Thursday, February 28, 2013

Emerald (2007)

WHO: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

WHAT: As a long-time, loyal Apichatpong fan, I've been about as interested in seeing and engaging with his video works as with his better-known 35mm features. Luckily, local curators have been very helpful in helping me pursue this interest over the years. Yerba Buena Center For the Arts, for example, has screened his 2001 work Haunted Houses and programmed two sets of his shorts. And last year the Asian Art Museum included his installation Phantoms of Nabua as a centerpiece of a group show; I got to see it there man times. (It was also acquired for the SFMOMA collection as well though it has not yet screened there; my girlfriend Kerry Laitala recently highlighted it along with other works in the collection for the SFMOMA Open Space blog.)

But the above are all purely single-channel works, and I've until now only been able to read about Apichatpong's installations that involve more than just an image on a screen in a darkened room. Emerald (known also as Morakot, a transliteration of the Thai word for the gemstone) is the first I've been able to view. Named for the shut-down Bangkok hotel where it was shot, this 10-minute looped video is projected onto a screen across the room from its ingress. Between the screen and the entering viewer hangs a lantern emitting a low level of green light, "creating a focal point and a meditative portal into the space of the single-channel video", as Dena Beard writes in the exhibition brochure.

Not unlike in his 1999 work Windows, the images on the screen are evocative of abandonment; most contain no human figures but the traces of them in these hotel bedrooms remain. The air is filled with illuminated particles of dust and feathers; have birds made a home of this structure in the absence of tourists and travelers? The soundtrack is certainly human though: voices of a few of Apichatpong's favorite actors from his features, including Jenjira Pongpas (the facial-cream fanatic from Blissfully Yours) and Sakda Kaewbuadee (the soldier from Tropical Malady and monk from Syndromes and a Century), relate personal stories from their own lives in a conversation that recalls the first-person narratives the filmmaker elicits in his debut feature Mysterious Object at Noon.  

WHERE/WHEN: Screens at the Berkeley Art Museum during its gallery hours (11AM to 5PM Wednesday through Sunday) until April 21st.

WHY: As many associations as I've made above between Emerald and previous Apichatpong Weerasethakul works, it also seems to anticipate his most recent featurette Mekong Hotel, which is (as its title suggests) another video work shot entirely in a hotel, this time one in Nong Khai, a small city on the Thai bank of the river that delineates most of the border between the Thai region of Isan (where Apichatpong grew up) and the country Laos. It also features performances by Jenjira and Sakda, though not just voiceover in this case, and even makes reference the Emerald Buddha which changed hands between Thailand and Laos and back centuries ago, and whose tears some believe cause the flooding of the mighty Mekong.

I was able to view Mekong Hotel on screener in anticipation of its March 16 & 17 appearances at this year's CAAM Fest, which runs from March 14-24 in San Francisco and Berkeley (though not, for the first time in memory, in San Jose, which will have to make do with the currently-running Cinequest for its fix of Asian and other international and independent movies this month). Apichatpong's Cannes Palme D'Or prize-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives also screens at the Berkeley Art Museum's conjoined organization the Pacific Film Archive during the festival, but I'm unclear whether or not it's actually an official festival screening or not; the PFA site seems to indicate it is, but the CAAM site doesn't include it.

Ill be previewing more CAAM Fest titles soon, but for now I'll just mention a few titles I'm excited the festival is bringing to Frisco Bay: 

Beautiful 2012, a portmanteau with contributions from the great Tsai Ming-Liang (The Wayward Cloud), Ann Hui (A Simple Life), Kim Tae-yong (Memento Mori) and Gu Changwei (cinemtographer for Zhang Yimou, Jiang Wen, Robert Altman, etc. and now a director in his own right)

When Night Falls, a critically-acclaimed representative of the current crop of low-budget independent Chinese filmmaking, which has made its director Ying Liang (Taking Father Home, The Other Half) an exile from his own homeland.

Touch of the Light, a Taiwanese production about a visually impaired pianist that Wong Kar-Wai is credited with executive producing. 

A closing-night presentation of Asian-American home movies entitled Memories To Light. A brilliant idea for a closing night presentation that I suspect may start a trend among other festivals. New People seems far too small a venue for such an occasion.

HOW: The Emerald installation is made up of a video projection and a low-hanging lantern. I'm not sure why, but there are no subtitles projected as part of the piece for the Berkeley installation, but an English translation of the disembodied dialogue is available as a handout to museum guests.

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