The first film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul begins with a shot that approximates the feeling of tuning an analogue radio; mysterious, haunting, archaic and likely to land you somewhere you weren’t expecting. It’s a black-and-white tracking shot through the front window of a moving vehicle, with an overlapping sound mix that takes in a radio soap opera, the driver using a loudspeaker to advertise his fish business and the sounds of the cities and villages he’s driving through. This feeling of travel – through town, through country, through fiction, through reality – sets you up perfectly for the film, a road movie unlike any other.
Mysterious Object at Noon is a documentary of sorts, although it’s observing a situation that wouldn’t exist without the film crew’s intervention. It has been described as a cinematic equivalent of the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, where multiple artists would collaborate on a drawing or story without being shown anything other than the very end of the previous artist’s contribution. As Tony Rayns notes in the accompanying booklet, though, Mysterious Object at Noon isn’t a pure example of the form. Weerasethakul travels from place to place interviewing ordinary Thais and encouraging them to add to the story the film is telling, a shaggy-dog tale about a disabled child, his teacher and an alien object they encounter. Many of them, however, seem to be aware of what the previous interviewees contributed.
Given that Weerasethakul studied Surrealism at the Art Institute of Chicago, it is safe to assume he knew he was deviating from the rules of Exquisite Corpse. What he seems to be doing is reconfiguring the game for cinema, shifting the burden of not knowing what will come next from the storytellers onto his own film crew. Weerasethakul and his team must both film the interviews and dramatise the story being told while relinquishing any control over the narrative’s direction. At one point Weerasethakul steps in front of the camera to restage a scene which has gone awry, and despite the film’s placid, dream-like pacing there is a sense of volatility, of a film whose narrative could escape its makers at any moment.
Or could it? Looking back at Mysterious Object at Noon, it’s remarkable how many of its story elements prefigure Weerasethakul’s later films. Some are superficial echoes – anyone who has seen Tropical Malady will smile when a tiger is mentioned – but others have more profound connections. The final interview, with a group of schoolchildren, comes up with two possible endings, both of which are left in the film. Structural repetition and variation would quickly become a hallmark of Weerasethakul’s later works, particularly in Syndromes and a Century, which tells the same story in two different locations, as if crossing between two parallel universes.
The fact that Mysterious Object at Noon is Weerasethakul’s first film makes this a chicken-and-egg issue, though. The presence of his favoured story elements in the narrative parts of the film could be evidence that he has collaborated with his interviewees on the story, or it could be evidence that his road trip into the Thai imagination had a profound influence on his own writing. Mysterious Object at Noon is not meant to be taken as a record of unvarnished reality – indeed, the first interview he conducts begins with a woman telling a harrowing true account of her experiences being sold into prostitution, which Weerasethakul draws a discreet veil over by asking her to tell him a story instead.
What matters is the scope of the film’s observation. For a director so often accused of painting a tourist-friendly image of Thailand as a land of jungles and Buddhist mysticism, there is an extraordinary variety of regions and subcultures across Weerasethakul’s work, never more so than in this film. Mysterious Object at Noon’s creative odyssey takes the viewer from the northern regions he would return to in the Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives to the border with Myanmar, talking to marginal populations including Cambodian immigrants and the students at a school for the deaf.
Comparing Mysterious Object at Noon to any film by another director is always going to be misleading, if only because Weerasethakul worked on this project in secret for many years. Any connection to the turn-of-the-millennium zeitgeist is purely coincidental, but then Surrealists believe in meaningful coincidence, so let’s point out that the use of monochrome to document outsider lives and ideas chimes well with contemporaneous works by Marc Singer (Dark Days) and James Marsh (Wisconsin Death Trip).
The black and white cinematography places these films outside the mainstream of modern cinema, just as their characters are outside the mainstream of society. It’s also the main reason to buy this new Blu-Ray release, so crisp you can almost feel the sunlight on your skin. Shockingly, the original 16mm negative has already been lost, so this print had to be struck from 35mm duplicates. There are a couple of scenes with lines on the image, though with a film that embraces mixed media and metafiction as this one does, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a flaw or part of the actual film.
Regardless, Mysterious Object at Noon is a vital resource for anyone looking for an understanding of perhaps the most groundbreaking and innovative director of the 21st century so far, as well as a beautiful and strange trip to take in its own right. Blu-Ray clearly hasn’t blunted Second Run’s ambition, or their courage in taking a chance on unique and challenging cinema. I’m already looking forward to watching it again, and doubtless getting something completely different out of its shifting, indefinable structure.