I feel like hitting someone.
After witnessing the arrest of two young Burmese women while shooting his previous film in Bangkok, Apichatpong Weerasethakul decided to create a new work depicting the political injustice caused by growing tensions between Thailand’s government and illegal immigrants. Because those familiar with his oeuvre know he’s built his career upon glacially paced narratives that do more to conjure mood than advance plot, the declaration that the aforementioned incident inspired him to “cast the sun as [his] main character” in สุดเสน่หา [Sud sanaeha] [Blissfully Yours] proves perfectly aligned with his unique sensibilities. To him it’s the main energy source we all need to survive—Thai, Burmese, or whoever else basks in its warmth. The question then becomes whether this sun (life itself) will provide his human characters pleasure or pain?
For the first forty minutes it’s the latter as we meet Min (Min Oo) receiving a medical follow-up for his worsening sunburn. This illegal from Burma has found two women in Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) and Orn (Jenjira Pongpas, a Weerasethakul mainstay ever since) who are willing to help him earn a clean bill of health in order to apply for work, pretending he has a sore throat before changing their story to him being a mute so nobody will hear him speak and realize he doesn’t belong. Roong has been teaching him Thai and falling for him romantically after ditching an abusive boyfriend while Orn has been caring for him like a son due to her own having passed away an unknown amount of time prior.
We watch them struggle to keep Min healthy and on the correct path forward. It could be construed as a detriment to their “safe” lives or perhaps a reprieve from them as his presence supplies a reason to shake each awake from her boring doldrums. Roong doesn’t want to languish in the monotony of an assembly-line job painting daily quotas of ceramic statues and Orn wants nothing more than to ease her stress/depression so she may rekindle a spark of love with her husband Sirote (Sa-gnad Chaiyapan). By coming to Min’s aid they’ve become almost rebellious in the most innocuously altruistic way and that injection of excitement causes them to throw caution to the wind whether playing hooky from work or finding satisfaction outside of marriage respectively.
And that’s where the pleasure portion of the story enters after a mid-film opening credits sequence set to a Thai cover of Marcos Valle’s “Summer Samba (So Nice)”. Roong drives outside the city towards a beautiful jungle spot Min knows along the border between Burma (now Myanmar) and Thailand where they can enjoy some peace and quiet removed from the constraints and responsibilities of civilization while Orn finds herself nearby in Tommy’s (Kanitpat Premkij) arms. Sex is in the air, ants are on the prowl, and the sun continues to beat down upon them to facilitate both. Weerasethakul moves the camera in and out to portray the intimacy shared by those involved, hands touching and bodies writhing against nature where they had been rigid and apart in town.
So after forty minutes of drama amongst rules and regulations meant to segregate human beings from one another by imaginary lines, we receive an hour-plus of quiet bliss in the summer heat. That’s not to say there isn’t also drama on the back-end (a potential gunshot does go off with no one seemingly interested in discovering the damage), but it’s more about how life can evolve organically without the constraints of law. We can head out to the wilderness for blowjobs and picnics if we want. We can relinquish the ways in which we act when surrounded by others to let our true selves be known. It’s as though Weerasethakul simply lets his characters be without the need for a script. Their attraction progresses towards sexual gratification.
There’s something pure to this result and I’m sure also incendiary for those entrenched in the geopolitics of the area considering the societal bonds that attach us are intentionally erased for spiritual ones. For someone like me, however, its metaphor is too subtle and plot too non-existent to stay attentive enough to care for the characters above their actions. Because while I appreciate the ease at which they fall into each other’s arms and bask in the emotional freedom of isolation devoid of regulation, they could have been anyone. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re just supposed to absorb the atmosphere and treat these people as nameless and faceless souls who themselves might never see each other again. Intellectually speaking that’s great, but in practice it proves tedious.
By staying in town so long to understand the relationships Min, Roong, and Orn share alongside their own personal issues, we’re asked to recognize their individual worth above abstract characterizations. So when things shift solely towards the latter post-song, I found it impossible not to continuously hope for something to occur that was specific to them rather than the mood. I assumed there’d be payoff to the weird moisturizer/vegetable mixture beyond a means to touch Min. I assumed the gunshot would lead to conflict or the tension between Roong and Orn about money would say something more. Instead I merely got a sleepy workday of intimate moments and shedding skin. If Weerasethakul gave us two hours of that alone—unencumbered beachside euphoria—I wouldn’t have been anticipating more.
This is obviously a very personal reaction contrary to the level of adoration bestowed upon Blissfully Yours. It’s probably my own fault for ascribing a Hollywood gaze to the opening half that thus colored my expectations for the close. In this way I can still admit I enjoyed the whole for what it made me feel and how that feeling is a deliberate commentary on inhumane persecution. I merely wish there was either more to grab hold of or less because the ever-in-flux mixture of too much and not enough inherently took my mind away from the sensory experience. When I was able to let everything wash away and enjoy the ride, however, it’s magical. Sadly my mounting disinterest in the characters prevented me from doing so throughout.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.