Of Naga and political dissidents

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's video exhibition 'A Minor History' turns myth and drama into a gesture of resistance

'A Minor History' is comprised of three strategically placed screens, with a molam backdrop in the back of the room. Photo: Supatra Srithongkum and Sutiwat Kumpai

The Naga is real but the murder is not. Or is it vice versa? What history chooses to remember and relegate to oblivion, what it enshrines as story and what it buries as hearsay, is how the narrative of a nation is forged in a mould of clay or a furnace of fire. Or in this particular case, in disembowelled bodies stuffed with concrete blocks. The murder is real but the Naga is not. This sounds more like it.

Its title is as proud as it is sardonic. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "A Minor History" fishes out a forgotten headline from the depths of the Mekong River and reminds us that history -- Thai history, world history? -- has the cynical habit of drowning out minor characters, of purging them from the official narrative. Sometimes through art, however, they live again, resurrected as phantoms that hover above and behind the screen. In this exhibition, it's the phantom of Surachai Sae Dan, the anti-establishment dissident and lese majeste suspect who fled to Laos and two years ago was found floating in the mighty Mekong, his body and that of another man washed up in Nakhon Phanom. Their stomachs had been split and taxidermied with concrete.

"A Minor History", on show through appointment at 100 Tonson, will consist of two parts, the first running from now until Nov 14. Fresh off his high-profile, Colombia-set feature film Memoria, which premiered at Cannes in July, Apichatpong returns to the familiar soil of Thailand's Northeast in this three-channel video work that turns myth and drama into politics and resistance. There are three screens in the darkroom, positioned so that the central one partly obscures the other two, and thus for us to see them all in their entirety we have to make an effort of locating the right angle if ever there is one. Images and truth are not served up on a platter; we have to try and find them.

The vertical screen at the centre shows ambient images of the Mekong and the neon windmill from a temple fair. The other two screens a little further back are where the 18-minute story unfolds, mostly through bits of overheard conversation supposedly between a man called Surachai and a woman whom he's courting, called Ratree, as the two are taking a leisurely stroll along the banks of the river. As the screens show desolate images of an abandoned cinema, we hear Surachai tell Ratree about the Great Naga and how the revered snake god of the Mekong was found thrashing about in agony, its stomach-churning with alien objects, namely corpses and concrete that it has swallowed. The death of a god is a thing of wonder and revulsion, all the more so in the land where people believe in a mythical creature more than in political assassination.

The dialogue between Surachai and Ratree is presented in the typically playful, off-the-cuff exchange we often hear in Apichatpong's films. The audio texture also comes from the disembodied voice itself: Apichatpong casts a young molam singer Mek Krung Fah to voice both Surachai and Ratree in the style of an old-school radio drama or a live dubber of the 16mm film era. A hint at the theatrical quality of the narrative is also brought out by a hand-painted image of a palace's throne hall at the far end of the room, a colourful, almost pulpy backdrop typical of what we see in a molam or likay performance.

A still image of an abandoned cinema in Kalasin, which is featured in the exhibition. Photo: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

During the brief window last year when travelling was still possible, Apichatpong drove around the Isan provinces from Khon Kaen, where he grew up, to Nong Khai, Kalasin, Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, Mukdahan, and Ubon Ratchathani. He filmed a deserted movie house in Kalasin, bare concrete and pockmarked walls colonised by unruly vines and pigeons. He interviewed the men from Mukdahan who discovered the bodies of the murdered dissidents in 2019. Violence and its scars, invisible or not, are a recurrent theme in several of Apichatpong's works, especially those set in the Northeast such as the "Primitive" project and Cemetery Of Splendour, but here we also detect something else: decay, decomposition, death, and how memories are deposited in cracks, dust, and earth. All of this seems like a thematic continuation from the feature film Memoria (which still awaits its Thailand premiere).

What Apichatpong has mastered throughout his career is to smuggle in the most subversive of ideas and statements into a tranquil formalist veneer. Like many of his works, "A Minor History" has an impressionistic texture beneath that rebellion simmers. When the story of the dying Naga ends and the images of the abandoned cinema bow out, the three screens flash running texts, white on black, in a large font, that summarise, reiterate, interject, lament, and sometimes scream. "A small movie for a minor history, a tiny, ant-sized story," the text starts, and later on it quotes the men who found the corpses who said they had to walk for kilometres carrying the lifeless bodies. Roused by the crescendo of the narrative and the sound design by Arkritchalerm Kalayanamitr, we realise then that this is not an ant-sized history -- it's history, violent and complicated, more real than the Naga and other gods, and those who sweep it under the rug or drown it in the depths are nothing but history's biggest fools.

"A Minor History" is on display at 100 Tonson, Soi Tonson. By appointment only. Call 02-010-5813 or 098-789-6100.

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