Apichatpong Weerasethakul

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Blissfully Yours (2002), 7.3/10
Tropical Malady (2004), 7.2/10
Syndromes and a Century (2006), 7.1/10
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), 7.4/10
Mekong Hotel (2012), 5/10
Cemetery of Splendour (2015), 7/10

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand, 1970), who studied cinema at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, debuted with the surrealist documentary Dokfa nai Meuman/ Mysterious Object at Noon (2000).

Sud Sanaeha/ Blissfully Yours (2002) is a very slow film, in which each scene takes much longer than a Hollywood movie would. It is a character study, but rather cryptic, since very little is said about the three protagonists other than what we see. The two women are looking for romantic satisfaction. The man seems to be cynically taking advantage of the younger one. It is never explained why the older woman helps the younger one at all.

A middle-age woman, Orn, and her younger friend Roong take a young man, Min, to the doctor because his painful rash is spreading through his body. The woman begs the doctor to issue a health card but the doctor cannot do it unless Min shows a photo id card, even a driver license. Min does not say a word the whole time, and the woman explains that the rash has spread to his throat. During the visit Orn also asks the doctor if it is ok to stop taking the sleeping pills because she would like to have sex with her husband: she still wants a child. Later Orn her husband and mentions the desire of having a child to him. The girl, Roong, works in a factory that makes ceramic figurines. She asks her boss to take the day off because she doesn't feel well. The boss tells her that he fired her Burmese boyfriend, and we understand why Min never speaks: he doesn't speak Thai. Now we also understand why Orn was begging for a health card: Min is an illegal immigrant. Orn mixes the creams prescribed by the doctor with her own secret recipe and makes a cream for Min (we suspect this "special recipe" is what causes the rash in the first place). Roong and Min get into Orn's car and drive to the countryside. (Only at this point do we see the credits that are usually shown at the beginning of the film). They park and then Min takes Roong for a walk through the jungle to a place that has a fantastic view of the mountains and the valley. They pick red berries in the jungle and have a romantic picnic. We hear Min's thoughts in Burmese: she is a simple girl, who dropped out of high school, and she has been teaching him Thai. He likes to draw pictures and we see some on the screen, over the images of them hugging. They have to move because ants attack their food. Meanwhile, also in the jungle, Orn, who has used Roong's motorcycle, is having sex in the jungle with a man who is not her husband (we see pretty much the whole act, including post-coitum hugs). But someone steals their motorcycle. The man dresses up frantically and runs after the thief, while Orn calmly wraps up their blanket. Back to Roong and Min, they are chatting by a river. Roong mentions that Orn is a phoney and nobody trusts her. Every now and then we still see visual representations of Min's secret thoughts. Orn is lost in the jungle. She is panting and wears a mask. We see a Min-like drawing that mocks Orn. She keeps walking until she stumbles on Roong and Min. Roong, who has seemed prudish until now, is performing oral sex on Min. She watches and waits until Roong is done. Orn claims that the motorcycle broke down. Her arms are full of scratches from walking through the jungle. Roong drags Orn into the water to clean herself. Roong mentions that Min is not getting better. While Roong and Orn jointly wash him in the river, we hear Min's thoughts, a letter to (presumably) his wife talking about their son and mentioning that he was in Papua and now he is planning to move to another country. Roong and Min then fall asleep, hugging. Orn, who still hasn't mentioned that Roong's motorcycle has been stolen, throws the whole picnic into the river when ants attack the leftovers. Then she lies down alone, and starts sobbing and then smokes a cigarette. Roong, half asleep, caresses Min's penis (the camera focuses on the penis). The camera moves to the landscape, showing clouds and the distant mountains. The film closes with the news that Min started working for a casino, Roong went back to her old boyfriend and Orn works small jobs in the film industry.

Each of Sud Pralad/ Tropical Malady (2004) and Sang Sattawat/ Syndromes and a Century (2006) consists of two films into one, perhaps two different versions of the same story. The first one is a relatively straightforward and simple love story. The second one is an allegorical tiger hunt in the jungle.

The first one begins in the jungle where soldiers have found a dead body and crowd around it for a group photo. At night they are offered dinner by an old female farmer after they helped her with her harvest. They think of girls, talk about ghosts. Then the film moves to the city, where one of them, Keng, sees again a boy he met in the farm, Tong, who works in an ice factory. They become good friends. Keng teaches Tong to drive a truck, a skill that Tong needs if he wants to get a promotion. They touch in a movie theater. Keng is actually no longer a soldier, he is unemployed, but still wears the uniform hoping that it will help him find a job. One night they pick up a dog that is lying unconscious on the road. The dog has cancer and Tong takes it to a veterinary clinic. Tong can't even read and write properly when he is asked to fill a form. They spend an evening in a nightclub where Tong joins the singer when she decides to dedicate a song to Keng. Back at the farm, the old farmer finds a love note left by Keng in Tong's blue jeans, and she seems indifferent to it. She takes them to a cave with a temple, where they light candles. As they venture further inside the cave, Keng gets scared. The elderly woman has a sister who made good money with her shop, and also sells pot. Keng licks Tong's hand after he has urinated. Tong reciprocates, but then walks away into the night. Keng rides his motorcycle around town, perhaps looking for Tong. Suddenly, Keng is back to a rural post wearing his soldier's uniform. He wakes up to the chatter of people about a monster that is killing cattle.
The screen goes black for a few seconds, and a new movie begins, titled "A Spirit's Path". A cartoon and a brief scene mention the legend of a woman who could turn into a tiger, and the scene shows a man being lured away from his jungle hut by a beautiful woman with a tiger's tail. Now Keng reappears, walking alone in the jungle. He is carefully watching for clues among the vegetation and in the terrain, following tiger tracks. The jungle is full of sounds but a roar stands out. The soldier loads his gun and walks tensely. He tries in vain to make radio contact with his headquarters. The subtitles hint that the soldier is looking for a missing villager. He finds scratches on a tree, then falls asleep. Someone who looks like Tong is walking naked in the forest and finds him in the morning while he is still sleeping. The story is now told via subtitles. The characters never speak. The soldier is hiding in the vegetation, still trying in vain to contact headquarters. He waits for his chance and then attacks the naked ghost, but the naked man beats him up and then pushes his unconscious body down a ravine. A monkey climbing a tree mocks the battered and dirty soldier and tells him that he needs to kill the ghost. The naked ghost, meanwhile, is crying as he runs like a monkey through the forest. The soldier lays a trap and spends the night awake. Suddenly, he sees a light floating in mid-air and the carcass of an animal coming back to life. The soldier follows the phosphorescent ghost of the animal into the forest until it dissolves. The soldier crawls in the forest mumbling delirious sentences, and moves like a tiger, and then the tiger finally appears, standing on the tall branch of a tree. He is shaken by fear. He talks to the apparition, but his sentences are cryptic and demented. Mostly, he stares at the tiger on the tree.

Sud Pralad/ Tropical Malady still had a linear plot, whereas Sang Sattawat/ Syndromes and a Century looks like a random sequence of loosely-related scenes. Scenes are revisited, copied, modified, like in a Darwinian process of replication, mutation and selection. The contrast between the two halves is the contrast between the lush vegetation of the countryside and the frigid white corridors of the city. The focus appropriately switches from botany to architecture. The second half has a melancholy oneiric quality that is the exact opposite of the almost casual, domestic, comedic quality of the first half. The two halves are not symmetric at all: the protagonist of the second half is a doctor who was hired in the first half, and the protagonist of the first half virtually disappears in the second half.

Toey is a female supervisor in a rural clinic, surrounded by lush vegetation, She interviews an army doctor, Nohng, who wants to join their team while her shy suitor Toa waits patiently in the room. When she is done, the boy gives her a gift of crispy pork and they walk out together.
Later Toey is visited by an elderly saffron-robed monk who blames his pain on chickens taking their revenge on him. While she's listening to him, she sees outside a male worker who owns her money and interrupts the conversation to confront the debtor. Meanwhile, a singing dentist, Ple, is also taking care of a saffron-robed monk, Sakda, who confesses he wanted to be a dj, not a monk, but feels possessed by a force he cannot fight.
One day the clumsy Toa waits for Toey at the hospital and then out of the blue proposes to her. She takes him for a walk, and seem to hesitate to pick the right place. Eventually she picks a little table surrounded by lush vegetation There she finally speaks to him. He is madly in love with her and asks her if she's ever been in love herself. She replies with a flashback about the time she met an orchid expert, Noom, and fell in love with him. The place where he showed her pictures of orchids was the little table surrounded by lush vegetation where she is now sitting with Toa. Noom took Toey and his female sister Pa Jane for a picnic excursion at his country house located near some waterfalls. Oblivious that she had a crush on him, the botanist asked her for advice on what to do when in love with someone, to which she snapped and sarcastically replied: "Is it a man or a woman?" She was bitterly disappointed that Noom didn't return her love, but now she can't help laughing at Toa's description of his love for her, which is probably very similar to what she felt for Noom.
Meanwhile, the Platonic romance between the dentist, Ple, and the monk, Sakda, continues discreetly, with Ple revealing that he caused his little brother's death, but it is obviously doomed and Ple eventually returns alone to his office where he first met Sadka as a patient.
Here the film restarts from the beginning, except that now the setting is a city hospital and the camera is usually on the opposite side of the scene. Toey is interviewing Nohng while Toa is quietly waiting (the camera now stares directly into both Nohng's and Toa's faces).
This time the chicken-obsessed monk is talking to male doctor and the camera is facing not the doctor but the monk. Just like he did in the first half with Toey, at the end of the visit the old monk gives the doctor some magic herbs, as if the interview was just a test to find out what is wrong with the doctor, not with the monk.
Unlike the rural hospital, the city hospital is a meander of corridors and cubicles, all of them awash in white. Ple the dentist is cleaning Sakda's teeth in one of these cubicles. The camera follows people walking around the white architecture of the hospital: a double line of patiens exercising, six nurses descending a staircase, etc. Nohng has been accepted and is now a doctor, a hematologist, being introduced to the labirynth of corridors and rooms. During his exploration he meets a man without legs who is dragging himself on the floor and a boy who who bats tennis balls against the walls. In a room where workers are working on the vents and ducks a female doctor helps mutilated patients learn to use their new prosthetic limbs, and it is not clear if the machinery is for fine-tuning parts for the aeration system or the limbs. The female doctor happens to be an old acquaintance of Nohng who works in the same hospital. She hides liquor inside one of the prosthetic limbs and invites everybody to join her. Introduced to the tennis-ball boy who is going crazy because of brain damage caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, she performs old-fashioned "chakra" meditation and, after achieving a sort of hypnotizing effect, asks him to imagine the kind of lush landscape of the first half of the film. Alone with the boy Nohng tries to have a conversation with him, and asks him how he thinks he will be reincarnated, as a man or as a woman? The boy replies "a man" because he was already a man in his previous life. Nohng doesn't seem happy about his job. He stares coldly at the floor leaning against a mirror, then walks into his lab to meet his sexy girlfriend. They kiss, but they are actually on the brink of breaking up because her company is moving to a seaside location and he has no intention of following her.
A strange wind shakes the trees. The camera cruises outside, passing in front of a statue, then entering a dark underground corridor, where workers are making metallurgic noises. The alcoholic doctor, half asleep, is alone in her office and is disturbed by the noise. She stares expression-less at the floor for a few long seconds. The lights go off. People leave the hospital. Finally, we see Toey again, and she's staring at something with the same zombie-like expression of the others. The camera stares at the ceiling of a room filled with smoke or steam. The workers have abandoned their machinery. The camera walks towards an open pine that is sucking the steam away.
Toey and Toa are enjoying a city park, crowded with all sorts of ordinary people doing all sorts of ordinary, pointless things.

Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat/ Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) feels like a documentary filmed in the subconscious of a dying man. Most of what happens feels like the dying man's final thoughts and memories. The fantastic ending, however, adds a dimension that is metaphorical at many levels: how illusory reality can be but also how torn individuals are between collective conscience and individual needs, and how ephemeral a memorial for the dying is as the world goes on both in politics and in ordinary lives.

A water buffalo frees itself from the rope and roams a forest, but a half-naked villager finds it and brings it back. A man with glowing red eyes wearing a monkey costume appears in the forest.
The middle-aged Boonmee is dying of an incurable kidney disease. He is spending his last days in his country farm with his limping sister-in-law Jen, aided by an illegal immigrant from Lao, Jaai. One evening as Boonmee, Jen and their nephew Tong are dining on the veranda, a ghost appears at the dinner table, a woman: the ghost is Huay, Boonmee's wife who died 19 years earlier. The three are surprised but remain calm. Boonmee neither panics nor gets excited. Huay knows that Boonmee is sick and Boonmee wonders whether she came to take him away. Their faces are barely visible in the darkness of the night against the backdrop of the impenetrable jungle. Then the man in monkey suit walks up the stairs and joins them: he is Boonsong, Boonmee's long-lost son, transformed into a hairy monster. He sits at the table with them (again causing little commotion) and narrates how he disappeared: he was taking photographs of the jungle and one day his photographs revealed the presence of monkey ghosts; thus he set out to find them; he mated with one of them and became one of them. Boonsong warns his father that the world is pervaded with spirits and hungry animals who sense his sickness. Jen hands Huay an album of photographs, including at pictures of her (Huay's) funeral.
Boonmee and Jen have a chat about the future in front of the ghosts. Boonmee promises Jen that after death he'll come back to help her. He wants her to stay and live in the farm. Jaai shows up and sees the ghosts.
The camera lingers on a little altar in an empty room: there's a picture on it. Jen is bringing offering to the dead person, and the photograph looks like Boonmee.
Boonmee inspects his tamarind plantation and his beehives. He tells Jen it must be bad karma that he is dying, bad karma he accumulated because he killed a lot of communists and a lot of insects. He falls asleep watched by Jen. On the veranda Tong watches a waterfall in the distance.
Suddenly we are transported to an enchanted forest where a veiled disfigured middle-aged princess is being carried by a large escort in a carriage to the waterfall. She walks to waterfall, removes the veil, looks at her reflection in the water and sees a beautiful young woman. She realizes it's all an illusion but a loyal servant tries to argue that it is real. She challenges him to kiss her, which he does but it's obvious that he is disgusted, which proves her point that the reflection was just an illusion. The servant leaves her alone, and she sings and cries in front of the majestic waterfall. A catfish talks to her from underwater. She undresses, enters the waters, lies down and the catfish makes love to her. Her precious necklaces drop to the bottom of the pond (which the camera shows in detail replete with aquatic sounds).
Back to the hot farmhouse it's night again and Jen is catching insects under the lamplight. The ghost Huay is assisting her sick husband in bed. Hugging her, Boonmee calmly accepts his coming death and only wants a way to find her in heaven. His wife tells him "heaven is over-rated".
Boonmee calls Jen and gives her his belongings.
Boonmee, Huay, Jen, and Tong are walking in the densest forest. They see monkey ghosts among the trees but they continue. They follow Huay inside a cave whose entrance is shaped like a vagina. Now the camera is hand held like in amateur movies. Their flashlights illuminate bright rock formations. Boonmee's eyes are open but he can't see anything. He feels that he is returning to the womb where he was born. A pair of glowing red lights spy them (a monkey ghost).
We see photographs of a villager dragging a monkey ghost by a leash, and photographs of young men in army fatigues resting in the woods or marching in the firelds, we see photographs of disappeared people, a soldier dragging a man in a monkey suit with a leash, students in jeans throwing rocks, a photograph of a man in a monkey suit with six soldiers (all of them smiling), pictures of a young man taking pictures of another young man lying on the ground, cryptic signs in the road... a lot of references to the country's turbulent past.
Boonmee is lying against a wall of the cave, barely breathing, his eyes closed, lovingly attended by Huay and Jen. A long take shows the foursome sitting in the cave and just waiting patiently, while several monkey ghosts with glowing red eyes watch them from outside in the dark forest. Then the sun comes out. They are sleeping in the cave. Boonmee is dead. We move back to civilization. They are holding the funeral ceremony.
After the funeral Jen and Tong's sister receive the visit of Tong, who is now a monk. It is against traditional laws that a monk visit his family. He resents that life is tough at the monastery, he misses the comforts of ordinary life. He has come to take a warm shower. When he comes out of the bathroom, the women are watching television. He asks his sister whether she wants to eat with him: now he's hungry. The tv is showing images of military operations. Tong is clearly alarmed. And here (in what is one of the most clever tricks of the film) the world splits in two: on the same screen we see the three sitting together in front of the tv set and Tong and Jen walking out to a restaurant. The film first follows the latter (Jen and Tong) in the restaurant, but then goes back to the room where the three (Jen, Tong and his sister) are watching the news on television.

Mekong Hotel (2012) was a very minor film (half a documentary).

Rak Ti Khon Kaen/ Cemetery of Splendour (2015) is a gentle fairy tale with intimationas of the otherworld. The narrative is interrupted (or delayed) by irrelevant incidents like the lengthy shots of a man defecating in the woods, of a the brightly-lit billboard of a wedding studio, of a machine padding in the waters of the river, of a bacterium projected against the cloudy sky, of a group of people exercising outdoors at the rhythm of jazz music, etc. But mostly the film exudes a sense of peace and resignation as it blends multiple dimensions: the historical, the spiritual, the sexual and the political. The conclusion, as uttered by the protagonist, is pure zen: "At the heart of the kingdom there is nothing".

A nurse tends to a humble makeshift hospital, just one big room full of beds in which unconscious patients are sleeping. Middle-aged disabled voluntary Jen, who walks with crutches, comes to help her out, reminiscing of when she was student in that building which back then was a school. They talk about a lady who is famous for her paranormal powers. Even the police uses her to connect with murder victims and missing people. The psychic, Keng, is used by friends and relatives of the patients to divine what the patients are dreaming. Jen is curious about Itt, a handsome soldier who has no family, and asks Keng to read his dreams while he is sleeping. Itt wakes up only for brief periods of time. All the patients are male soldiers who have fallen victim to a mysterious sleeping disease that also involves painful dreams. The old woman takes her US husband to a shrine and makes some offerings to the two princess statues, and out of the blue tells her husband that they have a son (obviously Itt). Later she is given delicious fruit by the librarian. While she is eating them, two young women appear and introduce themselves as the princesses of the shrine, no longer statues. They have come to thank her for the offerings and to warn her that the soldiers will never wake up because the hospital sits on top of an ancient royal cemetery and the dead are sucking the energies out of the living. And the two women casually mention that the two of them are dead too. Later Jen informs the chief nurse and young psychic Keng about the conversation and they both seem to believe the letter of it as they are staring at Itt asleep in his bed. Just then Itt has an erection under his payama and the Keng, who appears to be a virgin, can't resist touching the top of the penis. While she waits for him to wake up, Jen spends her time leafing through his notebook, full of strange diagrams and cryptic sentences. When he finally wakes up, she takes him to an outdoors eatery and they talk about her foreign husband. Then they watch a goofy horror movie in a movie theater but he falls asleep and has to be transported out by the security guards. At night the soldiers are being treated with color neon lights that stand erect next to each bed under the whirling fans. Traveling salesman Jeed comes to sell the housewives a cream made of rubber. Jen suspects she's a police spy. Jeed gives her some cream for free as a gift. Jen shows it to Keng, and tells her that it smells like sperm. Keng can't resist to smell it. The psychic Keng enters Itt's mind while he is sleeping and, pretending to be him, takes Jen for a walk in the woods, describing the throne, the music room, etc of the royal palace that used to stand there. On the trees are signs inscribed with proverbs. Jen follows her calmly, and eventually admits that she can see clearly now. They stop on a bench. Jen offers her a potion made of medicines that her husband has to take. Then Keng, still acting like she is Itt, kisses her malformed leg, pours the potion on it and licks it like a puppy suckling from its mother's tits. Jen does not oppose this weird action but starts crying. Back to the hospital, the real Itt wakes up and calls her name. She has fallen asleep (now we are not sure if the previous scene really happened or was just a weird dream). He askes her where she is and she replies that she is not sure. They chat about the hospital. She tells him that it is a secret government project and they are about to be relocated elsewhere. There are people dancing and exercising outside, and there are children playing soccer in the fields and playing in the earth dug by the excavator machine. Jen is staring like in a trance, wide-eyed, motionless.
(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )