Like the Thai films he sometimes spoofs, the films and videos of gay iconoclast Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady) are an acquired taste. If you can settle in to watching his elliptical, languorous, often baffling non-narrative works, rare, unsettling delights are yours to savour.
Weerasethakul has two new works at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF): the short video A Letter to Uncle Boonmee in the avant-garde Wavelength’s program and the installation piece Phantoms of Nabua in the Future Projections program.
A Letter details a nephew’s desire to connect somehow to a dead uncle, grasping at anything, even something as unreal as a movie set. Different voices repeat the same narration as the camera pans continuously around various interiors, finding unexplained views through windows. Phantoms is a showcase of light in darkness — electrical sparks, flame, a bald fluorescent tube, film projections — as a gang of male youths kick a soccer ball around at night. The ball is on fire.
Both works are set in northeastern Thailand, in Nabua, where countless communist farmers were killed by government forces in 1965. Both works are compassionate expressions of absence — missing lives, forgotten stories, government silence.
Nothing really happens in Phantoms, but what better image — young men literally playing with fire — to evoke both the generation killed off for their ideas and the young security forces who hunted them down? Eventually the screen catches fire leaving the flickering projector pointing directly at the viewer.
These recent works are part of what Weerasethakul, now 39, calls his fascination with “extinction,” of voices, of traditions. He’s passionate about the freedom of thought and speech, refusing to cut his films according to new censorship laws in Thailand. He’s one of the founders of the Free Thai Cinema Movement. Senior programmer at TIFF James Quandt has edited a book on Weerasethakul that was published earlier this year.