Movies, books, poetry, dirty jokes

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cinema of Impermanence

by Kong Rithdee

Note from Kong: This essay on ''Syndromes and a Century'' was commissioned to me by the Vienna's New Crowned Hope Festival. It was published in the festival catalogue in November 2006.

“There are two trees. One represents my father’s story. The other represents my mother’s story. They grow together, and other stories grow out of them too.”

The enigma of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new movie is the enigma of memories. How they come flooding like happy sunlight on an afternoon by the pond, how they gradually slip out of grasp like when a solar eclipse casts an inevitable shadow on the earth. It’s the great enigma of how memories haunt, touch, tease, elate and pain us. How they illuminate life. How they darken life. How they imitate life then become life itself. How they orchestrate the ecosystem of the senses and the biological symmetry of the body, the metaphysics of the soul, the eternal pulsating of the heart—his heart, mine, yours. How they save and obliterate us. How they could be scientifically explained and spiritually questioned. How they hint at the possibility of the past life and augment the prospect of the next. How they appear so solid, so indestructible and at once so transient, so dishearteningly impermanent like the joy that is found and suddenly lost, sometimes forever.

Apichatpong once told me that the magic of memories is in the fact that he could inherit them from his parents, like a family heirloom. You can have the memories even though you didn’t experience them, he says, and the elusive nature of what is inherited and what is actually remembered constitutes the enigma of Syndromes and a Century, a film in which time is fragmented and memories compartmentalised, in which the scientific and the spiritual dance a surreal pas de deux that juxtaposes the present and the future—or the past and the present. The thin, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t storyline is taken from the lives of the filmmaker’ parents when they were both working at a rural hospital in Khon Kaen, a province in northeastern Thailand. Almost the entire film is set in a hospital, warm and wistful in the first half and synthetically clinical in the second, as we meet patients with a variety of syndromes and doctors who seem to be afflicted by a repertoire of invisible maladies themselves. Apichatpong spent his early years hanging around the wards where his parents worked, and in this strange, funny, affecting film he juggles the unlikely playground of his childhood, where sickness was an everyday spectacle, with the ethereal longing to find a universal healing to all human conditions.

By also dabbling into the memories he never had, Apichatpong suggests the possibility of paralleled lives, of dreams that invade reality, probably of the joy and agony of reincarnations. The Thai title of the film is Saeng Satawat—“lights of the century”—and it is the director’s ceremonial experiment with lights that gives the film its bifurcated tonalities. In the balmy aesthetics of the first half, the supple rays of natural sunlight always dash the swaying banana trees outside the windows of doctor Tei’s examination room. The physical presence of the hospital seems to demarcate a medical domain that is totally separated from the verdant inferno of green paddies and teeming forests, always dappled by the tropical sun-glare. Through her windows, doctor Tei stares out at the flora kingdom that is so close but feels so remote, and there’s a deep sense of poignancy when we understand that she’s trying to grasp her own ungraspable memories. It’s the possibility of love that leads her out of the shell of her hospital, and the young doctor’s romantic encounters with a botanist, who repeatedly boasts of his rare breed of wild orchid that glows in the dark, takes place in chlorophyllised environments of leafy verandas and tree-embraced corners that were once, she’s told, fallen into the shadow of a total solar eclipse.

If the interrelation between the technological and the natural, or the scientific and the supernatural, seems possible at the first glance as doctors prescribe pills to the patients while the patients prescribes herbal potions to their doctors, Apichatpong proposes another scheme at the film’s midway mark and plunges us into the territory of sharp lighting, of artificial fluorescent flares and tungsten illuminations as his camera travels into the bowel of the hospital, where grotesque medical equipments and soul-sucking metal pipes promise both the redemption and the end of human organism. Here the strong, harsh light and disturbing drone of strange machines suggest a dystopian realm where healing is attempted but not necessarily possible. Because Apichatpong’s films always affect us at both the conscious and unconscious level, the real-light-vs.-fake-light strategy is not merely a matter of exercise. It is inherent to the fundamental concept to explore the presence of fleeting memories, real or artificial, that seem so bright and clear at one second and foggy and untouchable at another.

I’m not a fan of Mozart. But when I listen to his music, I hear the fluid, watery quality in it. I hear how the music seems to take different shapes as it tries to move forward. Maybe there’s the same quality in my film.”

Apichatpong, 36, studied architecture in Khon Kaen and filmmaking in Chicago. The marvel of his films, especially for Thai audience who digs his brand of rural surrealism, thus comes from the intuitive naturalness that is framed within the precise, almost scientific structure of the narrative. Apichatpong didn’t study music, but in his quest to stretch the limit of his art, the filmmaker may have tapped into some cosmic energy that has influenced so many artists that came long before him: Unintentionally, the structure of Syndromes and a Century, when we see the same scenes being repeated with slight variations as if memories are playing tricks on us, bears a resemblance to the fugue form in classical music composition. Perfected by Bach though rarely used by Mozart, the fugue form features a melody that keeps repeating itself while also branching off into new melodies based on the original theme. The organized fluidity of Apichatpong’s movies may attract the label of (post-) modernism, but it’s actually a traditional art form practiced by baroque composers long before cinema was invented.

Yet again, Apichatpong’s movies often display that subtle dissonance, like when a minor chord lurks beneath a major key and intimates a subconscious fantasy of melodies that exist but that we cannot hear, or a dream that’s forcing its way to the surface. In reading his previous film, the Cannes-winning Tropical Malady, a Thai critic (okay, it’s me) compares the film’s dual structure and its primitive surrealism to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Such unlikely comparison may illustrate Apichatpong’s unique talent that has been born out of his status as a Third-World filmmaker: despite the fact that all his works are firmly rooted in Thai sensibilities, in the homegrown melodrama and provincial unsophistication, they also draw their artistic license from the vast pool of Western intellectualism. So the world sees glimpses of Renoir and Bach and Kiarostami in Apichatpong’s movies, but we also see ancient myths, jungle yarns and cheap pulp fictions of totally Thai origins. As the world sees lyrical metaphors and mystical conjuring, we see the mundane misery and honest humor patented only to the Thais.

The director hardly uses any orchestral music in his films; he’s not familiar with the fugue form or the Stravinsky’s masterpiece, and my takes on those musical analogies might have sounded, in retrospect, unduly ambitious. Apichatpong may have detected the “watery quality” of Mozart’s music, but in truth the filmmaker is known to be so fond of cloying Thai pop numbers that sound at once earnest and utterly cheesy. In Blissfully yours, an upbeat tune sung by a sweet-voiced teenager launches the film into its Edenic second half. In Tropical Malady, a folk singer croons the sadly prophetic Wana Sawat (“jungle romance”) before a young soldier treks into a humid forest in search of his lover who’s transformed into a tiger. In Syndromes and a Century though, a sentimental dentist sings a brooding love song at a dusty temple fair before a classical guitarist chips in a tune of nostalgic beauty that somehow complements the gentle aesthetics of the visual. Apichatpong may not be a Mozart fan, but at that particular moment when the nylon strings are plucked the enigma evaporates and all memories seem so clear—it’s the rare moment of luminous beauty known to all Mozart listeners since three centuries ago.

“I’m not religious. But I often consult religious books when I have emotional problems. I believe in the idea of letting things go, of not feeling attached. But I always find that it’s hard to do that.”

People have thrown one particular question at me for countless of times since I first started writing about Apichatpong’s works in the 1999: What do his films mean? Or even more sinister: What are the messages? In my early naiveté I satisfied them by fishing out some hokum-sounding answers, but lately I’ve been in the habit of giving those inquirers a shrug. Maybe Apichatpong’s films are not meant to be explained but felt. They enrich and wrap us whole in their smothering hugs not because they can be understood but perceived. We receive the images through the eyes and they go directly to the heart. Like great music, his films bypass our critical faculty since they can connect with us at the unconscious level, leaving a languorous swirl of emotions before the brain is jolted into processing the data—if any data-processing still matters after all.

I first interviewed him for my newspaper when he was struggling to finish his first feature-length film Mysterious Object at Noon. Apichatpong was still an unknown filmmaker who just came back from his study in Chicago, though his experimental shorts had generated a certain buzz among a small circle of cinephiles in Bangkok. I wrote a few articles on his next movie Blissfully Yours, which was shown in the Un Certain Regard at Cannes but was mutilated by local censors when it opened in a single theatre here. And I was lucky enough to be in Cannes in 2004 when Tropical Malady was screened in the Competition and eventually won a Jury Prize, the first time a Siamese movie was honored with a major international film award.

“Joe”—that’s what Apichatpong calls himself in English, though his nickname in Thai is a vowel-twister that’s pronounced somewhat like “Joei”. Sometimes I’d like to call him “gentleman Joe” (it hasn’t got into the mainstream yet!). And from the very first time I interviewed this amiable man, I experienced a mix of curiosity and frustration since it was difficult to understand the description of the film he tried to give me. He knew it and occasionally sympathizes by saying: “I know it’s hard to understand. You have to see the film in order to.” For most people though, being unable to understand a movie by simply reading its synopsis in a newspaper is unacceptable, and while some people are driven by a mix of curiosity and frustration to see an Apichatpong’s movie, most viewers feel only the latter. Frustration even transforms into dread, and I’d feel upset with myself when I realize that sometimes my articles on a new Joe’s film often sound like a warning sticker that this may not be a movie for everybody, especially regular multiplex-goers.

“I make films from my personal wavelength, and I know that maybe not many people share the same wavelength as mine, but that’s all right,” he once said. What I’ve tried to convince myself lately is that perhaps people don’t get Apichatpong’s movies not because they are difficult but because they are very simple. In a time when our consciousness is clogged by overexposure to fictions and moving images, stories based on memories and myths—the oldest stories of humankind—might have seemed like something from an alien wavelength. Apichatpong’s films always feature nature as the force that affects the biochemical and metaphysical workings of human beings. You could say that it’s not easy to understand nature, but then again there is nothing easier. The Thai word for nature, by the way, is dharma-chart, whose linguistic root is based on the word dharma. In the Buddhist dharma teachings we’re told that everything is impermanent. It’s just illusion, or dream, or memory. Gentleman Joe’s is the cinema of dharma-chart—the cinema of impermanence. As he himself is learning how to let things go, to not feel attached, perhaps we should do the same when watching his films. There’s nothing easier than let yourself be swept into the irresistible embrace of nature. Maybe there’s even no enigma after all.


Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Rinko Kakuchi. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

When you bat an eyelid in Bangkok, a tower block could crumble in, say, Khartoum. Your smallest action in Bang Rak might trigger, among other bad things, a massacre in Eastern Europe or a drought in Patagonia. Your carelessness could provoke a tragedy of the saddest kind, ruining families and civilisation, because everything is dependent on everything else, because that's the unbendable law of God, of the stock market, of the relativity theory, of ambitious filmmakers. And no, I'm not talking about global warming.

Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won best director award at Cannes 2006 for his grandiose film Babel, and his presence will surely give Oscar punters a run for their money if they've already pinned their hopes on either Grandpa Clint or Uncle Marty winning the statuette. That's because Babel is dressed up and gift-wrapped to win awards; it's a film that spells the word IMPORTANT on its every gene, with its God-like point of view and stories that mean to dig up the core, a rotten core to boot, of all humanity.

Inarritu is a formidably talented filmmaker whose previous two features, the gorgeously grimy Amores Perros and the wrenching 21 Grams, employed the disorientating jigsaw effect by compartmentalising several strands of narratives, breaking them up into short vignettes that slowly assemble into one whole shiny piece. The streetwise bravado of Amores Perros sucks us in and makes it work, while 21 Grams projects a heartfelt aftertaste because the drama has its impact. Inarritu clearly subscribes to the idea of cinema as a vessel of raw emotions, as testified by his chilling 11-minute short in the compilation 11''09'01 marking the Sept 11 tragedy.

Now with Babel, the director's colossal talent still stands out, sometimes overshadowing his characters. His preferred technique of chopping up his narratives into fragmented blocks this time seems like a self-indulgent conceit, his globe-spanning multi-stories more like a calculated dealing than a spiritual conviction on human interdependency. Inarritu shuffles a deck of cards and spreads each one on the table, then he deftly gathers the pieces up and re-arranges them in a neat order. You admire the procedure, though it doesn't really make you care.

The grand design of Babel, which takes place in Morocco, Tokyo, LA and a Mexican border town and involves four families in those locations, is spun from a dastardly rifle. Sons of a Moroccan sheep herder play with their father's newly acquired weapon. Their aimless shot hits an American tourist, played by Cate Blanchett, who's travelling with her estranged husband, played by Brad Pitt. This accident triggers a chain of events that leads us down, down, and further down the chasm of irredeemable tragedy. Unable to come home, Pitt asks his Mexican maid to take care of his young children, and the maid, along with her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal), decides to bring the white kids along on their trip to a wedding party across the border in Mexico _ a seemingly harmless action that becomes an unwise decision.

Then the tale jumps to Tokyo. Here we discover the identity of the rifle's original owner, a stern-faced businessman and part-time hunter who nurses a sullen relationship with his disenchanted daughter (Rinko Kakuchi). Flashing her panties in public to mark her existence in the world, this girl is perhaps the only character that inspires genuine sympathy in the entire film.

Babel is meant, of course, as a dramatised essay on miscommunication, presented in crisp, breathtaking cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. It has its power, but it is not a poem, since it leaves nothing to the imagination. Its philosophy on intricate and invisible human interconnection is more or less an endorsement of the notion of predetermined destiny, and with my limited knowledge I simply wonder if we should watch a movie, any movie, to learn that we're born with the ability to control our own lives despite the situation, or a movie should tell us that our courses are pre-determined by the actions of some strangers somewhere far away.

Charting the courses of the characters' lives is no doubt a job of screenwriters and directors. Catholic or Calvinist or Buddhist, they're all playing God, and playing God is part of the game. But to some directors, playing God also means acknowledging God -- to humble oneself before a greater force, an all-encompassing cosmic energy whose entirety cinema can only try to replicate, without success. Directors like Bergman, Bresson or Ozu always evoked the presence of God, sometimes questioning him, sometimes bowing before him, but always reminding us that something is always beyond our grasp. The films of those directors are poems, because they let us ponder bigger questions. Babel only gives us answers, which is satisfying though its impact barely lasts.

It is unholy of me, but I'm reminded of another movie I've recently seen that's pertinent to this God issue. Little seen elsewhere aside from its country of origin Heremias, Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess is a mesmerising religious allegory made by independent Filipino director Lav Diaz. The nine-hour monochrome movie concerns the lonely journey of a poor peasant who's tested by hostile nature, corrupt government officials, devils in the guise of men, and maybe by his god. The image of the peasant dragging his cow through muddy puddles and his futile attempt to do what his conscience tells him is the right thing to do represents a spiritual poetry on the ongoing trial of humanity.

Heremias is a film that believes both in the power of cinema and in God. Babel is a beautiful picture that believes only in itself.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Pink propaganda

twentyseven bums give a prostitute the once
-over, fiftythree(and one would see if it could)

eyes say the breasts look very good:
firmlysquirmy with a slight jounce,

thirteen pants have a hunch
admit in threedimensional distress
these hips were made for Horizontal Business
(set on big legs nice to pinch

assiduously which justgraze
each other). As the lady lazily struts
thicklish flesh superior to the genuine daze
of unmarketable excitation,

whose careless movements carefully scatter

pink propganda of annihilation

goodby Betty,don't remember me
pencil your eyes dear and have a good time
with the tall tight boys at Tabari'
s,keep your teeth snowy,stick to beer and lime,
wear dark,and where your meeting breasts are round
have roses darling,it's all i ask of you--
but that when light fails and this sweet profound
Paris moves with lovers,two and two
bound for themselves,when passionately dusk
bring softly down the perfume of the world
(and just as smaller stars begin to husk
heaven)you, you exactly paled and curled

with mystic lips take twilight where i know:
proving to Death that Love is so and so.

E.E. Cummings
(thanks to tee)

Friday, February 16, 2007


Starring Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo, Directed by Pedro Almodovar, In Spanish with Thai and English subtitles at Lido

Pedro Almodovar's latest movie is a comical, affectionate joyride of feminine optimism. Volver is at once fantastic television trash and a revelation of warm-hearted humanism, displayed through the ripe primary colours of Penelope Cruz's wardrobe and lipsticks and the mythic milieu of rural Spain. There're nods to Hitchcock and a knifed body stuffed in a fridge, there's a dark secret waiting to be disclosed, and there are moments when the surreal intrudes on the mundane, but all technical and structural discussion is moot and superfluous when the movie sends us out full, sad, and happy.

Funny if anyone would perceive the film as an "arthouse" movie (probably with a sneer), given that it was premiered in Cannes last year, and considering that it's a baby girl from a homosexual European filmmaker glorified by critics and cinephiles of all orientations. If anything, nearly all of Almodovar's films - from his madcap early opuses like Law of Desire and Kika to tender fares like All About My Mother, Talk To Her and apparently Volver - have proved how art - sincere, honest art firmly rooted in local sensibilities - can blur and break up the distinctions between what we believe to be high, middle, and low-brow works. And if there's any "brow" worth reviewing in Volver, they are the rich, arrow-like, cupid-carved eyebrows of the director's goddess: Cruz.

It seems like the vividness of the entire film has its source in the sparkling lava of Cruz's beauty: But remember, this is an actress, when acting in Spanish, whose talent is much more exciting than her cleavage. Cruz plays Raimunda, a woman from the rougher part of town, a mother who endures all sorts of female troubles, including her vile new husband who lusts after her teenage daughter Paula (Cobo). But even as she swears and sweats, as she draws blood from the man who wrongs her and drags his heavy, lifeless body around - in Almodovar's world, males are often a burden - Cruz manages to remain a slim gazelle who skips about with such grace. It's well-known that Almodovar reveres classic Hollywood beauties, the likes of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, but Cruz is the director's supreme Sultana of present-day La Mancha, the sleepy rural domain in which a large part of Volver is set.

When the film opens, Raimunda and several other women are scrubbing the stone graves in a cemetary; for these hard-working females, duties include tending to the dead as well as the living. Soon afterwards we're introduced to different generations of women who make up the chromosomes of Spanish femininity, each of them played by Almodovar's favourite muses. Raimunda has a sister, Sole (Lola Duenas) who's now living in Madrid after leaving their hometown of La Mancha. Their mother, Irene, (Carmen Maura) died in a fire many years back, though her sister Paula (Chus Lampreave) becomes convinced that Irene's ghost has come back to visit her in the house. Paula is sick, and she's being cared for by Augustina (Blanca Portillo), whose own mother also disappeared years before.

Volver means "coming back" in Spanish, and the motif is manifest in the return of Irene, Raimunda's supposedly dead mother, into the realm of the living. For Almodovar, motherly love hardly ceases even when a mother no longer lives with her daughters. Irene's resuscitation - her homecoming - is treated matter-of-factly by the director and his actresses, and the delicate fibre of the narrative doesn't suffer any rupture from this bizarre plot point. If this were the riotous beginning of his career, Almodovar might have seized the opportunity to spin the absurd threads of biting comedy by having the dead lecture the living. But what we're seeing here, despite what looks like the ghost of Irene, is a tragi-comedy of struggling human beings who constantly discover a new meaning of the word "family".

Almodovar has waded into this water more than once before, but it's still bracing to witness him shifting the tones of the story so fluidly, as his chirpy flock of tough, determined birds whirl in and out like great gusts of wind. An absurd douche into the suspense takes place when Raimunda devises a plan to get rid off her major "female trouble" (how this sequence resembles the ordeal of a character in the Thai film 6ixtynin9!), then we emerge into a sequence of colourful conviviality when Raimunda takes over a neighbourhood restaurant, throws a party for a film crew shooting nearby, and surprises us by breaking into a gentle musical interlude. What a mother - a woman - can do, or has to do, in an Almodovar movie covers a startling range from the darkest of crimes to the silliest of activities. The kick is when we realise that these women do everything they do because their generous hearts tell them so.

Recently, someone threw me a pseudo-cryptic question: Can we classify a movie by its gender? Can we say a movie is male or female, in the same sense that we distinguish a man from a woman?

As far as I know, a film cannot grow a sexual organ, so this is a purely rhetorical question. Usually, any form of demographic classification is the work of marketers - this is a "chick flick", this is a "tough-guy picture", this is a "teen comedy". Stereotype is useful in selling products, movies included. But sometimes when a film is made with as much heart as with hands, it could rise beyond such simplification and divisive segmentation. And of course it could transcend the gender frontier. Brokeback Mountain is a love story, not just a gay love story. Volver may dispense with men and celebrate the beauty, the spirit and the follies of women, but that's exactly why men should be able to appreciate it as much as their girlfriends will.