Since few of us at The Nation speak Thai, I’m going to refer to my favorite filmmaker of the month as Joe, which is the name actually used in this country by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Joe hails from the northeast of Thailand–so writes my principal source, the American critic Chuck Stephens–and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he seems to have majored in Surrealism. Two years ago, he completed a feature titled Blissfully Yours, which I haven’t seen. Almost nobody has in the United States; it’s unreleased, and so it qualifies for the series “Film Comment Selects 2003,” currently being shown at the Walter Reade Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center.
The purpose of the series, curated by the editors of Film Comment magazine, is to screen what they consider to be the best recent films currently unavailable in the United States. If you can make it to the Walter Reade on February 11 or 12 (check schedule for showtimes), you’ll probably find me in a seat nearby, sharing in the discovery of Blissfully Yours. If you can’t get to those screenings, then let me tell you about Joe’s first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, which has just been released on DVD by the Plexifilm company (www.plexifilm.com).
Correction: Let me try to tell you about Mysterious Object at Noon, which comes so close to being indescribable that explanations run as long as the movie itself.
On one level, Mysterious Object at Noon is a documentary: a black-and-white, 16-millimeter road diary recorded in 1998, taking you from the north to the south of Thailand and introducing you to all sorts of people. You meet foodmongers, housebuilders, schoolchildren, kickboxers–the poor and the modest, but no one with money to speak of. Although Joe throws in some folks in Bangkok (such as squeegee boys, who ply their trade in a traffic jam), he’s mostly interested in rural areas, and also in the modes of transport that get you through them: trucks, trains, boats.
What do the film’s subjects talk about? Joe could have got them to tell of their own lives; but instead, having elicited the beginnings of a story from a vegetable seller, he asks people in each new place to make up their own continuations of the tale. Mysterious Object at Noon shows how the story grows, collectively and progressively. It also reveals the kinds of ideas that pop into the heads of Thai villagers, when they’re encouraged to contribute to this Exquisite Corpse.
You might want to know that the original scrap of story concerns a crippled orphan boy. He views the world principally through the eyes of a teacher who brings him photographs–until one day she collapses, and a strange, round object rolls out of her skirt (giving the film its title). As Joe carries this narrative tatter to different people, it accumulates episodes involving metamorphoses, disguises, amulets, swords, an airplane crash, a kidnapping, Bangkok night life, a marriage proposal and two, maybe three tigers. In one of the film’s high points, the story even turns into a play with music, performed by an itinerant acting troupe in a village square.
So Mysterious Object at Noon is also a fiction film. It tells you a story that’s so astonishingly exciting, it’s all but indecipherable.
Joe goes so far as to film some of the episodes that people make up, occasionally adding narrative details of his own. It seems, for example, that the story takes place at the end of World War II, amid solemn government orders to be friendly to Americans, buy American products and give Americans a 25 percent discount in bars. These decrees, issued over the radio, blend in with archival newsreels, contemporary television footage, pop songs, advertisements and political posters–which means that on yet another level, Mysterious Object at Noon is a compilation documentary, assembled from the artifacts of the Thai mass media.