Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
In dramatic cinema we are constantly being met with the moment when everything falls into place. Sometimes this is accomplished through a gradual building up of narrative steam or the sudden onslaught of “the twist.” Either way, our outlying concerns for the welfare of the given film's characters and our enthusiasm (ranging from ecstatic to stupefied) for the film's mystery are neatly wrapped up. We have even come to expect this kind of neatness (perhaps even more so) in documentary films. So you'll understand what I mean when I say that it as much a relief as a frustration to meet a film that wraps nothing up; that lays itself bare (or at least seems to) for the repressed scrutiny of an audience not altogether comfortable with this kind of candid behavior. I use these active verbs to stress how Mysterious Object at Noon, the debut full length documentary from Apichatpong “”Just Call Me Joe” Weerasethakul, engages with its audience as a means of locating an abstracted understanding of itself both as a film and as a representative of Weerasethakul's home country of Thailand.
Mysterious Object is a conceptual piece of documentary filmmaking. The film is based on the Surrealist parlor game Exquisite Corpse wherein a small group will build an illustration piecemeal usually resulting in an abstract representation of collective psychic continuity. One person draws along part of the paper then covers their drawing leaving only a line trailing down to where the next person will sketch. In Weerasethakul's film he and his film crew travel across their native Thailand asking people to tell a small section of an apparently invented folkloric tale. Intercut into these serenely earnest moments is Weerasethakul's no-budget visual translation of each teller's tale. As it it stands this is an unremarkable albeit faintly clever concept and stretching it to 85 minutes might have been an unfortunate choice were it not for Weerasethakul's own natural gifts as a story teller.
Using the documentary footage and stagey adaptation as a base, the director assembles an unconventional collage of relationships. The story tellers become linked to their creations through the call and response style editing. The tellers also link themselves to the personal memories which inform their take on the film's story; those memories themselves greatly affected by Thailand's history. The film crew becomes linked to the story tellers and often engage with them from behind the camera. The film crew too becomes engaged with the non-professional actors who are used to visualize the evolution of this modern day folk tale. Slowly a world begins to form one that is both highly autonomous and frighteningly at odds with reality. This reality, the internal contradiction of how Thailand has viewed itself cinematically throughout history vs. how the "other half" has lived and continues to live there, is at the center of Weerasethakul's beating heart of a film.
The tale told is one of transformation and hidden identity. A young crippled boy is looked after by a caring teacher who one day unleashes from within her a “mysterious object” that becomes a young boy with the ability to transform into anyone he likes. The teacher is revived and the crippled boy must choose between the teacher and the magical young boy who is impersonating her. He chooses the teacher. Allegorically speaking the tale's meaning is as clear as day: though it may look and sound the same, Thailand's portrayal in cinema is not only at odds with its true identity but must be rejected in order for the country to reconcile itself and move forward. If this is the case one might guess that the tale's crippled boy is none other that Weerasethakul himself, a filmmaker unable to get his films screened in his home country due to unfortunate censorship laws that deems his films “unfit” for Thailand's Nationalist cinema.
Though highly interpretive, Mysterious Object at Noon instills in the viewer a feeling of interconnectivity and unity despite its abstractions. If the tale told in the film and the fragmented means by which it is told is in fact the story of the Thai people then one might assert that the melancholy that begins the film and the youthful playfulness that ends it imply an optimistic outlook. There is no doubt that Weerasethakul is a humanist and a director unlikely to abandon his home in the quest for notoriety. The film he has given us, built out of the shattered pieces of a country rich with love and ripe with suffering, is in turns somber, joyous, absurd, cruel, hopeful and most of all beautiful.