Apichatpong Weerasethakul started as he meant to go on with his debut feature, straddling the borders between art film and surrealist exercise. A cinematic riff on the classic “exquisite corpse” game, Mysterious Object at Noon (ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร, Dokfa Nai Meuman) is equal parts neorealist odyssey and commentary on the human need for constructed narrative (something which the film itself consistently rejects). Shot in a grainy black and white, Apitchatpong’s first effort was filmed over three years travelling the length of the country from North to South inviting everyone from all walks of life to contribute something to the ongoing and increasingly strange brand new oral history.
Beginning with a travelling shot from inside a van peddling fish sauce, Apitchatpong fills the air with naturalistic background noise including our very first story – a sappy sounding radio drama called “I’ll Love You Tomorrow” about a guy who loses touch with the love of his life only to find her engaged to another man. The genesis for the ongoing narrative comes from the woman working on the truck who first recounts her own true story of having been sold by her father for nothing more than the money for his train fare home. She then tells us about a disabled boy and his home teacher who will become the central players in the background tale.
The boy and his teacher get on well and are very close, but one day he finds her collapsed with a strange sphere rolling out from underneath her skirt. This “mysterious object” then transforms into a boy who hides the teacher’s body in a cupboard before taking on her form when he realises the first boy misses her. The odd story grows and develops as each person brings something new to it, reflecting their own lives and histories as a kind of brand new myth making occurs in which ordinary people try to make sense of extraordinary events. Consequently, we have everything from kidnapping to hostess bars and aliens suddenly creeping into this magical realist exercise.
Beginning in the city and ending in the country, Apichatpong talks to anyone and everyone, getting old grannies drunk and letting children run riot. Nearing the end of the journey, he recreates the constructed narrative as a travelling show complete with singing and dancing though his country players are quick to criticise the lack of proper script and random nature of the story. Realising they’ll need some kind of explanation as to why the disabled boy is in a wheelchair, the in movie director decides to film an insert sequence along the lines of an archive news segment. More archive footage follows before Apichatpong takes things in the opposite direction by letting the camera roll on with his cast for the invented story as the second boy becomes keen to remind everyone he was promised some KFC on the way home and Apitchatpong himself steps in front of the camera to fix a lighting setup.
Stories are the way we define our worlds, though given enough leeway the ones we imagine for ourselves are much stranger than conventional logic would allow. The real world is, however, ever present in the sappy radio adverts, political posters, elephants and boxing rings which give way to the darker elements of child abductions and human trafficking. Real life is here, but its deeper layer is here too in the stories which we tell to make sense of it. Using narrative devices from intertitles to sign language, Mysterious Object at Noon embraces all kinds of storytelling from the dramatic to the literary, but its heart is always with the people and the random craziness that emerges when attempting to explain the inexplicable. A necessarily disparate and strange experience, Mysterious Object at Noon neatly heralds the direction of Apichatpong’s ongoing career in its effortless playfulness and sympathetic exploration of this most basic of human needs.
French release trailer (subtitles/captions in French only)