Friday, April 08, 2011


New Year in Thailand is something of a joke, i.e. ‘which one’? Never one to sit out a party, Thailand celebrates them all, the international farang (western) one on Jan. 1, the Chinese lunar-calendar moveable feast in February, and an ancient one, Khmer-derived I think, in November (which many people don’t seem to even know about). But the main one, hands down, occurs on April 13-15 (it seems like forever up north), and is better known amongst foreigners as the Water Festival. Wear protection. Buddhist-oriented and tied to the Indian astrological calendar, ‘Thai’ New Year thus spreads across borders and into neighboring country’s ‘Tai’ and other communities, including Laos, where it’s known as ‘Lao New Year’ and Kampuchea, where it is known as ‘Khmer New Year’ (but NOT ‘the water festival’, since they already have another). Well, as fate would have it, it even spreads across the ocean to Hollywood Blvd., between Western and Normandie. We can do without the water over here, thank you, but otherwise it’s much the same- time to reunite with family and renew your vows with the holy men from the local temple, ask them to bless your existence and consecrate your life. The fact that it is days earlier than the ‘real’ one back home doesn’t seem to bother anyone, since the meaning’s the same. This IS America, after all… and this is my LA.

I think I met Apichatpong Weerasetthakul at the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival back in Dec. 1999. I’m not sure because we were never really introduced and the meeting wasn’t all that memorable, not because he wasn’t the hottest thing in foreign indie films at the time- which he WASN’T- but because the guy is so quiet and low-key. In fact, when I first became aware of Apichatpong’s work in 1994 with the release of Sut Pralat (which does NOT translate to ‘Tropical Malady’ btw) and read that he was one of the honchos of BEFF, I assumed he was the gregarious and outspoken character that I remembered most distinctly, until I googled his picture a couple weeks ago and had a little aha moment, i.e. aha! That’s the other guy! If I remember correctly, Apichatpong was maybe more interested in me, in fact, than I in him, simply because I was the only- ONLY- farang (westerner) who showed up at the temple of experimental film every day, living and breathing it, just like religion. He seemed quite taken by that fact. I’d like to think that I shot up a little flag that influenced his career right then and there, that instead of busting his hump to make lame-ass ghost films that might appeal to a few million Thais, he could make some really good artsy ghost films that might appeal to a few million farangs- like me- around the world. If you were an artist, which would YOU rather do, make good films or bad ones?

With all due respect to J. Hoberman and his characterization of Apichatpong as “the acme of no-budget, Buddhist-animist, faux-naïve, avant-pop, magic neorealism” (whew!), I’d like to propose maybe a minor correction or two. Apichatpong IS an artist, a consummate one, but he’s NOT naïve, not at all, and he’s definitely not faux. He’s Thai. Though he was educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago - and so knows exactly what is good art and what is not- he is still quintessentially Thai. He is quintessentially Thai in the same way that Fellini is quintessentially Italian or Eastwood is quintessentially American (and yes, Clint Eastwood is a great director, one of America’s greatest). He defines the nationality by his characters, and in turn defines his characters by their nationality. He could even be seen as the anti-Fellini or the anti-Clint, where, instead of all these people with all these dreams doing this or that with Clint, or all hell breaking loose- picturesquely- with Federico, almost nothing happens overtly in Apichatpong’s films, at least not in any particular direction, yet at the same time one is swept up into it, subtly engrossed by it, and ultimately liberated by it.

This is the dark side, and that’s not bad. The dark side is beautiful, alluring, irrational, and superstitious- especially superstitious- but not bad. On the dark side everything is the opposite of the ‘real’ world. Our Christian democratic proactive cost-effective positive-thinking fashion-forward work-ethic equation (cause 1+ cause 2= effect) falls flat on its face in this dimension, not for any special reason, but for the absolute lack of it. That’s the equation, get it? Hang that ‘=’ anywhere you like and it’s all the same, i.e. sh*ts happen. Whether this is due to the ultimate passivity of Buddhism or not is not important. In this dimension the fact that anybody accomplishes anything, is not only NOT a miracle, it’s a lie. Things are accomplished, present passive reflective, but the who what why are frequently murky. Save those w’s for your URL. The only truth is in your belief, not the chronology of occurrences. And it ain’t faux. It’s real.

When two hundred aerobicists dance to pop music in the park in Syndromes and a Century (or whatever they called it), that is not magico-realistic staging, that’s Thailand. When a dozen different characters say the same thing over and over and over, that’s not existential reiteration. That’s Thailand… and the list goes on. But it doesn’t matter if no one really understands Apichatpong, as long as they accept his reality as accurate… and beautiful, within its own terms. For within it all is vindicated- Thailand, Buddhism, Asia, the power of the empty hand, me- for having spent ten years of my life there, never sure of who I was fooling- and ultimately, all of us, living our pathetic little lives in what should be a state of at least heightened expectation, if not exalted bliss. I only regret that I missed my chance to suck up to Apichatpong when I had it… but that’s not the Buddhist way… or is it? He obviously didn’t need the encouragement, but I did.

Apichatpong’s new movie is called ‘Uncle Boonmee Remembers His Past Lives’. It won Palm d’Or at Cannes last year. No, I haven’t seen it yet, since I refuse to spend half the day going to Santa Monica and back. I’m too busy trying to finish the final draft to Pancho and Lefty. I’ll wait for Netflix to send it to me. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t, though. Who knows? Something good might happen. That IS the essence of Buddhism, after all, at least Thai-style. Do good things and good things will happen to you, sooner or later, somehow some way, hopefully in this lifetime, pure if not simple. Save your money on the summer retreat. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the critics ‘get’ Apichatpong or not… as long as they give him the thumb up. Thailand has found its Jarmusch, if not its Del Toro. Let’s call it ‘imagino-realism’. That sounds more realistic.

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