This past weekend the Wexner Center hosted Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and showed three of his feature films, including this year's Cannes entry TROPICAL MALADY (SUD PRALAD). Weerasethakul possesses talent, but I'm not sure that TROPICAL MALADY, BLISSFULLY YOURS (SUD SANAEHA), and MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON (DOKFA NAI MEUMAN) realize his potential. All three films are difficult, which isn't a problem unto itself, but the oblique non-narratives become tedious after awhile.
Using the exquisite corpse technique to propel MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON, Weerasethakul tells the closest thing that amounts to a story in any of his films. On top of this construct he mixes documentary and fiction so that the disctinction between them are blurred. He interviews the people of Thailand and has them develop the story about a teacher and a crippled boy. The result can be ragged, but Weerasethakul effectively captures the spirit of the people. A girl who tells her part of the story via sign language is absolutely adorable, and a group of school kids concoct a hilarious conclusion that would be expected from boys of any culture. Of Weerasethakul's three films I felt most positive toward MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON, although seeing it split over two nights may have improved my opinion of it. (A reel and a half remained on Friday night when the power went out.) That said, I'm mixed on it.
In introducting BLISSFULLY YOURS and TROPICAL MALADY Weerasethakul advised the audience to absorb the images rather than think about what is being shown. That may be the right strategy, but it doesn't help after yet another long sequence of people driving. (Since GERRY was my top film of 2003, I realize the inherent hypocrisy of me being critical of such things. The difference is that Van Sant's film had a foreseeable destination whereas this film doesn't appear to be going anywhere.) When a credits sequence started about fifty minutes into BLISSFULLY YOURS, I thought I might have slept through half of the film. Instead it's a signal that the film is leaving the humdrum everyday world and entering into its Edenic section. Weerasethakul skillfully uses the sound design to evoke an otherworldly place in nature and has an eye for beautifully composed shots, but it feels like eternity is passing.
TROPICAL MALADY is more of the same, except this time the two sections are split into two male lovers enjoying themselves out on the town and a metaphorical tale of a soldier hunting a heavily tattoed young man who can also assume the form of a tiger. Weerasethakul's visual mastery comes to the forefront in the second half with the jungle sequences. Some of the best shots, like the moon's illumination of the contours of the soldier's face, are in almost total darkness. A wide shot of the tiger in a tree and the soldier below holding up a flashlight is stunning. TROPICAL MALADY'S second half contains Weerasethakul's strongest work, but his preference for the experimental over narrative too often gets in the way for my tastes.
I don't believe Weerasethakul is staging global cinema's equivalent of PUNK'D, with the world's critics and cineastes as the unwitting participants, but his films' affectations--subtitled monkey chatter in TROPICAL MALADY--and slow pulses, followed by the subsequent critical gushing, provide perfect ammunition for those who believe foreign film lovers think they're smarter than people with less adventurous tastes. Weerasethakul's films are important viewing for those keeping tabs on world cinema, but based on these films, I'm not sure he has yet become all he's cracked up to be. MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON, BLISSFULLY YOURS, and TROPICAL MALADY demand repeat viewings, and I can see revisiting them another time to see if they've revealed themselves more clearly. For now, the verdict is still out.