Tuesday, 13 October 2009
A film about the impressions of light and memory, described by its director as an exploration on the concept of remembrance and extinction. The title, Phantoms of Nabua (2009), therefore establishes the location, and through the particular evocation of the word phantoms, defines the presentation of these characters emerging, half-formed, from the fires that surround them. The film, which runs for close to eleven minutes in duration (with credits), is part of Weerasethakul's multi-platform 'Primitive' project, which is described by it's creator as a "portrait of home." Weerasethakul states that, like the previous experiment, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009), this film "portrays a communication of light; the lights that exude, on the one hand, the comfort of home, and on the other, destruction." In this respect, it is a film, like much of Weerasethakul's work, that is defined by its images; which are striking, precisely because their relative simplicity - as in the way that these manifestations seem to be created from everyday objects that we might find anywhere around us at any given time - is in a complete contrast with the overwhelming otherworldliness of the manner in which they are used.
This contrast of light, of the natural and the artificial, is of particular significance in how we approach the film; creating a disparity, as ever with this director, where one line intersects another, creating drama and emotional connection from the juxtaposition of two immediately disparate forms. In his more clearly defined narrative work, such as Tropical Malady (Sud pralad, 2004) or Syndromes and a Century (Sang sattawat, 2006), these disparate forms are illustrated by two divergent narrative strands that coalesce. As we view the films, not knowing or expecting such shifts to occur, we're disarmed by the experience; seeing the switch from a level of, for example, documentary realism into pure folklore, as largely disruptive. However, when we think about these tricks again, after the initial viewing, and return to the films in an attempt to try and discover these great mysteries that lurk behind each moment, we see that the two strands complement one another on a much greater level. Certain parallels and similarities can be gleaned from paying close attention to the significance of certain objects, or the introduction of a character, their movements and approach. It also has a lot to do with location. In Tropical Malady, or more specifically perhaps in Blissfully Yours (Sud sanaeha, 2002), the location plays an important part in understanding the drama and the way that it unfolds.
Even the name of the place - Nabua - is rich in exotic suggestion; already creating the image of a jungle at night (hot and wet from the fresh summer rain) before the film has even begun. The lightning storm that introduces the film - real or man-made - also sets a tone for the experiments to follow. Already we're seeing the contrast between the natural and the artificial - both the differences and the similarities - in two distinct presentations; like the two layers of projection from which the film is made - an artificial recording of a literal projection of light on a canvas, capturing another artificial recording against the backdrop of a jungle at night. In this respect, Phantoms of Nabua is a folding of one film into another, with Weerasethakul taking footage from another installation, projecting it on a screen in the middle of a playground illuminated by a solitary fluorescent tube, and allowing the film on screen (as in - one frame within another) to captivate his characters; creating a near-supernatural atmosphere that stresses the extraordinary power of the image, and the impact on those who see it. Thus, in its purest form, it is the expression of the spectacle as it relates to those experiencing it; these lights - like the light from a cinema screen - burning through the dark.
Weerasethakul compares the project to the book A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives, claiming that "Primitive is about reincarnation and transformation; a celebration of the destructive force in nature and in us that burns in order to be reborn and mutate." Into this we have the football match – the ball being passed back and forth in a potential representation of the shot/reverse-shot, before setting the screen ablaze. The significance here is unknown. However, these encounters of light, illuminating the pitch-black canvas of night - (obscurité, oh ma lumière) - tell a story. Each object tells a story. In introducing the film and explaining the significance of the fluorescent tube that lights the area directly above the goalposts where the action plays out, Weerasethakul writes: "for an economic reason, most of the houses in Asia are illuminated by fluorescent lights. Even though these lights make the skin look pale, even dead, for me they relate to home, to being home." If each object can be read on such a level, revealing more of Weerasethakul's personal intentions, then we can better appreciate the importance of how each individual object has a meaning, and how each part of this installation can be seen together to create a greater whole.
It goes back to those two original contrasts; the lights that exude the comfort of home or destruction, which are apparent throughout. So the fluorescent tube, with its recollections of home, and the fire which destroys the screen, are explicitly underlined. But then how do we interpret the light that burns behind the screen? This alien-light, reminding us of the strange lights that danced in the trees in the second part of Tropical Malady - or the lights from Steven Spielberg's science-fiction masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - which defy classification, but affect us, emotionally? Is this flickering light, like the light cast from the reflection of a mirror, a destructive force, numbing those that experience it; or is it an altogether more wholesome light – a light that allows these characters to transcend, beyond the primitive tribal rituals of football, or the creation of fire, or the past-violence of Nabua itself, and becoming more like the monolith from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – a harbinger of greater change.