Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Asian Spotlight: Thailand

The calm & poetic cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul

I first came across Apichatpong Weerasethakul at VIFF 2006 when I passed him in the hallway before the Dragons and Tigers award was to be presented at the screening of The King and the Clown. John Torres eventually won the award and Apichatpong Weerasethakul was the only present member of the three person jury responsible for the award. Apichatpong Weerasethakul came across as a very humble and pleasant person judging by how he reacted when some fans wanted pictures of him outside the theater and how he presented himself. Upto that point, I had not seen a single film by him and that evening Tony Rayns mentioned that VIFF had shown every one of his films to date including the new film Syndromes and a Century which was also being shown in 2006. I had to finally catch-up and see what kind of films this composed person could make.

On a trip to Thailand later in Dec 2006 I managed to find a copy of his Tropical Malady but for some silly reason, I passed up on buying Blissfully Yours. Back then I did not think much of it but after I finished watching Tropical Malady as soon as I got back, I regretted not buying Blissfully Yours. This is because I enjoyed watching Tropical Malady so much that I did not want the movie to end. It was just a beautiful film to watch and it ended one with one of the most stunning shots in a film that I had ever seen -- near the film's end, there is a scene where the camera hovers over a tiger high up on a tree branch. The camera then faces the tiger head on as the tiger looks directly towards us. We can detect the tiger breathing slowly and that gaze has stayed with me. The setup of that scene was so well done that I am lost on words to describe it.

After Tropical Malady, I next saw his fictional doc Mysterious Object at Noon. The movie, shot in sumptuous black and white, appears to be a documentary but some of the questions appear to follow a predetermined line of thought. Apichatpong Weerasethakul mentioned in an interview that he had a script that he gave to untrained actors and asked them to improvise and add their own stories. The end result is a journey to remote Thai villages with a topic of myths and even some alien tales. The film ends at an appropriate point when all the stories have been told but as per Apichatpong Weerasethakul the film ended when the old camera he was using broke down.

I finally managed to see Blissfully Yours recently and once again, it was a relaxing watch -- a love story with some peaceful moments in the jungle and by the lake. But the film also has a political undertone to it yet it is so calmly tucked beneath the affairs of the three main characters. At the film's start, a woman is trying to get medicine for a man at the local hospital. The man is quiet and lets the woman do the talking for him. The doctor says that she can't give proper medicine or issue a full medical certificate to the man without proper id. A few scenes later we learn that he is an illegal Burmese citizen who has entered Thailand without proper papers. In order to forget their hassles, his girlfriend takes the man on a picnic in the jungle. As it turns out, the picnic spot is close to the Thai-Burmese border and if one listens carefully, one can detect some gun shots in the horizon. None of the characters react to the noise and continue to laze around peacefully in the sun. Like Tropical Malady, the film contains plenty of serene and beautiful shots. One memorable shot is when the picnic food gets taken over by an army of ants after the food has been left unattended for a long duration as the couple made love by the lake. Watching an army of ants cover all the food (including the satay sticks) was a memorable image.

Syndromes and a Century is a blend of Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours. The film is broken up into two segments like Tropical Malady and like Blissfully Yours, Syndromes... starts off in a hospital. Also, in Syndromes.. a monk is shown trying to get medicine for people who are not present at the hospital, in a similar manner to the woman in Blissfully Yours wanted medicine for someone without proper id.

The two segments in Tropical Malady were part of one story, with one segment steeped in reality while the other in myth (the tale involved a tiger who could transform into a human). On the other hand, the two segments in Syndromes and a Century are either alternate realities of each other or the second segment features characters who are reincarnated from the first segment. In the first segment the story takes place in a simple village hospital while the second segment takes place in a flashy hospital in a bigger city. Both segments start off with the same interview and feature the same characters. Although there is one clue connecting both tales. In the first segment we see a Buddha statue in the playground across from the hospital while in the second segment the same Buddha statue is shown in front of the new hospital. Later in the film, a character talks about reincarnation and that might lead to a clue regarding the connection between the two segments. Also, the word "century" from the title might indicate the passage of time in between the two segments. Like his previous films, Apichatpong Weerasethakul includes plenty of poetic shots in the movie. My favourite was the pipe in the new hospital's basement which is slowing sucking the smoke in the room. The camera moves closer to the hole's mouth and we are looking directly into a black hole or a time warp of sorts. Beautiful.

If I had to describe the three features of Apichatpong Weerasethakul in two words, I would describe them as a "summer breeze". All of them are calm and relaxing to watch, while the films smoothly incorporate plenty of poetic and intelligent shots. What is interesting is that all his films reflect the kind of person Apichatpong Weerasethakul is -- a grounded and humble person.

Basking in more calm cinematic shades

Interestingly Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, another Thai film-maker, also directs calm and leisurely films. Even though his films such as Ploy, Invisible Waves and Last Life in the Universe deal with topics of affairs, murders, kidnapings and suicide, they are presented in such a relaxed manner that it is a treat watching his films. Even though Pen-Ek Ratanaruang did not use Christopher Doyle as a cinematographer for Ploy, his film still maintains the same dreamy rhythm as that ofInvisible Waves and Last Life in the Universe. Ofcourse, in Ploy the motif of dreams is more apparent than in the other two films. It has been a few years since I saw his second feature 6ixtynin9 so I cannot recall if that movie's tone was similar to the other three flicks.

Bright colours, multiple cuts and some CGI

Wisit Sasanatieng on the other hand employs a completely different cinematic technique from his country-men Apichatpong Weerasethakul & Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Tears of the Black Tiger uses a bright neon pallete background to depict an over the top Thai Western. The bright colors are present in Citizen Dog as well along with some fancy graphics. I took to Citizen Dog a lot more than to Tears of the Black Tiger but both films are still unique in the vision they present, along with some quirky characters.

Noise, chaos and gore

Chukiat Sakveerakul's 13: Game of Death is a cross between David Fincher's The Game and the Saw films. As per the title, the main character Chit has to play a game where he has to successfully complete 13 challenges which will lead to him winning plenty of money. At first, Chit is reluctant to take the challenge seriously but he is tempted because of his desperate need for money. Naturally the first two challenges are easy enough so Chit agrees. And as expected, the next few challenges get a bit messy and even disgusting.

Ratings out of 10 for films seen as part of this spotlight
  • Blissfully Yours (2002): 8

  • Syndromes and a Century (2006): 9

  • 13: Game of Death (2006): 5

    Wise Kwai said...

    The DVD version of Blissfully that's available in Thailand is censored. I believe around 10 or 20 minutes is snipped out. Be thankful you didn't pick it up. The Second Eye version, or, I believe Strand Releasing's, are the complete film.

    As for Pen-ek, of his three early films, I thought 6ixtynin9 was the most thematically similar to his later films, until I finally saw his first, Fun Bar Karaoke, which is all about dreams.

    Sachin said...

    wisekwai, thanks for the info. I am sure I can guess which parts were censored :) I did see the Strand DVD version. The one I came across in Bangkok was the local version with the DVD cover in thai.

    Ok, I will try to track down Pen-ek's first film. So in that sense then Ploy is the closest to Fun Bar.. because Ploy plays with dreams quite a bit.