Feature by: Tiffany Limsico
From May Adadol Ingawanij
20 August 2009
Since your instinct for irony is very fine, and not very chai thai, you’d be amused to know the draft in my head of my letter to you reads like an obituary. You’ve been plugging away a long time now, putting out those wry, loving paperbacks. Filmvirus and Bookvirus – a wide open door to all things “Thais should see and read,” if only we could scrape the dayglo off this phrase. Before there were pirated DVDs, and when routine screenings at European cultural institutes began to fade away, you started up your ‘house of overlooked films’ in, of all places, an unfashionable suburban mall. I never made it to your filmhouse, but know people who had the grime lifted from their eyes there. If I had made a habit of going to this first madhouse of yours when I was still a green young thing, I might have known better than to spend eight years deconstructing (wishful notion) the slogan of ‘cultured films’ in this country. Now that we’re both getting on a bit and are each wondering if we’ve spent our time wisely, I can’t help feeling the grass on your side is a bit less brown than mine. How fantastically you’ve been striking against the moral pinkness that runs rampant here, by writing, so knowledgeably, so intuitively, and in that distinctive voice, about the many ways in which art inhabits cinema’s polymorphous world.
Of course, in cultured parts of the world you’d at least be able to get by doing this, and your natural home might have been the filmoteca in Madrid, with its grounding in modernism, cultish cinephilia, and historical awareness. But the price of being born in our narokland is to exist as a kind of superfluous man, which takes its toll. The afternoon we first met, in an interview that naturally gave way to many more hours of conversation, you surprised me by pointing to a friend who happened to walk by, saying she’d just finished translating for you Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time. Then, in that seemingly hesitant, softly laughing way, you said you might get it published soon as your cremation volume.
The problem is, as a mutual friend of ours likes to say, that the oyster produces a pearl only when it’s very irritated. I saw this at close range when helping your Filmvirus group and its friends organize Lav Diaz’s retrospective last month. What began as a casual reference to Tarkovsky and Lav on your blog turned boldly, crazily, into five weeks of screenings. The length of one rainy spell during which the curious could go to places in Bangkok, Nakhon Pathom and Phuket, to find out what Lav’s films are like – this body of work that exists, as the man who, like you, loves A Canterbury Tale puts it, “on the threshold of cinema, inside its history but pushes beyond it.” We broke a lot of rules the week the retrospective began. Ours was a sapling that grew new branches when others came on board, not least of which was Lav himself. Cocks crowed underneath the open shophouse windows of one of our venues, merging into the soundscape of Ebolusyon. An unfinished film graced our opening night. We probably broke our new, very pink, law too, by screening the two films whose sex scenes had already gotten them banned in the Philippines. All this to feel our way into letting Lav’s films speak to our historical debris, our broken spaces – so rarely do we in this country bear witness to the sorrow of those who can’t, yet will, go on – and in response to the intent, quiet, astonishing, concentration of the viewers who came, and who stayed.
It felt strangely tender, this experience. Not easy to describe the discreet shift that took place here, floating away forbidding words – elitist, difficult, austere, a struggle, a test of cinephiliac endurance – from the idea of a Lav Diaz retrospective. An image may or may not translate: I hadn’t expected to walk into the third day of the screenings to find water, coffee, snacks and rambutans, laid out at the back of the hall ready for the start of Encantos, or to see a pile of boxed up fried rice appear there hours later as it grew dark outside. Hadn’t quite realized that what you’d said the night before, about how it was for you, an organizer’s responsibility to be around at each screening, wasn’t just symbolic – the professional gesture of respect for the films and the artist who made them. Waiting at the back of that dark cavernous hall keeping an eye on the supplies, to ease our bodies’ limitations, was your idea of basic household care towards the people who took the time to come. In ‘cultured’ cities this would have been standardized into the fifteen-minute break every two-and-a-half hours.
The following afternoon you stole a rather lovely snap, now on your blog, of Lav reading outside the cinema, quietly waiting for viewers inside the whole duration of the running time. The same tender tone of a gift simply given, a film spontaneously added, an unobtrusive waiting. I wish I’d done the same of you the day before.
You recently described yourself as someone on the margins of the margin. You meant to speak of that persistent sense of absurdity that your life’s been taken over by cinema. Actually this puts you in the company of all the children of cinema I’ve come across, but there is another sense in which this distance fits you well. What separates you from the airy cupcakes that pass for indie here, and makes reading your film writings such a pleasure, always, comes down to that ambiguous gift: One must have tradition in oneself, to hate it properly. You’re not easy to translate, with your effortless punning – your voice a place where old rhymes pass through, and amusing slogans, 10 satang stories, live dubbing, luktoong lyrics, countless other ghosts of obsolete forms. A case in point is the full name of your old filmhouse. ‘Home of overlooked films’ just sounds earnest in English, doesn’t it? Not capable of carrying your queer inversion of the slogan seeking charity for ‘poor little children with arrested development,’ which was a fine specimen of kitsch in the tape cassette generation you belong to, and that I caught the tail end of. You write about what we in the classroom pass around in the flat, conceptual language of 'the modernist preoccupation with medium specificity,' through merry allusions to the wondrous crystal island of Phra Aphai Mani, the weeping heroine of The House of Golden Sand, the underdogs in cheap serialized martial arts fiction – all this to come to Gorky’s “last night I was in the kingdom of shadows” in a dialect that belongs to here. And when you turn to translating, e.g. the phrase "sculpting in time," you trace an image of the idea Tarkovsky is referring to, perched on the sensual shoulder of classical Thai poetry. This makes you great to steal from, and I may as well confess here my latest theft – that precise, elegant phrase of yours for ‘cinematic narcissism.’
Lately you’ve been saying you won’t write on cinema anymore. I haven’t dared to ask why, but hope this has to do with the need to get started on the film idea you’ve been carrying around for some years – which would give me a reason to call your melancholia an attenuated passage. Are you moving closer and closer now to the water’s edge? The last headlong splash of the eternal child? You haven’t told me much about the film in your head, but I sense faint shapes and shadows. The knuckles on the left hand bear a monogram that says I’ve seen enough to hate this place properly. On the right hand there’s another, identical at first glance, which whispers back, and so I love what remains of it well.
In the uncertain knowledge that some waiting is not in vain.
With much affection,
May Adadol Ingawanij is a research fellow at the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media, University of Westminster. She is one of the curators of the 2011 Bangkok Experimental Film Festival.
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