a Thai man sitting against a background of leafy trees
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul Credit: The Block Museum of Art

Orchids are beautiful but require great patience; once germinated, the flower can take several years to bloom. But though they may seem fussy, it is actually quite easy, I’ve read, to tend to them as long as you exercise that most significant (and trying) of virtues. I have never had the inclination myself, but there are certainly other ways I apply what little patience I do have.

One of those is with cinema—specifically with films that challenge my ability to focus on something I don’t understand for an extended period of time. Mainstream movies nowadays have almost too much plot; one can’t see the new superhero movie without first seeing all its predecessors, other films in the multiverse, and even a television series or two, to understand a never ending story that’s continuously blooming, thereby compromising the potential of its full effect. To such films understanding is integral. When one purchases a ticket, it becomes an investment of more than just time; it becomes a commitment to the labyrinthine narrative set forth, with even one lapse a threat to spoil it all. 

But the films of preeminent Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul eschew the necessity of understanding. They require not just a suspension of disbelief but a near-total abandonment of preconceptions. This isn’t done aggressively or, as may sometimes be the case, pretentiously—rather, Weerasethakul does so languidly. Like orchids, his films require immense patience, and the reward is appreciation, the wonderful awareness of being in the moment with no pressing desire to fathom.

Weerasethakul—sometimes called “Joe,” a nickname he adopted—was born in Bangkok. After completing undergrad in Thailand, he came to Chicago to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received a master of fine arts in filmmaking in 1997. It’s long been a source of pride for Chicago cinephiles to claim such a singular, rarefied talent as one of our own, owing to his brief tenure here. (He returned to Thailand in 1999.) In 2017 the internationally acclaimed exhibition “Apichatpong Weerasethakul: The Serenity of Madness” was on display at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries; he visited then, too, in conjunction with that transcendent multimedia experience. 

Between Monday, April 24, and Friday, April 28, Weerasethakul will again appear in person, this time at several screenings of his films (most on 35-millimeter) between Block Cinema at Northwestern University and the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Monday at Block is Tropical Malady (2004), the first Thai film ever to screen in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it also became the first such film to win a major prize. Both this and Syndromes and a Century (2006), which closes the week of screenings on Friday, April 28, have two-part structures wherein the second part is something different than the first.

Influenced by his Buddhism, this structure represents a sort of filmic reincarnation. The first half of Tropical Malady follows a soldier and a villager as they embark on a sweet, tentative romance (queerness is prevalent in Weerasethakul’s work, as he himself is a queer man). In the second half, the same soldier pursues a tiger shaman, potentially the village lover transformed. Such bilaterality represents the relationship between the natural and mythical worlds, which are simultaneously discrete and interwoven, especially in the fabric of Weerasethakul’s imagination. 

Five short films made between 2005 and 2018 screen in “Blessings of Cinema: Short Films with Apichatpong Weerasethakul” on Tuesday, April 25, at the Block. The connecting theme is that each short is somehow metacinematic in nature. For example, in Thailand, the royal anthem is played before all film screenings. In The Anthem (2006), Weerasethakul creates his own homage to the communal experience; three women chat happily on a porch along the water’s edge, discussing a new album that one of them likes and says she’ll play at the theater where she works. In another instance of diremption, it then cuts suddenly to some sort of shoot, where people are engaging in various recreational activities. To what end I’m not sure, but the relationship between the tranquil conversation and the joyful exuberance of the production puts one in a mindset ready for just about any kind of movie.

A companion piece to Weerasethakul’s acclaimed 2010 film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, another of the shorts—A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009)—is part of his larger Primitive project, wherein he explores Nabua, a border town on the divide between Thailand and Laos, with a history of migration and related violence. It was once also a red zone occupied by Thai soldiers in an attempt to thwart communist insurgents. Composed of shots of abandoned houses with only a group of Nabua teenagers playing soldiers to comprise a cast, it’s as much a feeling as it is a film. It’s not only metacinematic in its connection to the feature film, but it also prefigures Memoria (2021) with the Spaceship of Nabua, an installation visible in some exterior shots. Other shorts in the program include Mobile Men (2008), Worldly Desires (2005), and Blue (2018). 

Blessings of Cinema: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Block Cinema, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston
Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

At the Film Center, as part of the Conversations at the Edge series, his most recent feature, the aforementioned Memoria, screens on Thursday, April 27. It’s a staggering work, perhaps the apotheosis (at least currently) of Weerasethakul’s tremendous vision. His first film in English and the first set outside Thailand, it centers on Tilda Swinton as Jessica, a Scottish woman based in Colombia. She’s awoken by a loud noise in the night, the lure of which compels her to pursue its mysterious source. Weerasethakul’s own experiences with exploding head syndrome—which involves the sufferer hearing an inexplicable loud noise (most often during the transition between sleep and wake)—inform the film’s uncanniness. 

Swinton’s character is an orchid farmer; another semi-autobiographical detail is that Weerasethakul’s mother had an orchid garden. Orchids also factor into Syndromes and a Century, the latter of the two bifurcated narrative features, here centered on the happenings of two hospitals across several generations. Weerasethakul’s parents were physicians, and as such, the film is loosely based on their experiences. In the first part, a young army doctor both pursues and is pursued by potential suitors (one of whom cultivates orchids). It’s set in a rural hospital, whereas the second half takes place in a more urban location, the events of the former happening again in this parallel narrative. The duality of rural and urban spaces is another of Weerasethakul’s abiding concentrations; much like an orchid, he seems to suggest that with patience, it’s possible to bloom anywhere.