Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
How many documentarians have focused on the act of constructing stories themselves? Mysterious Object at Noon, a weird, wonderful and altogether sui generis new documentary from Thailand, does just that, and in the process engages, unhinges and forever deranges the way that stories and cultural histories could – and perhaps should – be told.
The inspiration for Mysterious Object at Noon was the old Surrealist storytelling technique known as Exquisite Corpse, wherein a variety of writers would contribute to a story one sentence at a time, without knowing much about what the previous sentences contained. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul – you can call him Joe – spent some time studying American experimental film at the Art Institute of Chicago and wandered into a museum exhibition on Surrealism between classes. When he got back to Bangkok he decided he’d use the technique to structure a documentary, and he set out with a small crew, a 16mm camera and the goal of interviewing people throughout the country, learning a little bit about their lives and then asking them to contribute to the film’s evolving story.
What emerges is at once a portrait of Thailand’s disenfranchised lower classes – farmers, fruit vendors, village performers of mor lam (a song-and-storytelling hybrid extremely popular in the rural northeast) – and a fractured group-narration of a story about a handicapped boy and his tutor, a woman named Dogfar. One minute you’ll be watching some fly-on-the-wall coverage of a conversation, the next you’re inside a re-creation of a story fragment someone’s just contributed, and then just as suddenly you’re watching what appears to be a snippet of ‘real’ Thai television – which seems to be commenting on the actions you’ve just seen. Infectious and willfully incoherent, Mysterious Object at Noon lives up to its title when a strange object rolls out of Dogfar’s apron and becomes, in the space of a cut, a kind of precocious homunculus of the handicapped kid we’ve only just begun to recognize…
The film’s Thai title translates as Dogfar in the Devil’s Hand, a reference to the type of hyperbolic melodramas that have historically made up the bulk of Thai cinema, and throughout the film various popular and traditional Thai storytelling forms – songs, soap operas, theatrical clichés – intersect with Joe’s modernist designs. Any other influences? ‘Oh yeah,’ says Joe, ‘Duchamp and Andy Warhol.’ — Chuck Stephens, Filmmaker, Spring/00