By Alfian Sa’at
(1244 words, 15 minute read)
In many of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, the membrane that separates dream from reality is a porous one. In Syndromes And A Century, snatches of dialogue are repeated, with slight variations, as if to recreate the sensation of déjà vu. In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a long lost son returns in the form of a black Bigfoot with red pilot lights for eyes. In Cemetery of Splendour, two deities on a pedestal later reappear in human form, dressed in civilian clothes, their sacred aura only perceptible in their elegant, soft-spoken manner.
His project, Fever Room, while billed as a foray into performance, might be more accurately described as a species of expanded cinema. The audience is ushered into a cavernous dark hall, where half of them sit on bleachers and the other half on the floor. In front is a screen, where we are introduced to two characters, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and Itt (Banlop Lomnoi). They would be recognisable to some as characters from the film Cemetery of Splendour, where Jen acts as a nurse to Itt, an ailing soldier. Suffering from a form of sleeping sickness, Itt confides his dreams to Jen.
This time, however, Jen is also a patient in a hospital. Jen and Itt are somehow able to communicate to each other, perhaps telepathically, and we see images that presumably appear in their dreams. There are shots of trees, a mountain, a mysterious lone streetlamp, Apichatpong’s dogs, named ‘King Kong’ and ‘Dracula’ and the Mekong river. We hear a voice describing these images to us. Later, like in a mnemonic exercise, the images are replayed, except that we no longer hear the guiding voice. Suddenly we find ourselves supplying the words that fit the images; if not the sound of the original words in Thai, then at least the text of the English subtitles. Someone else’s memories have now been downloaded into our minds. Or rather, we are now remembering on someone else’s behalf.
As a matter of fact, we hear Itt’s voice lamenting that he is unable to recall his dreams. He tells Jen that he comes from a place where there is no light. It is possible that he is vampirically feeding off Jen’s dreams, in the same way that an underground necropolis of dead kings were also sapping the energy from the soldiers in Cemetery of Splendor. This brings attention to the parasitic relationship between the military government and the civilian population in Thailand, to the ways popular energies are harvested and ultimately drained through military conscription and monarchical nationalism. For an artist such as Apichatpong, who traffics in suggestion rather than statement, this is probably the most overtly political aspect of Fever Room.
We are subsequently shown a series of more images. Are they ones dreamed of by Jen, or Itt? Two screens descend on our left and right, as if to propose how the images we see in our dreams are also structured spatially, or that they can exist in simultaneity. We see rain bouncing off banana leaves, and the sensuous sound design (by Koichi Shimizu & Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr) allows us to imagine that we are also enveloped in rain. Waves roll onto a beach and disintegrate into foam, their rhythm like that of a sleeper’s breathing.
We then see a teenage boy, gazing at a river, and then the screen cuts to a wider shot of the boy sitting with his friends. We realise that the image, which we had assumed to be one of contemplative solitude, was deceptive. The boy and his friends take a river boat ride, and we see the passing view of the banks. Another screen descends in front of us, suspended over the original, and we again experience a shifting of subjectivities. One of the screens shows the boat’s bow, another one, its stern. Time has been sliced into two separate halves: the future and the past. The present is absent.
The later segment of the film involves a man in a balaclava exploring a cave, which brings to mind a similar cave-pilgrimage scene from Uncle Boonmee. He holds a torchlight and shines it on the cave’s walls, illuminating images much like the prehistoric ones at Lascaux. These find their counterpart in a bas relief mural, showing a military man leading a construction crew. As those cave paintings glorified the hunt, the modern mural has similarly glorified man’s conquest over nature. The cave explorer then falls asleep, and something phenomenal happens.
The screens in front of us rise, and curtains part. We realise that we have been sitting on the stage of the large auditorium of the Kanagawa Arts Theatre. In front of us, we see rows and rows of audience seats, upholstered in red. The streetlamp in a previous image is now a real object, glowing among the seats. Fog rises and lights flash, as the sound design segues into rolling thunder and electronic booms. A light source is projected towards us, and as the sound of massive turbines is heard, images are sculpted in front of us. We see a tunnel formed, a spinning vortex whose sides are both shaped and stained by fog. We see the misty silhouettes of human figures. Then a phantasmal horizontal plane appears, which sweeps up and down, such that we feel as if we are rising and sinking. And finally, the topiary of clouds re-forms into a tunnel again, this time suffused with colour.
Film theory has often discussed cinema using three metaphors: the frame, the window and the mirror. The frame is primarily formalist, about deliberately composing elements in a shot to create meaning. The window is cinéma vérité, with the screen as a transparent window to some form of objective reality. The mirror, borrowing from psychoanalytic theory, is concerned with the viewer’s identification with the film’s subject. Watching Fever Room, I wondered whether a fourth metaphor was necessary, to describe this attempt to illustrate the world of dreams, with images that range from the commonplace but cryptic to the abstract but real, the way hallucinations are real. A tentative word that came to mind was ‘portal’.
Admittedly, a work like Fever Room can be frustrating for some viewers. A typically ungenerous way to describe it would be as tedious and solipsistic found (or B-side) footage followed by the rewarding payoff of a light show extravaganza. (A critic remarked that it was like a ‘Las Vegas show’, as if the spectacle of the technology had overwhelmed its artistic integrity.) Those who might want to assign some meaning to the piece might remark on its allusions to Plato’s cave, and the false consciousness that exists among those living under a censorious and propagandistic regime.
However, I think the best way to approach Fever Room is by giving one’s self over to the workings of another individual’s consciousness. Images surround you, from the cache of the artist’s memories; do not be frightened by your inability to decode them. There are no familiar footholds such as dramatic narrative or linear rationality; enjoy the freefall and trust that you will land. At the end of Fever Room, I thought of that psychic communion between Jen and Itt; whether one was dreaming the other’s dreams, or whether they were the products of each other’s dreams. And a line from Borges’ short story ‘The Circular Ruins’ came back to me: ‘in the dream of the man who dreamed, the dreamed one awoke’.
Fever Room was staged at the Performing Arts Meeting (TPAM) in Yokohama from 11 – 15 Feb 2017. All photos courtesy of Kick the Machine Films.
Guest Contributor Alfian Sa’at is a Resident Playwright with W!LD RICE. His published works include three collections of poetry, One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia and The Invisible Manuscript, a collection of short stories, Corridor, a collection of flash fiction, Malay Sketches, and two collections of plays – Collected Plays One and Collected Plays Two, and the published play Cooling-Off Day