Who is Apichatpong Weerasethakul?

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He's got a film in Cannes, a residency at a London gallery and new short film viewable online, but just who is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, asks David Jenkins

By the time you read this, Thailand’s young master of languid, elemental reverie, Apichatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul, will have unveiled his new movie, ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’, at the Cannes Film Festival. Anticipation is at fever pitch, not least because this is his first full-length feature since he took his place at the table of heavy-hitting world auteurs with the shimmering 2006 masterpiece, ‘Syndromes and a Century’, but also because it arrives on the back of a clutch of captivating shorter works that have offered a subtle flavour of what we might expect from this new full-length film.

Glancing over his sizeable back catalogue, which consists of myriad shorts, installations, music videos and conceptual doodles, it’s clear the director has a voracious appetite for image making and is willingly flexible when it comes to working with varying media and budgets. The film that brought him to the attention of Western audiences was 2004’s ‘Tropical Malady’, a dreamy diptych which opens as a tender urban love story between a young soldier and a farm hand, then swiftly mutates into an expressionistic jungle-bound dirge of animalistic sex and death. He had completed three features prior to that, most notably his celebrated ‘automatically written’ 2000 debut, ‘Mysterious Object at Noon’, in which he invited an assortment of Thai rurals to add their own twist to a bizarre folk tale.

It’s clear that ‘Joe’ – a nickname Apitchatpong adopted for the convenience of non-Thai-speakers – is constantly trying to enliven conventional storytelling, whether through the inventive blurring of the boundary between reality and fiction or via gently surreal manipulations of sound and imagery. Often marshalling Thailand’s poor as his subjects, he’s interested in the place of religion and folklore in contemporary society, and one theme he consistently returns to (and will again in ‘Uncle Boonmee’) is the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. Yet while form and feeling occasionally teeter on the unfathomable, these are not films to be fearful of. Even if scenes don’t interlock with one another in expected ways and characters don’t embark on tidy three-act journeys, that’s not to say that there aren’t moments of unambiguous, transcendent beauty to be marvelled at.

Take ‘Phantoms of Nabua’, for example, a new ten-minute gallery piece which can be viewed – free of charge – at BFI until July 13. In it, a rabble of anonymous youths punt a flaming football around a piece of scrubland in pitch darkness while a lightning storm dances in the backdrop. It’s a work that can be appreciated purely in terms of its peculiar aesthetic, notably the way in which the movements of these youths are illuminated by distinct and varying light sources. Yet dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that the film has a pointed political undertow derived from Apichatpong’s inspirational sojourn to the north-eastern Thai village of Nabua which, in 1965, was ambushed by the government in an attempt to weed out communist conspirators.

Another short that was made in the area is ‘A Letter for Uncle Boonmee’, a poignant documentary confessional describing contemporary Nabua to one of Boonmee’s past earthly incarnations. This can currently be viewed at the online cinematheque, Mubi (www.mubi.com), and is the most direct thematic precursor to the new movie. Apichatpong will be jetting straight from the Croisette to London for an on-stage Q&A at BFI Southbank on Tue May 25, but while he’s extremely eloquent when discussing his work, the potency of his rapturous images speak louder than words ever could.

‘Phantoms of Nabua’ is at the BFI Gallery until July 13 2010.

Read our review of ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives'

Author: David Jenkins



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