"Well, all right," she says, "although I don't know if this one was real or just something I read somewhere." And with that she launches into a story about a boy in a wheelchair and her tutor, a strange woman named Dogfahr.
So begins Mysterious Object At Noon, an experiment in shared storytelling in Thailand's lower classes. It's an astonishing little movie, because it is completely free of cliché — there's quite literally never been anything like this. The basic idea is followed as far as it'll go before it falls to pieces, at which point the director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, makes discoveries about both his story and his storytellers that have been gradually adding up all along. The whole thing's a variant on the old Surrealist technique of the Exquisite Corpse, but recast in such a fresh way that it doesn't seem shopworn.
The camera crew goes from person to person in Thailand, and each person interviewed adds a little to the story of Dogfahr and the boy. At first, there's the fish seller. Then an old woman with sunglasses and a goofy (if toothless) smile. Then a young man who works at a roadside snack stand, and then a group of travelling performers who do a roadside-attraction version of the Dogfahr story to great applause.
With each zing of the ball, as it were, the story gets embellished, spun out in different directions, sometimes even flatly contradicting itself. Sometimes we see the story turn into magical realism or science fiction; sometimes, as in the hands of two cheerful deaf girls, it becomes social commentary. The director also intercuts, where he can, his own filming of the story as being told by the narrators, with all the appropriate variations. Sometimes the storytellers reach an impasse, and the intercutting shows the actors, not the heroes themselves, stepping out of their roles and trying to figure out what's for lunch.
The end of the film is baffling and lovely at the same time. Weerasethakul, having followed his story to an elementary school, buttonholes a group of kids about the next installment. They conjure up an outlandishly over-the-top ending (think ray guns and swords), but the director doesn't show this. Instead, he sticks with them as they retell another story from their own childhoods, a popular Thai myth, and then stays with them as they play soccer and frolic in the water ... until his camera breaks down.
What to make of this? It didn't hit me until much later — that Weerasethakul had learned something from his journey, and that he was reflecting on that in his work. The story itself was, in the end, arbitrary; everyone has a story to tell, whether it's theirs or someone else's or something out of our collective past. What matters is the telling, and how that telling relates to the life of the one doing the telling. By embedding the whole thing in the process of the movie itself, Object goes a step further than just being a fancy cinematic trick. Even the story we're being told is "real," because the movie is about that as much as it's about the people it features.
Not long ago I watched Rock 'n Roll Cop, a Hong Kong movie of such total forgettability that I literally dozed through part of it. Everything, right down to the mega-gun conclusion, was a retread. With Object, I sat up in my seat and paid attention to every moment, because I had never seen this movie before, in any form. It is, to use a rather badly abused word, unique, and unique in the best possible way. And in a final credit, we learn that the traveling troupe seen earlier in the movie performed the story of Dogfahr up and down the Thai countryside for several months to great success.
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