Shapeshifter: Close-Up on Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s "Mysterious Object at Noon"

As the cliché by now goes, the Thai director's debut feature is itself a mysterious object. Where to begin?
Michael Pattison

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) is playing January 2 - 31, 2017 in the United Kingdom.

Mysterious Object at Noon

“My story is not really connected. I just made it up in an instant.”

Mysterious Object at Noon 

“Too much like a game. You should at least have a script.”

Mysterious Object at Noon

Once upon a time, dot dot dot. As beginnings go, the silent cinema-style intertitle that opens Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s debut feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, is especially apposite. In terms of both action and theme, the ellipsis is everything: its promise of adventure structures our suspension of disbelief into the very premise of the film. Go with this, it suggests. Or come. The fiction into which it accelerates us is simultaneously one that has already happened and one we have yet to hear. Mixed tenses, and tensions, abound: we fluctuate, continually, between tones, registers, modes. As the cliché by now goes, Apichatpong’s film is itself a mysterious object. Where to begin?

Fittingly enough, I came in somewhere near the middle: of two asymmetrical halves. 5 January 2008. Eight years after Mysterious Object at Noon premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and seven years from the present moment: a trip to my local independent cinema to catch a screening of Syndromes and a Century, the fourth feature credited to Apichatpong as sole director (The Adventure of Iron Pussy, a musical action comedy completed in 2003, was co-directed with Michael Shaowanasai).

I loved Syndromes: the quiet hilarity, the gentle repetitions, that increasingly ominous advance through the empty corridors of a hospital basement; and its inexplicably upbeat coda. In the years since, however, proceeding through Apichatpong’s oeuvre has been, on my part, a regrettably sluggish process, one without any real method or commitment (I still haven’t seen his most recent feature, Cemetery of Splendor). It’s been regrettable because, in the gaps between viewing the Thai’s films, one can forget just how weirdly singular they are, how inimitable. I have allowed the poor imitations that have emerged following Mysterious Object to cloud my critical judgment.

One forgets, indeed, the very things that one once deemed unforgettable. In December 2010, I described Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as “a playful sort of ‘anti-drama’ in which otherwise outrageous narrative events are treated with simultaneous sincerity and whimsy.” I appreciated, very much, how “its frank, observational warmth was loaded with a sense of what may or may not be ‘doom’ (its low-volume bass accompanies scenes of characters interacting long enough for us to find its menace rather absurd and good-humored).” And I loved how “its ever-present natural ambience imbues a pantheism across unconnected ‘parallel realities’ and an ambiguity fiercely retained and encouraged through their matter-of-fact presentation.” 

These were, as I discovered recently, observations eerily applicable from the start. Joe, as Apichatpong has become affectionately known, is the kind of artist whose individual films, riffs on a theme, all fit—to lesser and greater degrees—the more general descriptions by which critics define his work. Describe one and you might be perceived as talking about another. His first feature, in retrospect, can be seen as a kind of tentative blueprint: it teems with good-humored absurdity, with an ever-present naturalism, with parallel realities and suggestions, here and there, of doom—or at least something resembling menace—all held together by a single cinematic style. 

The participatory nature of Joe’s first feature is testament to the strength of his artistic vision. At once easygoing and difficult to follow, Mysterious Object’s structure employs the corps exquis technique, first advanced by André Breton and the French Surrealists: a meaning-making game by which a sentence or picture is formed from individual units, each of which is contributed by someone with minimal or partial access to what the preceding whole looks like. Shot across three years on black-and-white 16mm and a shoestring budget, the film favors neither fiction nor documentary as its default narrative format. Put another way, that this film has Apichatpong’s stamp at all tells us something about his stylistic confidence and formal mastery. This is the work of a natural shapeshifter, an artist most comfortable when trading in slippages.

Its first slippage is immediate. If the onscreen text (“Once upon a time…”) suggests a familiar folkloric form, like the opening signature of the Star Wars films, the first images of Apichatpong’s film seem to act as a counterbalance. Traveling shots, filmed from a moving vehicle with vérité urgency, navigate an urban terrain that is too particular, too contemporary, to backdrop some oral legend of yore. And on it goes, like that highway sequence of interstitial zones that marks a shift between worlds in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. We negotiate an exit ramp, move into the stop-start rhythms of cluttered Bangkok backstreets. A phantom ride: as if the camera itself is searching for something to fixate upon.

When the vehicle stops, when the camera is finally able to rest upon concrete details in the surrounding locale, we spend some time with a woman who is in the middle of recounting her past (life): being sold to an aunt and uncle by her own father. “Do you have any other stories to tell us?” asks Apichatpong off-screen, as if this autobiography was itself made up. “It can be real or fiction.” Encouraged to conjure something, there and then, the woman leaves us with a scenario, of a teacher—later named Dogfahr—caring for a paraplegic boy: “Let’s say there was a house. There was a disabled boy and a teacher who came to teach him everyday…” 

This is less a story than a scenario, one that extends and expands, snippet by snippet, as Apichatpong and his crew travel across Thailand—Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Pisanulok, Khon Kaen, Panyi Island—indexing a geography of collaboration (“These simple things the Siam people do”). Switching between its “storytellers” and the filmed enactments of their narrative contributions, Mysterious Object is an experiment in morphology. In its collaborative nature, in its pluralistic embrace, it dismantles the very notion of conventional authorship. 

This is not merely false modesty on Apichatpong’s part. His film is a document of narratorial strategies: written, oral, signed, musical, cinematic. It is, in a key respect, about dealing with the hand you’re dealt: by way of imagination, or imaginative acts. Storytelling becomes less a way of escaping the present, here, than a way of coming to terms with an ineluctably inherited past. Each new chapter is constrained by the story so far: and so creativity, a means of unmooring oneself from narrative expectations, becomes a kind of survival mechanism. For the storytellers, the sense of personal joy attached to (and gleaned from) these improvised additions to the unfolding story is sharp and clear.

Transmutation is the radical necessity upon which Apichatpong’s project insists. Somewhere beneath its thick cloak of meanings, we find a statement of intent. It comes when one narrator, an elderly woman, is confronted with the age-old question of how to overcome a narrative dead-end. She asks if the spherical object that falls from the teacher Dogfahr’s skirt—an utterly bonkers development concocted by one of her predecessors—can become another child. Doppelgangers, sex changes, extraterrestrial life forms and witch tigers follow. And the director replies, encouragingly: “Anything you want.” 

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