HE REMEMBERS STILL how as a 12 year old in Thailand he went to see E.T. at his local theater. The movie recalls the films of the past, the suspended grace of the tracking dolly shot; a young Apichatpong Weerasethakul wants to be a part of this stream of memories, but doesn’t know how.
The movies offer the experience of floating, the levitation of E.T. and Star Wars and Thai ghost stories. He remembers a helicopter hovering over the sea, thousands of bank notes fluttering down from it like snow. Other myths hang overhead — TV costume dramas and sci-fi novels, jungle adventure books and his mother’s soap operas.
In school, a friend tells him about seeing a man floating above his bed at night. The man has glowing red eyes.
He climbs trees on the hospital grounds, in the country’s rural northeast, where his parents work as doctors, and he walks at night to the sound of crickets and pebbles beneath his feet. “There is the feeling of the hospital,” he would later say. “I wake up early, at four o’clock, to play with the construction stones, watching the shooting stars, facing the life and the death at the hospital. For a child it has no philosophical angle, it is all fun. The steam of the laundry emerging from the ground.”
Teenaged Apichatpong roots around in video shop bins for Fellini, Coppola. He studies architecture at a local college, but can’t escape the movies’ tractor beam. He goes to study film at art school in Chicago, where on his first day a professor projects a short film.
And so he is pulled into Len Lye’s Free Radicals. It is a series of handmade scratches on black film stock set to music. For Weerasethakul, curiously, the revelation is not in the film’s experimentation or even its obscurity. His word for it is “personal.” He watches the dancing scribbles, imprints of their maker.
I remember as a child in Texas how the neighborhood hummed as we waited for the television premiere of E.T., everyone’s parents talking about the broadcast as a communal unit of culture, the way they talked about Santa Claus, or Jesus, or the Korean soap opera videotapes our mothers passed to one another to remind themselves of home. I have only one memory from that first viewing, of E.T. about to die in the hospital, his glowing heart surrounded by white sheets and clear plastic curtains and space-suited doctors. The collision of death with nostalgia — Spielberg’s nostalgia for old Hollywood — matched any fairy tale.
As a teenager, I rooted around in video shop bins armed with Sight & Sound and Ebert’s Great Movies. The pleasures were basic: discovery, a new set of shared myths. I found Fellini and Coppola too, days lost in floating puffballs, a saxophone playing in an apartment stripped of floorboards.
When you’re drawn to something like this, you’re sucked in regardless of entry point, but then you keep chasing until you can locate yourself somewhere in that mass, until you hit core. (These are also the steps to destroying the Death Star in Star Wars, another movie I owe something to, since one of my parents’ first dates was a screening of Return of the Jedi.)
And it is also the way I was pulled into Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004).
The most memorable early sequence in Tropical Malady is a sharing of personal history. A country boy and a soldier dangle their legs over a pavilion’s edge in the Thai countryside. They have begun a meandering romance, and their innocence is powerful and strange. “Remember my uncle who can recall his past lives?” says one. “He was 90 years old when he came to our house. He could recall 200 years.”
What occurs next is autobiographical. An older woman approaches and tells the two men a story about a nearby pond. She leads them to an underground temple with makeshift altars. At one, they pause and light incense. The movie stops to contemplate the altar’s décor — Christmas lights chirping “Deck the Halls” and a Buddhist figure.
This all happened for Weerasethakul more or less as depicted, and the easy wandering is painfully remembered. Weerasethakul had ended a relationship and in the film he is retracing his steps. “I looked at these characters smiling like they were from a distant past,” he said later.
The movie’s second half opens with an intertitle that it is “inspired by the stories of Noi Inthanon,” a writer of jungle adventure books from Weerasethakul’s youth. One of the two men from earlier in the film has disappeared into the jungle, and the other goes to find him. Long stretches of darkness follow.
Then, during a slow chase, the movie begins to release obscure miracles. There is a flashback to a woman walking through the forest, a disorienting thrill when the camera floats down her back to reveal the orange flash of a tail. Flora glows; fauna talks; people become animals and animals become spirit. Scribbles don’t dance, but the movie ends with a mythological reconciliation.
What to make of this final and surprising chase after lost love? I can offer another layer of memory. The “uncle who can recall his past lives” refers to a book that Weerasethakul’s father once gave him. His father died immediately before the movie’s filming, and the Christmas lights on the underground altar are from his funeral.
The author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote of a persistent childhood memory. He is standing in the doorway of his home, wearing a Prussian helmet, holding a toy rifle, and watching an army battalion march past under the almond trees.
It was really a compound memory. Garcia Marquez was thinking of a military clash widely recalled by people in his hometown, but which occurred years before this particular memory would have. “The memory is clear but there is no possibility that it is true,” he wrote.
Weerasethakul likes to recite the quote. The jungle is persistent in his childhood memories and in his films, for example, but this mostly originated from jungle adventure books. He has written:
My personal memories are always interwoven with those from various other sources, reading, listening and traveling (my own travels and those of others). It was hard to remember the real past clearly, so I made films without knowing how true they really were.
Weerasethakul’s films are balloons of personal and shared memory, swirls in elastic boundaries. Tropical Malady, in the way that it begins with autobiography and ends with a fantastic blurring, is a tracing of the personal becoming shared. Some of his films place memories of separate people side by side; common experiences converge. His next film, Syndromes and a Century (2006), compares two stories, of his parents' first meeting at a hospital and of present-day doctors falling in love: “Memory is subjective, so there’s no way to recreate an accurate picture of the life before I was born, so I decided it’s a mixture of the people I like now and a story from the past.”
This collating also manifests aesthetically and structurally. The two most striking images in Syndromes and a Century are a 39-second shot of a solar eclipse, its black disc gliding slowly across a tinted sky, and much later in the film, a 130-second shot of a steam pipe’s opening in a hospital basement, wisps disappearing into another black disc (“the steam of the laundry emerging from the ground”). The mirror images link their sections; Syndromes, like Tropical Malady and most of Weerasethakul’s films, comprises delineated but corresponding parts. The films pause on opaque symbols that rhyme with those in other sections.
Around the first time I saw Tropical Malady, I was having dreams that I still remember. In one, I found myself surrounded by childhood friends from that Texas neighborhood, children with whom I had played hide and seek in trailer parks and laundromats, but who were now older. I had in my hands a camera, and took pictures. I woke up with my hands empty.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Weerasethakul himself has recalled:
I have a friend who was living in Thailand, and then he moved to France. He saw Tropical Malady there, and then during the second part, he was crying and crying. Everyone was like, what’s wrong with this guy? Because he was thinking about his boyfriend and how he couldn’t do anything or be with him, so he walked out like a zombie. He went dancing the whole night.
One of Weerasethakul’s unmade project ideas is to travel by train and to film his cast recounting their personal memories of Thailand, but against the backdrop of American landscapes — snow and desert, environments alien to their home country. That idea morphed more recently into a story about a spaceship found in the snow.
I’m going to hazard a guess that Chicago was the first time Weerasethakul saw snow.
My own father worked in Chicago, as an architect, just a few years before Weerasethakul’s arrival there. He would take the train from work, and the tracks would freeze in the winter. On those days I remember huddling in a car with my mother and baby sister, waiting to pick him up from the station, not knowing when he would finally emerge from the delays, our car a vessel of Korean memory surrounded by layer upon layer of American snow.
The story goes that a Thai man named Boonmee was meditating one day when he began to see what he believed to be his past lives. Visions spanning hundreds of years played before his closed eyes like a movie. One imagines them projected onto the backs of his eyelids like so many weekend matinees onto matte vinyl. Boonmee recounted the visions to a local monastery abbot, who was taken enough to record them into a book, A Man Who Can Recall His Past Life; the abbot was a friend of Weerasethakul’s father, and so this book came into Weerasethakul’s hands.
Boonmee’s stories floated for years around Weerasethakul’s mind, landing in Tropical Malady as the aside about the “uncle who can recall his past lives,” but he couldn’t resolve how to adapt the scattered tales onto film.
So Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Weerasethakul’s most recent commercially released film, does not end up being about the meditating Boonmee of this book. Boonmee is instead dying in the movie. It is not insignificant that he is dying of renal failure, Weerasethakul’s father’s cause of death. Onto Boonmee, Weerasethakul projects other memories of his own. The film shows us Boonmee’s past lives, as a water buffalo that breaks free from his tether in the morning light, as a catfish that has an unexpected, near-phantasmic sexual encounter with a costumed princess. But these stand in for the movies of Weerasethakul’s childhood; he is memorializing the costume dramas and science fiction and ghost tales hanging over his youth. “I want to treasure them and say goodbye to them, because they are dying, like Uncle Boonmee.”
At one point, Boonmee is visited by the ghost of his son. He has glowing red eyes that appear to float in darkness.
Boonmee becomes a dying memory in the movie’s climax, a dream about authoritarian control that further conflates him with Thailand’s history of political repressions. His dream is in fact one of Weerasethakul’s own, told in a series of still photographs. I presume his camera worked better than mine:
Last night, I dreamt of the future. I arrived there in a sort of time machine.
The future city was ruled by an authority able to make anybody disappear. When they found “past people” they shone a light at them. That light projected images of them onto the screen, from the past until their arrival in the future. Once those images appeared, these “past people” disappeared.
I was afraid of being captured by the authorities because I had many friends in this future. I ran away.
But wherever I ran, they still found me.
They asked me if I knew this road or that road.
I told them I didn’t know.
And then I disappeared.
Weerasethakul is recognizing and sending off his father, his childhood films and a chapter of Thai history. It is a weaving of goodbyes.
And when I see the failing Boonmee, his stocky frame, cropped hair and deliberate gait, I can see my grandfather. The resemblance is particularly salient in a quiet moment in the film’s middle, when Boonmee takes a family member on a tour of the farm he owns, and the two walk through a field together. Bees drone. The sun shines. They stop to taste honey and peer at citruses.
I am reminded of the last time I can remember my grandfather standing with his own power, on a walk outside Seoul in the full brightness of late summer, stopping to rub a flower between his hands, breathing it in deeply, his face breaking into smile.