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Cover Stories Series 2013> Chinese Movies Threatened by Hollywood> Archive
UPDATED: November 22, 2011 Web Exclusive
Brimming Waters
A Thai director presents his latest work in Beijing

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (NATALIE STRASBOURG)

Today, Thailand is drowning.

Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul, the country's star auteur, has been documenting those brimming waters for years. But this fall the tides reached new heights and ravaged the Palme d'Or-winning director's hometown of Bangkok, leaving its factories floundering, at least 500 citizens dead and many more homeless. As that flood fails to ebb Apichatpong dries his tears and embarks to Beijing's UCCA art gallery for an unveiling of a multimedia documentary dubbed For Tomorrow, For Tonight. The exhibit, scheduled before the disaster, couldn't be more timely; it tells the true story of Jenjira, a young Thai girl who nearly drowns again and again on the overflowing banks of the Mekong River, as if to foreshadow the capital's current crisis.

"Interestingly, I was into the water issue before this massive flooding arose," Apichatpong said, in an exclusive with Beijing Review, about the regularly overflowing rural Thai rivers that inspired his latest project. "The current situation opens my eyes about details in our coexistence with water. It is like our blood gone awry, like a disaster movie with a lesson."

Jenjira's struggle serves to symbolize that tide. In the UCCA exhibits' documentary shorts she waits, slumped in her mildewed abode on the river's swelling edge, for a vital femur operation after a motorcycle accident years before. Earlier this year, Apichatpong ventured to visit his maimed friend and her sleepy, wallowing town.

"Along the river there are the dams that generate electricity. These dams cause the water to rise and drown the plains… all the way to Cambodia," Apichatpong wrote of the film's saturated setting in an official statement released earlier this fall by the gallery, which went on to say:

"I visit her (Jenjira) often, like now when the river has just receded after massive flooding. There are waterline traces on the walls of her house. She said that they were the water's memory."

Apichatpong will explore those fragmented recollections in For Tomorrow, For Tonight with a mural of photographs and a haunting background soundtrack that accompanies the looping short films, the latter framed on the gallery's walls like paintings that have leapt to life. The exhibit will be housed in UCCA's grand Middle Room from November 26 to February 12 as part of the art center's fourth anniversary to create what Apichatpong called "… a compressed reality of dreams."

Most of the short films being screened at the exhibit, like Goodnight Jenjira - Living Room, focus on the crippled girl's ragged shack, which deeply contrasts with the vibrantly thunderous river that laps at its foundation. A UCCA press release for the event said "Together the artwork transforms the exhibition into a lyrical atmosphere of intense clarity, where even the very night becomes clearly visible."

"I just imagine that the water is the witness of what was going on in the house, before and after she arrived, and the future," Apichatpong said. "Every few years the water comes back to trace its lines, to update the stories. The floods bring hardship to the area but also clear the junk, physically and spiritually. People restart again."

That may be true, but it doesn't make the waves any less overpowering. In a way, Apichatpong's characters have always been floundering, reaching for the surface from strangely unseen depths, their every gasp a struggle. One of his first conventional films with a Thai setting was 2002's Blissfully Yours. It told the story of Min, a character afraid of dialogue or speaking at all, because of his status as a Burmese illegal immigrant who couldn't speak Thai. Apichatpong said he more than understands the shrivelled silences imposed by much of his countrymen.

"I used to feel inferior because I was from the northeast, or because I was Asian, or I was gay. But that's the past," he noted.

Over the years he managed to cope with the prejudices laid against him, in part, by making taboo films. He followed up Blissfully Yours by co-directing 2003's The Adventure of Iron P****, a spy spoof about a transvestite secret agent. Apichatpong followed that up a year later with Tropical Malady, which touches on everything from a tiger shaman, to a solider lost in the wilderness, to a gay romance between an officer and a civilian. But his most successful, and metaphorical, depiction of Thailand's fringe edges was 2010's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, for which the director received the Palme d'Or prize at the Cannes Films Festival.

One of Uncle Boonmee's early key scenes involves the title character's only living relative gaping at the ghosts and reincarnated ape seated with her at the dinner table. Before long she declares "I feel like the strange one here."

A film critic at indiewire.com was one of many to praise the movie, writing "The magic of Uncle Boonmee is that it makes all viewers feel like the strange ones."

That's the sort of bizarre accolade that Apichatpong values more than an Oscar.

"It has an inertia affected by the past," he said of the movie which is, in essence, a ghost story lauded for its nightmarish subtleties that nearly inflict déjà vu. "(It's) like trying to remember one's own experience, cinema, television - nothing is perfectly vivid. I hope that the audience can feel this force of distant familiarity. I guess that's where the strangeness comes from."

Such art house films are far from mainstream, but Apichatpong said he longs to create something even more unconventional. For him, that was the beauty of the For Tomorrow, For Tonight exhibit.

"It was more enjoyable because I could do whatever, 10 hours or 10 seconds," he said of the boundless project. "There were no producers, no commissioners. There was only us on set, enjoying living together."

And regardless of the technicalities, Apichatpong said the true liberation lies in a project's themes.

"This project is more personal. I want to express my love for Jenjira, my actress and her house by the river. I visited her several times over the past and this project is simply the way to remember it. Hopefully in the future it (the project) will grow more and more in various forms. I like the light there, so I keep visiting the place to see how her leg has healed."

Apichatpong added that he will continue to visit the percolating Mekong setting in his future films, like an upcoming 50 minute special for Arte television featuring a high tempo, lively non-stop soundtrack - a huge departure for a director who normally doesn't listen to music.

As an artist praised for the strangeness of his work, Apichatpong credits For Tomorrow, For Tonight, as a means for him to wade into even weirder waters.

"I feel that this exhibition is a first step, first satellite of a larger something."

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