Thursday, October 28, 2010

Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Sud sanaeha (Blissfully Yours) and Sud pralad (Tropical Malady)

Three images above: Blissfully Yours

Three images above: Tropical Malady

by Douglas Messerli


Apichatpong Weerasethakul (writer and director) Sud sanaeha (Blissfully Yours) / 2002

Apichatpong's film, Blissfully Yours, won Un Certain Regard prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, prognostic of his being awarded the 2010 Palme d'Or for his most recent film. Many critics have understandably praised the 2002 picture as a beautifully, slow-paced, idyll.

Perhaps they saw another film, however, than the one I watched again the other afternoon on my DVD. Yes, it is a beautiful film, and it is certainly slow-paced with regard to what most people think of as "story"—the credits do not appear until 45 minutes into the film. But, as he made apparent in Tropical Malady, Apichatpong does not tell his story through action or language, but through image and gesture, gestures often so small that they do not even seem significant.

Indeed, throughout the first long scene the main character, Min (Min Oo) does not even speak, as three women, a doctor, his girlfriend Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) and her friend/landlady Orn (Jenjira Jansuda), prod and stroke him as if he were a prize stud bull up for sale. By accident, I saw that first scene without subtitles, finally realizing that the previous viewer had obviously watched the movie in Thai, I quickly made the correction and started again. But I hardly needed the subtitles to realize that these women, lavishing so much attention to the body of this handsome young male was strange and vaguely perverse.

The man Roong and Orn describe as a cousin from the country, in fact—so we discover at the end of the film—is a fugitive on the run from Burma, illegally in Thailand. Accordingly, the two women have not allowed him to speak for fear his newly-learned Thai and his accent will betray the truth. He has had a terrible problem with his throat for years, and is mute, they insist, even as the doctor discovers no evidence of infection.

What we learn from the entire first scene is that both Roong and Orn survive in this Northeastern corner of the country through a series of seductions and lies, small acts of thievery and petty betrayals. Orn tries to convince the doctor to give Min a medical certificate (necessary if he is to find a job), promising that Roong will bring in his passport within the week. The doctor refuses, and Orn, trying to use her long acquaintance with the doctor as a tool, attempts again and again to convince the doctor to change her mind, even as the nurse calls for her next patient.
Min, evidently, suffers from psoriasis (he is shedding like a snake declares Roong), but the two women have replaced the doctor's prescribed lotion with cheap hand-softeners from the grocers. Similarly, Orn has replaced her prescription of sleeping pills with a over-the-counter mood control drug. Are they selling the real drugs? One can only wonder when, in the very next scene, Orn and Min visit Orn's husband at his office, where she mixes up a new batch of cheap lotion with vegetables that make the salve appear more like an avocado salad that a cure for his rash.

While Orn mixes her new concoction, Min waits, where one of the male office executives, attempts to flirt with him, encouraging Min to steal away with him for a sexual encounter. Min seems almost oblivious, and one wonders for a moment, if he might not take him up on his offer in the way that Tong casually accepts Keng's advances in Tropical Malady.

The long drive from Orn's husband's office to the porcelain factory, where Roong paints mass-made figurines, may seem to the unobservant viewer as simply a picturesque trip through the countryside; but what we witness out of the back of Orn's Toyota Corolla is something close to what one might see in the poorest sections of the American South. The small shanty-like houses and stores around which rush citizens on motorbikes is a far cry from Bangkok or even the factory that seems almost hidden away from the badly-paved roads. This is a territory of poverty, and to survive in this world, it is clear its citizens must rely on their cleverness and stealth.

Min (who evidently briefly worked at the factory) has been told that he is banned from the grounds, but the gatekeepers seem happy to see him, as does the dog they keep. Roong, meanwhile, convinces her manager, after a series of questions, that she is ill, managing her escape. Exchanging her motorcycle with Orn's car, the two lovers, Roong and Min, are suddenly off for picnic in the country. Only now do credits appear, a Thai version of a Brazilian samba accompanying them.

It is also true that for much of the rest of the film, Apichatpong—taking us along in the journey away from this deprived society into the lush and tropical wonders of the jungle, where Roong and Min picnic, shyly make love, and soak up the sun—formulates his film in the context of a sexual idyll. But just as we may have missed a great deal of detail in the first part of the work, to characterize the rest of the film in that simple manner is to miss everything. This garden is, after all, not just any garden, but a special one for Min; he has clearly been here before. Here also lie fruit trees from which he begins to eat (in a clear reversal of the Adam and Eve story, which it recalls), before passing its berries on to Roong. But then, perhaps he is not, symbolically speaking, Adam, but is the serpent of the creation myth to which Roong has already compared him; his flaking skin is the major issue in the movie.

As a man between borders, trapped in a country where he literally has not yet found a new identity, Min must also shed the old to become a new being, which works nicely with the creation myth at which Apichatpong has hinted.

But, where, one can only wonder, is Adam?

I am not suggesting through these perceived parallels Apichatpong is a symbolist, setting up a series of analogs by which the moviegoer can comprehend his film. But his work is clearly influenced by traditional Thai and international mythology, that embrace a multitude of possibilities even contradictions. And we cannot help but wonder that if the woman and the snake have now embraced, how that myth might end.

By chance—although, despite the seeming casualness and spontaneity of this director, I believe he leaves very little to pure "chance"—Orn has made her own journey to the country with the very man who had propositioned Min. This spot of jungle, it appears, is a sort of "lover's retreat." While Orn and her lover are portrayed having ordinary, if slightly brutal, sex —no romantic lover's games for them—their motorcycle is stolen. Even more ominous is the fact that when Orn's friend, pulling up his pants, attempts to run after the thieves, we hear, soon after, the sound of a gunshot. So much for idylls!

Presumably killed, he does not appear in the movie again, as Orn wanders forward in the undergrowth, ultimately showing up—her clothes torn, her skin scratched—at the very spot where Roong is now engaging in oral sex. Throughout, their romantic interlude, Min, his whole body affected by his shedding skin, is almost entirely passive. Only after Roong completes the act, does Orn move towards them.

Although Roong has spoken out against Orn previously (she'd be better without her, she delcares to Min) we know that Min thinks of her (on the baisi of his drawings of the two, overlain upon the screen during much of this country "escape") almost as Roong's sexual equal. And it is apparent, that both women desire him. The women "face off" in the nearby stream, Roong tossing water into Orn's face, Orn returning the offense. At first rather fiercely, but gradually shifting to smiles and mysterious purposefulness, they push, pull, and pinch one another, until both are waterlogged, many of their gestures suggesting a sort of baptism of one another and their beloved Min, before they swim in and out of one another's space, undressing, finally, upon the riverbank.

As they lie down to rest, Roong gently plays with Min's penis as he sleeps, never in this film to again awaken. Orn, nearby and just out-of-sight, writhes in obvious emotional distress, clearly out of loss (her son we are told has been drowned), loneliness and, perhaps, jealousy. Any joy these locals may have experienced has been so brief that it now hardly matters.

The voiceover says everything: Min goes off to a job in Bangkok, leaving the two cast forever out of any possible paradise they might have inhabited. Roong gets "another boyfriend" and sells noodles. "Orn continues to work as an extra in Thai movies," so the voice humorously reports, as if that has been her role—just as in this film—all along. Life in this outpost goes drearily on.

Los Angeles, November 12, 2002; revised September 16, 2010


Apichatpong Weerasethakul (writer and director) Tropical Malady / 2004

A malady, as we know, is "a disease or disorder of the animal body," in this case, presumably, caused by the heat of the tropics.

Yet in Thai director Weerasethaku's simple and beautiful film, it is hard to comprehend who is suffering and why? So subtle, so seemingly innocent, is his love story between a young soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and a country boy with little experience, Tong (Sakda Kawebuadee) that the viewer can hardly imagine that this will end as a story of passion and punishment.
Only in the very first scene, before the credits, does the director give some clue to what will come, suggesting that we might be a little on edge in watching the bipartite film he has constructed. A group of soldiers, presumably out on maneuvers near the forest, come across a body that has just been killed. They wrap it and bring it back to some nearby farmers. As they travel, the observant viewer will notice a naked, tattooed man running nearby back into the forest. As Keng reports to the friendly country folk whom he has joined for supper, "The body will be bloated by morning."

Before long, Tong joins the country men and women, and Keng, we perceive, is immediately attracted to him, and on the sexual hunt. Keng, it becomes apparent when the action later moves to town, is an experienced gay man, who has numerous friends of both sexes in the nearby city, including a young man he meets in the bathroom of the local cinema who clearly would like to have sex with him again. But Tong has now caught his eye.

Tong, who works in the city as an ice-cutter, seems so innocent that it is hard to tell whether he is gay or not. He sexually teases a young woman, also from the country, while readily joining in the invitation to join up with Keng. But once he and Keng begin sharing activities, Tong seems quite ready to accept the soldier's sexual attentions, even encouraging a groping session at the local movie theater.

Most of the first part of this film is passed in what appears to be a sort of paradisiacal idyll, as the two move back and forth from country to town, attending a concert by a popular singer and visiting with two country sisters, one of whom takes them to a hidden Buddhist temple and tells stories of magic. The second sister, who runs a small grocery, shares her belief that:

Greed is our downfall. I was watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The
woman won a lot of money but wouldn't stop playing. She lost and got
only 30,000 Baht.

Here, as elsewhere, Weerasethaku suggests that not everything we see—which he makes certain we see in the most beautiful light imaginable—is as it seems. Tong is fearful of memories, Keng afraid of taking chances in life (he refuses to try a narrow path out of the Buddhist cave). Tong hints, only through a photograph from his own days of being in the military, of a previous relationship, while Keng resents his refusal to visit the military camp. Tong's beloved dog is found dying on the road. Most of the reviewers that I have read describe the final scene between the two as consisting of Tong simply walking away into the darkness, but, in fact, the scene immediately after shows Keng and his soldier friends in a truck on their way out of town—their commander has returned and their idle time is finished. It is not Tong that leaves, I would argue, but Keng.

With new credits and a brief description of a folkloric myth about a man converted into a tiger, who is doomed to kill men and animals in the nearby region, we see Keng having returned, sleeping evidently in the missing Tong's room, briefly perusing the photograph of Tong and his earlier friend. It is clear he is on the search for his former love. Whether he has been assigned that job or has simply taken it upon himself, we never find out. But the search reminds one, somewhat, of the famed Frank Stockton tale, "The Lady or the Tiger?" in that this search may depend upon which he discovers, the man or the tiger. If it is the latter, his greed with be punished, if the former, his passion will have been rewarded.

The slow-paced, night images of the latter half simmer with a deep beauty that we noticed in the city and country lights in the first part. But here, everything is on edge. The soldier is, after all, a man who can kill, the tiger a wily prey who can see in the dark. Exhausted by his first day in the forest, Keng pulls a stockinged hat over his head to protect himself, as he falls asleep in the crook of a tree. In his dream, baboons speak to him, telling him that he must either let himself be devoured or kill the tiger to free the man within. Deep in the forest he discovers the walking, tattooed man we witnessed in the first moments of this film, and he attempts to grab and hold on to him, apparently to bring back to the society where had originally discovered his love. Yet time and again, the man (Tong?) escapes his capture, eventually tossing Keng from a mountaintop.

When Keng awakes, he returns to the hunt, experiencing odd visions, and, eventually losing his rifle. In the last few moments we see Keng beneath a tree, upon which sits the tiger. Keng bows, offering up his life, willing to give up his blood to the beast in order that he might join him. The ending may be equivocal, but the meaning of the tale is not. Love may be a supreme pleasure, but it also entails a sacrificing of self. In the end we do not quite know whether Keng has found the man or the tiger, but he has discovered the core of love.

Los Angeles, August 29, 2010
(c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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