Extraordinary Joe

Thailand's Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul makes films too big and beautiful for plot

The films of Thai director Apichatpong (a.k.a. "Joe") Weerasethakul are so pleasurable to watch that I almost don't notice how dislocated they make me feel; more precisely, they make the feeling of dislocation a pleasing one. It's not just that Weerasethakul is a dedicated sensualist, uncovering beauty through richly tactile sound- and landscapes. Nor does it come down to the delight of his searching intelligence--which leads to unexpected and stirring juxtapositions (pop culture/nature, folklore/surrealism, documentary/fiction). Perhaps what most charges/disturbs his films is their willingness to include joy within the emotional palates of the ordinary people who populate them. Unlike most art films honored at Cannes and toasted by alternative weekly film critics, Weerasethakul's movies offer little sense that such moments of happiness are cheaply bought (by the desperate young, etc.), or that such moments will cost dearly later.

But neither does Weerasethakul, at MCAD Saturday for a Walker-sponsored dialogue following the Bell's screenings of four of his films, appear politically naive. Blissfully Yours (Thursday at 7:00 p.m.) references the floating underground of illegal immigrants who chase work without citizenship or certainty. Two earlier films that explicitly mix documentary and drama, Mysterious Object at Noon and Haunted Houses, trek across rural Thailand, finding subsistence economies and a general thirst for the Bangkok version of success. Weerasethakul doesn't stress these persistent realities; they're part of his picture(s)--as much as physical pleasure is. And there's longing--the longing for and pleasure of some greater communion.

It seemed to me at first that Weerasethakul looks to embrace rather than limit his narratives; all four films in the Walker series feature at least two main story arcs. The director's latest, Tropical Malady (Friday at 7:00 p.m.), tracks a soldier's sweet courtship of an unemployed young man for the first hour, and the soldier's hunt for a troublesome (possibly spirit-possessed) jungle tiger in the second. Mysterious Object at Noon (Thursday at 9:15 p.m.), the director's first feature, begins storytelling--via a disembodied voice (or a radio performer)--from its first shot of Bangkok traffic. The movie then follows a chain of interviewees across the country as each adds willy-nilly to the story thread. Scenes of performers acting out the narrative--ostensibly about a crippled boy and his teacher--erupt into the travelogue, along with silent movie-style intertitles.

Yet when I begin summarizing these narratives, I find that they collapse on me: The stories are more open-ended excuses than their own reasons for being; they're ways to look at characters touching--and being touched by--environment, media, work (or the lack of it), other characters, themselves. Midway through Mysterious Object at Noon, the fable-in-motion stumbles--drunk with possibility--then veers wildly into war, abduction, even a (funny) critique of American imperialism. Weerasethakul has confessed to having grown tired of the storytelling and wanting just to observe people: playing soccer, using sign language, caring for children. The pace of movement slows; a final shot reveals a dog trying to escape a truck tied to its neck (the burden of narrative?).

Tropical Malady is hardly as simple as it sounds. Nearly every word of my plot summary demands a footnote, preferably in the form of pictures, as the viewer receives meaning from the film as she would from a painting. The first half seems like an exploration of male beauty: The soldier is as tender as the young Cary Grant, but more overtly sexual; as the opening titles appear, he looks knowingly at the camera, then looks away, his dimples showing. Weerasethakul isn't telling a "forbidden love" story (which doesn't mean this one isn't), so his lovers meet in places--a theater, the jungle--where they can nuzzle and play.

The second half of Tropical Malady takes a sensory dip into a forest full of nonhuman sound and growth. The soldier makes himself even more vulnerable here than he was with his lover; he is asking for even more. Weerasethakul inserts paintings and stories of weretigers, follows ghost cows, translates talking monkeys. The soldier's journey writhes with all the sensual precariousness of a vampire tale, but the predator strikes me as somehow more generous and less human. I couldn't tell you who or what it is (the land? the drive to create?), but its presence haunts me still.

The people and environments in Weerasethakul movies are too big for the usual stories; words seem too small, trite, malleable. The director makes that very clear in Haunted Houses (Friday at 9:15 p.m.), a freakishly moving prank of a film in which Thai villagers enact melodramatic scenes from a popular TV soap opera. Every time the actors change, sometimes within a scene, the emotional tenor shifts--according to the age and bearing of the actors and, no doubt, to the nature of their relationships offscreen. The movie becomes a record of the villagers reacting to the text with laughter, alienation, empathy; it offers a wealth of individual glosses on corporate culture and the stereotype of the passive "villager." (Weerasethakul might be an ethnographer but for his acknowledged need to shape and suggest--which is to say he's an honest ethnographer!)

In Blissfully Yours, the jungle itself seems to speak, acting as a corrective to the usual idea of "setting" as a backdrop. Under its sway, a Burmese illegal, his Thai lover, and a paid caretaker of sorts aren't so much transformed as they are unfolded: provided the space to touch whatever emotion they haven't yet processed in the urban world where they are first seen. Weerasethakul may or may not have fallen into a bogus urban-nature opposition, but his jungle is no pastoral: There are motorbike thieves, plastic containers thrown into a creek, and many ants. Moreover, the pleasures of the place--water, vistas, heat--are communicated through the characters' physical pleasure: They are not abstract. Nor are the wonders of Weerasethakul's shots: two hands gripping above water; two women cradling a floating man; three people sunbathing, divided by a bush and much complicated emotion. No one pays for this beauty; we use it to keep on living.

 
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