Moments of true and intense happiness usually tend to be brief and even difficult to recognize, until they become part of our best preserved memories. It’s like a special image in a film, that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Images and moments that last forever, are the materials used in this original and seducing Thai picture, that reverberates in our minds long after we have left the theater.
The second feature made by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (a name as long and mysterious as his work) is a suggestive trip into the realm of senses. A slow and hypnotic exploration of an unknown landscape that serves as scenary for archaic rituals. Its evocative and strong images contrast with a minimal storyline in which the interaction between characters is more relevant than the motives of their actions. In a contemplative way, the director lets the images flow as we are submerged in its placid rythm.
Although the author has said that “it’s a film about ordinary people doing ordinary things”, and has used non-professional actors, from the first images the viewer has the impression of walking into a new cinematographic territory. Clearly divided in two parts by the credits that start 45 minutes into the film (one of the many surprises in its bumby road), each of one evokes different universes. In the first part, an urban and oppressing environment resembles the style of Tsai Ming-liang films, with its harsh colours and decadent atmosphere. Here we are presented with the three main characters. Roong is a young and assertive woman that gives shelter to the shy Min, an illegal immigrant from Burma. He suffers from a severe rash, so they visit a female doctor for help, and to conceal his origin he has to fake a throat condition in order not to speak. Also present is Orn, a mature woman, that is paid to take care of him while Roong is outside trying to get a free day from her work.
In the second part, we are introduced with a fourth character : nature. In the exuberant jungle near the thai – burmese border, the young couple has a picnic that allows them to freely express their feelings. Through a sunny and hot afternoon that resembles the climate of Jean Renoir films, they return to a primitive state, in which man and nature live in a perfect balance. As Min changes his skin as if he were a cobra, insects and plants invade the whole scene. What starts with the routine application of a medicine skin cream, developes into a sensual experience in which tact, taste, smell and hearing take a leading role.
In a film that works in different layers, touching is the main form of communication, and the skin is a frontier that can receive agressions from the outside, but can as well heal and become a potent instrument of love. Sex, although prosaic, and almost explicit, is never presented in a exploitive way, and integrates to the liberating feeling. Even the old and decaying Orn and her furtive lover Tommy, that had made the voyage in a motorcycle, find a moment of joy. Her silent sobbing at the end reveals the fragility of these changing feelings.
With its rich camerawork, and long takes that never lose its eye for the important detail, the precise editing and the suggestive use of natural sounds and music (with an exotic brazilian touch in Tom Jobim’s song) the film goes beyond the naturalistic description and evolves into a dreamy and pantheistic celebration. An experience in which pain is only momentarily forgotten, and above the placid and uneventfull surface, allows multiple readings that can even include a political statement.
Not apt for every taste, this work confirms the strong and personal preferences of its author. In the globalized and repetitive cinematographic landscape, finding a new vision like this one is always refreshing. We can only hope that other treasures might come from the scarcely known Thai film production.
© FIPRESCI 2003