Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) – The Tragic Decay of Language into Mere Words

Much has been written, not least by me, about the best way to approach the films of the Thai New Wave director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.  Most responses seem to fall into one of three categories :

 

The first is made up of rejectionist accusations of wilful obscurantism.  The second is composed of equally ill-judged, but somewhat more charitable, suggestions that his films contain a profound political and/or spiritual message that we are unable to decode because we lack a sufficient knowledge of Thai culture.  Both of these views are attempts to articulate a sense of frustration with the fact that, despite his obvious technical and artistic skill, Weerasethakul is somehow failing to communicate his ideas in a way that makes them accessible to anyone who is not him.  This sense of frustration has also resulted in the emergence of a rather more drastic category of reaction.

The third category is best summed up by the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s assertion that we suffer from “a lack of analytical context in which to place this material”.  Indeed, my own reaction to Weerasethakul’s work is that his films are both so obviously brilliant and so utterly incomprehensible that we need to develop an entirely new critical language in which to discuss his work.  A language focused not upon ‘narrative’ and ‘character’ but upon mood and atmosphere, the careful layering of images, colours and sounds to evoke emotional responses.  Under this view, Weerasethakul is effectively bypassing our traditional analytical tools and the tricks of cognition we use to make sense of cinema (and the world) in order to plug directly into our brains.

 

Weerasethakul’s latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (a.k.a. Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chat) constitutes a serious challenge to this third approach to the director’s work.  It is a film that revisits many of the director’s favoured themes and images but places them into a much more traditionally cinematic framework.  Far from operating on the level of pure sensation, unadorned by critical analysis, Uncle Boonmee is a film littered with genre tropes and familiar ideas.  Ideas that not only make the work much easier to understand, but actually prompt us to revisit many of the director’s earlier works and ask whether — despite this year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes — something has not been lost along the way.  Something beautiful and mysterious.

 

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Blissfully Yours (2002) – Now Rather Than Later

The last time I wrote about the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, I suggested that his films constituted a challenge to the critic.  A reminder, if you will, that as cinematic expression evolves, so too must the tools of the critic.  Indeed, most of the critical reaction to the Thai-film-maker’s work has tended to emphasise either the biographical (Weerasethakul is gay and his parents are doctors, facts that have clearly inspired his film-making) or a form of woolly mysticism that attempts to alight upon his films with the same softness and the aloofness that Weerasethakul uses in examining different topics in his films.  In other words, Weerasehakul is not a forensic film-maker and so it is okay to speak of his films in non-forensic terms.  For my part, the jury is still out on this approach.  Especially when you consider that Weerasethakul’s earlier films seem to be quite accessible to standard critical readings.

Indeed, Blissfully Yours (Sud Sanaeha) could easily have been made by a European art house director.  It is, after all, a fairly straightforward exploration of the temptation to ignore one’s problems in order to take pleasure in the present.  While the film does share many of the images that Weerasethakul would deploy so forcefully in films like Syndromes and a Century and Tropical Malady, it is also a much darker film.  A film that seems strangely at odds with the warm-hearted mysticism of Weerasethakul’s later films and the critical reaction to them.

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Syndromes and a Century (2006) – Repetition and Change

The role of a critic is a somewhat paradoxical one.  At times of universal agreement over aesthetic principles, the critic serves as a guard dog.  A martinet.  Forever wielding his rhetorical staff to smack down those who refuse or fail to toe the line.  Like Robert McKee we point solemnly to Aristotle’s Poetics and wearily (almost sadly) shake our heads.  In order for criticism to escape the quicksands of qualification and relativism, there has to be a belief in universal principles.  There have to be rules and there has to be an order to things.  But what are these rules?  Where do they come from?  Are they, like the laws of physics, universal and embedded in the substance of the universe?  If our universe contained no sentient life forms, would it still be the case that a character must suffer after a reversal of fortunes in order to realise where he has gone wrong and how to proceed?

I suspect that aesthetic sensibilities are the products of their owner’s culture.  The values themselves are formed over time by generation upon generation of artists telling similar kinds of stories and yet gradually changing both the stories and the forms those stories take.  This is why older texts can seem odd or unbalanced to modern readers.  It is also why critics have to be alive to the possibility that sometimes, a failure to toe the line is not a failure but a great success.  As John Crowley puts it in The Solitudes (1987), the first part of his Aegypt cycle :

“It seems to me that what grants meaning in folk tales and legendary narratives – We’re thinking now of something like the Niebelungdenlied or the Morte D’Arthur – is not logical development so much as thematic repetition.  The same ideas, or events, or even the same objects recurring in different circumstances.  Or different objects contained in similar circumstances. (…) A hero sets out (…) to find a treasure, or to free his beloved, or to capture a castle, or find a garden.  Every incident, every adventure that befalls him as he searches, is the treasure or the beloved, the castle or the garden.  Repeated in different forms like a set of nesting boxes.  Each of them, however, just as large, or no smaller, than all the others.  The interpolated stories he is made to listen to only tell him his own story in another form.  The  pattern continues until a kind of certainty arrises.  A satisfaction that the story has been told often enough to seem, at last, to have been really told.  Not uncommonly, an old romance’s  story just breaks off then, or turns to other matters.  Plot, logical development, conclusions prepared for by introductions or inherent in a story’s premises, logical completion as a vehicle of meaning… all that is later.  Not necessarily later in time but belonging to a later, more sophisticated, kind of literature.  There are some interesting half-way kind of works like The Fairy Queen, which set up for themselves a titanic plot , an almost mathematical symmetry of structure, and never finish it… never need to finish it.  Because they are, at heart, works of the older kind.  And the pattern has already arisen satisfyingly within them.  The flavour is already there.  So, is this any help to our thinking?  Is meaning in history like the solution to an equation or like a repeated flavour?  Is it to be sought for, or tasted?”

This passage raises two interesting ideas.  Firstly, it raises the possibility of a time when different aesthetic principles were in force.  The Arthurian myths and romances are not primitively written works with a questionable track record when it comes to coherence, but rather works that appealed to a different idea of what makes a good story.  Not all stories need to take the same form or follow the same rules in order to be great.  Not all conceptions of character have to fit in with our current folk-psychological models.  Secondly, it hints at a model of aesthetic revolution.  An almost Darwinian process through which stories are told, abandoned, revisited, rebooted, reinterpreted and retold.  Crowley is speaking of stories within a certain mythical tradition or saga but might this not also be true of the telling of stories in general?  Might this process not also explain how certain kinds of story-telling can evolve over time?

Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007) has appeared on a number of ‘Best Films of the Decade’ -type lists.  I consider it to be quite a dull film.  My problem with Reygadas’ work is that it is a film that deals in themes and techniques that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a work of post-War cinema.  It clings limpet-like to the existentialist tradition that was pioneered by the likes of Bergman and Antonioni and it explores these well-trodden themes using the same set of cinematic techniques that all art house directors have been using since the 60s.  Silent Light contains long takes.  Silent Light contains awkward silences.  Silent Light contains ambiguous plotting.  Silent Light contains a fantastical dream sequence.  To watch Silent Light is to gag on the stench of intellectual decay.  It is as though the post-War art house consensus has finally played itself out, its stories told and retold using the same old techniques.  Just as the Cahiers du Cinema critics who would become the directors of the Nouvelle Vague once rejected the theatricality of French post-War cinema, do we stand at a point in time when the story-tellers have to move on?  Must new tools and new stories be told for this and the next generation?  One director who seems to instinctively answer this question with a resounding affirmative is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director whose Tropical Malady I wrote about a short while ago.  His Syndromes and a Century is not merely a good film, it is a film that makes a robustly compelling argument for Weerasethakul to be considered one of the greatest living film-makers.

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Tropical Malady (2004) – The Hunter Hunted

One of the joys of discovering other cultures is realising, in a somewhat Whiggish manner, where they stand on the public debates that fill the public sphere of one’s own country.  What are their attitudes towards gay marriage?  Do they still assume that everyone will get married and have kids?  Do they have a similar intolerance for racism?  More often than not, particularly in the West, this is simply a matter of chronology : Some places are ahead of ‘the times’ while others are ‘behind’ them.  However, leave the gilded circle of what was once Christendom and you find cultures with attitudes so different to ours that they actually shed some light on the buried assumptions of our own debates.

One such culture is that of Thailand.  Thailand’s attitude towards gay rights is genuinely fascinating.  Since the military coup of 2006, Thai government has been edging closer to using a third gender for administrative purposes.  A third gender designed to accommodate the Kathoey, a caste of Thai society that we tend to refer to either simplistically as transwomen or, with the teeth grinding that accompanies potential political incorrectness, ladyboys.  In truth, “Kathoey” is a much broader category than male-to-female transsexual.  Originally, it was coined to describe intersexuals but since the mid 20th Century onwards, it has come to designate everything from post-operative transsexuals to effeminate gay men.  This category of person has existed for a long time in Thailand and, thanks to Buddha’s teaching of tolerance, they are not mocked or physically attacked in the way that TG people can be in the West.  However, they are also victims of terrible discrimination and frequently find themselves working in the ‘entertainment’ industry because people refuse to hire them for other jobs.  Even if they are university graduates.  I mention the Kathoeys as, for a long time, the Kathoeys served to mask the existence of Thai homosexuality.  In Thai culture, sexuality is defined largely in terms of gender and the idea of two masculine men having sex or a relationship simply did not figure.  It was not a common mode of identity.  Indeed, in the late 70s there were only ten gay entertainment venues in the Patpong area of Bangkok.  A decade later, there were over a hundred such places spread out across the country.  In a sense, homosexuality – as we in the west understand the word – only really appeared in Thailand in the 1970s and since then it has attracted more than its fair share of ill-treatment from officials who are more than happy to crack down on a new mode of being.

It is against this rather alien and seemingly conflicting set of cultural attitudes that Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes films such as Tropical Malady (a.k.a. Sud Pralad), a lusciously atmospheric film comprising a a beautifully chaste love story and a fable in which one of the young men turns into a tiger.

 

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