Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 14 June 2006
Source Second Run DVD
Reviews: Mysterious Object at Noon
Boredom is an undervalued, underaestheticized experience these days, and nowhere more so than in the cinema. A lack of activity, of incident, is the great nemesis of the Hollywood film, something to be avoided and guarded against. Oddly, however, what we commonly term “bliss,” especially in its most idealized sense, is itself quite boring. Heaven, in David Byrne’s estimation, is a place where nothing ever happens, and so, though universally coveted, bliss nonetheless has the air of something indolent, dull, and contrary to the vitality of youth.
For Apichatpong Weerasethakul, so much the better. Whether because of his avowed Buddhism or some less mystical explanation, his films often engage that most undercultivated of aesthetic experiences: tedium. Patience, banality, and repose are the predominant forces of his work, not as coercive or provocative elements intended to test the audience’s sensory stamina (as in the work of Paul Sharits, for example), but as invitations to experience the world’s everydayness at its own pace.
Apichatpong’s second feature, Blissfully Yours, is probably his most direct realization of this mode. Following three characters from their daily routines in a midsize Thai city and then out to a romantic jungle picnic, the film builds its sense of drama and of the interrelations of the characters quietly and by slow accretion, rather than through incident or climax.
The events of the story are deceptively simple, and the film relays each significant detail in the most offhand and underplayed manner possible. Min, an illegal Burmese immigrant, decides to take his girlfriend Roong, who works in a factory painting tchotchkes, out of town and into the country for a picnic, hoping to alleviate her stress and ease the irritation of his own obscure skin condition. Aswoon with infatuation and desire, Roong and Min while away the hours, loafing, picking berries, taking in the views, and making love by a forest stream. Meanwhile, Orn, a middle-aged woman Roong has hired to watch Min and secure him a work permit, is engaged in a rendezvous of her own, but she is left stranded in the jungle when this meeting is rudely, brutally interrupted.
The first thirty-five minutes of the film, which take place in town, are densely packed with minute clues about the relationships of the characters (the mystery of Min’s skin condition, Orn’s affection for Min, Roong and Orn’s fraught relationship). None of these is explicitly rendered, but they nonetheless amount to a subtly wearying litany of banal information. And so, once in the jungle, the film offers a palpable sense of relaxation and of distance from the petty squabbles and annoyances of the quotidian, signaled by the late-arriving opening credits and a jaunty Thai pop song. The jungle sequences exchange the hum of automobiles and drab workplaces for the eerie whirr of forest sounds and animal noises, droning almost imperceptibly in the background. Told in a series of exceedingly long takes, the film not only achieves a sense of realism with large uninterrupted blocks of time and space, but also maintains a peculiar rhythm of both languor and suspense, at once suggesting the heavy drowsiness of the characters’ sojourn and simultaneously prompting the spectator’s expectation that it will soon abruptly end.
This implication of an insurmountable (social, political, economic) reality in the urban world, left temporarily behind at the beginning of their journey, is the sole nagging tension in the otherwise woozy flow of the film’s drama, and it is that which threatens to insinuate itself into and upend the characters’ (and the audience’s) sensual reverie. Of course, much of the film’s sensuality is itself conveyed through implication — as in the continuing discussions of Min’s skin condition or in the delicate gestures of affection he shares with Roong — as well as through the brief, startling flashes of corporeality later in the film. These include the rather provocative sex scenes (as in Orn’s sylvan tryst or a near-Warholian closeup of the slow progress of an erection) and the tight compositions of the faces of the characters as they lie in blissful repose.
But mostly it is the film’s very sense of duration that physically affects the viewer, not only showing its protagonists in sleepy contemplation onscreen, but also quite literally demanding the same of the viewer. In a way, the film functions in a manner similar to Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, allowing the viewer long periods of time to prise out the hidden mechanics of the story (like the truth of Min’s background, or Orn’s feelings for Min). But even Akerman’s point is to inflict the doldrums of her character on her audience, not to invite the audience to find any bliss therein. Apichatpong takes Akerman a step further, enveloping the viewer in the same requiescence the characters experience. So, finding all of this soporific — indeed, even falling asleep during the film — is therefore a wholly valid and not necessarily negative reaction. In a certain sense, it is an ideal way of appreciating the film’s subtle force.
Of course, if one did fall asleep, one would miss the film’s final utterance, a set of titles summarizing the fates of the characters once they return to their urban lives. These titles suggest a reality like that of the early part of the film, fraught with banality and petty tensions, and true to the odd mix of documentary and fantasy in Apichatpong’s work, they also accurately describe the fates of the non-professional actors who star in the film. If this conclusion verbally marks the limits of the film’s willful inertia, closing the shared space of reverie that the film has opened for the characters, the actors, and the audience, it also reasserts the film’s direct interrelation with the world outside itself. It affords a unity, however brief, between the experience of the characters in the film and the spectators sitting watching them. Like Roong, we recline and look up at a brilliant afternoon sun, perforating the dense foliage overhead, and for a short time there is little more to ponder.