Puzzling Polymath

Dennis Lim on Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Left: Apichatpong Weerasethakul (center) on the set of Syndromes and a Century, 2006. Photo: Chayaporn Maneesutham. Right: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tropical Malady, 2004, color film in 35 mm, 118 minutes. Production still.

NOT YET FORTY and with only five features to his name, the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul already occupies a central place in cinephile culture: a multiple Cannes prizewinner, a shape-shifter who straddles the worlds of art-house cinema and installation art, and—if we are to take at face value the wide-eyed puzzlement so often assumed by his admirers and detractors alike—a veritable mystery inside an enigma. In the cornerstone essay in Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the latest in an excellent series of critical studies by the Austrian Film Museum and the first English-language publication devoted to this essential filmmaker, the book’s editor, James Quandt, identifies an obfuscating tendency in reviews of Apichatpong’s work. Confounded critics routinely refer to his films as “mysterious objects” (invoking the title of his first feature, 2000’s Mysterious Object at Noon), and even his most enthusiastic fans resort, as Quandt puts it, “to locutions of bafflement, of succumbing and surrender, the invocation of cosmic enigma and poetic unreason, of the indeterminate, ineffable, and oneiric.”

This is perhaps not surprising. Apichatpong (it is customary to refer to Thais by their first names) is a sui generis artist, and the critical discourse has been slow to catch up. The book’s recurring theme, in fact, is a reflexive one: the difficulty of describing, let alone comprehending, a body of work as singular—and, in some ways, as elusive—as Apichatpong’s. Critic and programmer Tony Rayns acknowledges that “it’s hard to write about Apichatpong’s films without relying on the vocabulary of doubt.” Bangkok Post writer Kong Rithdee describes the conundrum that Thai critics face in championing an internationally acclaimed artist who draws deeply on the indigenous culture and yet remains an outsider at home (“I wonder why we have to keep reminding readers that Apichatpong doesn’t make movies to satisfy the intellectual demands of foreigners”).

Apichatpong’s hybrid background and his omnivorous range of influences provide much fodder for analysis; needless to say, they also complicate the picture. Born in Bangkok and raised by his doctor parents in the northeastern village of Khon Kaen, he still considers the pulpy Thai genre films of his youth an important influence. Most of his films are autobiographical—he has said that he draws above all on personal memories—but they are also precise and rigorous in their formalism. He studied architecture in Thailand before getting an MFA in filmmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he discovered art-house cinema as well as experimental work by Andy Warhol, Bruce Baillie, and others.

Quandt, senior programmer at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto and a frequent contributor to Artforum, does much of the heavy lifting in this volume. His capacious essay, which includes a detailed film-by-film analysis (as close and concrete a reading as these movies have ever received), situates Apichatpong within the larger contexts of Buddhist belief, local politics, Thai culture, and international art cinema. Quandt’s coconspirators round out the picture: Rayns, in a typically lucid and insightful piece, emphasizes the Buddhist concept of “voidness.” Kong Rithdee and political scientist Benedict Anderson provide valuable on-the-ground accounts of receptions to Apichatpong’s work in Thailand. Karen Newman, curator at FACT in Liverpool, traces connections between his film and installation work. (The book was published to coincide with Apichatpong’s latest work, Primitive, a multiplatform project consisting of interrelated video installations and short films that premiered earlier this year at the Haus der Kunst in Munich.) Apichatpong is very much a presence, too, in two extended interviews with Quandt, and in his own writings on censorship in Thailand and his formative film-going experiences. There’s also a detailed filmography, spanning features, shorts, and installations, compiled by Simon Field, a producer of Primitive, and Alexander Horwath, director of the Austrian Film Museum.

Quandt cautions that the conclusions reached in this book are likely to be premature. Apichatpong seems to be approaching a turning point. (He has said, for one thing, that his next feature will depart from the bifurcated structure that has become something of a trademark.) In any case, when it comes to what its editor calls the “hard work of interpretation,” this excellent anthology is a major step forward.

The first English-language volume on Apichatpong Weerasethakul is available from the Austrian Film Museum and Wallflower Press.