Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down
But moving on—the stars and planets finally aligned properly this week so that I might finally catch a glimpse of not one but two of the crowd-pleasing centerpieces of the recent New Wave of Thai cinema, both of them big and beautiful in 35mm. One really jazzed me, and one disappointed me a little: "up," "down"...you get the drift. Still, the excitement of seeing them both was a pleasure that exceeded the discrete merits of either film. It's fun to catch a wave of hype, but even more fun to touch down on what for me, and for many others on these shores, is a brand new playing-field of film aesthetics.
Granted, this is much more true of Blissfully Yours, easily the jewel in this pair. The film possesses the same combination of frisky charm and mournful undertows that you feel in a work like Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, even though on the surface these movies couldn't seem more different. Indeed, on the surface, it's hard to know what Blissfully Yours feels like, period. After an anxious opening sequence in a doctor's office, where two Thai women escort an obviously undocumented refugee through an appointment with a skeptical doctor, Blissfully Yours reveals a funnier, weirder side; the older of the two women now visits her husband at work, slyly treating him to a taste of a vegetable-and-cold-cream casserole she's just whipped up. From here, the refugee hitches a ride with the younger woman from the opening—his girlfriend, as it happens, and thus his companion on a long, unrushed, occasionally unclothed picnic/siesta in the deeps of the Thai jungle. Viewers made skittish by the long shots of desolate driving that carry us into the forest might start worrying that this is Twentynine Palms Redux, this time with real palms. Rest assured, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's temperament is too buoyant and too oddball for something so grim, although the very, very dark sides of fugitive living, sexual isolation, and encroaching middle-age will not go unremarked. Still, this is a fetching love story. With fire ants. And hand-painted Flintstone figurines, which you chuckle at until you realize the horrors they imply. No, really. Just check it out. Yes, the increasing abstraction of the final moments winds up sealing off the picture's emotions just when it should be ready to really let them breathe, but by that point you've had such a compelling experience that you're highly unlikely to care, or even notice.
It's a testament to the glorious eccentricity of Blissfully Yours that the strange-in-its-own-right Last Life in the Universe feels very nearly predictable. Much of the problem derives from the willingness of director-cowriter Pen-ek Ratanaruang to pilfer and retrace the well-known moods and motifs of so many cohorts. Baldly swiping Wong Kar-wai's food-for-love obsession, hiring d.p. Christopher Doyle to rig up his now-overfamiliar framings and color schemes, and ultimately ordering up a Faye Wong haircut for his pixie-ish female lead (when she's seen wiping tables at a diner, no less), Pen-ek is such a copycat that you might mistake him for one of Francis Ford Coppola's children. Casting Takashi Miike in a small part, inserting an Ichi the Killer poster, and slipping in a wink at his own 6ixtynin9 only makes the referentiality more self-serving and belabored...this guy even nicks something from the human xerox machine himself, stranding a hitman on the toilet at a truly inopportune moment. None of this would be as aggravating if Pen-ek did much of interest with his own story about a laconic Japanese librarian in Thailand and his impromptu connection with a gamin he meets via a traffic accident (fast becoming the meet-cute of 21st century world cinema). The film ably conjures one of those gossamer melancholic moods that Asian movies can do in their sleep, which is how much of Last Life seems to have been mounted (and also how I experienced it for about two minutes near the halfway mark; oops). It's all pretty easy to take and just as easy to forget. Doyle can't get away with neon-limned anomie forever, and the screenplay's tinkering with chronology and reality smacked more of Zhou Yu's Train than Chungking Express. Thankfully, this kind of movie has a pretty self-selecting audience, and it has enough wile and charm to reward the two hours we spend with it, but once the novelty of Thai cinema has waned a little for Western audiences, this curio of the moment will quickly look like the minor work that it truly is. Not so Blissfully Yours; that one has the gleam and the soft surge of something valuable and new.