Legends once preserved a culture's repressed memories. But in Apichatpong Weerasethakul
, an installation now at the New Museum
(through July 2), that duty falls to cinema. In eight videos, the Thai master interviews a man who can recall his past lives, observes time-killing teens and then builds a spaceship with them; he watches that spaceship slowly rise and sink (like a hot-air balloon that can't lift off), soldiers shoot peasants, and lightning strike the countryside. Taken together, these videos sketch an impressionist portrait of the Thai village Nabua, the same area in and about which Weerasethakul shot his Palme D'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
—where, according to wall text, the Thai military clashed with communist-sympathetic farmers in the 1960s and 70s, resulting in an occupation that sent the local males into hiding. In Uncle Boonmee
, Weerasethakul represented this absent generation with laser-eyed monkey ghosts; in Primitive
, he focuses not on them but on the children they left behind—the boys raised in a town without men.
"I'm Still Breathing" recalls the Supergrass video for "Alright
": set to a catchy pop song, it follows young Thai boys charging down a dirt road, some of whom hop onto the flatbed of a moving truck and dance without shirts on. (Like Eisenstein, Weerasethakul has a thing for shirtless young men.) They frolic amid signifiers of war: smoke bombs, a fireball. Even the running resembles an ecstatic rendering of fearful civilians escaping war-zone violence. Similarly, in the short "Primitive," laughing kids wrestle on a smoky field, an act of battle redrawn as leisure. There's a hint of menace to these recontextualizations: recent political skirmishes in Thailand have been fought by a new generation of soldiers, many ignorant of their nation's suppressed history. But Weerasethakul also suggests that memory mixes up meaning, giving old signifiers new significance.
That is, memory distorts history, creating legend: in "Primitive," the reincarnated narrator recalls a visit to the future (that he took in his time machine), where purveyors of military chemicals abducted his friends, evoking real stories of disappeared Nabua farmers. In modernity, such legends are no longer born around campfires but around a different sort of flickering light—movies. At the beginning of "Primitive," the narrator recalls his childhood memories of lights in the jungle: his past lives. As in Uncle Boonmee
, past lives are like past narratives, each a different story; it's not coincidence that these lives are represented by lights, like projector bulbs. Light is where nature and cinema meet. In "Phantoms of Nabua," kids kick around the fireball from "I'm Still Breathing" while "Nabua"—in which lightning bolts attack roads, forests, and homes—is projected onto a screen behind them. The ball eventually rolls against the screen and torches it, reducing cinema to its essence. "Better than cinema is the light itself," Weerasethakul says in the catalogue. That bared light roars, the flares and flashes of "Nabua" now projected onto all space: the light a kind of violence, Weerasethakul's cinema a kind of revenge.
(Images courtesy the artist, Kick the Machine Films and Illumination Films)