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Sunday, June 7, 2009

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: No ordinary Joe


APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL, edited by James Quandt, with essays by Tony Rayns, Karen Newman, Benedict Anderson, Kong Rithdee, James Quandt and Apichatpong. Letters from Mark Cousins, Tilda Swinton: annotated filmography; selected bibliography, biography. Preface by Alexander Horwath (text entirely in English). Vienna: Austrian Film Museum, 2009, 256 pp., 20 euro (paper)

Perhaps no Asian film director since Akira Kurosawa has received the critical attention bestowed on 39 year-old Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His "Blissfully Yours" won a major Cannes Festival prize in 2002; "Tropical Malady," took the 2004 Jury Prize and the Tokyo FilmEx first prize; and his latest film, "Syndromes and a Century" (2006), was the first Thai film shown at the Venice Film Festival and recently won a major prize at the inaugural Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong.

In addition, the director (who, like many Thais with "difficult" names, has adopted a Western monicker — Joe) is active in the creation of shorter films, video works and installations. These have been commissioned by such varied sponsors as the Jeonju International Film Festival, Louis Vuitton, the United Nations, Christian Dior, a major Munich museum and (Sept. 25-Nov. 29, this year) Liverpool's Foundation for Art and Creative Technology.

All of this work is distinguished by its originality and integrity. As David Bordwell, America's leading film scholar, has said: "Joe's movies tease your imagination while captivating your eyes."

Both the films and the video work come in a variety of organic shapes. The credits for "Blissfully Yours" occur in the middle of the film; both "Syndromes" and the astonishing "Tropical Malady" split into parallel experiences. There are sound reasons for such narrative experiments, and the eye soon accepts the assumptions.

No matter the convolutions or the apparent mysteries, the films are animated by a respect rare in contemporary cinema. In this lax age where special effects take the place of regard, seeing a film that demands quiet and close attention is bracing. Whole scenes were left out of "Tropical Malady" because they did not enough "respect" what the director called the third character in his film, the Thai jungle itself. He wanted some scenes absolutely black (narrative supplied only by the attentive design of natural sound itself), and it was only after the pronounced reluctance of the producers that he decided against it.

The climactic shot in "Blissfully Yours" is of something never before shown in a Thai commercial film, and yet it is so right, so proper, so respectful that the effect is entirely natural.

A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago from which he received a master's degree in fine arts in 1997, Joe brings a highly sophisticated but seemingly plain combination of Thai pop entertainment and the avant-garde work of such early filmmakers as Bruce Baillie. These influences are seamlessly edited into experiences that are always moving and can be inspiring.

It is for work such as this that the director was given the 2005 Silpathorn Award by the Thai Office of Contemporary Culture. Then, last April, the Thai Censorship Board demanded the removal of four scenes from "Syndromes" before it could be commercially released in Thailand.

The director refused to re-cut the film and said he would withdraw it from domestic circulation. The Board objected to "sensitive" scenes involving doctors kissing (the film is about the director's parents, both doctors) and having a drink, and two "inappropriate" scenes, one of a Buddhist monk playing a guitar and the other of two monks having fun with a remote-control flying saucer.

Since there is nothing sensitive or inappropriate in these scenes and, in any event, many Thai films are said to go much further and remain uncensored, obviously something else was going on.

This is the proposed new film ratings law, which would give the government the power to censor or ban films that it deemed would "undermine or disrupt social order and moral decency."

Their position was stated by the director of their Surveillance Department who said moviegoers in Thailand were "uneducated . . . they are not intellectuals, that's why we need ratings. Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong. Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh."

Apichatpong responded by privately showing his film with black leader where the missing scenes would have been, calling attention to the vandalization intended, and released a statement that said, in part: "There is no reason to mutilate [this film] in fear of the system. Otherwise there is no reason for one to continue making art."

A context is provided by an analogous situation in Japan in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) when "Western values" swept away the traditional culture of the country (Japan's own Cultural Revolution) in the interests of a Westernized, affluent, would-be "middle" class much interested in anything that could be seen as threatening to "disrupt social order and moral decency" and consequently banned.

The full Apichatpong story up to now is admirably presented in this new collection. It contains James Quandt's magisterial survey of the films themselves; Tony Rayns' full survey of the shorter works; Benedict Anderson's superb survey on the Thai reception of "Tropical Malady;" Karen Newman on the installations; Kong Rithdee on the religious affiliations of the director; several essays by the director himself; some interviews and exchanges; and comments by Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton. There is also a full filmography and bibliography and a listing of the contents of the massive retrospective of which this is the catalog.

The major films themselves are available on DVD from, among other sources, Amazon, and I strongly recommend them. "Tropical Malady" is the new "Rashomon."



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