Art Review: Primitive by Apichatpong WeerasethakulPhantoms of Nabua
by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
BFI Southbank until July 3
Chroma Launch event July 2
It’s not every issue of Chroma that has an image by a Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker on the cover. Maybe it’s the Utopia theme, but there is a significant serendipity that brings the magazine together with Apichatpong Weerasethakul (known to his English-speaking friends and fans as Joe) the winner at this year’s Cannes Festival for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which has as multiple an origin as any queer utopia could wish. Chroma launches at the BFI on Friday 2nd July, the penultimate day to see Apichatpong’s Phantoms of Nabua in the Gallery (free entry). Part of a project that included a spaceship, a Monkey Ghost, reincarnation and adolescent sexuality and, as political protest, Phantoms of Nabua echoes many of the themes found in our Utopia issue.
During an on-stage conversation at the BFI (which he nearly couldn’t attend due to the closure of the British Embassy in Thailand during the red-shirt protests, and due to the Home Office’s highly restrictive artist visa rules – reminders that we live far short of utopia) shortly after his win at Cannes, Apichatpong said that he’d become interested in Boonmee as a teenager, after hearing about him from a priest in Khon Kaen where he grew up. It was when he travelled to the village of Nabua, in the Isan province in the north-east of Thailand, that Apichatpong was reminded of Boonmee, a resident of Isan. His interest in Boonmee was, literally, reincarnated through his work with the young men of Nabua, a generation raised fatherless after an infamous conflict. As Apichatpong notes, “This small village was one of the places the Thai army occupied from the 60s to the early 80s to curb the communist insurgents. The soldiers erected a base to administer the villagers' daily activities. The locals were psychologically and physically abused on the grounds of withholding information. Women were raped. Some were murdered in their homes. Consequently, the villagers, mostly farmers, ﬂed into the jungle. Most of them didn't understand the word Communism though they were accused of being communists,” leading to the gun battle that sparked a long-running conflict. Working over several months with the young men, Apichatpong created PRIMITIVE, a video installation that fuses their relationship with their absent fathers (and with the current Thai government) with the story of Boonmee’s reincarnations.
PRIMITIVE itself has been incarnated in multiple forms: as a multi-film installation, as an online installation at Animate Projects, one of the co-producers, and as a limited-edition artist’s book created by CUJO, an artist’s book magazine series that’s part of Edizioni Zero, Milan. CUJO kindly gave Chroma permission to reproduce two images and two short texts from this black-and-red book that combines fragmentary diary entries, film scripts, excerpts from the Boonmee book and sketches of the Monkey Ghost to accompany the black-and-white (and red-and-black) photographs taken during the making of the short films in Nabua. While Apichatpong’s work has a deserved reputation for a whimsical, dreamy, often erotic, gentleness, here the political subtext of his work – or rather, the way that his political intelligence is compatible, and entwined with, his lyrical sensibility – becomes visible. Opposite a brush-and-ink drawing of what might be a volcano stands the text: “They then became victims of Field Marshal Sarit Dhanarajata’s Article 17.” Flares shoot up brilliantly white into huge night skies in some photographs. Young men in military uniform mug for the camera – are they performers, or soldiers? Isan is a poor province, and many of the young men have joined the army that fired on their fathers. According to Apichatpong, some of the young men he worked with were stationed in Bangkok during the recent protests, and faced the possibility of being ordered to shoot protestors, history repeating itself as if the hauntings that Apichatpong had staged in Nabua for PRIMITIVE were coming, perversely, to life.
Premiered at the Haus der Kunst in Munich at the end of the Berlin Film Festival last year, PRIMITIVE travelled to FACT in Liverpool, and one film – Phantoms of Nabua, a haunting late-night jungle excursion marked by flares and a fireball, a film at once teenage kicks and traumatic echo – is currently screening in the Gallery at the BFI. The young soldier-actors appear again here to viewers lounging on the floor in the dark, an unusual position for public film viewing in the Western world. There are boys kicking a fire-ball, watching a giant screen, playing a war/game under a blinding sodium light. The lines between sport and battle, between making a movie and re-opening a conflict, are deliberately blurred as the film interrogates the conventions of the Hollywood war movie (including some explosive special effects), and particularly the jungle-set Vietnam movie, to produce a very different portrait of the male psyche.
It’s impossible not to see, in the films of boys running joyfully/angrily through the streets, or playing sweetly/bored-to-aggression by the river, a queer sensibility – nowhere more than in the burning red night-vision light of desire that illuminates and shadows the young men sleeping in the balsa-wood spaceship that they built in a field as part of the project. These saturated images, reproduced stunningly in the CUJO book, glow with a particular intensity that shows an utterly original artist fusing a new kind of queer cinema: one in which the politics of desire and the desires of politics are utterly entwined. Utopias don’t come easily: like the spaceship, which never takes off but instead becomes an unofficial youth hang-out and sleepover, they have to be fashioned and they never quite function as they’re supposed to. In Apichatpong’s vision, utopia is not created through the drive towards a better future, but by return, reincarnation, reproduction. It’s hard not to be haunted by these irresistible ghosts – and, of course, by the fact that Uncle Boonmee is the only Palme d’Or-winning film ever to feature a princess having sex with a talking catfish.
Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at http://www.sophiemayer.net/