Between despair and ecstasy

Thai tyro’s films framed by bucolic sylvan settings

Greg Corradini

Give Thai filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul a couple of characters and a plot.

Just try it.

Most likely, he will transport the characters into the jungle, leaving the plot far behind like distant road kill.

“For me, it’s all about the process of working rather than the plot,” Weerasethakul said.

Recognized as a master of that unscripted process, the Walker Art Museum now hosts a career retrospective of Weerasethakul’s films, which all carve out the space for eschewing traditional narrative conventions.

In “Blissfully Yours,” Weerasethakul manages to cram 40 minutes of footage into the movie before the opening credits roll.

When they do, lead characters Min and Roong are on their way into the jungle. What for 40 minutes seemed like a plodding documentation of ordinary Thai factory life now abruptly changes into an adventure.

Indeed, many of Weerasethakul’s characters find themselves in this transitory landscape between town and country.

“I think at the same time that we live in the city, we yearn for some utopian place or private space that will bring back a hidden memory,” Weerasethakul said.

Known as a conceptual filmmaker, Weerasethakul has a peculiar, poetic ability to construct that private space.

With long, unedited shots of action and heightened sound design, the irrationality of the director’s plots in turn becomes a feast for the senses.

Not much happens when Min and Roong arrive in the jungle. They feed each other by hand, sleep and have sex. But Weerasethakul holds viewers spellbound with shots of sweaty stomachs and cooing birds, all in an attempt to represent the slice of bliss his characters achieve momentarily.

In his newest undertaking, “Tropical Malady,” the director again transports his characters into the jungle. But this time, the serene environs of the jungle have been abandoned for some strange kind of shamanism.

When the main character, Keng, returns for patrol duty in the jungle, Weerasethakul pulls out all the poetic stops. The soul of a slain cow stands up and walks calmly away, and a naked man with tiger stripes roams the jungle.

While some won’t be able to handle the turtle-slow pace of his films, Weerasethakul is a director who suspends our judgment of what narrative constitutes.

Welcome to the jungle.