Chulayarnnon Siriphol can't keep his jokes to himself. He has the boyish — some might say nerdy — looks of a milk-fed goody two-shoes mama's boy, but in his films, the 29-year-old often thrives on pranks, satire, mischief and a brand of droll, childlike humour that cuts through the slough of hypocrisy.
In university, he teases his lecturers in his thesis film. As a Buddhist, he teases the moral hegemony and the simplistic definition of goodness. And as a citizen in times of political absurdity, he teases the sense of confusion in which Thailand is engulfed.
"I don't think I'm that funny," says Chulayarnnon, who often speaks with a hint of shyness. "I like to make people laugh, but I'm not sure if everyone gets my jokes."
Not everyone, for sure.
In Myth Of Modernity, he sends neon pyramids flying over a crowd of anti-Yingluck protesters. In his mock-music video, Think Kindly, an angel floats nonchalantly above the half-constructed (or half-ruined?) Democracy Monument, as Buddhist chants play in the background.
In the darkly hilarious Planking, he filmed an anonymous man lying face down on the ground in several public places, (true to "planking" style), while a crowd around him stands still during the national anthem (apparently — the video has no sound).
In the eight-minute Thai Contemporary Politics Quiz, he pairs a series of phoney questions with real-life, politically charged images. One shows a group of soldiers pointing guns during the deadly crackdown in May 2010. Quiz-like text about it reads: "Which traditional Thai performance best shows joy and enthusiasm?"
A filmmaker by training, Chulayarnnon has joined a small rank of emerging Thai artists whose works comfortably occupy both cinema screens and gallery space. Their work straddles the border of film and video art (other practitioners include Korakrit Arunanondchai, featured in this series last month, and the more senior Jakrawal Nilthamrong and Taiki Sakpisit).
In the past four years, Chulayarnnon's work has been shown in galleries in Bangkok, Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo and Fukuoka, where in 2013 he spent time in an artists' residency. Every short film he makes and releases (he has yet to make a feature-length one) is a much-anticipated event among Bangkok's art buffs.
His latest show, a set of photography based on his black-and-white short film Vanishing Horizon Of The Sea, will take place at his alma mater, King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL), at the end of the month.
It seems fitting for a bad student to naturally transform into a good artist. Chulayarnnon studied film at KMITL, where he found "the prescription of the classical three-act structure wasn't very liberating".
As a high school student in 2004, he made a short documentary that's still shown in universities' film classes today. Called Hua-Lam-Pong, it simply portrays an old man at a Bangkok train station. The film, however, packs a punch, one laced with humanity and powerful imagery.
While at KMITL, Chulayarnnon made Golden Sand House, a gentle comedy featuring his real-life family that riffs on classic Thai soap opera, and Sleeping Beauty, a work of devastating tenderness in which he observes his old, frail grandmother in his house.
Some of his lecturers weren't pleased with his experimental, non-narrative spirit that favours image, concept and sensitivity over story. In his 2008 thesis film, Danger, he made sure to get his grade by making a by-the-book murder-mystery set in an apartment. But once he passed (with honours, no less), he re-edited it and inserted bland, academic-sounding text on screen in a modernist jest that, again, didn't please his lecturers ("the reason for making this film is…" and "the method in making this film is…"), before ending the film with an image of his own portrait being burned.
It was a mockery of himself and of the system. The film won the top prize at Thai Short Film and Video Festival.
It's not hard to guess what filmmaker Chulayarnnon looks up to, then and now.
"When I was a student, the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul changed my views about art," he says, referring to the Thai director and artist who won a number of international prizes from enigmatic art-house titles such as Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. "I realised that film didn't have to be what I was taught it should be or what I'd seen in cinemas. It can be so much else. I asked a lot of questions about the medium of film and I knew there were so many possibilities.
"Some people think that making an 'experimental film' means you can put whatever you want on screen. That's a cynical way of looking at it when film and art encompass something more intimate and more relevant than that."
Like many young artists of his generation, Chulayarnnon came of age artistically, during the post-2006 political turmoil, deepening his views of society and causing his pranks to take on sharper edges. Like many at the time, he was frustrated by the belligerent divisiveness that split Thai society. He never realised, he said, that friends and people close to him could be so ready to quarrel at the slightest pretext.
"The impact was so personal," he says. "I knew then that what was going on wasn't just about politicians fighting, but something that profoundly affected me and the people around me."
After the fatal incident in the Nang Lerng community in 2009, in which two people were killed by red-shirt supporters, Chulayarnnon made the poignant A Brief History Of Memory, featuring a mother's voice speaks about the loss of her son. That loss, the artist says, happens to all sides of the conflict — the film also makes brief reference to the 2010 Ratchaprasong crackdown. In its black-and-white images, sometimes clear, sometimes blurred like a bad dream or an involuntary memory, the film is a remembrance of the many deaths during those confusing times.
Shifting from the sombre tone, Chulayarnnon has also honed his mischief-making, with its pointed messages that often fit into exhibition spaces. Planking (2012) is a chilling attack on nationalism, though its irreverent humour somehow softens the conceptual assault. Likewise, Thai Contemporary Politics Quiz (2010) is a deadpan lament of state-sanctioned violence. Think Kindly (2009), meanwhile, is a karaoke video set to a Buddhist-style hymn that questions the "morality binge" of society. Though six years old, the piece remains relevant in today's atmosphere.
"I went to an elementary school that focused on 'the Buddhist way', and I was immersed in the teaching of goodness," he says. "I still believe in it, but I've also seen that religion and politics are often mixed, and the Buddhist way has been exploited as political leverage — those who are on our side are 'good', while those who think differently are 'bad'. I disagree with that, and I don't think it's right to evoke sacred virtues as a weapon to destroy others.
"Idealism means we're looking up at something above us — something we try to achieve — but it also means we sometimes forget to look down to the people below," adds Chulayarnnon. "I make jokes based on that ignorance, and I think I was able to do that because I was raised in a Buddhist school, which allows me to see it as a problem."
The sly tension between poker-faced humour and hefty criticism (of politics, religion, nationalism, censorship) is the thrust of Chulayarnnon's work. It's easy to dismiss him as a juvenile prankster out for a laugh — if, that is, you fail to realise what he's zeroing in on. One of his trademarks that supplements this idea is the use of non-spectacular special effects (overlaying images, karaoke-style text), which appear childlike but never childish, low-key but not cheap. The best example is last year's Myth Of Modernity, showing at Thai Short Film and Video Festival as well as at Nanyang Technology University's gallery in Singapore. He filmed the protracted 2013-2014 anti-Yingluck street protests and — comparing it to the carnivalesque atmosphere of a Thai temple fair — digitally inserted neon pyramids above the mass of people, suggesting a cosmic nirvana achieved by the participants. It's a serious jest, and also a reminder that faith, politics and partisan devotion is something of a laugh.
"My work feels like a toy to me. When I show some of my films in the cinema, the grandeur and the complete darkness of the place seem to overwhelm it, and I feel humbled," he says. "That's why gallery space sometimes feels friendlier to me."
But Chulayarnnon's work has the vitality to go either way. Politics are on his mind a lot, but the personal memories that fuelled his early work remains firmly within him. His latest film, Vanishing Horizon Of The Sea, is a gorgeous, mysterious take on the memory of his grandfather, a naval officer, and the various, disposable ways that a memory can be stored — in tapes, in photographs, in the mind. The film won a Jury Prize at December's Singapore International Short Film Festival, but any single frame from the film would look right at home on a gallery wall.
"Perhaps that's how I work, mixing personal memory with the memory of the medium," says Chulayarnnong. "And the memory of the people around me, too."
Vanishing Horizon Of The Sea.