Saturday, February 15, 2020

Apichatpong Weerasethakul | ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร (Fokfa nai meuman) (Mysterious Object at Noon)

elephants, tigers, and a boy in wheelchair
by Douglas Messerli

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (conceiver and editor) ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร (Fokfa nai meuman) (Mysterious Object at Noon) / 2000

The great Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first film, Dokfa nai meuman (titled in English, Mysterious Object at Noon) from 2000, is study in narrative invention. If that sounds academic, you haven’t seen Weersethakul’s films—and you should! His movies are often described as slow-moving renditions, often with gay themes, of the Thai countryside. But, as critic Dennis Lim points out, in this film the images and story almost stumble over themselves as they shift and resolve into a cultural myth created by dozens of people the director interviewed and watched throughout Thailand.
     The story begins, with a soaring love song playing in the background, as something close to a soap-opera plot is revealed:

Once upon a time…  The accident that night made him long for her… He could not sleep, eat, or even work. Where was she hiding from him? How could she forget that night? He won’t give up the fate…and tried to find her everywhere. But when he finally found her, he almost went crazy…because she was to marry another man.

     This all said over the movement of a fish van with other advertising slogans for “lotus root incense” and for various brands of fresh fish being broadcast over microphones as the open truck hurdles through the Bangkok streets. What was that accident: a literal car crash, or simply a crashing encounter into another person’s life? We are never told. Where are we headed? Where is the movie going, we can only ask?
     And in the back of that van sits a fisherwoman, cleaning her catch, who describes to the invisible narrator that her father sold her to her uncle for money to travel by bus. It’s such a remarkably sordid story that even the narrator can hardly believe it, asking her to contribute the beginning of the story he has just recounted.

     So begins one of the most amazing Surrealist-like “exquisite corpse” tales ever told, as the director and his small crew, with a 16 millimeter camera in hand, rushes off into the Thai countryside to seek others to complete a story that has no real logic or ending. A “crippled” boy (the word handicapped is never used), his nurse, magic tigers, a strange ball rolling out of her skirt, wondrous star-boys, and various other transformations get mixed into a potpourri of near nonsense that, nonetheless, is utterly fascinating in its employment of folktales, and simple imaginative flourishes.
      Dancers perform their own versions of this growing tale, and various deaf girls signing with their hands tell their further versions of Dokfa (the Devil’s Hand), leading us onto a more and more confused tale that is so fascinating that we cannot abandon its illogical logic. This, we quickly realize, is how fiction started, in elaborated narratives that have no real beginning or end. Here we see the heart of the great Icelandic and Norse Edda’s, the heart of nearly all the stories collected by the Brother’s Grim, Hans Christian Andersen’s Danish tales, and, obviously, of the far darker folktales of Asia in general.
      Humans become animals, and vice versa. Magic occurs as the “crippled” boy and his friend encase the stricken nurse in a kind of zip-up clothes bag, and just as suddenly discover she has disappeared. The wheelchair-bound boy just as suddenly seems to arise and walk away.
      Rather than tamping-down this chaotic narrative confusion, Weerasethakul only encourages those he meets to “tell me anything you want to say, real or made-up.”
      The result is almost like a magnificent landscape of his later films, where tigers roam as in Tropical Malady, or, as in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives people move in-and-out of time, relating their experiences with ghosts alongside daily living. There are no obvious gay reveries here, which occur in so many of this director’s works such as Tropical Malady or Blissfully Yours, but the porousness, as Lim describes it, of Weerasethakul’s  process already evinces it (aren’t the star-boys another variation of that theme?), and, in this sense, the first work is already a map of his later award-winning films.
       If you might go into this film feeling a bit disoriented, you come out feeling all the wiser for its communal power of story-telling and the human need to explore our own imaginations. Despite the headlong rush of the director into the radical transformations of his story, there is also something luxuriant about it, a feeling of the reverie that exists in so many of his films. You don’t quite want the story to stop, and, after all, it is a story that might go on forever. I don’t ever want the tale to end. But then, in Weerasethakul’s hands, it never has.

Los Angeles, February 15, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

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