Robert here, back with another entry in my series on great contemporary directors.
Maestro: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Known For: Difficult, often dreamlike films about the changing times.
Influences: Edward Yang, Maya Deren, Abbas Kiarostami, according to the man himself.
Masterpieces: Syndromes and a Century
Better than you remember: I'm not sure how this could possibly apply to AW
Box Office: Almost $47 thousand in the U.S. for Tropical Malady
I come into this as a great admirer of, though by no means an expert on Apichatpong Weerasethakul. When I started this series almost a year ago I knew I'd get to Weerasethakul (who goes by the nickname "Joe" henceforth) eventually. Back then awareness of him in the cinephile community felt spotty at best. Now as the most recent winner of the Palme d'Or he's poised to take the next step toward notability (though I wouldn't expect his films to take any further steps toward accessibility). Still, I encourage anyone well versed in the man's films to please join in the conversation. What I'm trying to say is if anyone knows how to pronounce his name, that information would be super. Like all of the Asian directors we've discussed here, Joe is primarily interested in the intersection of the past and present. How love manifests itself in this space is his primary concern, almost all of his films touch on it even if a bit. Not that Joe has limited himself to just one topic. The changing landscape of Asian culture, technology, society and spirituality have all found their way into his films.
Structurally, most of Joe's films are split into two distinct sections. As the viewer, we're meant to focus not as much on the narrative within each half, but their comparative properties. Consider Syndromes and a Century, where a series of seemingly unrelated dreamlike happenings inhabit two hospitals in two different time frames. The manifestation of human nature, mystery, longing seems to remain a constant through the years, but as time progresses, the presence of monks dissipates, the threat of eerily personified technology grows and the love story tilts ever slightly toward lust. What definitive statements these all add up to are for us to decide. Similarly, the double story in Tropical Malady (the first of which follows a gay romance, the second of which a man lost in the woods, who seems to manifest himself as a spirit). And so we're meant to ponder, what do these stories mean not separately but as a whole, thrust together in one film. Perhaps Joe is juxtaposing the animalistic qualities of love with those of spirituality. Does the modern world that's shunned spirituality still maintain its essence through an embrace of love?
If I feel more concrete on Syndromes and a Century than other Weerasethakul films it's only because I've seen that one three or four times. The others once, not nearly enough to unravel. But Joe's films have this amazing quality that invites the viewer to keep coming back to his films, impenitrable that they may be. If you've not experienced them, I invite you to drop your ideas of what constraints the medium may have and be lost in his world. After all, in the end, the purpose of a film isn't to be a brain teaser (well some perhaps), it's meant to invite us into a new reality for a time. Whether we understand or decipher (or even want to) all the elements of that reality is up to us. I don't expect Apichatpong Weerasethakul to become a popular director even after winning the Palme with his latest, Unclee Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but his mark on the modern movie landscape is both indescribable and inescapable.