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MeganLuke

Faculty:MarilynFreeman

NonfictionMedia2012­13

08March2013

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ApichatpongWeerasethakul:CinemaasaGhostMedium

BornandraisedinKhonKaen,Thailand,independentdirectorandrenowninstallationartist

ApichatpongWeerasethakulattendedtheSchooloftheArtInstituteofChicagoandreceivedanMFA

infilmmakingin1997.Thishybrididentity­ThainativeandWesterntheoryinformeddirector­alone

suggeststhetransnationalityofhiswork.HisartfocusesexclusivelyonthecountryofThailand,its

people,theirmemoriesanddesires,andtheland­allofwhichisbecomingincreasinglymediatedby

modernity.GiventhisintimateinvolvementwithThaicultureandhisownexperienceofit,itwouldbea

distortionandocclusiontonotanalyzeWeerasethakul’sfilmsasiftheywerealsoworksofexperimental

ethnography.ThispaperwillexploreelementswithinWeerasethakul’sfilmsthatblurthedistinction

betweenrealityandfiction,thatconfoundandconflaterealismandanthropologicalallegory,and

ultimatelyexistasmediumsthroughwhichdeepyetephemeralrealitiescanbeexpressed.

InherbookExperimentalEthnography:TheWorkofFilmintheAgeofVideo,film

professorCatherineRusselltacklesthesubjectofthecrisisofrepresentationinherentinwhatweknow

asethnographyandanthropology,bothofwhichwadeinthewakeofaconvolutedpostcolonial,

postmodernreality.ItisinthiscontextindeedthatRussellsaysexperimentalfilmmakingisflourishing.In

anexhaustivetomeofthreehundredpagessheproposestheuseofavant­gardeandexperimental

techniquesinordertochallengethecolonialanthropologicalparadigmthat“perpetuate[s]aCartesian

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dualitybetweenmindandmatterinwhichtheOtherisobjectifiedandthefilmmakerandhisorher

audiencearethesubjectsofperception”(4).Russellchieflyarguesherpointthroughcriticalanalysisof

aneclecticarrayofpastethnographicfilms,callingupontheworkofWalterBenjamin(fromwhomher

book’ssubtitleisderived)andotherpastcriticaltheorists.

Russellstatessuccinctlyattheendofherintroductionthat“thefailureofrealismtopresent

evidenceoftherealistheradicalpossibilityofexperimentalethnography”(25).Itisthisnewformof

cinemathatmayhavethepotentialtobeanartthatupsetsconventionswhichstemfromandpreserve

institutionsofcolonialcultureandlimittherelationshipbetweenfilmmaker,film,andviewer.

Weerasethakul’smostclearlynon­fictionalfilmishisfirstfeature,releasedin2000,andshot

entirelyinblackandwhite16mm:MysteriousObjectatNoon,orinThailand,DogfahrintheDevil’s

Hand. Ittookthreeyearstocompletetheproject,whichadoptedtheFrenchsurrealistAndréBreton’s

exquisitecorpsetechniquetobuilditscollectivelyassembled,dreamlikenarrative.Filmmakerandfilm

crewtraveledaroundThailand,findingnon­actorsalongtheroadtobuildthescript­oneperson

continuingfromanother’slastscene.Thecombinationofthenarrativewiththedocumentaryfootage

capturedduringthemakingofMysteriousObjectiswhatallowsthisfilmtobebothamelodramatic

fantasyspunoutofmultiplesubjectivitiesandasubtlepieceofethnography.

Thephrase“Onceuponatime”onablacktitlescreencuesthebeginningofthefilm.Thenwith

averitéflavor,theaudienceistreatedwithalongunediteddrivingshotdownahighwayjustintoan

urbancentertothetuneofaThaipopsongandavoiceoverofunknownorigintellingastoryabouta

manfranticallytryingtomarryawoman.Asthecameracombsthroughthecity,wehearinstead

advertisementsforincenseannouncementsandmoresongsasradiostationsarechanged.Theradiois

replacedbyannouncementsfromafishmongerdetailingthepricesofcertainfishes.Weeventually

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realizethecarcarryingthecameraisafishtruck.Thedrivergetsoutofthecarandpreparesfoodwhile

wesitwithawomanwhoworksinthetruckwhobeginstotellthecrew,eventuallycryingasshedoes,

thestoryofhowherfathersoldhertoheruncleinexchangeforbusfare,andhowsheranawayto

Bangkok.Withoutcomment,thesolicitor,probablyWeerasethakul,asksherforanotherstory,“realor

fiction.”Shehesitatesandthenthefilmcutstothenarrativesketchasshespringboardsthecadavre

exquis,tellingataleofawheelchair­boundboyandhisteacherDogfahr.Becausetheaudioisfromthe

fishtruck,theviewerremainsmindfulofthestoryasit’sbeingconjuredandiscaughtsuspended,trying

toanticipatetheplotwhilealsotryingtounderstandtheproductionprocess.

Dogfahrleavesforthedayandthenarrativebecomesalittledisjointed,followingadifferent

socialactortothemarket,withherfathertoadoctor,withayetanothersocialactorinherbedroom

andatasalon.Whenshecomesback,anintertitledisplays,“Whatdidyoudointheoutsideworld

today?”Shetellstheboyaboutherdayandthensuddenlyfallsunconscious.Amysteriousroundobject

rollsoutofherskirt.

Thenextco­writerisfoundsomewhereelse,downadirtroadandthroughagrove.Itisa

spunkyelderlywomanwhoalmostimmediatelyasksiftheroundobjectcanbeaboy.Theelderly

womanexplainsthattheboyisanextraterrestrialthatfelltoearthafterhecouldnolongerlivewithhis

parents.Thefilmcutsbacktothehome.Therestofthefilmcontinuesthisway:thecrewtravelstoone

locationafteranother,returningtothenarrativeatunevenjunctures:aruralareawhereteenboyson

elephantsarehangingout,anoutdoorstagewhereatheatertroupelistenstothetapeoftheprevious

participantsandthenactsoutthenextpartofthestorythemselves.Later,thevieweristransportedtoa

muaythaiboxingmatch,aresortwheretwoyoungmutewomenaddtheirpartsofthestorythrough

signlanguage,andfinally,aschoolwherechildrenbickeroverwhogetstofinishthetale.Ultimatelya

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boydecidesthattheboyalienisevil,soagoodaliensendsdowntigerstodevourhim.

Russellearlyonstates,“Indigenousethnography,alongwitharecognitionofalternativefilm

practicesproducedinnon­Westernculturesandbyminorityfilmmakers,isclearlyonewayofinverting

thesalvageparadigm,”andyetfollowsthatupbysaying,“Withinthearenaofethnographicfilm,

‘handingthecameraover’toanativefilmmakeroftensimplyperpetuatestherealistaestheticsthat

experimentalfilmformhasdislodged”(11).MysteriousObjectsresemblesthisidealindigenous

ethnographytoanextentduetoWeerasethakul’sownThaiheritage,andyethisacademicbackground

andhisclassprivilegeandtheuseoftheexquisitecorpsetechniquesituatesthefilminanoutsidertype

offrameworkwhereonequestionswhetherornotWeerasethakulisjustanothersalvagerhandingover

hiscamera.Theexperimentalmethod,however,whichbaresitsdevices,alsoworkstodislodgesthe

realistaestheticsthroughsurrealisteffects.

InathesiswrittenforanM.A.program,MatthewP.FerraridescribesWeerasethakul’s

functionas “acoordinatorandfacilitatorofcollectivestorytelling providingtheauthoringintent,butnot

thecontent,orevent”(21).Healsoqualifiesthefilmaslargelyoperatinginthe“evocativemode”of

representation­whatBillNicholsdescribesasan“alternativetofilmicrepresentation[which]maybe

describedasthe­fly­in­the­I[asopposedtofly­on­the­wallandfly­in­the­soup],inwhichthecamerais

usedtocommentonand‘deconstruct’westernconventionsofrepresentingother

cultures [exaggerating]reflexivitytoanextentwhereboundariesbetweenfictionandnon­fictionno

longerexist”(19).Ferrarimovesontofindwhatofthefilmavoidsrepresenting“others”inorderto

informanoutsideaudience.Butthereisnorealintentiontoinform.There’salackofintentionto

highlightanythinginparticularinitsobservationalmoments,Weerasethakulhimselfhavingstatedthat

MysteriousObjectisabout“nothingatall.”Butthisattitudearisesoutofhisrejectionofdocumentary

filmingeneral:

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“Idon’tbelieveindocumentaryasitisviewedformally.Idon’tbelieveinrealityinfilm.

Formethere’snoreality,becausefilmmakingisaveryaffectedmedium.Soevenwhat

youcalldocumentaryisnotrepresentingthetruth,becauseit’stoosubjectiveandyou

can’tcreateafilmtojustlookatcertainthings.SoIthinkthefilmsarejustmy

expressionofmylife,butitdoesn’tnecessarilymeanthetruth,orakindofassimilation

ofappreciationofbeingalive.ButIwouldn’tcallitdocumentary”(Quandt35­36).

Ferrariconcludesthatwhileonegathers“someobliqueknowledgeofThailand,somesenseofruralThai

idiomofstoriesandnarrative fromaveritébutincidentalmise­en­scène,”thatwhatthefilmultimately

revealstoaforeignaudienceis“themannerinwhichwe’vebecomeaccustomedtoreceivingconclusive

informationaboutanotherculturefromdocumentaries,usuallyforourownreference­forourcultural

pointofview”(22).Inaway,DogfahrintheDevil’sHandevadesadirectaccordancetothesalvage

paradigmbycreatingitsownconvolution,itsresistancetosalvaging.Itismoreofanevocationofthe

memoriesanddesiresofthecollaborators­turned­subjectsofthefilmthatissharedwithitsviewers,

ratherthanafilmmaker’sallegoricalconstructiondesignedtoconferspecificanthropological

information.Inturn,theviewer’sownmemoriesanddesirescommunewiththoseofthefilm’ssubjects

throughcinemaintheageofvideo,“reinventedasasiteofdisappearance,loss,andmemory”(Russell

7).

InaninterviewthattookplaceatCannesin2012,Weerasethakuldescribedcinemaasbeing

“likeghosts.”Hesaidthatitdoesnotexistinthepresent.That:

“Itdoesn’texistbutisalsoquitesolidbecauseitcaptureswhatisdeadthere,onthespot.For

meghostsarereallysolid,isreallyreal,becausewhenIgrewup,ormanyyoungkidsevennow

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inThailandormanypartsoftheworld,aregrowingupwiththesemonstersorghoststhatare

reallytrue.Butovertheyearswhenyougetolder,itbecomesafiction.SoIamreallyinterested

inthisideaofchange;transformationofsomethingthatissolidandrealbecomingunrealasyou

getnewinformationinlife.So,moviesarethesame.Allaboutillusion,kindofareverseprocess

oftryingtocreaterealityoutoffiction Ithinkthatrealitydoesn’texistinthismomentand

cinemaisaveryobvioustooltoshowthis.Becausethroughtheprocessofediting,acting,and

panning,creatingthisillusion,itisveryobviousthatrealitydoesn’texist.It’sjustaboutpointof

view Buttomeit’sveryimportanttoworkonthisveryunimportanttooltoreflecton

somethingthatisreallysimplebutreallydeepatthesametime:thatlifeissolittle.”

Inthissense,heusescinemaasamediumthroughwhichhesalvagesthepastand,todifferent

degrees,reanimatesit.

Anaddeddimension,then,towhatWeerasethakultriestoconveyinhisfilmsisThailand’s

existenceasasiteofdisappearance,loss,andmemoryasitgoesthroughandresistsglobalization.Thus

thereisalwaysatensioninhisworkbetweenmultiplelayersofThailand’sculturalmemoryand

currency,expressedthroughfolkloricstories,Buddhism,memoriesofhissocialactors,hisown

memories,andthecountry’sfutureasalandandpeoplethatareprocessingglobalinfluence.After

analyzinghisfollowingfilm,BlissfullyYours,as“enactingareligiousaesthetic”byconnotingaBuddhist

worldview,FerrariagainbringsupthereadershipofWeerasethakul’sfilms,whichislargelyacinephile

foreignaudience.Hesays,“Ifthecentralorganizingbasisofethnographyistocommunicateoneculture

foranother,”outsideofThailand,“thentheculturalmysterieswhicharearguablythesourceofitscritical

successabroadcanbeunderstoodasdependentonafundamentallyethnographicstylerepresentingan

‘other’forforeignconsumption”(46).

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Dependentonthepatronageoftheinternationalartandfilmworld,Weerasethakulisunableto

fullytranscendtheethnographicparadigmasweknowit.However,itseemsasthoughsuchinstitutional

supportiswhatenableshimto,asmoreofaspiritualmediumratherthanasauteur,continuetoevolve

anexperimentalaestheticbywhichheallowsforareincarnationofauraticauthenticitytoliveinthe21st

Century.

TropicalMalady,afeaturefilmhecompletedin2004,deeplyconcernsitselfwith,broadly,the

society/naturedialectic.Thefilmbeginswithanintertitledisplayingaquote:“Allofusarebynaturewild

beasts.Ourdutyashumansistobecomeliketrainerstokeeptheiranimalsincheck,andeventeach

themtoperformtasksalientotheirbestiality.”Thefilmisdividedintotwothematicallyrelatedbutvery

distinctparts:thefirstbeingacasual,observationalindie­dramedyoftheburgeoningbutnever‘wholly

consummated’relationshipbetweenahipThaisoldiernamedKeng(BanlopLomnoi)andayoung

peasantnamedTong(SakdaKaewbuadee).Theotherisasparseandfocusedforayintothejungle,

whereasoldieragainplayedbyLomnoihuntsdownatigershamanghostplayedbytheKaewbuadee.

Asthecamerainanobservationalmodecasuallyfollowsthemastheyfolloweachotherthrough

differentquotidianscenes:citystreets,ruralroads,abrightlycoloredJazzercisesession,acavetemple

whereaBuddhaiscoveredinChristmaslightsthatplayChristmascarols,andinteractionswithTong’s

aunt,whoshowstheboysherceremonialgood­luckphallus.ThelasttimeKeng,thesoldier,andTong

seeeachother,theydismountfromlong,blissfulmotorcycleride,Tongpees,andtheysensuouslymake

outwitheachother’shandsbeforeTongdisappearsdownadarkforestroad.Thetwopartsareunited

bythetellingofafolktaleofashapeshiftingshamanthat,havingbeenshotasatiger,continuestohaunt

thejungleandfeedofflivestock.ThelastsceneinthefirsthalfisKengonTong’sbedalonelookingat

picturesofTongasheoverhearsTong’smothercomplainofanothercowmissing.Adislocatedvoice

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thatisprobablyTong’sremarksthatafootprintonthegroundishis.Thefilmgoesblackforawhileas

wearethrownintothenextpartofTropicalMalady,theenactmentofafolk­styletalethatexploresthe

society/naturedialecticallegoricallythroughthesubtleeroticdanceoftheSoldier(Lomnoi)andthe

TigerShaman(Kaewbuadeeformostofthetimeuntilhe’sanactualtigerattheend).Bothhunteach

otherthroughtheforestuntilfinallytheSoldieristoldbyatalkingmonkeythathemusteitherkillthe

shamaninordertofreehimfromthespiritworldorlethimdevourhimandbecomepartofhis.Thefilm

concludeswiththeSoldierstrippedofhissoldierliness,kneelinginajungleclearingandsubmittinghis

body,soul,andmemories,tothetiger­thelastframescrossfadeintoatraditionalillustrationofatiger

ghostshamanabsorbingthespiritofamankneeling.

Culturalparticulars(originatingfromdifferenttimes)likeshamanism,phallusidols,andBuddhist

templesareonlyreferredtointhefilmandneverexplained.Theysimplycoexistwiththerestofthe

contextandconsumeeachother.Althoughthestoryofthefilmisnominallyfiction,accordingto

Weerasethakul’sownstatementsofhisfilmmakingitisalsoadreamexpressionofrealisticimagesfrom

Thailand’spresentday.RosalindC.Morris,anthropologyprofessoratColumbiaUniversity,wrotea

bookafterstudyingspiritmediumshipinNorthlandThailandcalledModernityanditsMediumswhere

shedescribesthetraditionalpracticeasitchangesinthefaceoftheglobalmodern:

“Mediumshipdiscovereditsdoubleinphotographyandfounditsvalueinculture.Whatismeant

bysuchaformulaisnotsimplythatanewmetaphoricscameintothehandsofcultural

bricoleurs.Rather,northernThaisubjects,includingmediums,becamesubjectto,become

subjectsof,modernity.Inahistorythatseemsinretrospecttobebothwildlyimprobableand

eminentlypredictable,northernersweretransformedfromtheobjectsofascopicdesirein

whichtheywerelookedonandphotographedbyrelativelymobilecosmopolitansubjects,then

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askedtosignifybothlocalityandtraditioninastandardizedcode,untiltheyfinallyassumedthe

positionofcitizen­subjects.Inevitably,thismeantenactingthesameeconomiesofdesireand

visualconsumptioninrelationtoyetother,ethnicizedperipheries[.]Butitalsomeantthat

northernerswouldcometoinhabitthedeliriumofthenationandtotakeonthefunctionof

signifyingpastness”(237).

Thisconnectionisn’tbeingdrawnonlyformetaphoricalvalue,foritseemstohaveresonatedinmore

literalwayswithWeerasethakul’swork.AlbeitsubversiveandnonconformistwithinpopularThai

culture,whatitseemsheistryingtoshowandexploreiswhatMorrisstatesinthelastchapterofher

book:“Themessageofmediumshipbecomesmediumshipitself.”Shereflectsontheperformanceof

Chuchad,aspiritmedium:inbeing“stretchedtautbetweenthesetwounderstandingsofmediumship’s

representationalfunction:thatinwhichareferentialtruthcouldbetransmitted,andthatinwhichthemere

techniqueofitstransmissioncouldberegisteredagainandagain,torestoretheformer,hehadtomake

thelattervisible”(341­342).Yetagainthissuggeststhesameispossiblethroughfilmthatventuresinto

itsownreflexivityandsubjectivity,evenasit’sundoubtedlymediatedthroughproductionand

reproduction.

Theworkofcinemaintheageofmassmediaisperhapstochannelratherthanrecord ­

throughevocativemodesandexperimentationsinsubjectivity­culturalauthenticitiesintheirvarious

reincarnations,thewaythespiritmediumconnectsthesubjectsofcurrencytosubjectsofvariouspasts.

WorksCited

Ferrari,MatthewP.MysteriousObjectsofKnowledge:AnInterpretationofThreeFeatureFilms

byApichatpongWeerasethakulinTermsoftheEthnographicParadigm.Ohio:Ohio

University,2006.Internetresource.

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“MekongHotel­AnInterviewwithApichatpongWeerasethakul.”Interviewerunknown.Sentieri

Selvaggi,viaYoutube,27May2012.Internetresource.

Morris,RosalindC.InthePlaceofOrigins:ModernityandItsMediumsinNorthernThailand.

Durham,NC:DukeUniversityPress,2000.Print.

Quandt,James.ApichatpongWeerasethakul.Vienna:Filmmuseum­SynemaPublications,2009.Print.

Russell,Catherine.ExperimentalEthnography.Durham,NC:DukeUniversityPress,1999.Print.

Weerasethakul,Apichatpong,dir.MysteriousObjectatNoon.NewYork:Plexifilm,2003.DVD.

Weerasethakul,Apichatpong,dir.TropicalMalady.NewYork:StrandReleasing,2005.DVD.

Weerasethakul,Apichatpong,dir.SyndromesandaCentury.NewYork:StrandReleasing,2007.

DVD.