You Only Lose the Dead Twice
An Afterword to the Apichatpong

von Fionn Adamian

Kino Arsenal, Berlin
July–August 2023

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul aims for viewers to leave the cinema questioning what was real and what wasn’t. In the Kino Arsenal’s retrospective of the director, the seven featured films allowed the viewer’s attention to drift in and out from the hard shore of the image’s detail. Confronted by the solid objects filmed in the still of the camera frame, the viewer begins to notice small disturbances of perception. Real droplets of humidity condense on the image of the jungle’s dense undergrowth. The fluorescent lights of a provincial hospital become eerie and enlightening when captured in the absence of medical staff. Ever since Blissfully Yours won the Un Certain Regard award of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the accomplishment of Weerasethakul’s cinema has been to consider with dream-like logic, the process of aging and illness, loss, reincarnation, political memory and queer desire.

The question remains, what is it like to watch these films in the closed capsule of a cinema? Notably, there is a fascination towards the exchanges of the everyday and the spirit realm. While some directors represent the supernatural as a manifestation of our unconscious, Weerasethakul conversely considers the supernatural like a documentarian and uses the camera as a reliable witness to the aberrant creatures that roam free in his films. In many ways, the spectral presence, animal spirit, ghost and ghoul, and the disconsolate lake deity, are all captured as if by televised journalism.

Film still from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Courtesy of Kick the Machine Films.

The absence of visual dramatics allows space for different imaginative encounters between human and spirit. An encounter rooted in mutual contemplation, respect and even a curious sense of wonder. To Weerasethakul’s human characters, the fantastical apparitions are a wonder. Terminally ill with kidney failure, the titular protagonist of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) gives a startled welcome to the translucent ghost of his wife. When Boonmee’s long-lost son returns in the bedraggled form of a primate, the relatives greet the son’s explanation that he mated with a monkey ghost, with a polite attentiveness. The son continues by recounting details of his efforts to communicate with the monkey ghost, the photography equipment he brought to capture the creature and the metamorphosis he underwent after mating. Weerasethakul’s use of magical realism highlights such unbelievable occurrences with such detail, that the realness of the narrative appears to hang on the end of a bewitched shoelace. Viewers notice the meticulous craft that goes into the world building of these films, from the various close-up angles Weerasethakul employs. However, a more distant perspective allows a glimpse into the political allegories which scaffold the entire film. In this regard, Weerasethakul seems interested in representing the psychic toll of the military dictatorship in Thailand. Particularly from Cemetery of Splendour (2015), one gets a sense of the junta’s contradictory time regime. Despite the evident signs of Thailand’s brutal and accelerated marketization, the political imaginary remains fixed in a state of nostalgia for the armed forces.

Film still from Cemetery of Splendour. Courtesy of Kick the Machine Films. 

Cemetery of Splendour uses symbolism to explore the legacy of dictatorship and focuses on a local military hospital which has been designated as the treatment center for soldiers with narcolepsy. Having previously been the town’s primary school, the interior of the hospital ward retains a number of uncanny traces of its earlier use, from the parallel rows of sleeping patients leading, to the stenciled letters of the Thai alphabet on a dusty green chalkboard at the front of the room. The setting suggests that the regression in the patients’ dreams actually manifested into a familiar childhood place. The role of the medical staff is limited to keeping watch over the lanterns connected to the patients’ respiratory machines. With the shutters of the hospital ward closed off, the shifting neon color of these lanterns draws attention to the mysterious vibrancy of the sleeping human bodies, so that they look like plants under the stark lighting of a greenhouse.

Film still from Cemetery of Splendour. Courtesy of Kick the Machine Films. 

In Cemetery, the stationary shots reveal the automatisms of the sleeping convalescents with patient curiosity and gentle humor, from the involuntary erection to the stream of urine into the drainage bag. Weerasethakul’s films examine eroticism with a similarly refreshing candor. Sex appears as something both familiar and alien, immediate and strange, a universal dimension of life and an exile on the cosmic periphery. Many taboos are unraveled without the performance of transgression. Men cruise the restroom for sex partners with wide and mawkish grins, while older ladies wink in conversation at their histories of promiscuity. The scene of Keng and Tong masturbating each other in the front row of a movie theater in Tropical Malady (2004) is striking as the lovers’ gazes remain fixed on the film screen, as they jostle at each other’s crotches. It has been reported that Weerasethakul cut a penultimate scene of a tiger making love to a soldier not out of fear of political censorship but for being “too beautiful.”

From the perspective of the film’s aesthetic balance, I can’t help but feel that this decision was the right one. It would have been known forever as that sex scene from Tropical Malady. But I’m also grateful for the intention behind the decision. As Weerasethakul, as a technical master of art house cinema, is not trying to overwhelm viewers with beauty. My favorite moment of Weerasethakul’s oeuvre is the scene of Jen and Tong in the motel room after Boonmee’s funeral. Tong reacts with astonishment as the pair are about to leave for dinner: he sees both himself and Jen continuing to watch television with blank and somber expressions. Maybe Tong leaves a piece of himself behind to properly grieve his loss. In any case, life is too short not to watch Weerasethakul’s films at least several times. They give you back that time and more through their lessons in wonder and bereavement. Isn’t that a precious gift, from Weerasethakul to us?

Fionn Adamian is an independent art and literary critic based in Berlin. He is currently working on a project on Proust's snobbery.

Journal der Freien Universität Berlin

Berlin, 2024