Readers less obsessive than Quandt will find some of his own remarks wanting in focus. In his essay about Blissfully Yours (2002), we’re told that five characters have names starting with “N” when translated into roman letters, and that the teenager at the hospital being treated for monoxide poisoning has a tattoo that says “Pandora.” Rayns rightly noted that “Apichatpong doesn’t fetishize his memories,” so why should we? Where the book seems at odds with Apichatpong’s films is the amount of energy spent poring over every held moment, bit of dialog, and cinematic device employed, while acknowledging the real-time, unadorned simplicity of expression in his films. Quandt’s book is impressive in its breadth of personal insight (anecdotes about the filmmaker’s favorite films, etc.) and clear contextualization of the works within cinema history, but one wonders if the perfervid and plentiful analyses will, at least for those who watch films for pleasure, distract from the uncomplicated poetry of the films themselves. Apichatpong is often noted for his sustained shots that never leave actions abbreviated and for his digressing plot lines that progress without a definitive end. In the interview included on the DVD of Syndromes and a Century (2006), Apichatpong explained that he is “interested in plot, but not interested in developing it.” Sustaining a shot for the entirety of the action it portrays, as if the action were documented rather than filmed, exposes the latent drama in our most banal activities. If Roong and Min’s car ride into the countryside midway through Blissfully lacks conversation, it is to give voice to the confined space of the car, the racing landscape out the windows, and the sensation of movement as the car turns corners. In Syndromes, we watch for several minutes as a dentist’s assistant prepares the materials for a teeth cleaning; the dentist and the patient, a monk, wait as we do, as the assistant unhurriedly performs her routine. One’s mind wanders when sitting for a dentist, both to wile away the tedium of the visit, and to distract from the occasional pain. Enacting banality as a way to connect the filmic lifeworld with the viewer’s reality, Apichatpong complicates the distinctions between the world onscreen and off. To sit in the car for what feels like the entirety of Roong and Min’s drive changes the film from something we watch into something we experience. The long, languorous shots of trees bending to the wind that appear in several of the films seem to motion us towards the innumerable potentials possible within each form, and the incalculable complexity of even the most commonplace of settings. The flutter of each leaf, the arch of each branch, and the collective eddying of the trees mesmerize us, if we allow them.
Apichatpong was born in 1970 in Bangkok, but grew up in northeast Thailand, Khon Kaen, where he studied architecture at the local university. He began making short films and videos in 1994, the same year he became a member of the Association of the Siamese Architects. Around the same time, he enrolled for a Masters in Fine Arts in Filmmaking at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago, and even before graduating in 1997, he had helped found an independent production network for young Thai filmmakers called 9/6 Cinema Factory. He launched his own film company Kick the Machine in 1999, and completed his first feature, Mysterious Objects at Noon, a year later.
Coming of age in Khon Kaen in the 1970s and 1980s, as metropolitan centers in Thailand, namely Bangkok, modernized with fervor, Apichatpong must have felt the growing differences between city and country being marked along ideological and, to a degree, racial lines. From a Northerner’s perspective, Bangkok was commerce-driven, detached from its past and Americanized, while the “up country” embodied authentic Thainess, still operating within a worldview where the routines of daily living freely channeled myth and tradition, and where familial memories remained alive in the continuation of generations. This is important to keep in mind, particularly for Benedict Anderson’s essay, which contextualizes the reception of Apichatpong’s films within the Thai cultural sphere. Anderson argues that this milieu is metropolitan and not representative of Thai audiences in general. For Anderson, the weak response from the Thai public is not due to the fact Western experimental film, which is unfamiliar to local audiences in general, but rather because major film centers in the country, like Bangkok, are themselves too Westernized in their commercial film culture to see how enrooted these films are in Thai sensibilities. The aforementioned official at the Thai Ministry of Culture Ladda Tangsupachai’s damning charge that Thai filmgoers are too “uneducated” to justify censorship was challenged by film critic Alongkot Maiduang’s (a.k.a. Kanlaphraphruek) mockumentary called Room Kat Sat Pralaat, or Ganging Up on ‘Sat Pralaat’ (2004). In it, “up country” villagers were shown Apichatpong’s Sat Pralaat (Tropical Malady) (2004), to their full understanding and enjoyment. Furthermore, the villagers (two men and one woman) interviewed found no objection to the homosexual romance developing between the protagonists, and offered that it was, in fact, “quite ordinary” where they came from. Anderson also recounts a conversation about Tropical Malady he had with an Indonesian friend who grew up in the jungle. “This is the most wonderful movie I have seen. I can’t believe that anyone making a film today could get inside the world in which I grew up, and present it with such perfection. I’ve never seen anything like it.” The idea of seeing something that one has never seen before is perhaps further from the self-perception of, and therefore more challenging to, Thai city dwellers than the country’s rural majority. Superstition, animism and folklore have an intrinsic and ineffable logic outside of Thai cities, where natural, unmediated forces are incorporated into the space of social interactions. The jungle, far from being a place of mystery as some of Apichatpong’s observers maintain, is a place where people live out their lives in social structures more integral, ancestral, though no less contemporary, than their metropolitan counterparts. Contentiously, Anderson understands the detachment Bangkokians feel towards Apichatpong’s films through Sujit Wongthes’s book, Jek Pon Lao (1987): In operating within the world view sensitive to “up country” folk, Apichatpong’s films alienate the city dwelling bourgeoisie, who since the nineteenth century, have been made up of Thais with Chinese ancestry, the luk jin, or more colloquially, the jek of Wongthes’ book, who continue to control the social and economic bearings of the Thai city set.