Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Primitive, 2009, still from a two-channel video, 29 minutes 35 seconds.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Primitive, 2009, still from a two-channel video, 29 minutes 35 seconds.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Primitive, 2009, still from a two-channel video, 29 minutes 35 seconds.

IN APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL’S 2009 installation Primitive, a constellation of seven video pieces that recently took over a floor of New York’s New Museum, the spiritual is political. Much has been made of the role of Buddhist thought and animist belief in the Thai filmmaker’s endlessly regenerative corpus, in which stories are retold, characters reborn, and situations and locations transmigrated within and among movies. But in many of his recent films and videos—and as Thailand endures a vicious cycle of political turmoil and violence—the familiar supernatural phenomena (ghosts, hauntings, past lives) have merged with historical phantoms, the manifestations of national traumas that have yet to be exorcised.

Commissioned by the British arts organization Animate Projects, Haus der Kunst in Munich, and FACT in Liverpool, Primitive is itself part of a sprawling multiplatform project of the same name, which also encompasses two short films (A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua [both 2009], the latter of which supplemented the New Museum configuration of Primitive), an artist’s book, and a feature film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes film festival.

Apichatpong has cited two starting points for the Primitive project: a story (discovered in a book given to him by a monk) about a man who is able to see his previous incarnations as though watching a movie, and a compulsion to investigate the obscured recent history of his home region of northeastern Thailand (which led him to the village of Nabua), where alleged Communist sympathizers were killed or driven into the jungle during a brutal military campaign that lasted from the 1960s to the ’80s.

Apichatpong’s Cannes triumph coincided with deadly clashes between the Thai government and redshirt protesters; and for his candor at a festival news conference, where he called Thailand a violent country “controlled by a group of mafia,” he was both applauded and attacked at home. The Palme, which inspired more than a few bemused, condescending responses in the mainstream press, also cemented Apichatpong’s place at the center of a specious but persistent debate about cinephile elitism and “slow cinema.” But even a passing acquaintance with the work would disprove the stereotype of a forbidding high-art ascetic. Apichatpong’s vision is above all a generous one, and Primitive may well evidence the filmmaker’s generosity even more than his features.

This spirit of openness begins with collaboration. Since his first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), Apichatpong has insisted that his films be shaped by the input of others. Many of the videos in Primitive are documents of the time he spent with the young men of Nabua, whose fathers and grandfathers were subject to persecution, and who themselves make up a lost generation, adrift in a politically and economically marginal region. Apichatpong handed cameras to the kids to shoot footage of one another—running on a dirt road, kicking around a flaming soccer ball, climbing onto a pickup truck—for I’m Still Breathing, scored with a power-pop number by the Thai band Modern Dog and as ecstatic a confluence of music and motion as the motorbike ride in his feature film Tropical Malady (2004). He dressed them in military camouflage for An Evening Shoot, in which they take target practice, over and over, at a distant figure walking in the fields—a ritual without explanation or end. And he enlisted them in the construction of a homespun steel-and-wood spacecraft, as captured in Making of a Spaceship, one of four pieces installed by curators Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari in the exhibition’s central space; on the opposite wall, in the ninety-second loop A Dedicated Machine, the spaceship appears as a literal (though barely) flying object, levitating just above the distant treetops before sinking back to earth. The ovoid vessel also shows up in the two-channel video Primitive, where it is referenced as a time machine in a voice-over—a fragment of which resurfaces in Uncle Boonmee—and refurbished as a futuristic clubhouse where the boys sleep, dream, and, at one point, face a hostile interrogator.

Crucially, Apichatpong’s magnanimity extends to the viewer. His work leaves a simultaneous impression of abundance and incompletion, the sense that each story has a past and an afterlife. Everything seems to belong to a larger whole, yet the overall effect is not of a puzzle to be solved but a space to be inhabited and freely explored. Translating the mental wandering of watching an Apichatpong film into a physical experience, the cavelike dark of Primitive as a whole offers no clear signposts, no obvious hierarchy among its constituent parts. It’s entirely possible to ignore (or be ignorant of) the specific history that he’s mining and experience Primitive as a primal play of darkness and light. As usual with Apichatpong, the darkness is both welcoming and dangerous, the essence of cinematic immersion, and the light comes in mysterious and mundane varieties: fluorescent tubes, military flares, fireworks, bug zappers, a projector beam, and, in a nocturnal loop titled Nabua, lightning bolts that echo throughout the space. (That video is in turn projected on an outdoor screen that goes up in flames in the short film Phantoms of Nabua.)

If Apichatpong moves more fluidly than most between the worlds of art film and video art, it’s because he is particularly attuned to the contexts of creation and exhibition, to the fundamentals of sensory perception, and to the potential of the moving image to suggest different experiences of time. Complicating his themes of remembrance and repetition, Primitive is a perverse act of commemoration founded on what amounts to false memory syndrome: Inspired by a man with total recall, the artist envisions the past life of a place that has forgotten it had one (even as he captures its rootless present). Responding to the process of collective amnesia and eternal recurrence by which national identities and official narratives often emerge, Apichatpong shows that resistance can take the form of a few small, stubborn gestures of the imagination.

Dennis Lim is the editor of the website Moving Image Source and writes regularly for the New York Times.