How often do you really see something new at the movies? I didn’t know what had hit me the first time that I watched Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s beguiling Tropical Malady. I’d heard from friends that the film was special, but I was in no way prepared for its lush visual beauty or daring storytelling. After spending an hour setting up a tentative, delicate romance between two male soldiers stationed in the jungle (where one gives another a Clash mixtape as a token of affection) Apichatpong literally restarts the movie, jumping from an idyllic love story into a stylized fable where monkeys dole out subtitled advice, and a man can transform into a tiger without warning. It wasn’t just that Tropical Malady was strange and sexy and scary and, in its quiet way, exciting; it felt new.
For many critics, Apichatpong, whose features are currently available as part of the “Meet the Filmmaker” series on Filmstruck’s Criterion Channel, is the most important narrative filmmaker to emerge in the 21st century. Not that he ever seems to be vying for the title. Where some directors strive for greatness in every tricky tracking shot or extreme close-up (they tend to be rewarded with Oscars), Apichatpong leans back and forces you to lean in; he makes you come to him. Like a lot of true originals—from Maya Deren to David Lynch—he’s been criticized for being obscure. But for those willing to get on his wavelength, the rewards are precious. The dreamlike surfaces of his movies belie a principled core of social and political critique. It’s unusual to find an artist simultaneously defined by gentleness and defiance; his poetic approach to film form barely disguises a subversive edge. In 2007, Syndromes and a Century was flagged by Thai authorities for such “indecent” sequences as two monks playing with a remote-controlled flying saucer. The humane humor of this image speaks for itself, and the director withdrew the movie from circulation rather than make the proposed cuts.
Censored at home, Apichatpong has been celebrated at the high end of the global festival circuit. In 2010, he unexpectedly but deservedly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his wonderful Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which, like Tropical Malady, blends realism with fairy-tale touches. He’s also deeply respected by his peers: His work has been praised by Quentin Tarantino (who gave him his first prize at Cannes) and Martin Scorsese (who included his debut Mysterious Object at Noon in last year’s World Cinema Volume 2 DVD box set) even though his lyrical, elliptical aesthetic has little in common with their muscular, American alpha-male authorship.
Apichatpong doesn’t have an assertive camera style, favoring long takes that give the eye—and mind—plenty of space to wander. Typically, his movies are slow and hypnotic, which is not to say that they’re boring; they have the same weightless focus as a guided meditation (a technique that features in Cemetery of Splendor). Apichatpong has famously said that he doesn’t mind people dozing off in the theater, and back in February, he created a sleepover installation at the Rotterdam Film Festival to prove his point. “To sleep in cinema means that you are either tired or comfortable enough to let your guard off and be comfortable enough to mix your own dreams with the sound and the image,” he said, before admitting that he napped through part of War for the Planet of the Apes.
With this in mind, Connor Jessup’s lovely short documentary A.W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, commissioned for the Criterion Channel, is filled with images of sleep. Within the first two minutes, the documentary’s director, who is better known as an actor with recurring roles on American Crime and Falling Skies, is shown snoozing in a hammock as his subject wields the digital video camera that’s supposed to be enshrining his process. Shot in Colombia on the beaches of Medellin, where Apichatpong is preparing his new film Memoria (slated to star Tilda Swinton as part of her bid to unseat Isabelle Huppert as the patron saint of international art-house directors), A.W. serves as a nice introduction to a sterling body of work, incorporating well-chosen clips from that would make any even mildly adventurous viewer want to see more. (A shot of fever-stricken soldiers slumbering under multicolored halogen lamps from Cemetery of Splendor is neon-dreamy and suitable for framing).
Perhaps because he’s also an actor, Jessup doesn’t seem to mind that Apichatpong seems more interested in him—or capturing his own footage —than being recorded. There’s some intergenerational give-and-take here, as well; at a youthful-looking 47, the older director (who studied in Chicago and jokes and speaks easily in English) is hardly a grand old man, but he seems aware of his influence on his 20-something Canadian chronicler. Jessup’s 2017 Lira’s Forest (which is also streaming on Filmstruck) borders on Apichatpong homage: It’s the story of an elderly woman communing with a forest spirit. It channels some of the serenely lo-fi illusionism of the red-eyed monkey man from Uncle Boonmee, whose tender, melancholy spookiness places him on the list of great movie creatures (way above the fish-man in The Shape of Water, for instance). (In a small, devoted corner of Film Twitter, the monkey ghost has even become a recurring meme.)
For those looking for detailed biography or deep critical analysis of Apichatpong’s style or themes, A.W. may seem slight; Jessup doesn’t so much penetrate the mysteries of his subject’s output as lovingly preserve them. But its charm and wisdom lie in meeting its namesake on his own terms. Because Jessup doesn’t push, there’s no sense of resistance, and the effect of watching the two paddling down the river in canoes or cataloging crabs on the beach is disarming: a tropical reverie.
Three to Watch by Apichatpong
Mysterious Object at Noon
Apichatpong’s debut takes the form of a child’s game—the kind where you have to make up a story based on something that somebody else has said. While traveling through the Thai countryside with his crew, the director invited locals to tell him anecdotes (“real or fiction”), each of which is visualized in turn. The meager resources add to the sense of improvisation and fun, and the result is a playful, episodic comedy that melds folklore and science-fiction while commenting on the endless, elastic possibilities of storytelling itself.
Syndromes and a Century
In interviews, Apichatpong explained that this strategically disorienting 2006 film, which takes place in two different times (the 1970s and the 2000s) in two different hospitals (a countryside doctor’s office and a sterile modern facility), was in honor of his parents, who were both medical professionals. Syndromes offers up numerous fascinating contrasts—between past and present, rural and urban, sickness and health and spirituality and technology—yet it’s not easily solved. An amazing shot in which the camera drifts upwards and into a funnel absorbing toxic fumes from a hospital basement is an illustration of how powerfully the director’s style can suck us in because of—and not despite—we’re not always sure where he’s taking us.
Cemetery of Splendor
Ghosts, zombies, and dinosaurs abound in Apichatpong’s most recent movie (which happens to be my personal favorite). The title refers to a hospital built on an ancient graveyard, and while Cemetery of Splendor never shifts into horror, there’s something subtly unnerving about the way the setup suggests a country haunted in the present tense by a military government. It’s also a movie about movies, from the (unseen) dreams of the sleeping-sickness-stricken-soldiers populating the hospital ward to a hilarious scene where we see a theater audience watch a trailer for a gloriously cheesy Thai B-movie and then stand dully at attention while the screen goes blank and the national anthem drowns out any sort of authentic burst of culture.