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Phantoms of Nabua (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2009)
Just under eleven minutes long, but likely to tower artistically over most of this year’s full-length features, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Phantoms of Nabua offers a striking, minimalist expression of its world-class auteur’s worldview. It opens with the rumble of a brewing storm. Its first image, of a fluorescent streetlight cast against a jungle shadowscape barely distinguishable from the dark night sky, immediately evokes both the tension and collaboration that exist between technology and nature. This expansive theme, with a few others that are just as weighty, will occupy the rest of this rich, but brief, film’s run time.
A movie screen, alone in the jungle, is revealed. On it, are displayed images of a thunderstorm, apparently filmed in the Thai town Nabua. The storm, which was brewing since the film’s start, comes to life, or at least achieves a reasonable facsimile of life, as it is projected onto the movie screen within the screen. Through back-projection, one can make out the lightning as it strikes the ground of the town’s streets, and discern an electric lantern flickering wildly amidst the pyrotechnics. Again, Apitchapong conjures an amazing, yet simple, image that at simultaneously encapsulates his pet themes. As this exhibition unfolds, the grain of the film stock is made obvious, as are the seams in the movie screen. The limits of the projector in recreating reality are made all-too apparent.
After its astounding opening moments, the lonely movie screen that is the centerpiece of Phantoms of Nabua is no longer left alone. A group of young men storm into the frame, beginning an improbable, improvised game with a flaming soccer ball. At this point, Apitchapong reveals himself to be a credible action director, tracking the action with an exaggerated whoosh, as the fireball is kicked about, and the lightshow continues on the screen behind them. This sequence is at once playful and dangerous. The tensions that were present since Nabua’s start don’t resolve, but intensify. Light and dark, film and reality, past and present, nature and technology all ominously co-exist. Even the flicker of the projector, the flashes of lightning, and the blinking of the fluorescent bulb begin to overlap one another.
The game casually intensifies, until what appears to be an accidental offiside kick sets the movie screen aflame. With this destructive action, the boys begin to watch the film that they had been ignoring. The spectacle creates communion, at least until the screen itself is decimated. The final moments of Phantoms of Nabua feature the absence of the screen, with the camera still projecting its images out onto the world, and directly onto us. The machine’s sounds intensify as it whirrs to a stop, making a noise that simultaneously recalls man-made electronic distortion and thunder.
Arresting as Phantoms of Nabua is, its concrete meanings are difficult to pin down. Thematic concerns are obvious, but there seems to be no privileged parties in the dichotomies that it establishes. In his director’s statement, the filmmaker says, “Phantoms of Nabua is a portrait of home. The film portrays a communication of lights, the lights that exude, on the one hand, the comfort of home and, on the other, of destruction.” Such a description hints at the internal conflict that dominates the movie, but fails to capture the mystery and intensity of the viewing experience. Alive in a way that so few works are, Phantoms of Nabua once again confirms Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s status as one of the current cinema’s true vanguards.