Monday, April 19, 2010

Two Short Films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

What a shame it is, in the modern world, that short films receive absolutely no attention. It's understandable, of course: with so many apathetic to film in general, the chance for bold and innovative short-form work to find an audience has nearly gone from slim to none. Only Pixar, with its admirable commitment to maintaining the tradition of shorts preceding the main feature, has managed to screen brief films in any sort of mainstream context.

Once upon a time, of course, short films could exist comfortably alongside feature films, playing in advance of the main attraction. Well, go back further: once upon a time, short films were cinema, back when one- and two-reelers preceded the advent of the feature film and continued to coexist healthily beside them into the '30s. Now, they exist for burgeoning directors to prove their talent in order to land a feature, after which they never look back. But what of the radical accomplishments of experimental cinema and its numerous short landscape-altering masterpieces? Why is it so crazy to insist that The Big Shave is one of Scorsese's best works, and a fundamental building block in the development of his thematic schemata, its image of a man incapable of ceasing to hurt himself reflected in most of his best features and many of the others?

I myself can claim no decent knowledge in short films, scrambling each year to find Oscar-nominated short films online until the ones I cannot see eventually fade from my mind as other pressing issues enter into it. I have, however, noticed the contributions of two filmmakers, both proven feature craftsmen, in the field of short films. One is Guy Maddin, who balances every feature with a short and whose The Heart of the World nearly captures the copious offerings of silent cinema and its range of genres and styles in only six minutes. Maddin, whose style is heavily indebted to the silent era, clearly understands the power of short films, aware that the same methods of good feature-length filmmaking -- smart writing and attentive direction -- are used to make great works in only a few minutes. The other is, as you may have guessed by now, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The Thai director, one of the most prominent of the new century, has made dozens of short films, some commissioned, some simply the result of his desire to create. Any number have received attention in their own right, but the focus of this post will be on his two recent shorts, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua, each an entry into his "Primitive" series, commissioned by Animate Projects to examine the small but vital village Nabua, situated in the northeast of Thailand on near the Mekong River and the border between Thailand and Laos. Both are noteworthy not simply for their qualities, which are bountiful; they also reveal the director's ongoing preoccupation with pet themes, as well as the way that they relate to each other and to the director's feature canon.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee serves to prefigure a feature-length film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, set to premiere at Cannes this year. Like Godard's "making-of" supplements for some of his films -- Scénario du film Passion, for example -- Weerasethakul's short does and doesn't work as a behind-the-scenes companion piece to the longer version. Actors read out his titular letter, impersonating the director as they address the mysterious uncle, who could supposedly remember his previous incarnations upon the Earth.

The letter contains Weerasethakul's musings on traveling to Nabua to make the movie, how what he'd heard and researched, and subsequently scripted, was so very different from the Nabua he saw when he arrived. In the letter's matter-of-fact description of the split between the perceived Nabua and the genuine article, Weerasethakul gently introduces one of his key themes: the difference between cinematic perception and reality. Of course, the use of "gentle" in relation to Uncle Boonmee quickly becomes redundant, as nearly every second of its sublime 18 minutes proceeds in a light, hypnotic fashion.

Strange, too, considering the subject matter. Weerasethakul reveals the actors to be playing the roles of soldiers, who occupy a house in the otherwise empty village. Nabua fell prey to police occupation starting in the '60s and lasting until the '80s, during which time soldiers routinely tortured, raped and murdered under orders to curb Communist insurgency. "Soldiers once occupied this place," says one of the actors. "They killed and tortured the villagers until everyone fled into the jungle." The emptiness of the village thus takes on a wider significance: these soldiers now move into a village that their predecessors pillaged until it became the barren, forgotten hamlet we see under Weerasethakul's gaze.

Yet gentle the film undeniably is, what with its elegant tracking shots through the interiors of the Nabua homes, objects like portraits and mosquito nets frozen in time as the wooden walls that support them slowly rot. Each actor repeats the letter, and the director scans a new house with each reading, curving from left to right to take in the preserved adornments and the decaying structures. The repetition underscores the notion of reincarnation raised by the letter and Boonmee's supposed memories, a motif heightened by the role of the soldiers. The silence of the village, save for the reading of the letter, is broken by two noteworthy sounds. The first is the dull thud of metal farm implements on earth as the soldiers till the land and build a garden. Where their own past incarnations sought to pillage the land, now the soldiers cultivate and regrow. Though Thailand still suffers from oppressive regimes -- Weerasethakul himself has faced numerous artistic challenges from the country's strict censorship board -- these men perhaps represent a calmer future for the tumultuous nation, one in which people seeks to create instead of destroy.

The other dominant sound, and the one facet of the film that obliterates the tranquil of the picture when it crops up, is the nearly deafening roar of wind rippling through the surrounding forest, clanging the open windows against the slotted wooden frames and walls. In these gales, which carry in them the elements that erode the houses of Nabua, are the whispers of the village's ghosts. Though these soldiers now bring a more peaceful attitude to the hamlet, the murdered do not easily forgive and forget. Ergo, the winds roar so loudly -- and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee makes a strong case for the return of broad theatrical exhibition of short films on the basis of its exemplary sound design -- that they terrify, as frightening at their fever pitch as any actual vision of a wrathful ghost. Weerasethakul uses a certain, admittedly unintended, visual device to communicate this idea as well. In his absolutely superb accompanying notes for the film, which I urge you to read in their entirety, the director notes the issue he had with bugs buzzing around the camera, creating little blurs that dart across the screen and break the illusion of the focused photography. Yet Weerasethakul found a use for this nuisance, his poetic description of which I shall quote in its entirety:

On the other hand, I think they are very beautiful, like ghosts darting across the frame. They create a moment of wonder that makes the audience become conscious of the filmic focal plane, and of filmmaking. I would like to invite them to be part of this short film. These bugs are free to invade some of our ‘clean’ frames. Perhaps these mysterious bugs are flying across most of the villages in Thailand and happen to stop by in this village. Or they simply emerge from the ground where the soldiers are digging. Perhaps Nabua, with its tragic history, cannot host a pristine, bug-free picture of itself.
Just as the letter's notation of Weerasethakul's idea of Nabua vs. the real village, the occasional micro-blurs highlight the split between verisimilitude in film and the actual truth. But it also gives visual form to the antagonized ghosts who attempt to wear away their physical remains through the winds, barely perceptible blips on the radar that subconsciously unsettle us in a way we cannot immediately identify and do not consider until later.

Weerasethakul intended the Primitive project to return cinema to the time of Méliès and his landmark early advancement of the medium. It would certainly explain the classic silent film trope used as the director tracks past a window to see an egg-shaped spaceship smoking at the edge of the village, continues to move to the right, pauses, then moves back to the left in surprise to focus on this odd sight. (Amusingly, the camera drifts back in the same halcyon, measured pace as it passed over the object the first time.) Weerasethakul's stated artistic intentions are borne out thematically in the distinction between the Nabua of the past, a besieged, horrifying place, and the calm but eerily empty place we see in the present. Just as the director reworks the spirit of the earliest days of the cinema through his decidedly modern approach, so to does he attempt to consolidate the village's troubled past with its equally threatened presence, introduced here in abstract form to be more thoroughly examined in the next entries of the project.

Phantoms of Nabua literalizes the themes of the previous short in its title, and the dialectical themes that filtered through it, as well as his masterful Syndromes and a Century -- past vs. present, film vs. reality, nature vs. technology -- are conjured once more in the space of only 11 minutes. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee traced the past of Nabua even as it stayed in the present and even moved toward the future, and Phantoms melds those social preoccupations with the director's artistic ones.

The first shot, introduced by the rolling thunder of a gathering storm, shows a fluorescent streetlight humming and flickering in the twilight, surrounded in its medium close-up by trees. In my infinitely rewarding (and woefully incomplete) forays into Southeast Asian cinema, two recurring images have most routinely grabbed me: the sheer beauty of the classical architecture, with its ornate design and vivid coloring, and the cheap, reliable fluorescent bulbs that light the modern continent. The light here has the same effect that it does elsewhere in Asian cinema, to contrast with those classical elements -- in this case nature, not traditional buildings -- of its surroundings, yet also to appear perversely attuned to those clashing elements.

It's a shot that contains rich possibilities of meaning, and it's only the start. Weerasethakul then shows a viewing screen light by back projection. On the screen is a film about Nabua, the source of the thunder as it depicts lightning striking so rapidly and constantly upon the city that it looks as though the electrical discharges replaced rain. A light burns in the middle of this terrifying natural onslaught, linking the Nabua of the past, the one in the film-within-the-film, with that of the present, of the actual film. As the film grain and black lines on the projection screen become more noticeable, Weerasethakul highlights the divergence between the projected film and the "reality" of the present world that he documents. He stresses film's artificial nature, thus calling into question what we can believe of the short he's currently showing to us.

Rounding out Nabua's primary imagery is a pullback to show a group of young men playing near the screen, inadvisedly kicking around a flaming soccer ball. The shift of focus from the projected film to these bystanders allows the director to move away from the past exhibited by the deteriorated film stock depiction of Nabua to the present, as the current village occupants pay no heed to their history, or some simplified version of it, playing next to them. By now, it is entirely dark outside, and the fiery ball becomes the third source of light after the fluorescent bulb and the lit projector. Weerasethakul orders them as a progression: the streetlight is immobile and constant, while the projection bulb does not move but projects light of moving images.

But the ball does move, kicked around with mounting intensity and bringing the light/dark dichotomy of the visual scheme to a head. It flops about the sand like a sentient star, raking across the ground leaving tiny smolders of newborn planets. Where the initially off-putting shot of the streetlight distanced itself from the audience before emitting a more calming effect, the ball first looks cool and shimmering, until its dangers register and the young boys' game becomes increasingly unsettling. Finally, one gets so carried away that he kicks the ball hard enough to send it into the nearby screen, setting it on fire.

Nabua's most striking moment is its end, after the screen has burned down and we see the still-running projector flickering through the smoke. It now projects its images onto us, the heightened artificiality of the projection onto the screen now replaced with a gentle, beautiful reminder that film plays a role in the shaping of our reality as well as our escape from it. Perhaps it's so memorable also because of the sheer fact that it shows us an honest-to-goodness projector in the digital age. There's almost something fetishistic -- and I can speak only for myself here -- about seeing a projector in a time when the art of actually playing a film has been lost, replaced by the a-monkey-could-do-it task of inserting a disc into a machine and hitting the start button. The fussiness over aspect ratios, centering and audio calibration have become sterile and pre-programmed, a shift that has its benefits, of course, but saps some of the magic of the cinema.

As the light of the projector at last flickers out and dies as the reel runs out, Weerasethakul melds the past of his artistic medium with that of this Thai town, undercutting the beauty of the image with a sudden sense of loss, as if we'd just watched the slow decline of cinema's magic gathered in only a few minutes. Yet it also releases Nabua from its past without forsaking it, encouraging its residents, the boys who suddenly take an interest in the screen (and their past) as it burns away, to instill the past literally projected onto them. Just as Uncle Boonmee demonstrated the reincarnation and altered paths of the soldiers who invaded and pillaged the town in the past, Phantoms shows the descendants of the Communist farmers, no longer openly subjugated even though the powers that be still exploit Thailand in a similar fashion to their past rape of Nabua. In this context, the accidental burning of the screen almost seems like the first minor strike of a new revolution, tearing down the wall that stops Nabua's past from fully infusing itself into the next generation and allowing the town's memories to wash over them in the form of light. Ironically, Weerasethakul crafts the short film about the next wave of soldiers (Uncle Boonmee) into a gentle elegy, while making the more visceral and action-packed work about the descendants of the farmers who fled their attackers.

Weerasethakul does not press these ideas, using his striking but spare images to introduce his themes but not to tidily resolve them. Like Uncle Boonmee, he says, Nabua "is a portrait of home. The film portrays a communication of lights, the lights that exude, on the one hand, the comfort of home and, on the other, of destruction." The cold and alien wash of fluorescence somehow connotes familiarity and comfort even to those not from Thailand or other Asian nations, while the burning ball frightens in its magnetic allure. These lights, like the sounds of the recorded thunder, the sputtering of feeding film and the whoosh effect of the flying ball, overlap; Weerasethakul situates the makeshift cinema and the history it represents between these forces of "comfort" and "destruction," ultimately combining them in the screen's inferno and the alternately tragic and reassuring shot of the projector continuing to run. As if freeing the whispering ghosts of Nabua heard in the wind of A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, this act of destruction manages to bring out rebirth as it soaks into the minds of the gathered teens. But to stake a claim to the definitive reading of this moment would be to rob it of its power, and Weerasethakul's restraint allows Phantoms of Nabua to end as it started: one of the most energetic and captivating films of 2009, length be damned.


  1. Jake,

    I'm wondering how I didn't come across your blog till now. This is terrific stuff that you're doing here. I just read 6-7 of your reviews and was just amazed.

    How ever do you manage to write so much, so frequently, so insightfully and so eloquently? Tell me your secret, mate!

    Will surely be a regular here, although I'm not sure if I can catch up with ALL your splendid reviews.


  2. JAFB,

    Thank you so much for the kind words. I think the secret to writing frequently and still looking good is just to be wildly overrated.It helps to be young; that way tou get a pass ;)

    But that is seriously very kind of you and I am sincerely grateful. Of course, having read some of your own work, as well as many of your comments on other blogs, I can safely say the last thing you need is my advice.

  3. Hi Jake

    Thanks for featuring the two shorts that Apichatpong made for us last year - a great article.