Mobile Men

In 2008 the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, recently winner of the Palm d`Or for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, participated in a campaign that was initialized to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Weerasethakul`s contribution was a four-minute segment called Mobile Men. In this segment we can witness how a peek into the life of two teenage boys gives us the impression of having shared a very private moment with them. This constructed intimacy forbids a detached position towards the film – a strategy which I would assign to a post-postmodern aesthetic.

The first person we see in this segment draws us in immediately. The young boy points to himself and the camera follows his request, comes closer and makes him the sole object of focus by giving him the whole frame. Motivated and encouraged by this – being the centre of the camera`s universe – he begins exhibiting his personality/private universe. First, he points out and retraces very simple signs with his index finger: the logo on his t-shirt, the stitching of his jeans which lead to yet another logo (on his shoe) and another stitching (also on his shoe). His finger follows the structure of his clothing as if it were a map. Then he stands up, takes off his shirt and poses in a very boyish way – the way a teenager would pose in front of a mirror. Presenting himself proudly while moving through nature on the back of some kind of truck, he seems to be completely comfortable and oblivious to his surroundings. He exposes himself to us, both physically and emotionally.

The camera is pushed by his hand into another direction. Another boy wants to be filmed now. This second boy also shows us his “markings”. In a more cocky way he reveals several of his tattoos. We hear him snigger while doing that. This behavior stresses what we were already suspecting when we saw the other boy posing – that there is a childlike joy involved in being filmed, being seen. We as viewer feel enthralled by this sincere playfulness, by the openness that is accompanied by a wink, and also by the honesty that seems to be created exactly at this moment and is not in any way rehearsed.

Throughout the four-minute short film the camera is moved several times quite visibly, either by the hand of the director or by his actors. Every time they turn the camera into another direction, their hands cover the lens for a moment. It makes two things very clear to us: One, that this is a very small and spontaneous scene; there are really not more than three people involved. No one else is hiding behind the camera. And two, by exposing the world behind the camera we are provided the same information the director and his actors have. This means complete transparency. In this way Weerasethakul establishes a trustworthy relationship between him and the viewer which stresses the intimate atmosphere.

The film ends with the second boy screaming into the air in front of the backdrop of Thailand`s landscape. These screams were intended to describe the pain he felt when he was getting his tattoos (“to impress girls”), but these screams have nothing to do with pain – they are expressions rather of pure joy. In narrating this painful moment, we recognize he is amused about his own pain and displays that in a very youthful way, by simply not taking himself that serious. But although this means a kind of distanced stance towards his own feelings, the boy does not step away from his emotion at all. Instead he creates a new emotion, a mix of memory and present, and transforms it into a very intense moment of simply being, and with that creates an encompassing feeling that draws us in.

The abundance of joy we notice about both these boys stems from a fascination with the opportunity that is given to them – to be able to introduce themselves to the camera and displaying their identity in a very unique way. They fully dissolve into this project, are at the same time completely concentrated and laid back while expressing themselves. They sink into this experience and are inviting the viewer to be part of this.

Characters who want us to be part of their world by showing us in a very simple and open way who they are and what they are about – this inviting gesture is quite uncommon to postmodern thinking. If you would associate a gesture with postmodernism it would be that of a hand that always points into another direction. This seemingly advising, guiding gesture turns into confusion for the one who is guided.

In addition, the focus on pure emotion which breaks down the barrier between the actor and the viewer is so optimistic and simple (especially the final take which shows the second boy laughing) – that this just wouldn`t happen in postmodernist film. Breaking down barriers, yes, but not through an emotion, not by creating a transcending connection.

With this short film Apichatpong Weerasethakul has displayed a unique aesthetic that stands contrary to what we know as postmodernism. He introduces freedom, optimistic carelessness and beauty. This works because he gives us no chance to stand back and cross our arms. Instead he lures us in by displaying a situation that could easily be seen as quite awkward, but is not, since the overwhelming openness and spontaneity of the boys makes us intuitively accept what they are offering. Laughter functions as a protection from awkardness, irony (“cool tatoos”; “to impress girls”) helps avoiding seeing in them nothing more than self-involved teenagers, the act of sharing (pain, joy, privacy) finally draws us in completely.

There are 3 comments

  1. Jazzmin

    In the begining of the shortfilm there is – among many other words fraught with meaning – the word “human right”. This opened right away a mental drawer in which in inserted the movie, before it acctually had started. So I watched the movie with a ready-made socio political opinion. Balderdash!

    This interpretation here is much more beautiful! And it also seems more detached from the abundance of logos in the beginning of the movie which predetermine your view. You have what I would call a free mind!

    1. Nadine

      Thank you for your comment! I really appreciated your words! However, although I didn`t go into the political nature of this short film, I think it might even turn out to be useful if you try to make that connection – without losing the beauty of it.
      So consider your comment as a chance for me to make a kind of short addendum!
      In terms of thinking of a post-postmodern development one could think about how politics are presented in postmodernism, especially in novels or artworks that can be called “ethnic” or deal with questions of multiculturalism and post-colonialism. While the postmodernist perspective tries to show that these minority voices all have equally valid rights and opinions I think that Weerasethakul goes far beyond that. To realize and accept someone`s “otherness” as not being that different from your own otherness has become somewhat of a common place. Also a bit tedious are the various attempts to re-write history and writing yourself in it – which makes everything relative.
      New to me is this inviting gesture, however. This introduces an emotional understanding which has a constructive rather than a deconstructive nature. I would even go so far and say that it is almost secondary or even negligible to detect common grounds with these two boys. More important is that even before you can make such a statement you are already drawn in and becoming part of their world. In this I see the true beauty – to be deeply involved in an artwork again. Of course, this involvement is in some way enforced, but it generates a space where one has not to deal with postmodern doubts and skepticism. So, an ideal place to think about not only human rights but many other political ideas which incidentally is happening in Thailand right now.

  2. Petersen

    Thanks for giving me a fresher perspective on Weerasethakul’s short yet awe-inspiring MOBILE MEN. I’ve recently rewatched it, and Google pointed me to your writing. Kudos!

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