Weerasethakul’s debut stands as a fascinating, consistently surprising document, one that clearly prefigures the greatness to come.
The contemporary art-cinema food chain, through which a world’s worth of movies are filtered into festival contention and then absorbed into the diffuse bloodstream of international distribution, is by now a clearly stratified system. To enter it, would-be auteurs are often compelled to craft an exotic, eye-catching debut, one aimed more at the tastes of a global intelligentsia than their own personal point of origin. This has created a tradition of films that attempt to package their settings and surrounding milieux in an alluring, novel fashion, replicating the probing gaze of the outsider while guiding viewers through specific intricacies of place. It’s a practice that now occurs everywhere – in keeping with the decentered, globalized perspective of this strange nexus of craft and commerce – but which seems especially prevalent in work hailing from countries with less exposure to Western audiences.
Although this convention was a lot less established at the time of the film’s 2000 release, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon in many ways hews to this template, taking the national temperature of his “Siamese” countrymen, while also appealing to a budding sense of the fantastic. Returning from a graduate stint at the Art Institute of Chicago, the young director seeks to synthesize certain key aspects of his native culture in a way that might make it legible to outsiders, while at the same time pursuing divergent aims, attempts at elucidation routinely undercut by a fascination with formal and narrative enigmas.
For an artist who continues to thread this kind of fine balance, pitching his homeland as a stunning realm of rare wonder while never dipping into rote whimsy, Mysterious Object functions as a fitting jumping-off point. Clearly the work of a filmmaker still finding his footing, it’s a curious mishmash of documentary and fiction techniques, assembling a wide variety of influences into an experiment that never entirely coheres, a failure that seems like an inevitable consequence of its freewheeling construction. True to its title, the film first stumbles through a languid midday haze before even attempting to explain itself, its Exquisite Corpse-derived story structure only gradually coming into focus.
Things kick off behind the wheel of a fish delivery truck, the camera pointing toward the road ahead, eventually abandoning this perspective to roam around the inside of the vehicle. A tinny speaker blares out a robotic refrain, technical shortcomings highlighted from the start. Shot on 16 millimeter stock and later blown up to 35, Mysterious Object’s images often look shabby, blown-out or damaged, apparently amateur qualities that actually belie a fine authorial touch. This use of these irregularities is purposeful, and of a piece with the film’s interest in baring its own seams; one notable scene caps off with the director himself entering the frame, removing a spurious light source while a child actor complains to him about being forced to do another take. The kid has comic books to read, the pull of another fiction drawing him from this present one further highlighting the fixation on storytelling as a stream made up of many currents, its fluid nature creating endless possibilities for how plot can progress.
The result here, arrayed across a sprawling story that lets a wide host of interview subjects determine where the tale will turn next, is something like a new form of folk legend, one shaped improvisationally on the fly. The ad-libbed approach to narrative places the director at the service of his subjects, the subsequent recreations of their riffs establishing him as a creative factotum in thrall to the whims of the public. This capacity is then further complicated by the fact that he maintains the ability to both fashion these depictions to his specific taste, and also to control how all of this is ultimately presented, in terms of staging, construction and final edit.
With it’s playful vacillation between fact and fiction and it’s blithe mixing of exoticism and everyday reality, Mysterious Object introduces many of the themes that will reappear in Apichatpong’s later work, specifically the idea of a porous border between the quotidian and the fantastical, a thin mesh through which the film can freely pass back and forth. There’s also an immediate emblem for the intertwined fact/fiction relationship in the motif of bodily marking, with mythical events grounding themselves through lasting imprints on the human form, be they radical mutations or mere nagging illnesses. The rash that crops up in his next movie, 2002’s Blissfully Yours, is presaged here by a painful red line, first diagnosed as chafing from a lucky necklace, which then spreads across the character’s back. In imagining the branding of traumatic events upon the body itself, Apichatpong further demonstrates how stories enmesh themselves in our minds, as well as how our mental states are largely dictated by the condition of our corporeal vessels.
This complex cinematic strategy, which presents Thailand as a magical wonderland but also a realistic, vivid place marked by a particular mixture of political and cultural history, makes for a sharp twist on the usual summation of local custom. A humble first feature that makes hay of it’s meager resources, the film incorporates creative methods to skirt the budgetary inability to perfectly comply with certain ideas. After one person suggests a flashback involving a plane shot down during a military conflict, Apichatpong pulls an end-around by presenting a frothy talk show interview about the incident, a brief foray into parody that further expands the film’s mischievous sense of play.
As things draw to a close, the entire story goes off the rails, a visit to an elementary school ceding control to group of children, who suggest more and more outlandish developments involving tigers and witches, most of which might actually make tonally suitable follow-ups with a little massaging. But instead of setting these flights of fancy down to celluloid, Apichatpong switches gears again, continuing to focus on the kids as they return to their games, settling down into the purely observational mode he’s toyed with throughout. Their play mirrors his own: idiosyncratic, optimistic, and innately open to all possibilities. While never as rich as his later work, the director’s debut stands as a fascinating, consistently surprising document, one that clearly prefigures the greatness to come.