Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Phantoms of the cinema


New projects from Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Scene from Phantoms of Nabua. Photo: Apichatpong Weerasethakul/Animate Projects
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I thought he was cooked meat. Pad Thai. Done on both sides. Hardly done, but quite possibly done in. Apichatpong ("Joe") Weerasethakul seemed in danger of not getting a comeback despite his defiant retort to the Thai government's censorship of his latest feature film, Syndromes and a Century – which he managed to get screened at the trendiest new cinema in Bangkok with the censors' unconscionable cuts exposed for all to see.

In the place of the scenes cut, Apichatpong inserted mute film – I'd call it blank except that his mini-lightshows on blacked-out celluloid were far more interesting than that – of the exact length of the scenes cut, one an excruciating seven-plus minutes, to show how his film had been mutilated by a government most people outside the country still think of as tolerant, even indulgent. There was a symposium, too – more of a forum, really – and serious discussion about what a new constitution might or might not mean for artistic freedom in the land of wiles. Those in the know were finally saying out loud that the only possible reasons this could be happening were that Apichatpong had had the raw nerve to win international recognition while being gay.

And then, as it so often does in his uncensored films, the screen went black, and Joe, the most important artist in any medium currently working in Thailand, was looking distinctly unemployed.

Then suddenly came word of a new, multi-part project to include a new feature film, some shorts and possibly installations. And even more improbably, from Vienna of all places, came a fat book called Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Synema). You can't buy the book in Thailand, of course, but like most of Joe's work, it's easily available online. Edited by film critic James Quandt, who also supplies some of its meatiest chapters, the book is a catalogue of virtually every scrap of film and other visual art Apichatpong has ever made, a collection of essays by qualified people with alarmingly sensible things to say about this visionary body of work, and a sassy introduction that ends with Tilda Swinton's took-the-words-out-of-my mouth pronouncement "that Apichatpong is one of the very few truly modern filmmakers working today, far beyond the pale of both narrative tradition and post-modern experiment. The forest binds the soul and holds it, safe and wild, in his cinema. I am deeply besotted with that particular wilderness."

Best of all, the book is chock full of Apichatpong, who, more than any other visual artist I can name, can say compelling things about his own work without becoming his own chief ex

positor. It's beyond me how someone so possessed by son et lumiere can even form words, let alone be articulate in Thai and English, but you don't really want to hear about the ghosts that inhabit his work from anyone but him.

Near the end, he writes evocatively of the Northern Thai village of Nabua, once the site of rash government anti-communist action, and now a place so teeming with spirits Apichatpong can hardly slip its grip. Its first yield: the 18-minute A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. Smack in the middle of the book, where it belongs, are his reflections ("Ghosts in the Darkness") on the primal act of filmmaking and film-watching, which for him are inseparable acts.

Drawing a haunting analogy to primal man's habit of painting images on cave walls, he tells a story "said to be true" about an Isaan man with a traveling cinema show, making "open-air presentations in villages and temples." As he showed his film, an audience filed in to watch them and they "all got up and wandered away. At dawn the next day, the film-show owner realized he was in the middle of a cemetery, and that he had been paid to show a film for ghosts.

"Even ghosts wanted to watch films," Apichatpong writes, drawing a parallel to ordinary people watching, ghost-like, moving images on a screen. "The cinema itself is like a coffin with bodies, sitting still, as if under a spell. The moving images on the screen are camera records of events that have already taken place; they are remains of the past, strung together and called a film. In this hall of darkness, ghosts are watching ghosts."

Little wonder the umbrella name for his new project is Primitive. A filmmaker to the core, Apichatpong evinces a radical trust of images and sounds to do the work normally shunted off to words and music. Go to, click on Film, and watch his 10-minute Phantoms of Nabua. A fluorescent tube dimly illumines the night sky over a playing field in a remote Thai village. Heat-lightning strikes. A group of young Thai guys kick around a flaming football.

Then tell me you're not looking at a cave wall over firelight.

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