Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000)
Thai Title: Dokfa nai meuman
In Syndromes and a Century (2006), Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul inserts a scene of a tube sucking the mist that has covered the hospital which is so abrupt and compelling that it instantly reorients your senses and prepares you for what's to come, an epilogue that transports the film entirely from the hospital and its hushed affairs to an outdoor park of a possible future time where the populace are doing aerobics and a group of Buddhist monks are playing with a toy UFO in what feels like an atmosphere of tranquil celebration. It is abrupt in a way that the film's normally measured and sedative pace and its calming and earthy aesthetics composed of captivating greens and sunlit exteriors and interiors are suddenly replaced with something distinctly mechanical and perspectively jarring with its cold, blue and alien-looking visuals and the exhausting although gripping sound that accompanies it.
Weerasethakul's debut feature Mysterious Object at Noon has a similar sequence, although not as visually and aurally apparent. An elegant string of dolly shots of empty spaces accompanies the story of a school kid about a Witch Tiger before completely concluding the longer half of the film. "At noon," the subtitle declares as it opens once again to scenes of school children playing soccer or swimming at a nearby waterhole or playing with chickens and dogs. The sequence of dolly shots has the same reorienting effect as the metal pipe scene in Syndromes and a Century. The tendency of Mysterious Object at Noon is to completely humanize the storytelling process by putting human faces and experiences behind the evolution of a tale but suddenly at that instance, Weerasethakul withdraws as if to enjoy a restful breath from his gargantuan experiment, and allows his camera to just mechanically capture images of blank and normally insignificant space, through the predictably horizontal movement of the dolly before stopping at a view from the window, sunlit and rejuvinating. That is perhaps the most amazing part of Weerasethakul's mesmerizing debut, the part wherein he branches off from his cinematic experiment to just watch and become passive observer to the lives he has documented. It reinforces the punctuated malleability of his cinema as it transforms, transports and disappears without abandoning the themes and feelings it has consciously invested in.
The film starts with the camera resting inside a vendor truck, capturing the highways, the alleyways and the buildings being passed by as a radio melodrama plays in the background. The experiment officially begins when a teary-eyed interviewee, a fish sauce vendor, tells her heartbreaking story about how she was sold by her parents to her uncle. The interviewer interrupts her and asks her to tell another story whether real or not, and the story she initiates concerns a crippled boy and his teacher named Dogfahr. At once, Weerasethakul blurs fact from fiction as he favors imagined stories to those that are based from real life experiences. Moreover, he cuts to a dramatized version of the fictional tale, often incorporating real footages to forward the more traditionally directed narrative, as a helpful accessory to his narrative experiment, supposedly to accommodate his viewers with a visual and surreptitiously mystical representation of his subjects' manufactured tales. In another of Weerasethakul's curious yet mysteriously compelling decisions, he abandons this dramatization by including in the film a portion wherein these characters convert back into their real selves, paid actors who are having their lunch break. It's a hilarious turn, one that infinitely keeps the film tiptoeing from fiction to documentary, documentary to fiction, and so on.
The central story of the crippled kid and Dogfahr mutates every time it is continued by another interviewee and by film's end, the tale of the boy and his teacher becomes so outrageously ridiculous that it becomes irrelevant. Instead, what stays with you is an intriguing glimpse at a national state of mind, a communal psychology, from what has been minutely gleaned from their connected contributions to the fiction-making. Weerasethakul selects his subjects from a wide demographic from repentant sauce vendors, drunken grandmothers, traveling performers, mute and deaf children and rowdy school kids, all of which contribute little yet gleaming aspects of their lives and ways of living as they steer the narrative to surprising directions ranging from a ball turning into a lonely alien child (from a group of young men), a romantic conquest filled with pangs of jealousy and envy (as performed by the traveling performers), a hard tale of social and economic trials (from the mute and deaf ladies), to a juvenile conclusion that involves revenge, swords, and killer tigers (from the rowdy school kids).
Aside from the vast demographic of his subjects, Weerasethakul keeps the film in a continuous state of transit. The invented story itself takes place in both rural and urban Thailand and Weerasethakul seems obliged to insert footages of transit, from the introductory travelogue in urban Thailand to the scenes that happen within a passenger train. This is a subconscious concern that is dictated by the communal mind scape of a nation that is infatuated with the concept of progress, most commonly represented by migration from the rural areas to the urbanized city of Bangkok. It is both unsurprising yet very much revealing how this conceptual need to move makes itself apparent in the fiction created by the film's subjects since it has been a consistent preoccupation, at least by the masses of the countryside, to equate progress with urbanity. Such is a preoccupation shared by Thailand with most of its Southeast Asian neighbors which is perhaps a by-product of its indelible attraction with Western ideals and so-called virtues.
Weerasethakul has crafted what arguably is the most daring first film of any recent director. In a national cinema that has long survived churning out populist melodramas, horror pictures, trite comedic and action films, and its many derivatives, Weerasethakul defiantly branches out with a film that is drastically confident and unique in form, style, and substance. Draped as a low budget documentary, shot on 16mm in black and white, before morphing into a completely different creature, a fascinating shapeshifter of a film that peeks into a population's historically-induced psychological and possible spiritual landscape through one of humanity's most inherent qualities, the ability to make and tell a story.