2002, Thailand/France, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Apichatpong Weerasethakul said, while making his first feature, that it would just be a 'sweet romance', with 'no politics', but the dreamy atmosphere of the film's second hour comes across in many ways as a self-protecting response to the country's blunt political and economic realities as it emerged from the crisis of the late 1990s. Like his previous feature, the semi-documentary Mysterious Object at Noon, this film's opening paints a picture of a troubled country, where money and prices are at the forefront of everyday life. The usual courtesies are put aside in favour of requesting immediate payment, for no-one -- doctor or factory colleague -- can afford to extend credit, while careless use of another's possessions quickly triggers anger.
Thailand's complex links with its neighbours, as well as its own sometimes fraught ethnic relations, are also an important presence in the film, particularly as the film is set in the north of the country, near the border with Burma/Myanmar. After all, one of the characters is an illegal immigrant from over that border, and much of the opening segment of the film is taken up with the problem of his lack of an identity card. The characters use various stratagems to ensure his illegal status is not discovered, pretending he's a distant relative and even claiming that the man cannot speak. Similarly, when a motorbike is stolen in the forest, a character immediately assumes that the thief is a member of the much-maligned Karen ethnic group.
With all this in mind, it's no surprise that the characters seek out a place to escape from their world, if only for a few hours, finding an idyll in the woods to withdraw and recuperate from the demands of work and town life. The riverbank where they spend their time seems like the traditional place of renewal, where frayed connections can be repaired - particularly between the young Roong and her older colleague Orn. However, while the location allows for some respite, Orn's pain seems to run too deep to be easily washed away; Weerasethakul uses the symbolism of the river without simplifying the realities that poke through the surface of his film.
The river/forest sequences are an extraordinarily sensual experience, deeply focused on textures and sounds (the buzzing of insects in particular) and on an intense awareness of the surrounds. The camera lingers over shots of feet dangling in the water or Roong's face as she falls asleep, lulled by the warmth and peace of the location, undisturbed by a fly that alights on her in a nice bit of filmmaking serendipity. It's a seductive vision that is all the more poignant for the viewer's awareness of its inevitable temporary nature.