The dawn of the new millennium coincided with a wave of emerging talent in Thai film, including Pen­-ek Ratanaruang (MONRAK TRANSISTOR), Wisit Sasanatieng (TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER), and Nonzee Nimibutr (NANG NAK). But while these directors came to cinema after long apprenticeships in TV advertising, the most striking Thai debut of the period belonged to a 30­-year-old ex-­architecture student fresh out of the film program at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON, Apichatpong employs the Surrealists’ “Exquisite Corpse” technique, in which storytellers take turns building the narrative with only limited knowledge of what has come before. For this cinematic variant, the storytellers are ordinary Thais across the strata of age, gender, class, and geography, making equally varied contributions to the expanding plot. Some are tragic, some are funny; some bizarre, some banal; some original, some drawn from folklore or the narrators’ lives. But any suggestion that we are seeing an authentic, unmediated Thailand is undercut by the shifting roles of the storytellers (who appear as themselves and as characters in the story), idiosyncratic editing and voiceover that blurs the speakers’ identities, and interpolations that highlight the power of mass media (e.g. a popular radio drama) and America’s political/cultural influence.

The result paradoxically feels like a comprehensive picture of turn­-of-­the-­century Thailand and a series of sketches that could run indefinitely—and may well have if not for the basic realities of film production. (The final shot is the last piece of film that passed through the camera before it finally broke down.) Presented here in a new restoration of the black-­and-­white 16mm elements, MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON remains a one-­of-­a-­kind introduction to one of cinema’s most unique voices.

–Josh Martin

MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON screens 3/28 (Monday, 7:30PM) at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, as part of the Apichatpong Weerasthakul retrospective.