Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Phantoms of Nabua/A Letter to Uncle Boonmee

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a great sensualist, a director who revels in the sensory and emotional qualities of a particular moment in time and the setting in which it takes place. His feature films are collections of these moments, strung together in such a way as to create a cumulative effect, a slow building-up of emotion and visual beauty. Phantoms of Nabua is a ten-minute short film that documents one such moment, and it's typically evocative and breathtaking. It is divided, roughly, into three segments, with little clear separation between them; rather, they flow into one another, each new section introducing a new wrinkle into the film's treatment of light and darkness. In the film's opening minutes, a village is struck by lightning multiple times, the white-hot strikes looking like fireworks being set off; it's ambiguous whether the streaks of white light are descending from above or spiking up out of the ground. It's frighteningly beautiful, the bright white lines illuminating the dark night, the strikes chaining together and sending out feelers to join with other streaks of lightning. On the soundtrack, the pops and electric sizzles of the lightning even sound like fireworks, making this a natural spectacle, a natural light show.

In the second section of the film, these opening images are projected onto a screen set up in the middle of a field where children are playing soccer at night with a flaming ball. The composition is complex, creating this layering where the images of the children playing are being pasted over the images of lightning. The shadowy silhouettes of the players are set off against the flickering light of the screen, the lightning flashes going off behind them, illuminating their bodies, projecting halos around the players. And the flaming ball rolls back and forth across the field, soaring through the air like a comet with a tail of fire flickering behind it, making whooshing noises with each graceful arc across the darkness.

The interplay of light and dark is gorgeous, as Weerashethakul frequently returns to dark emptiness before reigniting the night with the fireball's glow. He edits the scene into alternating stretches of light and darkness, juxtaposing a near-featureless dark area against a sudden burst of light as the fireball comes flying across the frame. On the soundtrack, the children's laughter and chatter is omnipresent, bringing energy and vibrancy to the isolation of the night. There's this glowing hive of activity and life at the center of the dark void, this small area of red glow, illuminated by the fireball and the sporadic flashes of the lightning on the cinema screen.

In the final segment of the film, the screen catches fire and is burned away, and slowly the game comes to a halt, all the children gathering around to watch the screen burn away, the flashing light of the projector showing through from the other side, the flames eventually shredding the screen until only its bare frame remains, like an empty goal. The metaphor is obvious but layered: the light is both destructive and redemptive, a source of creativity, a document of reality and a potentially abrasive, damaging force. The light both illuminates and eliminates. In the film's final minutes, Weerasethakul cuts in closer to the light of the projector, watching it head-on as, without a screen to project onto, the projector's flashes become abstract, disconnected from reality, occasionally producing wisps of imagery on the smoke wafting in front of the lens. It's darkly beautiful, this image of cinema removed from the tangible world of images: it is cinema projecting into the void, with any hope of communication or understanding removed, a lonely signal going out into the dark night.

There is a searching, hesitant quality to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. It is a film in search of a subject, in search of itself. In the opening minutes, a voiceover repeats the titular epistle twice. The note is from Weerasethakul's own perspective, talking about a relative and the film he wants to make about this man, his Uncle Boonmee, who has apparently been reincarnated in various modern forms. It is a film very much about nostalgia and history, about the past, about the search for links between modernity and the past; this is a near-constant theme in Weerasethakul's work. The voiceover recounts how Weerasethakul wants to make a film about his relative, and how he's been seeking out houses that look like his uncle's residence. Implicit here is the distance between fiction and reality, especially as mediated by the passage of time. As Weerasethakul's camera roves across the interiors of various rural homes, his voiceover laments how his script describes one kind of house, while in the real village of Nabua there are other kinds of houses, and his ancestor likely lived in still another kind.

In one shot after another, Weerasethakul's camera repeats the same stately movement, a graceful arced tracking shot from left to right, tracing various empty interiors, looking over the objects and mementos that may be signs of someone's present life or artifacts of the past. There are photos and documents on the walls, and beautiful views of the jungle out the windows. There are also soldiers, digging in the yard, the rhythmic thunk of their hoes a repetitive and insistent beat on the soundtrack, later joined by the whirring buzz of a fan as one soldier lies on the wooden floor of a house, staring off into space. The voiceover describes how, in the past, there was some kind of military incident here, soldiers who chased away the town's residents as part of some long-ago war.

There's a profound ambiguity in the way the film creates a relationship between the images and the narration: are the soldiers depicted here meant to be the soldiers who forced the townspeople out of their homes in the past, or are they present-day soldiers whose appearance here only evokes the past? Another possibility exists as well, implicit in the metafictional framing device of the narrated letter; the soldiers are actors in the film Weerasethakul is making, since A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is explicitly a preparatory document for his latest feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. In much the same way as Jean-Luc Godard would, in the early 80s, prepare video essays that contained the seeds of the feature films to follow, this short seems like an essay abstract for the forthcoming feature, suggesting themes and images that, one suspects, will be further developed in the longer work.

None of which suggests that A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is incomplete in itself, of course. It is, like Weerasethakul's features, elliptical and suggestive more than it is definitive, but that's the essential nature of his cinema, which seldom narrows its scope to a single meaning or a single narrative. His cinema is open-ended in all the best ways. Here, the slippage between past and present, between fictional artifice and the reality of the film-making process — Weerasethakul even mentions in the narration that he got British funding to make the film, bringing external economic realities into the picture, another gesture that seems to have been derived from Godard — resonates in interesting ways with the themes of memory and nostalgia. The pictures of ancestors, the rural homes that could represent any time in the last few decades or more, the soldiers who look much like soldiers do in any era. Everything here adds up to a powerful sense of timelessness. Time is suspended by Weerasethakul's weightless camera as it drifts through these mostly empty scenes, ruminating on absence — the absence of the past in relation to the present, the absence of Nabua's villagers, forced away from their homes, the absence of the titular uncle, long dead and sought in resurrected form in other people the filmmaker might meet.

Contributing to this sense of timelessness is the sumptuousness of the images. Weerasethakul's imagery encourages deep contemplation, encourages patience and quiet. As his camera drifts along, there is no rush, no urgency or narrative momentum, only the languid examination of wooden floors and walls, faded and aged photographs, the lush greenery seen outside, the pink haze of a mosquito net erected around a bed, the smoke billowing out of a furnace of some kind. Towards the end of the film, Weerasethakul's camera peers up at the tree branches swaying in the breeze, and above them the clouds drifting lazily by through a pale blue sky, shot from the perspective of someone lying on the ground. As this gaze drifts along, a cloud of insects hovers just below the tree canopy, buzzing in swarms, this shifting mass of dust motes dancing black against the blue of the sky. In this eerily quiet place, Weerasethakul summons the ghosts of history and ancestral memory to drift, silently and invisibly, through the splendor of the present.

[Note: Both of these films are available to watch online, Phantoms of Nabua for free and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee for just $1.]


DavidEhrenstein said...

Happiness is Just a Thing Called Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Sam Juliano said...

I was startled to read the title of this review, as I amazed that this film was available in some form. But your final announcement of eligibility for this celebrated Palme d'Or winner at Cannes is music to the ears. I will withhold further comment, though I did read through this, and was hardly surprised at the connections with his previous work:

"It is a film very much about nostalgia and history, about the past, about the search for links between modernity and the past; this is a near-constant theme in Weerasethakul's work."

It's a poetic, sensory review with a lovely and haunting final sentence. I just went to google and I see it is easily accessible as you indicate. While I (like everyone else, yourself included I'm sure) would much prefer to look at this on our plasmas, this is surely an offer that can't be refused.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the link, David, I'll have to check that out when I get home.

Sam, just to be clear, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is not Weerasethakul's recent Cannes feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives. It's a short film made in preparation for the feature, clearly dealing with some of the themes and stories that I'm sure will also appear in the longer film, which I'm very excited for. I hope, whenever the feature comes out on DVD, it will include some of Weerasethakul's recent shorts as well, since they're stunning, and, yes, I'd like to see them on something other than my computer screen.

Carson Lund said...

First of all, with Weerasethakul's buzz high after his recent victory at Cannes, what a timely essay! He's finally getting some of the attention he deserves, and I really hope the new feature is blessed with US distribution.

I wasn't as impressed with Phantoms of Nabua as you and several others were, but after reading a few articles densely analyzing it (yours included), I have wanted to revisit it. On first viewing, it struck me as incomplete and purely spectacle-based, even given how subtle that spectacle is. But your reading of the film in relation to its three acts is tantalizing.

I found A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, however, to be his most stunning work yet. I was so enraptured by its lilting imagery that I decided to pay it tribute almost solely through screenshots. And I'm always a sucker for themes of nostalgia and memory.

Sam Juliano said...


I feel like hiding somewhere. Remand me to a psychiatric instituation. You were far more polite to me than I deserved.

Ed Howard said...

Carson, this was written and scheduled some time ago actually, but the timing did wind up very fortuitous.

That's a great image essay on A Letter. I think there are similarly sumptuous depths to be found in Phantoms, which is perhaps more minimal and nakedly formalist in what it's after, but is still a typically dense film from Weerasethakul. I think, as lush as the imagery in his films always is, he's seldom after spectacle for its own sake. There's always a subtext, however ambiguous or multi-faceted, to the beautiful images.

Sam, don't overreact! Simple mistake, no big deal.

Sam Juliano said...

Fair enough Ed. I occasionally favor injecting some levity into the proceedings, and if it's at my expense, so much for the better.


Jake said...

Well, I would obviously agree with you about the merits of both, Ed. Actually, the more I roll Phantoms of Nabua over my tongue the more I think of it as maybe the unlikeliest companion piece in the world to Inglourious Basterds. One is certainly more "crowd pleasing" than the other, but they both use a disintegrating screen as the ultimate image of cinematic deconstruction and indeed history (though the history Tarantino burned down was that formed by our pop culture perception of it).

Joe's win at Cannes thrills me even without seeing the picture, and hopefully this should guarantee him some better distribution here than he's used to (I don't care how far out of my way I have to drive for it).

vidal said...

I've really got to see Weerasethakul's feature films one of these days, especially in light of his Cannes victory. The only film of his that I saw was his first, the problematic yet ambitious Mysterious Object at Noon. Have you seen it, Ed? if so, what did you think? For anyone who has, are his later films similar to that one in some way?

Edit: Previous post had a rather embarrassing typing error: "Have you seen Ed?" instead of "HAve you seen it, Ed?"

Ed Howard said...

Jake, that's an interesting and counterintuitive linkage. Weerasethakul often does work in metafiction and commentary on cinema, though he does it in a very subtle way most of the time. Obviously, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is his most blatantly metafictional work, encompassing as it does the references to the feature he was working on. But Phantoms also works on this level, using the screen as both a functional device and a metaphor.

I hope you're right that the Cannes win results in better distro for the feature, because I really hope Weerasethakul gets a higher profile from this.

Vidal, I haven't seen that film, no, though it's certainly on my list. I'd highly recommend checking out Syndromes and a Century if you haven't seen anything else by him. It's amazing.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Ah, Ed, I'm so glad that you reviewed these two splendid short films. Excellent work here.

In both Phantoms and Boonmee, there seems to be this urge to capture/recover history and memories on screen. Let's see how the Palm D'Or winner rounds this off.

I loved Jake Cole's review of these two films too. Do check it out whenever possible.

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