Home Is Where the Heart Is
Mysterious Object at Noon meets Slacker
by Joanne Kouyoumjian

Mysterious Object at Noon, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s meandering cinematic study of Thailand and its people is a difficult film to place strictly into the documentary genre. It is partially a nonfiction evocation of a small village outside Bangkok and its inhabitants, partially an experiment in collective storytelling, and partially an exploration on the nature of film as a medium. Most memorably, however, is its remarkable show of solidarity with its real subjects, who in no small way are also guiding the narrative of the film.

We first meet a woman who is telling the story of her life. She talks about the devastating moment when she is sold as chattel to her uncle. A voice off-screen, presumably that of director Apichatpong, tells her that her story doesn’t have to be a real one. She is free to tell any story she pleases. Thus, the viewer is made privy to a dark moment in the subject’s past, but only to the extent at which she cares to reveal it herself. When she chooses to begin another story, we as viewers are left to read between the lines and discover something about each subject that appears before the camera through the story that they tell, each one adding on to the ending of the person before them.

Throughout the film, there are two stories progressing simultaneously: that of the storytellers themselves, their surroundings, faces, and voices, and the story that they tell collectively, of a disabled boy and his teacher Dogfahr, who is his only link to the outside world. As the story transforms into a tale of magic and mischief, it is told in a number of ways by a number of people of all ages and stations in life, from an elderly woman to a cluster of schoolchildren to a traditional folk performance group. Weerasethakul entwines visual representations of the story of Dogfahr and the disabled boy with images of the storytellers speaking directly to the camera. What is most remarkable about this method is the willingness and ease with which the people of Thailand weave their fantastical stories, their ability to improvise and invoke something akin to an oral folk tale is one way that we are given a glimpse into Thai culture.

Weerasethakul’s ability to relinquish the power over the story in the film while maintaining his vision as coherent and unique is a testament to his innovation. Mysterious Object at Noon marks an important moment in documentary filmmaking, in which the experiments of such American filmmakers as Richard Linklater, narrative-based though he may be, and Albert Maysles combine and create a third form of subjective storytelling, one that seems both outside the traditions of filmmaking and art in the West, focused on the singularity of genius and yet firmly situated in the utopian vision of surrealist art—a truly collective vision.

Weerasethakul’s inspiration for this approach comes from the surrealist and Dadaist experiments with accidental art called exquisite corpse, in which the idea was to create a random work of collage-art or poetry, and often took the form of a game in which one person would write something down on a piece of paper and then pass it on, with part of it concealed, to the next person, who would write something else as continuation. The participants believed that it would reveal what Nicolas Calas called the “unconscious reality in the personality of the group.” The title came from one of the first experiments with the form which yielded: “Le cadaver exquis boira le vin nouveau” (The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine.) By borrowing from this form and combining it with a sense of solidarity and willingness to involve his subjects rather than just represent them, Weerasethakul has created a truly visionary document of Thailand.

As the film wanders from one setting to the next, the viewers get glimpses of Thailand that seem somehow organic, less subject to the harsh gaze of an outsider, more in tune with the nuances of the place. One cannot help but see similarities in the aforementioned Richard Linklater’s Slacker (and his later Waking Life, as well), which takes a risk in wandering from place to place without a reducible Hollywood plot that can be summed up in a single pitch line. Here, something a bit more transcendent is attempted, because often in films as in real life, sometimes the most revealing things about a person or a place can be found in the most mundane.

Linklater’s lovingly crafted portrait of a group of barely connected eccentrics in Austin, Texas is about a collective atmosphere, a state of being that is unique to this place and the people in it. By choosing to float in and out of conversations, and wandering from place to place, the narrative is subject to the characters themselves. There is no central event, there is only the drama of life, some incidents are mundane, while others are considerably more dramatic, but all are given equal screen time. Somehow this decentralizes the power of the narrative and relinquishes narrative omniscience. Just as in Mysterious Object at Noon, the all-seeing eye of the camera seems subject to the lives of its characters rather than vice versa.

That being said, Slacker and Mysterious Object at Noon are two very different films. As both attempt to convey the experience of being in a specific culture (Austin and rural Thailand, respectively), they take noticeably different approaches. Slacker is hyperactive, even jittery at times, as it follows one witty or mundane or outrageous conversation to the next. Though there is a fair amount of chatter Mysterious Object at Noon, the viewer is confronted with a lot of silences, and many shots linger, perhaps uncomfortably so for an oversaturated Western audience. Ultimately, we are left with a reconciliation of poetry with poverty, one that isn’t glamorized by rapid editing or pulsating dance music, like so much of contemporary international cinema (see City of God). We as an audience must truly contemplate the implications of this poverty, as much of it is subtle, told through quietly enveloping images and sounds.

As Westerners, we can identify with the characters in Slacker more easily, and we can recognize glimpses of our own conversations in their banter. Though some of the characters border on the demented or pathetic, there is an ultimate levity to the film, a celebration of a place and a time that seems uniquely American. Slacker was nostalgic the moment it was made, expanding on same genre that American Graffiti invented. Mysterious Object at Noon has more immediacy, as we can sense the filmmaker’s presence just off-screen. He is living this experience at the same time as he is conveying it to us. Slacker, on the other hand, has always seemed to be an amalgamation of conversations that Linklater overheard in Austin, a film that’s more about memory than the sudden experience of place.

That very immediacy of Mysterious Object at Noon yields some transcendent cinematic moments that are reminiscent of direct cinema documentaries. The camera is not invisible, we hear the director’s voice at times, but the subject’s ease in front of the lens seems a result of his sensitivity to being filmed. One of the most striking things about the Maysles’ Grey Gardens is how a two-man camera crew had such access to the Beales’ intimate and dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The directors are not invisible; in fact Albert Maysles references his presence in the film, even going so far as include his own image. In Mysterious Object at Noon the director’s presence is vital in understanding what kind of film we are watching. This is a portrait of a place, and it is on some level about the director’s encounter with his own home. Nowhere is this more evident than at the opening and close of the film. The first shot is a POV of driving through the streets of an urban center, presumably Bangkok, with the radio playing Thai pop music, advertisements, and even telling a story. We get the sense that we have just arrived with him, hearing the familiar sounds of language, and music. Anyone who has just returned after a long trip knows how that drive from the airport can feel, how welcoming is the sound of the radio and the familiar highways.

That sense of solidarity with Thailand and its people is continuous throughout the film, but it reaches a poignant climax towards its climax. Rather than overlooking or glossing over problems of poverty as part and parcel of life in Southeast Asia, Weerasethakul acknowledges the role of the West in nurturing the “entertainment” business in a way that is both subtle and indignant. The film’s two storylines collide as the actor who plays Dogfahr’s boyfriend desperately attempts to borrow money from another man in the film, who, stating the dire economic situation in Thailand, declines. The actor storms off as Dogfahr walks into the frame, confusing the two narrative levels. This is woven into the story as two girls gesturing in sign language relate the fate of Dogfahr, who in their version waits in vain for her boyfriend to return and ends up working as a dancer. Simultaneously, a radio announcement that seems to have been made just after WWII plays in the background and we see images of women wearing gowns dancing on a stage. The recording states that in gratitude to the United States the government will enforce a new 25% entertainment discount to American soldiers and that Thai people should be respectful to Americans and try to use more American products. Here we see a bitter indictment of America’s role in exploiting Thailand, all done with the artful sensitivity of someone who understands the dynamics of Thai culture and the effects it has on the daily lives of its people.

The final images of the film are a collage of rural children playing soccer, and mingling with goats, cats, and dogs. The story within a story has ended, and the actors are given their compensation. Weerasethakul abandons form and lets his eye for the accidental, meaningful moments of everyday life take over. Meditative, dreamlike, and yet somehow cognizant of reality, the camera turns from children playing and laughing to a shot of a dog running around with tin cans tied to its neck. As subjects float freely in and out of frame and the camera roams among them, we dissolve into this world, Weerasethakul’s vision of home, before we cut to black.