It's an off-the-wall film that doesn't work. I admire it, but it's too incoherent to avoid being a struggle.
It's an experimental semi-documentary that's turning oral storytelling into a movie. Apichatpong Weerasethakul and a volunteer film crew travelled through Thailand for three years, asking people they met to continue a story that had been made up by their predecessors. Most of them talk. One group actually acts it out for the cameras, as improvised amateur dramatics.
Weerasethakul then edited this footage into the movie, also including:
(a) his own dramatic reconstructions of the story, sometimes using the narrator as a voiceover and occasionally turning their words into intertitles.
(b) his narrators, on-camera.
(c) behind-the-scenes footage of the making of his own film, for instance as he decides to do another take and a small boy asks if he can go home after they've finished this scene. At one point we see three people who might be producers, of whom one says, "Too random; you should have had a script."
(d) news footage
(e) a train
Okay, I like elephants. However this is wilfully messy. It's all in black-and-white and there's no attempt to distinguish anything from anything else, so it'll often take you a moment to work out whether you're looking at the narrators or a reconstruction of their fictions. The news footage is visibly old and more damaged film stock, but otherwise Weerasethakul is simply throwing disconnected scenes at us and giving us no help in our efforts to decipher them.
Thus we begin with a woman telling us terrible things about her life. "You can have my daughter in exchange for the bus fare." Then, just as she's in tears, someone off-camera asks her to tell us a story. It can be true or fictional. I boggled, of course. I wanted to hear this woman telling us what had happened to her next, but that's not what Weerasethakul's after. Thus our improvised story begins, involving a boy in a wheelchair and his teacher. This is dramatised, so we see the characters in front of us. This continues until an old lady starts discussing bananas and forgets her train of thought.
Yes, that was my reaction too. We've jumped to another narrator, of course.
There are occasional scenes that I still haven't nailed down, such as the scene in the doctor's office. Was that a real doctor that Weerasethakul liked and put in the film? Who knows? It's a nice scene, though, with fun character work involving the teacher and the old deaf guy. I particularly liked the bit in which our teacher complains to the doctor about a line on her neck and is told that she's allergic to her necklace and should stop wearing it, only to respond with, "I believe it brings me luck." Uh-huh. The doctor doesn't argue and just writes her a prescription. That's a fun little character beat, but it gets a sequel later when the teacher phones up the doctor again to complain once about this line on her neck! That deserves some kind of stupidity prize, surely?
My guess is that that was part of the ongoing fiction, but if so then Weerasethakul must have struck subtle, understated gold with his latest narrator.
The problem with the improvised story is that it's just not up to much. It's okay as far as it goes, but there's not nearly enough of it for a TV episode, let alone a feature film. It lacks narrative impetus, obviously. It's the storytelling equivalent of a collage of doodles and I bet much of it could have been (and probably was) edited into any order. It has its moments, but shortly after the one-hour mark I'd have probably ditched the film if I hadn't had less than twenty minutes to go. My favourite narrators were some small children in a classroom, who blew me away with gems like these:
"The mysterious boy is an alien."
"But there was another tiger. It jumped at her and ate her."
"He also gave him a magic sword to fight with the alien boy."
No, what's interesting about this film is its focus on the storytellers. Oral storytelling is an art we've almost forgotten in the West, especially if you're sitting in a cinema. Here though, we're being regaled with stories from absolutely anyone Weerasethakul happened to meet while wandering through Thailand. These people have character. Two are deaf and tell their story in sign language, for instance. I was also impressed by the amateur dramatics, complete with a love song (!) and musical accompaniment from a man who appears to have a biplane's propellor in his mouth. It's enormous. It sounds rather good.
I'd love to see more directors attempt this mad idea, even if I occasionally struggled to keep watching here. Cinema by oral storytelling is an amazing idea. Unfortunately I suspect the goal might be unattainable, at least by conventional definitions of cinema as understood today in the West, but I'd be willing to sit through a few noble failures. Wouldn't it be glorious if they succeeded? Even here I think Weerasethakul sometimes does, although not consistently.
I think there's something about Thailand. It would be silly for me to generalise from my tiny viewing sample to date, but I'm still running into patterns. From the Philippines in 2000 I've seen two cinematic biographies that combine drama and historical documentary. From Thailand, as well as wildly entertaining mainstream fare (The Iron Ladies
), so far I've seen two offbeat experiments unlike anything else I know (this and Tears of the Black Tiger). Admittedly both were largely ignored at the domestic box office and I wouldn't personally call either entirely successful, but they still hiccoughed forth and they're both odd. I need to see more Thai films.
If nothing else, this was the debut film of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has a habit of winning awards at Cannes. So far they've given him the Un Certain Regard prize for Blissfully Yours (2002), the Prix du Jury for Tropical Malady (2004) and the Palme d'Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), about which I've heard enough good things for it to be in my "to watch" queue. More importantly though he also made The Adventure of Iron Pussy (2003), a transvestite parody of action films, musicals and melodramas that's become a cult film at gay and lesbian film festivals. That's going on my list too.
This film can be a bit of a slog, but I love Weerasethakul for trying to make it. Its original Thai title translates as Heavenly Flower in Devil's Hand, by the way. By all means check it out. Just make sure you've got a few friends over and aren't afraid to start having a discussion when what's on screen starts drifting a bit.