The construction of a narrative may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one considers the beguiling cinema of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Indeed, such matters seem irrelevant and even a little uncouth when contemplating his particular form of poetic transcendence – but when ‘Joe’ started out, the construction of narrative was his opening premise. Adopting the surrealist storytelling game of the exquisite corpse, he set about travelling Thailand to stitch together something approximating a shared national dreamscape, something that he continues to pursue to this day.
The result was his inventive, peculiar debut Mysterious Object at Noon which now receives a glorious Blu-ray release courtesy of Second Run’s recent development into high definition. It’s an interesting film to see presented in restoration; its graining monochrome 16mm photography is a far cry from the emphatic visual splendour and painterly quality of their first Blu-ray, Pedro Costa’s Horse Money. The scratchy imagery could well be said to evoke a nostalgic quality but even more so it calls into relief the contradictions and dualities of Weerasethakul’s work. Although his following films are all famous for their two-part structure (adopted here but to a far lesser extent) it is perhaps the dialogue between documentary and fiction, between fantasy and reality, that is most pressing.
Weerasethakul has said that shooting Mysterious Object obliterated his understanding of what the distinction between the two labels is, and the very nature of that blurred boundary is what makes his first feature so fascinating. This is most readily apparent in his setup which involves trooping off to various parts of his homeland, both urban and rural, to meet real individuals and speak to them about their lives. No sooner is that done, however, that they are asked to recount another story – one being invented, section by section, by themselves. In the case of his first interviewee, the director actually verbally interjects in her own moving account of how her father sold her for bus tickets to ask to tell another tale which he then recounts with actors. That story is of a tutor, Dogfahr, to a wheelchair-bound boy who discovers an unidentified orb, which transforms into an alien boy. The fact that this story continues in a similar vein from there beautifully informs the seamless boundary between life and death, between the mundane and the otherworldly that have inhabited Weerasethakul’s oeuvre subsequently.
While calling Mysterious Object a traditional documentary would be disingenuous, the director has argued that it performs the same function and he playfully crosses the line between his reportage and re-enactment by reconstituting observational footage into the fictional account of Dogfahr and the two boys. The fantastical elements are no less important to understanding the people and culture of Thailand than the repeated references to children sold or the bustling crowds at a market stall. So many thematic and tonal elements of Weerasethakul’s later, more celebrated films, are evident in Mysterious Object at Noon that it would be easy to consider as a formative exercise alone, but even as he began to explore these fertile soils, he was creating a work of captivating and arresting beauty.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson