Confession: my only previous exposure to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director who’s one of the most lauded auteurs currently working, was a DVD copy of Tropical Malady, which frankly bored my pants off. Watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives on the big screen at the New York Film Festival’s Alice Tully Hall, it occurred to me almost immediately that waiting to see anything by Weerasethakul on DVD is a terrible idea. For Uncle Boonmee, the large theater screen works like a window onto a bigger world populated by larger-than-actual-size memories and myths. And the photography is not the kind of crisp, high-contrast work that translates well to home video (though Blu-ray might do OK by it) — shots taken within the Thai jungle, for instance, are unfailingly dense and moody, with different and ever-darker shades of green layered on top of each other like thick brush strokes in an oil painting. Sometimes it feels as if the whole film were shot at twilight, or using day-for-night shooting and processing trickery. When one of Weerasethakul’s rare bright daylight exteriors hits the screen, you feel it like waking up at noon.
In a happy development for cult and genre-film fans, non-English-language offerings beyond the highbrow are continuing to trickle out on Blu-ray Disc. And while you can’t buy a HD copy of My Blueberry Nights in the U.S. (and with the dollar in the toilet, who can afford to import movies these days?), you can pick up this lesser-known Thai horror-fantasy from 2006. Directed by Pleo Sirisuwan, it’s a low-budget adventure about the various creatures — human, humanoid and otherwise — lurking deep inside the jungle. It’s one of those movies where the hero’s face gets more and more jacked up and bloody as it goes along.
Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng revisited the cinema of his youth in Tears of the Black Tiger, a dizzy mash-up of postmodern genre picture and detached melodrama. The genre in this case is the western, which he tackles in full-on Sergio Leone style, including iconic shoot-outs, flamboyant stylization and a faux-Morricone score. There are signals throughout that we’re not meant to take much of this seriously. One of the villains has a pencil-thin mustache that appears to have been cut from construction paper and glued crookedly onto his face. (I felt like the filmmaker was sitting in the chair next to me, gently nudging me in my gut with his elbow every so often to make sure I knew he was making fun.)
Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe is a lovely film, if a little out of balance with itself. Starring a handsome, unassuming Tadanobu Asano (the Japanese actor currently appearing on U.S. screens in Zatoichi), it definitely falls into the Moody Asia subgenre that’s gained some art-house currency recently. It’s one of those weirdly pitched oddities — it reminds me a little of a Wong Kar-Wai movie, a little of Takeshi Kitano — that employs brief outbursts of violence as catalysts of and punctuation for the inaction of its primary characters, who spend most of the movie moping around a dark house at the seaside.