Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Blissfully Yours (2002)

by on March 21, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Tue March 27 at 7:15 at Jacob Burns Film Center [Program & Tix]

 

Westchester Country continues their retrospective of in-resident Apichatpong Weerasethakul thru April 8. You can listen to a podcast of a conversation between the Thai superstar director and JBFC’s Andrew Jupin here.
 
Brett Farmer for Senses of Cinema:

The work of certain filmmakers is so strikingly innovative and singular in style that it engenders eponymous neologisms with which to describe it. Thus have terms like Eisensteinian, Hitchcockian and Felliniesque entered the critical and even popular vernacular. Not only is Apichatpong Weeresathekul the most visionary, critically lauded filmmaker working in Southeast Asia today but, as Roger Clarke of Sight and Sound opines, he’s possibly “one of the most brilliantly original directors in the world.” Apichatpong’s second feature, Blissfully Yours is exemplary. Generally regarded as his critical breakthrough, the film received widespread attention – in seemingly equal measures, fulsome and disapproving – for its sumptuous, painterly visuals and playful nonconformism. With a minimalist narrative composed of languid sequences filmed almost in real-time, a small cast of largely untrained actors, and a fractured structure that sees the opening credits run some 40 minutes into the film, Blissfully Yours is nothing if not knowing in its stylistic dissidence. Apichatpong is, after all, a filmmaker whose production company sports the wryly-renegade moniker of “Kick the Machine”. Yet, the film is also entirely sincere in its commitment to the authenticity and humanity of the characters and scenarios it carefully, even lovingly, depicts.
 
Translated into English as Blissfully Yours, the original Thai title, Romanised as Sud Sanaeha, carries the more literal meaning of “supreme passion” or “complete intimacy” which more fully suggests the sense of urgent connection, fulfilment and belonging sought by the characters through their bucolic idyll. Though little may happen in conventional narrative terms, at the level of sensual affect, the impact is all but overwhelming with the viewer drawn steadily and inexorably into the film’s swirling emotional eddies and the characters’ desperate attempts to find happiness in the interstices of everyday life and its alienating discontents. Moving simultaneously between the spatial and temporal orders of the local and the global, the traditional and the contemporary, Apichatpong produces an imaginatively mercurial, transnational cinema that signals exciting possibilities for the art-form as it travels into the 21st century.

 

 

Alt Screen contributing editor Nathan Lee for The New York Sun:

If “Mysterious Object” pushed the envelope of narrative normalcy, “Blissfully Yours” tore it to shreds and scattered the pieces in the jungle of Thai land. Mr. Weerasethakul’s sophomore masterpiece begins as a sharply observed urban study of a Burmese immigrant, his girlfriend, and an older woman who looks after them. There is a visit to the doctor, a bit of shopping, a shift at the local tchotchke factory.

 
Then something magical happens. Forty minutes into the movie, as two of the characters drive out to the countryside for a picnic, the credit sequence suddenly kicks in to the strains of a giddy Thai pop song. It’s a delightful, disarming invention, this quirky reloading of the narrative. Dissolving the geometry of its opening section, the film then plunges deep into the flux of nature, observing its characters as they wander through thick vegetation, laze about in streams, soak up the afternoon sun. Mr. Weerasethakul pushes the duration of his shots to the limit of tolerance and beyond, altering our sense of time and perspective. “Blissfully Yours,” indeed: This is one of the genuinely transcendent films of our time.

 
J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

Avant-pop marches on—and with his unpronounceable name, unknown intentions, and casually uninflected camera placement, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is well positioned to hold the banner high. Weerasethakul described Blissfully Yours as a “sweet romance” that would last three hours and unfold in real time. The concept was eventually modified, but at two hours, it remains a profoundly unhurried movie. Many scenes are only a single shot, often in a moving vehicle. Romance, however, is in the air—and on the ground.
 
The movie is set on Thailand’s northwest border. Min is an illegal immigrant from Burma, afflicted with psoriasis; girlish Roong and her older co-worker Orn look after the taciturn refugee. The movie begins with Min getting a medical examination; after 45 minutes or so, it inexplicably shifts gears—providing opening credits and a perky samba—as Min and Roong drive into the jungle, Flintstones knickknacks bobbling merrily on the dashboard. They pick berries and find a scenic spot to picnic. Roong kisses skittish Min, but contact is uncomfortable for him. The couple are fending off ants when Weerasethakul cuts to Orn and a man unglamorously fucking somewhere else in the forest. It’s part of the movie’s charm that the viewer is also lost in the woods. Finished with her tryst, Orn wanders off downstream to stumble upon Roong blissfully servicing Min. Later, Roong spends long, dreamy minutes playing with Min’s penis or just gazing up at the clouds in the sky. A deadpan, self-consciously prehistoric version of Jean Renoir’s rueful idyll A Day in the Country, Blissfully Yours is unconscionably happy.

 

 

Manhola Dargis for The New York Times:

A delicate, ethereal dream of a film […] Although he pokes about the edges with a sharp, almost ethnographic eye, Mr. Weerasethakul doesn’t linger in any of these places. We’re there just long enough to catch a glimpse of normal everyday Thai life, as if the filmmaker wanted us to see these chilly institutions so that we can fully appreciate or at least intuit (Mr. Weerasethakul doesn’t like to overstate his intentions) the importance of the coming idyll.
 
For Min, Roong and Orn, the trip into the forest will be no simple day in the country; it is something more urgent and necessary. What it means to each character emerges slowly through fragments of conversation rather than through speeches and scripted epiphanies. You don’t need to know the political backdrop to understand or enjoy “Blissfully Yours” — the film’s aesthetic pleasures are generous — but a sense of the larger context enriches the overall experience.
 
As the filmmaker freely indulges in the forest’s voluptuousness and his own feel for composition, his characters — freed from work, the city and everyday life — shed their clothes and tentatively bump against one another with both pleasure and frustration. In this secret place, where even the smallest gesture becomes an epic of emotion, these three people finally find a moment of quiet by letting the earth swallow them whole.

 


 
Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Boredom is an undervalued, underaestheticized experience these days, and nowhere more so than in the cinema. A lack of activity, of incident, is the great nemesis of the Hollywood film, something to be avoided and guarded against. Oddly, however, what we commonly term “bliss,” especially in its most idealized sense, is itself quite boring. Heaven, in David Byrne’s estimation, is a place where nothing ever happens, and so, though universally coveted, bliss nonetheless has the air of something indolent, dull, and contrary to the vitality of youth.For Apichatpong Weerasethakul, so much the better. Whether because of his avowed Buddhism or some less mystical explanation, his films often engage that most undercultivated of aesthetic experiences: tedium. Patience, banality, and repose are the predominant forces of his work, not as coercive or provocative elements intended to test the audience’s sensory stamina (as in the work of Paul Sharits, for example), but as invitations to experience the world’s everydayness at its own pace. Apichatpong’s second feature, Blissfully Yours, is probably his most direct realization of this mode.

 

Mostly it is the film’s very sense of duration that physically affects the viewer, not only showing its protagonists in sleepy contemplation onscreen, but also quite literally demanding the same of the viewer. In a way, the film functions in a manner similar to Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, allowing the viewer long periods of time to prise out the hidden mechanics of the story (like the truth of Min’s background, or Orn’s feelings for Min). But even Akerman’s point is to inflict the doldrums of her character on her audience, not to invite the audience to find any bliss therein. Apichatpong takes Akerman a step further, enveloping the viewer in the same requiescence the characters experience. So, finding all of this soporific — indeed, even falling asleep during the film — is therefore a wholly valid and not necessarily negative reaction. In a certain sense, it is an ideal way of appreciating the film’s subtle force.

 

 

The director’s production notes:

I have cast the sun as my main character in this film. It is the primary source of energy for life, and at the same time, of destruction. It affects all the individuals in the story (a man’s mysterious sunburn, the relentless heat), and can be viewed as an invisible oppressive force around this area on the Thai-Burmese border. The second character is the jungle, which confines the protagonists despite their desire to find freedom there. In this story, I have chosen not to dwell on the political issues of the Thai-Burmese border, but to focus on mundane and futile activities, which in themselves carry an underlying political message.
 
The shooting went incredibly smoothly until we approached the second half of the film. It was shot in the deep jungle of Khao Yai national park, one of the most pristine forest reserves in Thailand. For a production team, it was like a remote training camp with relentless heat. It was impossible to bring in a power generator and so we depended solely on natural light. There were many days when we just trekked into the jungle and waited for the sun. One day, in Thai tradition, we gave offerings (a pig’s head and a bottle of liquor) to a forest goddess. And, in exchange, she gave us the sun.
 
A few days after the last scene was shot, the setting was destroyed by a big flood. A large tree in the background plunged into the water and the stream turned muddy. We again thanked the forest goddess for allowing us enough sun to capture the beautiful images in our film.

 

 

Chuck Stephens for Film Comment:

There’s certainly never been a Thai film quite like Joe’s independently produced second feature, Blissfully Yours (Sud Saneha, which roughly means “Extreme Desire”). A nothing-happens love story set in the mountains along the border between Thailand and Burma-the hottest political hotspot in the entire country-Blissfully Yours is in fact filled with incident and undercurrents, including three rounds of increasingly explicit sex, a man with a virulent skin rash, and a set of title credits that appear, mysteriously, halfway through the film.
 
What all this apparent “nothing”ness sets in motion is a particularly Thai antimony between science and superstition, and between official procedures and independent rebellion, that resonates throughout the entire film, not to mention most of Joe’s work. And viewers who exhaust themselves waiting for something big to take place will probably miss the myriad little things that keep happening all the time, since-in Blissfully Yours, as in Mysterious Object-what one is meant to watch isn’t so much the story itself, as the manner in which it unfolds. Thus, an interminably long sequence riding along in a car seemingly unequipped with shock absorbers serves not only to replicate the experience of traversing rural Thailand, but also to give the viewer time to ponder the implications-international media saturation, inexpensive Third World labor-of the Disney character figurines on the car’s dash. And, as radically as the backward-scrolling credits at the apocalyptic terminus of Kiss Me Deadly, the sudden appearance of Blissfully Yours‘s titles at an unexpected midway point serves to unsettle viewer expectations as neatly as it divides the film’s real-world, workplace-anxiety-riddled first half from its verdant, sun-dappled, Edenic second.
 
“The characters [in my film],” writes Joe in Blissfully‘s production notes, counterposing the presences in his cinema with those of his directorial predecessors, “do not have a meaningful goal in life. Under two flawed political systems [Thailand and Burma], they choose to remain ignorantly blissful.” Could he be articulating his position as a filmmaker caught between two systems-independence and studio sponsorship-as well? As Joe further admits in those production notes, the inspiration for Blissfully Yours came as he watched two Burmese women being arrested by immigration authorities outside the Bangkok zoo. “Did the Burmese women enjoy the zoo as much as the other people there,” Thai cinema’s boldest outsider found himself wondering, “before they were captured that afternoon?”

 

 

Nick Pinkerton for Reverse Shot:

Movie watchers can neatly be divided into two types: those who feel like a film requires a discernable “point” and those who don’t; chances are you know in which camp you fall. Inasmuch as Blissfully Yours has a point, it is this: the quality of sunlight shining through water or filtered through a forest’s canopy, the meditative quality of sex outdoors during a perfect day, the so close, so faraway sweet sadness of lying beside someone. In intimate moments most especially, these characters never seem to connect with one another, but not in that po-faced “Ah-but-we-are-all-adrift-in-this-modern-world-of-factories-and-Toyota Corollas” way. Everyone’s just off, wrapped up in their own mysterious thrall, which doesn’t seem so fatal.
 

This is some profoundly tactile, instinctively sensual moviemaking, never sniggery or doggedly fixated about sex. Toward the movie’s end, there’s a moment where Roong gently fondles the genitals of her sleeping lover; it plays like a passage of D.H. Lawrence—with artistry enough to show up grubby artcore like 9 Songs for the chic stunt it is. Also worth appreciating is the film’s eschewal of shopworn sex roles: having seen plenty enough score-settling coming-of-age dreck in which inexperienced young girls are lured into joyless, rutting deflowering by manipulative older “I’ll take it out if it hurts” sleazebags, it’s a relief to see something like Min and Roong’s trickily felt-out courtship, anchored by her unabashed pleasure in touching. Peeling skin and aching hearts aside, what I retain of Blissfully Yours (the ecstasy of that title!) is those moments in which the actors shimmer with the joy of just having a body. It takes a sterner viewer than I not to share that pleasure.

 

 

Tony Rayns for Vertigo Magazine:

The flaws in the idyll may make us think of darker, off-screen realities. Of the Burmese military junta, for example, which has kept Burma one of the least developed and entrepreneurial economies in South-east Asia and has thus driven chancers like Min abroad to seek their fortune. Or even of Thailand’s own government under premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the richest man in the country, whose stated ambition to make Thailand as prosperous and sanitised as Singapore is implicitly challenged by every indolent, sexy image in the film. (Thaksin doesn’t say it openly, but it’s clear that he’d also like the Thai population to be clinically docile – as, of course, Singapore’s is.) For Min, Thailand is a staging-post en route to Papua-New Guinea or Australia. Roong and Orn, Sirote and Tommy display no flicker of political awareness. For them, ignorance may well be bliss.
 
How does all of this relate to Joe’s interest in Buddhism? Nobody in the film practices Buddhist virtues; these characters are all lost in selfish desires and prey to minor dishonesties, rivalries and resentments. But they are all motivated in their variously impure and unenlightened ways by the quest for bliss. And the film itself makes no secret of its own quest for bliss, whether it’s in real-time observation of people picking and tasting wild berries in the forest or in real-time celebration of a penis coaxed into a state of arousal. The cinematic pleasures here are not found in the story or the structure or even the performances, but in the concept and the attitude. The credit reads not “directed by” but “conceived by Apichatpong Weerasethakul”. This is obviously very far from achieving “voidness”. But it’s manifestly a step in the right direction

 

 
Ed Howard for Only the Cinema:

Blissfully Yours simply drifts along, from moment to moment and place to place, patiently watching these people’s daily routines. In one scene, Orn mixes together chopped-up fruits with a table full of creams and skin lotions, creating her own concoction, halfway between a fruit salad and a skin treatment. Weerashethakul loves to watch procedures like this, just as later his camera admires the careful, methodical way in which Roong prepares a snack for Min, wrapping up a piece of meat with a cluster of rice grains, then tearing off a piece of bread to engulf it all, and dipping the small bunched ball into the juices from some fruit. She repeats the procedure twice, making one for Min and then one for herself, and Weerashethakul captures the hypnotic quality of her careful motions as she assembles these snacks. She does it, perhaps, with the same mechanical care with which she paints Disney figurines at the factory where she works, where she’s so overworked that, as Min laments in voiceover, her hands are sore after a particularly hard day. The film’s extreme patience becomes especially clear when, nearly 45 minutes into the film, the credits suddenly appear as Min and Roong are driving towards a picnic in a remote woodsy area. It’s as though Weerashethakul is saying, now the movie is starting, everything that came before was simply a long prelude, an introduction, presenting the necessary context for what’s to come.
 
These scenes are all about the play of light dappled on bare skin, the casual sensuality, and sexuality, of the characters as they drift together and apart over the course of the afternoon, sometimes joined in intimacy and at other times separated by silence and disconnection. Weerashethakul intercuts the scenes between the two young lovers with scenes of Orn and her husband, engaged in a similar indulgent afternoon in the woods not far from the younger couple. Weerashethakul is all about suggesting emotional and thematic depths without directly confronting them. Through subtle gestures, the sex scene between Orn and her husband becomes, without a word being spoken, about her desire to have a child and his reluctance to go along with her. The way she watches as he takes off his condom and throws it away after sex, the way she caresses her own belly as she lies next to him: these simple gestures say everything about these characters, their urges and needs. Later, Orn joins up with Roong and Min, following a strange and elliptical series of events in which her husband runs off, chasing a motorcycle thief, possibly to die or merely to confront some more mundane fate, but either way disappearing from the film without ceremony. Afterward, Orn wanders through the forest, donning an antiseptic mask she finds on the forest floor. Even in such a direct and seemingly realistic film, Weerashethakul displays a weird kind of beneath-the-surface surrealism in small, unexplained details like this. These seeming non-sequiturs simply add to the film’s richness, its texture, its ineffable sense of mystery.

 

 

Nathan Lee again, this time for Film Comment:

It takes chutzpah to call a film Blissfully Yours, and genius to achieve what Apichatpong does in its transcendental finale. By the side of a river, surrounded by lush tropical green, a man and a woman soak up the pleasures of a slow afternoon: the digestion of a picnic lunch, a dip in the water, hand caressing erection, cool in the shade. Talk grows sparse; the shots increase in duration; the point is pointlessness, the quotidian sublime. Can you feel it? It’s not just the narrative (what little there is) that has deliquesced in the warm sunlight and buzzing air. It’s simpler than that. Beyond plot, character, mise en scène, even meaning, the flow of images has given itself wholly to the moment, abandoning all for sheer sensory implication. Viewers on the Apichatpong wavelength have been guided to a place where experience being represented becomes our experience, the light projected onto the screen analogous to the sunlight in the story. In short, the bliss of these endless shots is ours – synesthetic, participatory, spreading from the eyes throughout the whole corpus, nourishing, mellowing, warming the system.

 

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