If 1990s world cinema was ruled by Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien, will the 2000s be remembered as the age of two younger Asian masters, Jia Zhangke and Apichatpong Weerasethakul? This idea, the more commonsensical the more you think about it, is proffered by Cinematheque Ontario curator James Quandt at the end of a voluminous introductory chapter to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the most recent volume in the Austrian Filmmuseum series devoted to classic and contemporary filmmakers and the first major work in English on the Thai filmmaker and artist (who won prizes at Cannes for 2002’s Blissfully Yours and 2004’s Tropical Malady, both sure to top many critics’ lists of the best films of the decade).
The flaming pink-covered text is published to coincide not with a new film but rather a multiplatform project titled Primitive. Consisting of eight installation screens in a gallery space, a short film designed for theatrical play, an Internet short, and, somewhere down the road (perhaps in another life?), a feature film, the Primitive project is first on view at Munich’s Haus der Kunst (through May 24), one of the project’s initiators, to be followed by stints in Liverpool (base of another funder, FACT), Paris (the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris), and other destinations.
Apichatpong is best known for his feature films, but according to the book’s annotated filmography (by the Austrian Filmmuseum’s Alexander Horwarth and the Primitive project’s producer, Illumination Films’ Simon Field), he has also produced 19 installations of varying lengths, screen sizes, and durations, some for contemporary art shows (“Haunted Houses,” Istanbul Biennial, 2001; “Ghost of Asia,” Baltic Triennial, 2005; “Faith,” Liverpool Biennial, 2006), some for fashion conglomerates (2008’s Vampire was done for a traveling temporary exhibition space funded by Louis Vuitton). Like Kiarostami, Apichatpong has a foot in two camps: video-shot installations and international art-house cinema. (Unlike Kiarostami, though, Apichatpong has continued to shoot on 35mm.)
Primitive suggests that Apichatpong is in the process of becoming a more engaged artist. His first explicitly political work, it may mean that, like Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien before him, Apichatpong—who counts among his influences American experimental filmmaker Bruce Baillie and every Thai film he saw before he was 18—is tempted to assume the role of national cinematic historian. He has an activist background, having participated in anti-government demonstrations before, but it was after Thai censors (in the wake of the 2006 military coup) attempted to cut a number of anodyne scenes from his most autobiographical film, Syndromes and a Century, that Apichatpong said enough was enough and organized a campaign against the censorship rather than bowing to their will. (This process, as well as the Thai reception of the explicitly gay, and therefore highly illegal, Tropical Malady—which broke along class lines—is detailed by Benedict Anderson in the Filmmuseum volume).
It makes sense then that Primitive would first be mounted at the Haus der Kunst, its fascist architecture overwhelming viewers from both outside and in (attendees are greeted with a plaque reminding them that the building, built to house “non-degenerate” art, was a “cauldron of racism.”)1 Installed in the building’s cavernous foyer, Apichatpong’s separate space is cloaked by darkness, but with monumental columns still within sight, lurking behind and looming above each video screen. As a whole, the show is handsomely mounted and feels like a kind of futuristic lounge or perhaps, as we shall see, the inside of a spaceship run by Nazis. One of the seven screens, showing the “music video” “I’m Still Breathing,” actually hangs outside the space proper—perhaps because Apichatpong didn’t shoot it himself and instead handed cameras to kids, letting them record their own youthful protests. (One small criticism: this elevated screen doesn’t quite work, as the sound can only be heard from directly below the projector, which entails staring at the bookshop while watching the video.)
Like Apichatpong’s description of Tropical Malady, the Primitive project is concerned foremost with “the burden of memory.” In Primitive, Apichatpong investigates the memory of a specific place in the northeast of Thailand, where the bulk of his work is shot. A chance meeting with a monk not far from his home inspired the project. With a recently developed interest in reincarnation and Buddhism since the death of his father, Apichatpong was drawn to the small book the monk gave him that detailed the many lives of Uncle Boonmee, including as an elephant hunter, water buffalo, cow, and wandering ghost—always reincarnated in Thailand’s northeast.
In a meandering journey that fits into the exquisite-corpse working method that characterizes not just Mysterious Object at Noon but indeed Apichatpong’s whole filmography (with one piece of a film leading into the next and the next), a search for Boonmee’s relatives led Apichatpong to a town named Nabua. Beginning with the onset of a famous gun battle between farmer communists and the totalitarian government on August 7, 1965, Nabua was occupied by the Thai Army from the '60s into the '80s to suppress communist agitators. The only thing similar to the story of Boonmee is that, in Apichatpong’s words, “the village is also full of repressed memories.…It is a place where memories and ideologies are extinct.” It is with the sons of those communists who were tortured or oppressed, or who died during the brutal period of the occupation, that Apichatpong made the works that constitute Primitive. Set in a place whose history has been forgotten by both the country and local inhabitants, the project reimagines Nabua by bringing light to the ghosts of the past through the lost generation of today, while also confronting the current political turmoil in Thailand.
In the installation videos, shot during two months in late 2008 when Apichatpong stayed in Nabua, documenting the teens’ activities, these ghosts appear in manifest forms, such as in the dual-screen “Primitive,” the center of the exhibition. A ghost is shown walking alone in a field only to spontaneously combust—echoing the fate of the field walker in “An Evening Shoot,” who collapses under the rifle’s gaze of kids in military uniform (soldiers, or at least people dressed as soldiers, are a repeated motif in all the works). In a strange, unexplained ritual, they appear to be rehearsing a movie, teaching each other how to kill. (The victim, through the magic of cinema, is reincarnated, only to be shot again. Then the four-minute loop restarts.) But ghosts are also present as the flies scurrying beneath the lights in “Nabua,” illuminated by both fluorescents and lightning, seamless special effects that come out of nowhere in the clear, dark night and strike at the places where a film crew has set up mini-explosions; the lightning itself might also be a sign of angry apparitions fighting in the dark. Light links one piece to the other; as explained by a teen in “Primitive,” the lights in the forest reveal centuries of reincarnations.
These historical facts can only be gleaned from the material that exists alongside Primitive—including a forthcoming artist’s book and the short film, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, which was not included in the Haus der Kunst installation, but premiered at a parallel retrospective of Apichatpong’s features, shorts, and cinematic installations at the Munich Filmmuseum (the Apichatpong ’09 tour also stopped in Vienna and Berlin recently). By Apichatpong’s unique standards, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is the most straightforward of the new works—and also one that links the other seven short works by way of repeated actors, scenarios, and locations. This includes a mysterious round spaceship billowing smoke, whose glowing red interior is a main setting for “Primitive,” where the teens are interrogated under the harsh light of soldiers, and whose construction makes for the longest piece in the installation, the 28-minute “Making of the Spaceship.”
If, as Quandt argues, Apichatpong’s feature film project is properly viewed as one intricately designed work with repeated themes, structures, and characters, the Primitive project is likewise interlinked: the short “Nabua” is played on screens in the town in the Web-based “Phantoms of Nabua,” for example, turning the village into a kind of cinema, equivalent to the theater in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, one of Apichatpong’s favorite films. Though the actual screen in “Phantoms of Nabua” is engulfed in flames—from a soccer ball being kicked around by another one of “Primitive”’s all-male groups—leaving the images projected directly onto the night sky, Apichatpong is not just exploring the Tsai-like metaphor of decay.2 Rather, by making the Primitive project in collaboration with the next generation of politically engaged youth (as we see in the music video “Song of Nabua”), he is setting up claims for rebirth or a reincarnation of another kind.
But there remains another missing piece to the Primitive project, and that’s the feature film, Primitive: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (which will be shot by the end of the year, funding permitting). A key to understanding what Apichatpong is up to with Primitive is acknowledging its status as a multiplatform project where it is impossible to experience all the works in one setting or at one time. In a way, it’s an apt metaphor for Apichatpong’s filmmaking, with its mix of highly personal settings and situations, infusion of Thai popular culture, and high-minded artistic inspirations (and, at times, aspirations). Despite their complex structures, there’s always something about Apichatpong’s films that feels to me intentionally incomplete.
The underlying, important debate in the Filmmuseum volume—in a very real way, yet another part of the Primitive project, and not just because Apichatpong’s motivations for Primitive are published in the book—has to do with exactly how film criticism can come to terms with Apichatpong, about the danger in making definitive statements about such an original filmmaker. Can we understand Apichatpong by comparing him to directors with whom he bears some similarities (as in Quandt’s essay, in which literally dozens of filmmakers classical and contemporary make unusual guest appearances, from Resnais to Naruse to Tarkovsky to Lisandro Alonso), by viewing his Buddhist context (Tony Rayns's essay), by seeing him as a uniquely Thai product, steeped in Thai film history and politics, or even by being One with Apichatpong in being Thai (Kong Rithdee’s essay)?
Or just maybe, as Apichatpong himself says, interpretation is beside the point, though he admits that he enjoys reading interpretations of his works. So here’s another one to play with. The director writes that he is very impressed by Uncle Boonmee: he didn’t need cinema because of his ability to replay the past, but maybe in Primitive what we are seeing is being projected from inside of the reincarnated figure at the center of the project. Maybe he’s speaking through Apichatpong. In one of the two screens of “Primitive,” inside the spaceship, we hear that in the future there will be a city of images, and people will be able to use a machine to see into their pasts. As the artist writes, “In fact, we don’t need cinema, if we can train our minds to see like he did. Sadly, most of us are too crude, we are primitive beings….Our brain is the best camera and a projector. If only we can find a way to operate it properly.” Confronted with Apichatpong’s work, I have no problem at all admitting that I’m still a primitive.
(1) I don’t think it’s brash to claim Primitive was the most political of the pieces on view at the Haus der Kunst at the time; other big-ticket items were a show of Gerhard Richter abstract paintings, William Eggleston photographs, and a quizzical installation mounted by—and advertising—the Belgian fashion house Maison Martin Margiela, which recently opened a store in bourgeois Munich.
(2) Thanks to the Filmmuseum’s Klaus Volkmer, I was able to see “Phantoms of Nabua” projected on a big screen with big sound in Munich; to my mind, it works better as a projection than an online piece (where it began due to the involvement of Animate Projects). Simon Field tells me that the installation may take different forms in different settings. “Phantoms of Nabua" will be seen as a single-screen installation on is own at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, in June.