Sunday, September 2, 2007

Blissfully Yours

Blissfully Yours is a film decidedly not built for analysis. Composed of long tracking shots of the Thai countryside and long fixed shots of offices and jungles, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film is a compendium of evocative images, often held long enough to test the viewer's patience, but almost always rewarding his attention. But what do all these images add up to, or must they add up to anything at all? In the end, it all amounts to little more than the staging of a rather lovely picnic, but that seems just fine. The film's formal beauty and its shimmering evocation of its jungle milieu (here portrayed as an inviting alternative to city life, unaccompanied by any of the more menacing aspects which usually characterize cinematic depictions of that environment) contribute enough sensual delight to offset the film's lack of concrete content.

The film, which divides, like most of the director's work, into two differing but related halves, is by no means a totally disengaged work. The picture addresses the difficulties of Min (Min Oo), a Burmese immigrant, in obtaining working papers and employment and takes place largely on the Thai-Burmese border, an area hotly contested by the two countries, but these are clearly not the primary concern. The film's first half, built from a series of mostly static long shots, introduces the central figures: Min, the Burmese with an unidentified skin-disease who remains mute during the picture's initial section only to suddenly begin speaking in the second act; his lover, Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram), who paints figurines in a factory; and her older friend Orn (Jenjira Jansuda). The scenes of the first half take place in a doctor's office, a government bureau, a factory, locations fixed in their place by Weerasethakul's motionless camera as the characters are fixed in their place by these institutions which dictate the unvarying patterns of their lives.

The film transitions to its second half through a long sequence in which the characters drive out to the jungle for a picnic: Min and Roong in a car and Orn and an unnamed lover on motorcycle. This sequence, which frees the camera from its previous immobility (although it remains mounted) consists of a long series of tracking shots taken from the car, shots set up both from the vehicle's front, revealing the road ahead, and back (the road behind). The long sequence provides a generous view of the countryside, a landscape that becomes increasingly rural as it gives way to the oncoming approach of the jungle. Weerasethakul devotes no less than ten minutes to this evocation of rural Thailand, a contemplative segment which removes the characters (and viewer) quite firmly from the rigid demands of city life, making a clean break with the film's first half and preparing the way for the idyll that comprises the picture's second act.

That sequence, largely wordless, immediately assumes the visual aesthetic of the transition scenes. As Min and Roong (who separate from Orn before later re-uniting) wend their way through the thick brush, Weerasethakul follows them in another tracking sequence, this time with a handheld camera. When they reach their destination, a lovely spot overlooking a gorge, where they eat their picnic (despite the occasional interruption from ants) and later engage in sexual activity, the director again fixes his camera, returning an order to the characters' lives, but a new order, an idyllic order only made possible in the hot sun and thick leaves of the jungle. The lush cinematography, which emphasizes the green of the trees and the blue of the skies, creates a surreal ambiance suggesting an alternative (if only temporarily) to a world where people struggle to obtain the lowest levels of employment.

The film ultimately suggests an uneasy interaction between its characters, with Min using the women primarily for work papers and the relationship between the women, while rather thinly defined, suggestive of a certain amount of jealous competition. Rather than develop these conflicts, the film is content to merely hint at them, use them as the barest suggestion of a narrative framework that is ultimately made irrelevant by the director's memorable evocation of Thailand's countryside and jungle. At the film's conclusion, a printed title informs us that Min returned to Burma while Roong took up with another man, but what matters is that for the duration of a single afternoon they enjoyed a blissful moment in the sun. Weerasethakul's long fixed shots, his long tracking shots and his lush location photography capture this unique afternoon away from the often merciless demands of working-class urban life. That it offers little else need not concern us. Most films don't give us nearly so much.

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