Saturday, April 21, 2007




Cut to the quick


Now that online DVD vendors and the ubiquitous film festivals make it possible to see movies from just about everywhere, committed cinema addicts may feel that they are getting to the point where they have seen it all. Yes, this new director may be from Paraguay or Uzbekistan or some other country whose movies have previously been largely out of sight, but 15 minutes into his latest it's easy to see that he's been watching Tarkovsky or Bunuel or Kiarostami or Miike very closely and is wearing the borrowed technique like a badge.

So despite the huge variety of movies that are now within reach to anyone interested, film makers who are true originals are turning out to be rare. How fortunate for Thailand, then, that we have one of them right here in the person of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

As critics worldwide have noted in fascinated reviews, his movies resemble no others. Instead of playing the critic's game of silly comparisons - "like WG Sebald filmed by Aleksandr Sakurov" - they have been content to admit that they were simultaneously baffled and moved. Apichatpong's Tropical Malady appeared on a number of Year's Best lists, and his new film, Syndromes and a Century, judging from what has been written about it so far in the international press, will follow suit.

In my own case, after watching each of Apichatpong's main films, beginning with Mysterious Object at Noon, I have had the urge to immediately watch it again. The most recent two, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, feel to me like personal meditations whose full meaning will always be known only to the director himself, the same sense I get when watching Tarkovsky's Mirror. But as with that elusive masterpiece they cast an emotional spell that has nothing to do with what this or that detail or gesture "means".

The four movies by Apichatpong that I have seen so far are works of art that will do far more to enhance foreign perception of Thailand's culture than any overstuffed, over-ornamented, elephant-infested spectacle of imagined Thai history. But what is the official reaction to this achievement that so greatly enhances Thailand's fetishised "image"? Cut! Expurgate! Mutilate!

When are we finally going to get past this anachronistic and counterproductive reaction of banning or censoring or otherwise trying to put things out of reach? The sex scene excised from the locally-made DVD of Blissfully Yours might have offended prissier sensibilities - who of course had the option of not watching the film - but in the case of Syndromes and a Century the demanded cuts are harmless by any reasonable standard. It isn't surprising that foreign commentators are already scratching their heads about official attempts to injure the film. "Its coherence is evident; it is too lovely and lucid to be frustrating or dull," wrote AO Scott in Wednesday's New York Times. "But it takes place just on the other side of conscious apprehension. (This makes the recent demand for cuts by Thai censors seem especially odd, since, at least to an outsider, there seems to be nothing politically or sexually provocative in the film.)."

The contested scenes, all playful and humorous, are surpassed in offensiveness by stories that appear in our newspapers practically every day. But when it comes to movies, our distributors and censors have always been handy with the scissors, although there have been exceptions when there is money to be made. When Schindler's List was released 14 years ago the censors were ready with their scissors to remove scenes of Embeth Davidtz's bare breasts until director Steven Spielberg intervened: "Show all of the film or show none of it." The movie was making massive amounts of money wherever it was shown, so somehow it was decided that it could be shown in its entirety without placing the public morality in any undue peril.

Apichatpong took the same stance as Spielberg, all or nothing, but his subtle movies are not big moneymakers here. It is unlikely that the censors' decision will be reversed unless its inappropriateness becomes evident to them, and that is a longshot, indeed. In the meantime, as locally-made features of the greatest stupidity and vulgarity open regularly in our cinemas without interference from the censors, Thai moviegoers will have to wait for a foreign-made DVD to see this lovely work by their country's best-ever filmmaker.


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