Thursday, July 29, 2010

Modern Maestros: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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
Disasters: none
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.



I have only seen TROPICAL MALADY. I am ashamed. But that was quite a lingering film. i still think about it even though i'm not entirely sure i understood it.

but I like filmmakers that dare to be indecipherable, so long as there's actually some interesting filmmaking on offer.

bbats said...

I Love Joe! He studied in Chicago which makes me love that city more. The first film I saw of his was Tropical Malady. I saw it with a bunch of NYFA students and they all hated it. I never hung out with them again. It blew me away. When the film just stops and becomes an entirely new story was so interesting. It's like two great short films put together for comparing and contrasting. Endless conversations can he had about his films because he leaves the viewer so much to play with.
I've seen almost everyone of his films since then and I am so happy he wond the Palme D'or this year. Hopefully that means his film will come out sooner than usual in the states.

Smiles! :)


bbats -- that's heartening to hear that you were so with it despite the confounding nature -- and i agree that he leaves you a lot to discuss.

But I believe your story thoroughly because I could definitely sense hostility at the screening (I saw it with a regular arthouse crowd... not a critics screening) and some people just weren't having it.

Arkaan said...

I dunno how to pronounce his name, but thinking of his last name as "We-Erase-the-cool" makes me smile.

Dylan said...

There was a conversation about the pronunciation of his name on Awards Daily during Cannes, and, if I remember correctly, it's Ah-pee-chat-pong Wee-rass-tah-koon (apparently in Thai, all 'l's that end words are pronounced as 'n's).

I've only seen Tropical Malady as well, and I somewhat disagree with your classification of the first part as a "gay romance." The way I interpreted it, the soldier was gay and was clearly infatuated with the villager, who was straight but didn't discourage the soldier, liking the attention and company (it's been so long since I've seen it...I don't remember their names). I felt that this tied in more with the second story, where the same actor who portrayed the solder was the hunter, hunting an elusive person/creature, which serves as a metaphor for gay men fawning after straight men.

Of course, I could be totally wrong.

Riverdale said...

His last name pronounce "We-ra-seth-tha-koon"

I watched all his films and admire every one of them. I would say I love Syndromes and a Century the most since it makes me feel so happy.

Robert said...

Dylan - You may in fact be right. It's difficult for me to penetrate Joe's films unless I've seen them a half-dozen times.

It is worth noting that Joe is one of a handful of Asian directors who are bucking the censors and making movies about frank sexuality including gay/lesbian issues, which is an admirable thing.

Unknown said...

I watched Tropical Malady three times, back to back. IMO his best film (haven't seen Uncle B yet)

Muay Thai said...

Loves him as a friend as well as admires him as a great filmmaker. I never expect we Thais could have such a first class film artist in this lifetime. A few cinema artist could make the medium of film such a valuable tool to explore the soul. In his hands the media of film could go far equal the first rate world literature.