Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cinema of Now

Connor Jessup’s A.W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2018)

The April 6 screening of Memoria (2021) at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is already sold out, and there are a couple of very good reasons. For one, Apichatpong Weerasethakul will be on hand to talk about the first feature he’s shot outside of Thailand. For another, in October 2021, a few months after Memoria won the Jury Prize in Cannes—tied with Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee—distributor Neon announced that in the U.S., “the only means of experiencing” the film starring Tilda Swinton as a British botanist enduring thundering sonic hallucinations in Colombia “will be in theaters . . . forever.”

A few months later, Memoria topped the best-of-2021 lists at Film Comment and Reverse Shot. For Film Comment, Nathan Lee observed that what transpires in Memoria “can only be described as Apichatpongian: mischievous narrative game-play; personages who phase-shift through multiple realities; bliss-inducing detours and divertissements; the patiently calibrated and marvelously confounding evanescence of time and space.” Reverse Shot coeditor Jeff Reichert wrote that if Apichatpong “keeps topping himself at his current pace, it’ll only be a few years until words will fail to scrape at what he’s doing. With Memoria, they are already barely enough.”

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cinema of Now, the BAMPFA series opening tomorrow and running through May 12, takes its title from a letter the artist and filmmaker sent to Filmkrant in the summer of 2020. The world was locked down, and Apichatpong suggested that a new type of viewer would emerge from the pandemic. Confined to private spaces, these viewers were learning how to see. “They can stare at certain things for a long time,” he wrote. “They thrive in total awareness . . . They need a cinema that is closer to real life, in real time. They want the cinema of Now which possesses no fillers nor destination.”

As an architecture student at Khon Kaen University, Apichatpong shot his first short film, Bullet, in 1993. He switched majors and schools, and while studying film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he had his American friends call him Joe. He cofounded a production company, Kick the Machine, in 1999, and completed his first feature the following year. Mysterious Object at Noon is an improvised, exquisite-corpse narrative shot in black and white on 16 mm. “Rarely has a first feature been more aptly titled,” wrote Dennis Lim in 2017. Mysterious Object is “part road movie, part folk storytelling exercise, part surrealist parlor game.”

Blissfully Yours (2002) introduced what Lim called a “compendium of Apichatpongian motifs (bifurcated structure, jungle reverie).” When the opening titles appear forty-five minutes in, the film shifts gears from a story about a Thai man and woman caring for a refugee from Burma to what the New York TimesManohla Dargis described as a “voyage into the wild, away from civilization and its discontents. Under a lush canopy of green, the travelers settle onto the bank of a small river for a modest picnic and some languid sex, cooling themselves in the lucent water and plunging into a parallel stream of tears.” For Dargis, Blissfully Yours, the winner of the Un Certain Regard Prize in Cannes, marked “the emergence of one of the more original and promising new voices to hit the international cinema scene in recent years.”

“A deadpan, self-consciously prehistoric version of Jean Renoir’s rueful idyll A Day in the Country, Blissfully Yours is unconscionably happy,” wrote J. Hoberman in the Village Voice in 2004. “The enchanted forest is even more pronounced in Weerasethakul’s new Tropical Malady, also set in northwest Thailand. The less explicit but equally eccentric love story involves a Thai soldier and a peasant boy, and the mood is even more archaic.”

As it happens, Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, who have embarked on a daunting project at the Reveal—discussing every single one of the top hundred films in Sight and Sound’s latest “Greatest Films of All Time” critics’ poll—worked their way up to #95 on Tuesday. In Tropical Malady, the soldier, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), is investigating strange animal killings when he meets Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). “I think the intensity of the connection between Keng and Tong becomes so overwhelming at the end of the first half that it takes another form in the second,” suggests Tobias. “At the point where the characters’ ‘animal’ natures come out, and they appear to be grooming each other like jungle cats, the film breaks down and we get the second narrative. To me, it’s as simple as Tong disappearing into the darkness and Keng eventually following him there.”

Syndromes and a Century (2006), the first Thai film to screen in competition in Venice, is a tribute to Apichatpong’s parents, both of whom were doctors. It, too, is split into two parts, sparking Leo Goldsmith’s observation at Not Coming to a Theater Near You that Apichatpong’s films “rest upon a series of juxtaposed extremes, both thematic (the rural and the urban; the spiritual and the everyday; youth and age; the two halves of a romantic relationship) and structural (shot-reverse shot editing; contrasting colors; bisected structures). These binaries are not notable or unique in cinema but for the way in which they form and inform nearly every aspect of his films, often creating the sole source of tension in works that otherwise have none, works that meander laconically, meditatively with very little incident. This also extends to the principle generic opposition in Apichatpong’s films: their position precisely between narrative and avant-garde cinemas.”

When Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2010, Apichatpong truly came “to occupy a central place in cinephile culture, as influential as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami were for a previous generation,” as Dennis Lim put it. Writing for Variety, Maggie Lee suggested that the fifty-nine-minute Mekong Hotel (2012) “plays like a bonus track” to Uncle Boonmee, “its esoteric symbiosis of Thai folk culture, spiritualism, and current sociopolitical conditions simplified, but no less mystifying.”

In Cemetery of Splendor (2015), nurses care for soldiers struck with a mysterious sleeping sickness, and introducing a screening in Berlin, Apichatpong told the audience that if they felt the urge to doze off and join them, he’d take it as a compliment. At the top of his interview with the director for Reverse Shot, Adam Nayman noted that “in its linkage of drowsiness to governmental repression, Cemetery of Splendor reveals itself as an urgently political work underneath its characteristically languorous pacing.”

When Apichatpong was researching Memoria, Canadian actor and director Connor Jessup paid him a visit—and made a film, A.W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2018). Jessup told Hillary Weston that he once asked Apichatpong’s editor, Lee Chatametikool, “what he thought might surprise people about Joe and his process. He told me that what would be most surprising is how many things are in his movies just because they thought it would be funny. I think there’s a tendency in Western criticism to see his films as these mystery boxes, where every single block and piece is deep with unknowable mystery. And there’s no harm in writing like that, but it’s curious to know that it’s probably not the case most of the time.”

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