intentions I never imagined (one allusion being to a specific moment in Thai history that most people from outside the country would have never guessed). That's okay, though, as this is the beauty of cinema and subjectivity. In Weerasthakul's own words: "Sometimes you don't need to understand everything to appreciate a certain beauty. And I think the film operates in the same way. It's like tapping into someone's mind. The thinking pattern is quite random, jumping here and there like a monkey." Perhaps the positive feeling is all you need.

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