Magic, Myth, Memory: Reviewing Apichatpong Weerasketakul’s Primitive

Early this year, following a lazy stroll and lunch on the South Bank, I surrendered to the familiar pull of the Tate Modern. After musing over the contemporary classics for which the permanent collection is known, I became ‘immersed’ (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the Tanks. On that day, the gallery’s dank subterranean caverns were the temporary home of Taiwanese filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first solo video installation, Primitive. Commisioned by Haus der Kunst with FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Primitive made its debut in Munich in 2009, and has since traversed Europe and America in a series of independent exhibitions and Weerasethakuhl retrospectives. The Tate is the latest institution to screen the piece, with Primitive having been on non-stop display in January of this year to huddles of tourists and wind-chilled Londoners – some cinephiles like myself, others perhaps simply seeking a moment of comfort and quiet in the dark, cushioned bowels of the building. Like the artist’s other works, Primitive is gently paced and meditative, however, comfort is by no means its primary effect. As if attuned to Tate’s midcentury origins as Bankside Power Station, the Tanks were crackling with bursts of electricity – this is the experience, characteristically, of a Weerasethakuhl film.

Weerasethakhul, or “Joe” as he is affectionately known, has built his fame on uncompromising idiosyncrasy. Eschewing the mainstream Thai film industry, he has produced dozens of avant-garde short films, but is best known for his captivating and perplexing features, particularly Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Stunning viewers with its eerie, magical tale of a dying man in communication with departed spirits of the past, the film took the exceptional honour of the 2004 Palme D’or at Cannes. His Tropical Malady met with similar acclaim, winning a 2004 Cannes jury prize, and combining poeticism, myth and allegory to equally haunting effect. The first half of the film is an achingly sincere portrait of two lovers (one of many of ‘Joe’s’ films to candidly explore his homosexuality), while the latter half is a seemingly tangential tale of a soldier lost in the Thai jungle, taunted by the spirit of a tiger shaman. Frequently adopting the jungle as a metaphorical locus for his voyages into the darker regions of the soul, Weerasethakhul’s tone can be obfuscating, but it is never pessimistic. Treading an (extremely) faint line between fact and fiction, it is hard to situate oneself precisely in the world of Weerasetakuhl’s films, but this certainly does not detract from the experience of watching them.

To return briefly to concrete details, Primitive is comprised of eight different video projections, from which the audience, collected in bean bags in the centre of the room, can shift their attention at will. The Tanks have evidently been curated with a remarkably open-minded approach to viewership, which compliments Weerasetakuhl’s experimental storytelling (or perhaps, his lack thereof). Collectively, the series of short films (Primitive, Nabua, A Dedicated Machine, An Evening Shoot, I’m Still Breathing, Making of A Spaceship and  Nabua Song) tell the story of Nabua, a quiet rural town in northeast Thailand – although the exhibitionary setup instead prioritises the revelation of a series of strange and unsettling anecdotes woven throughout. As explained during the title film, the Thai-Laotian border town was known, until the early ‘80s, as a ‘red zone’, where fleeing Maoist communists sought refuge in the nearby jungle. The town was subsequently occupied by the Thai government, who routinely subjected those accused of being communists to torture and brutality. Nowadays, the town is sleepy and harmless, but its younger generation seems quite unable to reconcile themselves with its tortured history. Evincing the filmmaker’s interest in reincarnation, the teenaged occupants of Nabua – largely sons of former communists – metaphorically re-enact their parent’s past by seeking refuge in a homemade time-travelling spaceship, which, fittingly, bathes them in an abstracted red glow. They mumble quietly among themselves, as if quite oblivious to the absurdity of the scenario. In moments such as these, I pondered whether Weerasetakuhl is touched by the same dark and surprising impulses that distinguish Hollywood’s popular answer to surrealism, David Lynch. Fantasy and reality are in a constant state of interplay in Weerasetakul’s “universe” (as he describes it), annulling the need for a distinction between the two.

Finally turning away from the children of Nabua, I switched my attention to a central screen that displayed flashes of light exploding repeatedly on the same patch of undistinguished pavement. I couldn’t tell whether I was seeing a succession of firecrackers or forks of lighting shooting upwards out of the earth, but after a period, this became totally unimportant. The patterns of light themselves – whether mundane or magical in origin, were enough to entrance me. In this way, Weerasetakul’s work has recovered what Tom Gunning famously discussed in The Cinema of Attraction as the brazenly exhibitionist spirit of the early days of cinema. Rather than a ‘story’, these pioneering works embraced film as an attraction – a phenomena to be exhibited in its own right. Just as Georges Méliès saw film as the means, famously, to embark on a revolutionary Trip to the Moon, so to does Primitive burst, 2001-like, from the terrestrial restraints of narrative cinema, and into a strange new zone of abstract possibility. Perhaps this is Weerasethakuhl’s answer to the Nabua youngsters who can no longer recognise their surroundings: our best hope is to shrug off the burdens of history and narrative, and pursue new creative  horizons.

Then again, maybe it’s naïve to think it’s possible to escape the past so easily. Although occupied by an impatient new generation of rebellious teenagers, Nabua is positively drenched in oppressive memories. Its landscape is marked, paradoxically, by its conspicuous absences, mythically alluded to by the figure of a ‘widow ghost’ who who routinely takes men prisoner. Her victims linger like the spirits in Uncle Boonmee, voicing their presence in moments of uncomfortable stillness. Does one actually need a time-travelling spaceship, when, as Weerasekakuhl seems to suggest, a far simpler technology – the digital camera – is also capable of reanimating the dead? Is Thailand’s kaleoidoscopic new culture of youthful angst, rock music and science fiction enough to exorcise their ghostly presence? Given the prevalence of Thai legends concerning reincarnation and visitations from the beyond, it seems many past traumas are still stubbornly clinging to collective memory.

Perhaps, then, Primtive best understood as an exhibitionary rebuff against the flimsy conceptual paradigms that separate ‘our generation’ and ‘theirs’, ‘then’ and ‘now’, ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘narrative’. Much as these distinctions are reassuring, the abstracted and cyclical nature of Weerasetkuhl’s art suggests that, ultimately, life cannot be understood within such narrow confines. Unsettling though this insight may be, this is perhaps why his work strikes such a deep chord with viewers all over the world. Certainly, while sinking into a bean-bag in the basement of the Tate, Weerasetakuhl’s “universe” was an oddly liberating place to be… it also made me ponder- is “his universe” all that divorced from our own?


Header image: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Primitive”, video still, (2009).  Taken from: Digicult, available: