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Mysterious Object at Noon: Stories That Haunt One Another

Right off the bat, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon induces in the unsuspecting viewer a sensation that has become a hallmark of this singular artist’s work: the mild delirium of being agreeably lost and unmoored. Rarely has a first feature been more aptly titled; critics greeted its arrival on the festival circuit in 2000 as they might have a UFO sighting. Mysterious Object was disorienting equally for its out-of-nowhere inventiveness and for being rooted in a very specific—and for many, fairly alien—place and culture. Thailand had been largely off the radar of even the most seasoned festivalgoers. But coming from anywhere, this thoroughly unpredictable shape-shifter would have qualified as sui generis: part road movie, part folk storytelling exercise, part surrealist parlor game.

In the years since, Apichatpong—or Joe, to use a nickname that dates from his student days at the Art Institute of Chicago—has come to occupy a central place in cinephile culture, as influential as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami were for a previous generation. His subsequent features Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004), and Syndromes and a Century (2006) featured prominently on best-of-decade lists; in 2010, he received world cinema’s highest honor, the Cannes Palme d’Or, for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Throughout, Apichatpong’s films have continued to confound even his longtime admirers, which attests to their open-endedness and to the multiple contexts in which they exist. While the Thai genre movies of his youth made a mark, so did the avant-garde virtuosos (Bruce Baillie, Andy Warhol) he discovered in Chicago. Apichatpong, who studied architecture before pursuing an MFA in filmmaking, is acutely aware of film as a spatial practice. (Of late, he has moved with increasing fluidity between the cinema and the gallery.) His movies are sensory immersions, primal plays of darkness and light. But they are also pointed and specific engagements with local beliefs, customs, and history, and his most recent feature, Cemetery of Splendor (2015), foregrounds the political instincts that have long simmered beneath the serene surfaces of his work.

Little seen at the time outside festivals, Mysterious Object is generally considered the most modest of Joe’s features, a beguiling oddity that grew out of the freewheeling experimentation of his short films, or even a prologue of sorts before the ground zero of Blissfully Yours, with its obvious compendium of Apichatpongian motifs (bifurcated structure, jungle reverie). While his other films, with their drifts into trance and daydream, have been reductively labeled “slow cinema,” there is nothing remotely leisurely about Mysterious Object, which springs narrative twists and discombobulations at practically breakneck speed. All that said, the movie is less an anomaly than a secret skeleton key. Revisiting this precocious debut with the benefit of hindsight, one is struck by its intricacy and purpose, and by the degree to which it anticipates many of the themes and methods that would define his body of work.

The film borrows its structure, and its principles of collaboration and chance, from the surrealist game of the exquisite corpse, in which each participant adds a word, or an image, to an ever-mutating whole. Apichatpong’s version draws as well on local oral tradition: he traveled the length of Thailand, inviting various people to contribute episodes to an evolving story. Shot with a small crew on black-and-white 16 mm film, Mysterious Object is both a chronicle of that process and a depiction of the collectively told tale, which grows more fanciful with each new participant, its plot bending to accommodate magical doublings and impossible reversals, and its cast swelling to include extraterrestrial star-boys and witch tigers.

Mysterious Object at Noon is an especially vivid example of the hybrid tendency that has galvanized so much of contemporary world cinema. As with the work of many of today’s most adventurous filmmakers—Pedro Costa, Carlos Reygadas, and Miguel Gomes, to name a few—Apichatpong’s films rewire the relationship between fiction and documentary. More precisely, they perform a kind of alchemy by which contact with reality turns their narratives that much richer and stranger. A documentary about the creation of a story, Mysterious Object celebrates equally the possibilities of fact and fiction.

After a fablelike opening intertitle—“Once upon a time . . .”—the film plunges into documentary mode, a windshield framing unknown terrain as we pass through it (such traveling shots are a recurring motif in Apichatpong’s later work). These first few minutes, moving along a Bangkok highway and down narrowing streets, foster considerable uncertainty about where we are headed and what we are hearing. On the soundtrack, a Thai ballad competes with a sales pitch for incense and fish and the melodramatic strains of what may be a radio soap opera. “The more he tried, the more complicated the story,” a male voice declares, foreshadowing the imminent convolutions. Eventually, we realize that we are in a fishmonger’s truck, and the focus shifts to a vendor in the back, who tells of being sold by her father to her uncle for bus fare. No sooner has her tearful confession ended than the director, offscreen, pipes up, seeming to cast doubt on its veracity. “Do you have any other stories to tell us?” he asks, helpfully adding that “it can be real or fiction.”

So prompted, the woman launches into the tale of a paraplegic boy and his teacher, Dogfahr, his primary caretaker and connection to the outside world. The narrator’s attention soon drifts away from the homebound setting—Dogfahr accompanies her irritable, hard-of-hearing father to a doctor, whom she also consults about her own skin problems, possibly caused by a protective necklace. Later, back at the house, the boy finds Dogfahr unconscious, an unidentified object rolling out of her skirt . . . The next person to take up the storytelling baton is an elderly woman who inquires about the rules of this game. “Can it turn into a kid?” she asks, referring to the object. The response—“Anything you want”—establishes the anarchic tone that will prevail for the rest of the film.

Mysterious Object at Noon revels in the myriad ways a story can be transmitted. A performance troupe acts out its segment in a traditional song-and-dance routine. A pair of deaf girls use sign language. Sometimes we watch and listen to the narrators as they concoct new installments; sometimes we see their fabulations dramatized, occasionally with voice-over or intertitles to move things along. The scenario grows at once darker and more absurd as it progresses, its lurid developments living up to the film’s pulpy Thai title, Dogfahr in the Devil’s Hand. The object from the teacher’s skirt turns out to be a star from the sky, which transforms into a mischief-making boy with apparent superpowers that allow him to appear as Dogfahr.

Far from smoothing out the crazy-quilt chaos of a story with multiple authors, Apichatpong adds subtle derangements of his own, sustaining a willful confusion in the telling. The film often declines to signal whether we are in the nested drama or the framing documentary; in fact, with sound and dialogue from one plane repeatedly bleeding into the other, the border between the two remains conspicuously porous. At one point, the actors in the story-within-the-story break character, and the director himself wanders into the frame. Narrative fragments unconnected to the Dogfahr story register as phantom limbs of other intersecting tales, perhaps the radio melodrama of the opening or a residual invention of one of the raconteurs. One narrator calls for a flashback, accounting for the boy’s injury with a wartime plane crash; the film cuts to a television news piece about the event and even inserts archival footage from the 1940s. This chronological tampering triggers a time warp of sorts: back in the ostensible present, we hear a radio broadcast announcing the end of the Pacific War.

The structural playfulness that would become one of Apichatpong’s signatures is evident in Mysterious Object—the daisy-chain narrative gives way to a surprise epilogue, titled “At noon”—as is the distinctive tone, a wryly amused deadpan in the face of both the wondrous and the ridiculous. The visit to a clinic—Apichatpong’s parents were doctors—portends the medical environments in Blissfully Yours and Syndromes and a Century. The various instances of transmogrification in the Dogfahr story foretell the creaturely metamorphoses in Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee. Apichatpong forgoes a directing credit in Mysterious Object, opting instead for “conceived and edited by.” More overtly than his other films, his debut embodies the spirit of openness that has always been central to his process. In ways big and small, his films are shaped by the input of others: they find source material not just in his own personal histories and memories but in those of his collaborators.

In Apichatpong’s endlessly regenerating corpus—which now encompasses an intertwined suite of shorts, installations, and performances in addition to feature films—stories are retold, characters reborn, and situations and locations transmigrated within and among movies. Everything seems to belong to a larger whole; each tale has a past and an afterlife. But the overall effect is less of a puzzle to be solved than of a space to be freely inhabited and explored—much like the overgrown park that the characters wander around in Cemetery of Splendor, discerning traces of the places and people that once were there. With its simultaneous impressions of abundance and incompletion—its profusion of abandoned and regenerated stories, stories that haunt one another, that have a life beyond the frame, that invite us to complete them—Mysterious Object at Noon is as close as Apichatpong has come to a statement of intent. His work is often described in terms of its mystifications, but as this humble yet capacious film reminds us, Apichatpong’s vision is a fundamentally generous one, and his magnanimity extends above all to the viewer.

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