Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s debut feature film, Mysterious Object at Noon, fits nicely between two posts about César Aira’s work, Aira having a strange creative philosophy where he sits to write a story, allowing anything and everything to influence it. The resulting work is unpredictable, a memento of its own creation process. I was thrilled to see something similar (with distinct differences) going on in Mysterious Object at Noon, a film that is gleefully overflowing with ideas. The film, which has been difficult to view for years is now available as part of The Criterion Collection’s new release of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2. It’s the second film presented, and it’s further testament that this release is essential.
Weerasethakul’s career since Mysterious Object came out in 2000 has been one of increasing success. Blissfully Yours, his first purely fictional film (more on just what Mysterious Object is in a moment), won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2002. His 2004 film, Tropical Malady won the Jury Prize at the same festival a couple of years later. In 2010 Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives took the big one, Cannes’s Palm d’Or. All of this success makes the scarcity and neglected state of his relatively recent debut surprising. But thankfully it is not lost (though the original camera 16mm camera negative is).
As I mentioned above, the film is a gleeful, sui generis film that is so much more than a mere curiosity from a filmmaker who went on to bigger and better things. Personally, I enjoyed Mysterious Object as much as anything of his I’ve seen, and that means I enjoyed it a great deal.
The film begins on the streets of Bangkok. The camera is in a small truck, weaving through crowds, while the radio plays and we catch snippets of conversation. At the time, disoriented, I didn’t know quite what to make of it, but in retrospect it’s a lovely showcase of the rich textures, the multiple voices, the daylight we will find throughout the remainder of this strange film.
Soon, we are listening to a woman in the back of the truck as she tells us, tearfully, about a painful childhood memory. When she finishes and is drying her eyes, Weerasethakul tells her to go ahead and tell him another story, and it can be truth or fiction. She begins a story about a crippled boy being cared for by a kind teacher. As she tells the story, we see the tale play out in front of us.
This is the jumping off point for a rich iteration of the “exquisite corpse” game, where one person adds a line to a story, followed by another, and so on until there is at some point a final product, a mish-mash of narrative threads. The story began with this one woman, but Weerasethakul takes it to some one else, or to a group of people (one group even stages their portion of the story out with musical accompaniment), to add to the story, eventually traveling all over Thailand.
That’s one way the film moves forward. Travel itself is another. In his interview included on The Criterion Collection disc Weerasethakul talks about his love of travel and his desire to include travel into his films, saying that it’s a wonderful way to contemplate the movement of images, the passage of time, and the ideas in one’s head. Such passages in Mysterious Object do that, but they also add to the strange mix we get, making the film a kind of documentary about its own creation.
Why, Weerasethakul even kept his camera going during some of the breaks while he filmed the fictional story being told by the various people. The young boy asks if they’re done for the day and Weerasethakul asks for another take. The boy seems to be okay with that as long as he gets his KFC.
Now, surely few people should attempt to create a film like this. But Weerasethakul, who says it took years to compile and then years to put together something from the large pile of film stock, pulls it all of beautifully. Once the story begins, the viewer is constantly surprised with where the film will go and just what Weerasethakul will do next. This is not some trite game (though it is a game). Weerasethakul gives us so much emotion, sound, and time that Mysterious Object is a full cinematic experience that feels intimate and expansive. From within the small spaces of their homes and their minds, these people hold such riches, and we witness creation. About ten minutes before the film ends, the made-up story has already come to a conclusion, and Weerasethakul includes a lovely coda that I smiled through, beginning to end.