Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s debut feature for the first time on Blu-Ray.
Remember that old kids’ game where you’d take turns in telling a story, the first player setting up the scenario, and then each person thereafter embellishing or twisting the narrative as they pleased? Well, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s debut feature is something of an adult version. He and a small documentary team take their camera on a journey through Thailand, interviewing people from all walks of life, and coaxing personal anecdotes from them, before asking them to take part in constructing a story. This concerns a young handicapped boy, his teacher, and the mysterious object that drops from her skirt, and is recreated by actors on screen as the film progresses.
The director has said that the idea came to him from the “Exquisite Corpse” paintings of the Surrealists, in which each artist would work on one section of a picture without ever seeing the whole until the end. But the comparison to a children’s game is more apt here, not just because Apichatpong’s film is so sprightly and so playful – he cheerfully gets an old granny drunk before she tells her part of the story, and gleefully breaks the fourth wall, showing how his young actor is desperate for a KFC meal when the shooting’s done – but because it is the schoolkids he interviews at the end of the film who prove its most anarchic participants, and who the director lets wrestle the film from his grasp.
This is what Apichatpong is looking for – the power of people to take a control of a narrative in a country where often the political narrative takes hold of them. His first interviewee is a woman who was virtually sold into slavery by an impoverished father. Her words are intercut with photos of the latest presidential candidates smiling down inanely from billboards. Throughout the film, each new “player” puts a twist on the story that reflects their own lives and desires – the first woman creating a portrait of the domestic stability and mutual support she yearns for, the kids at the end relishing tearing that to pieces and seeing it spiral into sci-fi weirdness and bloody revenge. But each segment still carries the DNA of its predecessors and patterns repeat; later, the teacher’s boyfriend will try to sell her charges into slavery in Bangkok.
As such, Mysterious Object At Noon is nothing less than a metaphorical travelogue through a nation’s psyche, putting the facts under the microscope by examining its fantasies. The contrasting imaginations of the storytellers are representative of the complexity of viewpoints in Thailand itself: urban v rural, superstition v modernism. And Apichatpong finds a wealth of directorial styles to match, from a bizarre sequence in which a boy hides a woman’s body in a plastic closet – her head lolls about a lot – to a beautiful held shot of the teacher, standing in a restaurant backroom listening to radio propaganda, that sums up a whole history of a country in barely three minutes.
Lovers of the lush colour cinematography found in Apichatpong’s later, more renowned films such as Palme d’Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), might be disappointed that Mysterious Object is in grainy black and white. And grainier than it should be, actually, because, as is explained at length both in the accompanying booklet and documentary extra on the disc, the film was shot on 16mm and then blown up to 35mm, but the original 16mm camera reversal print no longer exists, and the restoration shown here had to made from the 35mm negative. This means some loss of detail in the image, which rather sweetly, Apichatpong waxes philosophical about in an interview extra, and it’s a philosophy which has clearly been taken up by the restorers, who worked in tandem with the director on this release. Several “errors” have been left uncorrected and, in the train sequences in particular, tramlines are clearly visible on screen. But for this viewer, the kind of ghostlike, occasionally overexposed feel of some images actually adds to the dreamlike quality of the film.
Mention should also be made of the excellent new 5.1 surround mix present on the disc alongside the original Dolby Stereo track. It really adds to the documentary sense of the film, suddenly pitching the listener into these diverse, now all-encompassing environments, and enhances Apichatpong’s device of playing ambient sound from one location over the events occurring in another, thus meshing them together thematically.
One further point: the print the restorers worked from had burnt-in English subs rather awkwardly placed on a black border at the bottom of the screen. These have been kept because removing them digitally “ran the risk of introducing artefacts” in the image. They don’t spoil one’s enjoyment of the film.
There’s a wonderful essay from the ever reliable Tony Rayns in the accompanying booklet which relates his own significant role in getting both this film and its director the international attention they deserved. Apparently, Apichatpong ran up to him in a cinema lobby, pressed a VHS into his hands, and begged him to watch it; Rayns thought it one of the most significant debut films in decades. Such things as legends are made of.
Sadly, the extras on the disc itself are not quite so amusing. There’s an extremely awkward interview with the director in what seems to be a West London garden, in which Apichatpong gamely answers – in cautious English – questions from a rather embarrassed-looking gentleman with an absurdly deep voice. They both look cold. It’s all very odd and not terribly enlightening. But there is a charming cat.
Apart from the aforementioned piece on the restoration, the only other extra is a short film, Nimit (Meteorites), made in 2007. Suffice to say, it’s not one of the director’s masterpieces, and seems more like an avant garde home movie, or part of an installation piece, than a fully realised work.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum