Monday, March 29, 2010

Blissfully Yours

For his second feature, Blissfully Yours, Apichatpong Weerasethakul crafted a delicate, impressionistic depiction of a lazy summer afternoon shared between Min (Min Oo), a Burmese who has illegally crossed the border into Thailand looking for work, his girlfriend Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram), and Orn (Jenjira Jansuda), an older woman who Roong has hired to help Min. The film is decompressed to an extreme degree: virtually nothing actually happens in its two hour duration, as routine tasks and long moments of stasis are captured and mined for their emotional and sensual nuances. In the lengthy opening scene, which starts the film without any credits or lead-in, Roong and Orn have taken Min to a doctor to treat his skin condition, and they simply argue in a low-key way with the doctor about what's wrong with him and what he needs. Min stays silent; much later, it will become apparent that Min is pretending to be mute so he won't reveal his foreign dialect, while Orn is trying to trick the doctor into giving Min the health certificate he needs to find work. But Weerashethakul doesn't dwell on any of this. He simply allows the conversation to play out, as puzzling and elliptical as it is, capturing the absurd way in which Orn and Roong are forced to keep talking in circles, confronted by the doctor's obstinate refusal to do anything outside of regulations.

It is a frustrating, mysterious scene, but also a strangely funny one; Weerashethakul has a streak of dark but playful humor that often shows up in moments like this. Here, it becomes apparent when the conversation with the doctor goes on for several minutes as though it's about a new condition, and then when the doctor asks how long this has been going on, they answer that he's had it since he was a child. It's the kind of absurd reversal of expectations that Weerashethakul subtly integrates into his otherwise hyper-realistic, observational aesthetic. Even better is the brief few moments when the director lingers to watch the doctor's next patient, a hard-of-hearing old man who's grumpily bickering with his daughter. Upset over his broken hearing aid, he advises the doctor that if she should have children, she should have a son because "boys are much better with electronics than girls."

In this way, Blissfully Yours simply drifts along, from moment to moment and place to place, patiently watching these people's daily routines. In one scene, Orn mixes together chopped-up fruits with a table full of creams and skin lotions, creating her own concoction, halfway between a fruit salad and a skin treatment. Weerashethakul loves to watch procedures like this, just as later his camera admires the careful, methodical way in which Roong prepares a snack for Min, wrapping up a piece of meat with a cluster of rice grains, then tearing off a piece of bread to engulf it all, and dipping the small bunched ball into the juices from some fruit. She repeats the procedure twice, making one for Min and then one for herself, and Weerashethakul captures the hypnotic quality of her careful motions as she assembles these snacks. She does it, perhaps, with the same mechanical care with which she paints Disney figurines at the factory where she works, where she's so overworked that, as Min laments in voiceover, her hands are sore after a particularly hard day. The film's extreme patience becomes especially clear when, nearly 45 minutes into the film, the credits suddenly appear as Min and Roong are driving towards a picnic in a remote woodsy area. It's as though Weerashethakul is saying, now the movie is starting, everything that came before was simply a long prelude, an introduction, presenting the necessary context for what's to come.

Indeed, the earlier scenes have a groundedness, a quotidian quality, that wafts away once the characters leave behind the city for their rural getaway. The early scenes establish that these characters are trying to escape, that they're bored, fenced in by routine. One of Min's periodic voiceovers even explicitly calls their picnic in the woods an "escape," and at this point Weerashethakul's sensuality, his pictorial sensibility, takes over. As the young couple winds through the woods together, the branches brush up against their skin and the sun sporadically breaks through the dense foliage above to flare white-hot in their eyes. They finally arrive at a beautiful rock cliff above a lush, deep green valley, and they picnic there, picking berries together in the woods, kissing, sleeping in the sun, eating, fending off the alarmingly large ants that scramble across their blanket. The ants are harbingers of the ruin to come, tangible suggestions that this afternoon is ephemeral, that whatever happiness they might find here is fragile and easily upturned, but initially they're just a nuisance to be laughed off.

These scenes are all about the play of light dappled on bare skin, the casual sensuality, and sexuality, of the characters as they drift together and apart over the course of the afternoon, sometimes joined in intimacy and at other times separated by silence and disconnection. Weerashethakul intercuts the scenes between the two young lovers with scenes of Orn and her husband, engaged in a similar indulgent afternoon in the woods not far from the younger couple. Weerashethakul is all about suggesting emotional and thematic depths without directly confronting them. Through subtle gestures, the sex scene between Orn and her husband becomes, without a word being spoken, about her desire to have a child and his reluctance to go along with her. The way she watches as he takes off his condom and throws it away after sex, the way she caresses her own belly as she lies next to him: these simple gestures say everything about these characters, their urges and needs. Later, Orn joins up with Roong and Min, following a strange and elliptical series of events in which her husband runs off, chasing a motorcycle thief, possibly to die or merely to confront some more mundane fate, but either way disappearing from the film without ceremony. Afterward, Orn wanders through the forest, donning an antiseptic mask she finds on the forest floor. Even in such a direct and seemingly realistic film, Weerashethakul displays a weird kind of beneath-the-surface surrealism in small, unexplained details like this. These seeming non-sequiturs simply add to the film's richness, its texture, its ineffable sense of mystery.

This mystery is intact, certainly, throughout the final stretches, in which hardly a word is spoken. Roong and Min lie down next to a river together, and nearby Orn lies down by herself in her underwear, her full middle-aged body looking Rubenesque, straining against the constrictions of her garments. Roong, in contrast, is childlike and skinny, and the older woman gently mocks her for it, even as Roong playfully pinches the older woman's large butt. Weerashethakul pulls back for a long shot, showing the couple and the woman lying on opposite sides of the frame, implicitly establishing a comparison between generations, between maturity and youth. In fact, though, both women seem equally troubled, linked by their concern for the helpless, drifting Roong, who they together are helping to shepherd through life as though he was a child. In the final minutes of the film, Weerashethakul maintains a steady gaze on Roong's face as she lies next to Min, lost in thought, absentmindedly stroking his penis. Then he cuts away for a couplet of moody sunset landscape shots, before returning to find Roong turning slightly towards the camera, an unreadable expression on her face for the few frames before the cut to black.

It is a fittingly mysterious ending, and that's even before the strange textual coda that scrolls across the screen a few seconds later, describing Min going to Bangkok for a job, Roong getting another boyfriend and selling noodles, while "like before, Orn continues to work as an extra in Thai movies." It's a suggestion, perhaps, that life goes on in its own strange and often disappointing way, that afternoons like this, extended moments of contemplation and sensuality, are fleeting and momentary, and also tinged with sadness. Implicit even in joy is the inevitability of decay, of loss, of death, like the ants who skitter gleefully across the food during the final scenes, ruining everything, devouring whatever they find.


Sam Juliano said...

It's a great review of a masterpiece by one of contemporary cinema's most gifted auteurs, but your final metaphor is a revelation:

"Implicit even in joy is the inevitability of decay, of loss, of death, like the ants who skitter gleefully across the food during the final scenes, ruining everything, devouring whatever they find."

There's a sense of mystery in this exquisite dream-like film that blends documentary realism with with lush visual poetry, and this film is surely the director's most lush and lyrical, though his other two masterpieces, TROPICAL MALADY and SYNDROMES IN A CENTURY are just as masterful.

Jake said...

Blissfully Yours is very high on my list of films to watch. Syndromes immediately grabbed me back when I first saw it, and his two recent short films are exemplary. I don't know why I haven't gotten around to watching his other works yet, other than there only being so many hours in the day.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, Sam and Jake. I agree with Sam that this film has a real sense of mystery, abstracting its narrative into a series of lyrical moments. It's beautiful and suggestive.

Jake, much like you I was blown away by Syndromes and a Century, and I'm now starting to explore the remainder of Weerasethakul's work. He's clearly a fascinating filmmaker.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Joe is a Master.

Ed Howard said...

Yes, he certainly is.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Lovely review, Ed. Blissfully Yours carries with it a gloomy flavor that seems to plague the characters. It's as if they all know that this escape is momentary and they will have to get back into the ethnic politics of the world very soon. It's as if they want to reverse the direction of civilization and go back to an Adam-Eve kind of primitivism, free of all political structures.

Wonderful film. As you put it sharply - impressionistic, sensual, ephemeral.