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The Enlightened Ideas on Self-development Combined with Environmental Awareness in Apichatpong Weerasethakul Filmography

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Buddhist Ecology in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cinema

The Subversion of Modernity

In the 17th Century, English philosopher Francis Bacon advanced the theory of empiricism in which scientific investigation – with a skepticism that negates all prior traditional forms of knowledge – was presented as the only true way of understanding the events of nature. This creed became ubiquitous in practice two centuries later when technological dominance over nature was normalized as a course of action, the acceptance of which Lynn White, like several other thinkers, called the “greatest event in human history” . This seminal argument made in 1967 was that the impact of man’s disruption of the ecosystem is predated by a social democratization which unites the intellect of science and the actions of empiricist activity . This novel consciousness has had an impact on global ecology by giving rise to modernity as a socio-political and cultural force which has enveloped the entire world through notions of sustainable growth, hyper-consumerism and secular rationality. The root of these set of attitudes, however, comes only from western ethics in which the presupposition context assumes the anthropocentricity of Man within nature and his “moral priority” over all else; thus, the present environmental crisis begs the need for a re-orientation of these values which are at the foundation of modern world.

To bring the desired alteration to this contemporary and unquestioned weltanschauung requires a framework of thinking that is external to the prevalent system of beliefs. To do the same, ecologists have looked to construct environmental ethics from traditional forms of knowledge, particularly the religions which establish doctrines for Man’s conduct on Earth. One such religion is Buddhism in which the relationship between humans, nature and other forms of life is “fundamentally ecological” . Here, living beings are interdependent (as opposed to independent) as well as fragile and are indebted to “countless beings, living or dead, past or present, near or far” . This doctrine of interdependent co-arising (paticca samuppada) is fundamental to Buddhist principles and instrumental in arriving at the ecological significance of viewing all life as being together instead of assigning the rationality of Man supremacy over non-human life.

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Remnants of this intersection between Buddhism and ecology are seen throughout the filmography of contemporary Thai filmmaker – Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Weerasethakul’s films consistently explore the synchrony of human life with nature through an informed application of Buddhist principles. This gives his cinema the quality of an “ecological practice” because it develops a relationship not only between filmic images and human beings but also other sentient entities such as plants and animals. And within the grand objective of reconfiguring the world from an ecological perspective, it is also crucial to incorporate the study of cinema whose processes too require resources and expend energy; and also see how it presents an environmental concern. Cinema does that in Weerasethakul’s work, questioning notions of modernity by supplying the narratives with an abundance of spirituality and offering the human spirit to return to nature. This essay will look at his four films – Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century (2006) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). It will be divided into two sections; the first section will look at how Weerasethakul universalizes the notion of dukkha that for his characters manifests as physical diseases and emotional distress which is a direct consequence of engagement with the discourse of modernity; it argues that this universalization contains within it a concern for ecology. The second section looks at how Weerasethakul’s mystification of the narrative, through reincarnations and animistic transformations, reinforces the perpetuity of the samsaric condition and deemphasizes the anthropocentricity of Man. This draws the human spirit away from the sphere of modernity where nature has been devalued and into the natural spaces of forests and gardens where the human spirit is more attuned to its ecological dimension.

Dukkha: Maladies and Malaise of Modern Life

In Weerasethakul’s films, the central tension is the encounter of characters with the truth of their suffering, their dukkha – doctrine of the Four Noble Truths – which manifests in the form of physical diseases and emotional ennui; the ubiquity of these ailments has an ecological dimension. The emphasis that Weerasethakul places on dukkha throughout his filmography appears as a “conjoining” of these characters, human and non-human (other sentient entities; their purpose will be dealt with in the second section), in a shared form of distress which, existentially , presents itself as a concern for the environment. For instance, in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), the eponymous character suffers from kidney failure and seeks palliative dialysis through his last days which he spends on his farm with his sister-in-law Jen and his nephew Tong. In their presence, Boonmee ruminates on his deeds in this life. He says to Jen: “You know, this is a result of my karma…my illness. I’ve killed too many communists”. The idea that his illness is a consequence of incurred karma compels Jen to comfort him; she says: “But you killed with good intentions”. Weather she believes that are not is immaterial. What underlies her response is an empathy that perhaps is given rise to by her own suffering. Jen has short leg syndrome, a discrepancy in the length of her two legs which forces her to use crutches. This exemplifies the universality of pain (which here is physical) that is shared between the two. Weerasethakul, informed by the fundamentals of Buddhism, subverts the atomized experience of modernity in which pain and suffering is individualized, where diseases are simply a biological problem – a disruption at the cellular level. In Uncle Boonmee, the experiences are united and transposed within a greater “karmic continuum” of deeds of the past, and repentance combined with empathy in the present, and possibility of redemption in the future. This transcendental conjoining of the concept of suffering unveils a sympathetic attitude to ecology.

Aside from rejecting the modern notion of suffering, Weerasethakul through this film is also keen on indicting modernism for its crimes against humanity. The narrative in Uncle Boonmee is situated in Nabua; a town that has a history of military oppression in the region, specifically the mass extermination of communists in the 1960s . Here, the nation-state engages in violence perpetuated through the structural objective of modernism to homogenize distinctions and consequently marginalize (and in this case terminate) those who cannot be incorporated in the grander narrative. And this disregard for human life translates into absolute indifference for non-human life as well which has implications for the environment. “Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the Thai and U.S military sought to repress the specter of Communism in the region [Nabua] by deforesting large tracts of land” to expose the guerillas . Boonmee’s character, an ex-soldier is a participant in this project. And his engagement with this discourse, which otherwise from a secular point of view would be considered a deed in and of itself with no repercussions, is given cyclic resonance by Weerasethakul through the idea of karma in this film.

But while karma puts the notion of suffering into perspective, as being a result of bad deeds, Weerasethakul is also aware that the suffering caused by the encounter with modernity itself may be too large to survive in this life. In Syndromes and a Century (2006), consequences of modernity appear to have done irreparable harm. One of the segments of the film is about a 15 year old boy called Off who suffers from carbon monoxide poisoning which has damaged his brain. Trying to reconcile his own ambitions and the fatality of his disease, he says to a doctor: “I’ve planned out my life. But it’ll take longer than most people. A year longer.” But then realizing that he may have said too much: “well, my brain is…maybe in my next life”. Here, Weerasethakul introduces the idea of reincarnation which he fully explores in his next film Uncle Boonmee, but before we delve into what that idea of rebirth entails from an ecological perspective, it’s important to emphasize the fragility of modern life in the wake of hyper-development and excessive infrastructure which quite simply make the air unbreathable. Weerasethakul tangentially suggests that Off is a victim of the widespread adoption of a consciousness that fails to value the sanctity of life and the sacredness of nature; and its through Syndromes that he delineates his point of diseases being “an environmental issue” because Man has disrupted the ecosystem to such an extent that it extinguishes the possibility of a future. The vast increase in the encroachments made upon nature in the last 50 years – guided by the belief in the anthropocentricity of Man and his command over all else – has “quadrupled” the number of new diseases. Weerasethakul critiques this consciousness by highlighting the falsity of its logic which only has mortality to promise for a person like Off.

Elsewhere, modernism is at fault for its oppressive institutionalism and bureaucratic stringency that are highly alienating and emotionally distressing. In Blissfully Yours (2002), Min, an illegal immigrant from Burma is in a relationship with a Thai woman called Roong. To prevent exposure of his illegal status, Min pretends to be dumb which conceals his inability to speak the language. The film begins inside a clinic where Min – accompanied by Roong and Orn (an older woman sheltering him in the country) – is being examined by a doctor for his rashes. In a later voiceover Min implies that he may have developed this rash while hiding from the police in a septic tank. In a more natural and permeable world without borders that bar entry and “otherize” those that do not belong within the territorial perimeter, Min would not have to dodge the system at every turn; but in the reality of this modern world he’s at the mercy of a system based on a “globalized market economy” incapable of compassionate behavior. To find work Min needs a letter of fitness from the doctor which she refuses to give him without an identification card. And despite some persistence from Orn, they leave the clinic without being able to procure the certificate. This dejection that Min feels is also shared by Roong who is tired of the tedious routines of her factory work which involves painting Disney merchandise, and yearns “to escape from the drudgery of her work” . And the pervasive dissatisfaction is not simply related to work. Orn finds unhappiness in her married life in which her desire for a child cannot be fulfilled because her husband is unwilling to procreate. Manan summarizes these inhibitions that come about as a result of facing the challenges of modernity in the following words: “The political, economic, social and moral constraints imposed on Min, Roong and Orn, operate as limits or boundary conditions that capture, reduce and repress their hopes and desires” . Similar to Uncle Boonmee, Weerasethakul collectivizes their experience of agony and presents these characters the opportunity of catharsis for their dukkha; the three retreat to the countryside – the Khao Yai National Park, “where [they] find themselves free from the oppression and sense of alienation they have experienced in town” – and seek solace in each other’s company. Here they offer love and compassion (karuna ) to each other, which are principles of moral action in Buddhism, entirely missing from the discourse of modernity.

To summarize, the thematic focus of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema appears as a concern for the environment in its subversion of those values of modernism that are detrimental to the ecosystem. His presentation of dukkha, which manifests as physical ailments and emotional distress within the paradigmatic conditions of modernity, compel his characters to ponder over their karma, offer compassion to each other as an antidote to emotional pain, and as in Off’s case, confront their impending mortality. The effect is of a universalizing of the notion of suffering, which when shared by humanity can be extended to nature as well . This has positive implications for the environment, the negligence of which, by forces of modernity, is critiqued in Weerasethakul’s films.

But what of the desire for the next life as expressed by Off? The concept of other lives is fully explored in Uncle Boonmee which gives room to further investigate that which Weerasethakul identifies as constituting environmental ethics which are based on the concept of rebirth and change in Buddhism.

Samsara: Reincarnation, Animism and the Embracement of Nature

Weerasethakul’s films are formed through a mystifying cinematic aesthetic which alters the physical reality in a way that allows the present to be juxtaposed with the past and the future of reincarnated lives. This takes place through the introduction of non-human sentient characters (spirits, ghosts and animals), which reinforces the perpetuity of the samsaric condition as well as explores the synchrony and the inseparability of human life with nature, specifically animals and plants. This can rightfully be read as an attempt by Weerasethakul to emphasize the irrationality “of Man to make nature obey his will” and hence stressing the ecological imperative of recognizing the “self as interdependent with nature” .

In Uncle Boonmee, Boonmee’s recollection of his past lives is triggered by the emergence of the spirit of his dead wife Huay. She says to him: “Boonmee, I know you are sick”. Such sensitivity from a non-human entity compels Boonmee to look beyond the materiality of his present life and recall the memory of a previous incarnation which also features episodes of distress. Weerasethakul interjects the present narrative of the film with a segment about a princess (presumably Boonmee) who is insecure about her looks and mates with a catfish in the hope of becoming beautiful. This part of the film “presents an urtext-form of local folk tales of human-animal union” , structured in the film as Boonmee’s ruminations on his subservience to the natural cycle of rebirth.

Boonmee also has a premonition, which is sparked by the return of his long disappeared son Boonsong as a monkey ghost. Boonmee imagines himself as one such monkey ghost, living in a future city ruled by an all-powerful authority “capable of making anybody disappear”. This also serves “political ends” for Weerasethakul, as he again touches upon the criminal violence by state authorities in the region done to eliminate communist elements. In an interview he explained that these images of the future, as narrated by Boonmee in his dying times, “is an image of both the past and the future” . This invocation of continuity of transmigration that one is bound to in samsara, implies that the realm of each sensory experience is always “subject to change” . Critics of this approach of developing environmental ethics from these respective Buddhist principles suggest that the concept of impermanence lends itself to a “dysteleological worldview” that negates an “eco-activist agenda” . However, this critique gives too much primacy to nirvana for the individual (and hence his anthropocentricity) which offers an escape from this impermanence, and that one is ought to pursue it “without regard for other sentient beings and natural surroundings” . In fact, for Weerasethakul and his characters, the quest is not for nirvana but for an understanding of the present conditionality through memories of rebirths. And the consequent submission to the course of nature has unmistakable vitality for ecology.

The result is a synchrony that is most evident in Tropical Malady (2004), in which Weerasethakul dissolves the boundary between human and non-human entities. The film is about the homosexual romance between Keng and Tong (who later reappears in Uncle Boonmee; Tong also reappears as a Monk in Syndromes and a Century. There are other instances of characters reappearing throughout Weerasethakul’s filmography, which give his cinema the quality of an ecological universe in which everything is interconnected). Keng is a soldier deployed in the countryside near Tong’s house and that is how the two develop intimacy. However, half-way through the film, Weerasethakul switches up the familiarity and physicality of their dynamic when Tong disappears without warning. The “storyline abruptly ends, and a new part begins, clearly marked with a black shot, credits, and a title (The Spirit’s Path)” . The romance resumes in the middle of a forest when Keng finds himself faced with a tiger spirit (presumably Tong). The tiger asks Keng to be devoured so the two can consummate their love and be “united as neither beast nor man” . Keng, who is in utter awe, willfully submits: “Monster, I give you my spirit, my flesh and my memories.” And by successfully communicating with the spirit, Keng is no longer simply a human anymore. “…the soldier at the end of the film turns into an acutely sensate creature who moves like a wild animal.”

This application of the concept of animism to a conventional romance is done to establish the self as being porous with other life forms . Tong’s return in a non-human form not only invokes the cyclic attributes of rebirths and reappearances, but also the permeability of human life with a non-human one. This emulates “an ecology (at once Buddhist…) in which humans return to nature through the body” , as Keng does, and are eventually subsumed by it. This for Weerasethakul constitutes the natural center of the human spirit; he begins the film with the following quote from Japanese fiction writer Ton Nakajima: “All of us are by nature wild beasts”. This understanding of the natural essence of life recognizes the ecological imperative of humanity and the remainder of nature as being of the same. Also the presentation of animals and spirits in the same space as humans “without the hierarchisation of humans over other beings” carries immense ecological significance.

And the forest here is of the utmost importance. It is the space where the essence of self is liberated and where the nature is fully embraced. The same is true in Blissfully Yours, in which the national park, comprising of a cliff, a river and a thick jungle, constitutes just the kind of natural liminal space that Orn, Min and Roong need to escape from grips of modern state’s power .

Fully immersed in this environment, they act upon their carnal desires (as Roong and Min make love to each other) and reflect on their existential issues (as Orn sits in the middle of the woods contemplating on her life problems), all of which would not be possible in the alternate space offered by modernity. Thus Weerasethakul performs a “resacralization” of nature which requires a “transformation within man” (the more animated form of which we see in Tropical Malady) – a move completely antagonistic to the effects of the “modernized regions of the globe” that reduce nature to its materiality . Weerasethakul’s outright rejection of the modern urban spaces that do not value nature is most evident in Syndromes and a Century. There’s a scene from a chapter in the film titled “Future City” in which Dr. Nant has a brief rendezvous with his girlfriend in a hospital lab. She tells him about a trip she went to with her company and shows him photographs of the place. She says: “I’d like to move there. It’s so modern…so hi-tech. Like a brand new city”.

When asked if he’d move with her and work in a hospital in the new city, Nant is unable to reply, implying that he does not desire the same for himself and that the relationship may be over. Weerasethakul follows the scene with a panning shot of a tall tree with gentle breeze passing through it, as if to suggest that this is where one is supposed to belong.

To conclude, this essay has looked at Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s following films – Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee, in order to examine the intersection of ecology and Buddhism and how they subvert those values of modernity which are not suited for the environment. In the first section it has focused on how Weerasethakul’s films portray the notion of dukkha and the way it presents itself as physical and emotional ailments which are born directly out of an encounter with modernity. It has been argued that the universalization of this suffering by Weerasethakul contains a sympathetic attitude towards ecology. The second section has looked at how his films, through reincarnated and transformed characters emphasize the continuance of samsara which conceives of Man as subservient to the nature of events. This results in an embracement of nature in the liminal spaces of forests and riversides – away from the modern expanses which desacralize nature – where Man can harmonize with the essence of nature’s true spirit and understand his interdependence with it. Weerasethakul’s cinema thus contains an antidote: a spiritual excess that transcendentalizes the materiality of human life and overcomes the ruinous forces of modernity that plague our environment.


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