Blissfully Yours tells a very large story disguised as a very small one. The Thai film, an undistributed 2002 gem screening Dec. 16 at The Andy Warhol Museum, uses deceptively simple means and material to suggest a world of overwhelming sadness and complexity.
Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has a dual fascination with the human body and the natural world. The flesh of keenest interest belongs to Min, an otherwise hale young man with a mysterious rash that flakes his skin. His ailment preoccupies both his lover, Roong, a factory worker, and her friend, a middle-aged woman named Orn. Nature is the woods where Min (played by Min Oo) takes Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) for a picnic and (we initially assume) sex -- and, more suprisingly, where the emotionally troubled Orn (Jenjira Jansuda) ends up too, rejoining the pair for the film's languid but wrenching final passages.
Much of the film's meaning subsists in Weerasethakul's visual style. In the film's first part, set in the city, a typical shot consists of a medium-wide frame encompassing a few characters and half of whatever room they're in -- eye-level, static and at right angles to its subject, as though the camera itself were blinkered and numbed by all the plastic, glass and concrete. The only camera movement is passive: town seen through the windows of a moving car.
But Orn's car becomes the means of escape when Roong borrows it to drive Min to his refuge in the woods. There the camera too is sprung free, going handheld and viewing the action from above, below, and much closer than before.
Almost jokingly, the film's "opening credits" (complete with perky pop song) crop up, quite suddenly, after 40 minutes of screen time, during Roong and Ming's drive to the forest. Yet while this divides the two-hour film neatly, life in the woods is hardly less complicated, or less crossed with emotional tripwires. Weerasethakul's woods, in fact, have the distinct, almost gleeful overtones of an Eden on the cusp of lapsing.
Here, Min -- who has stripped to boxers -- picks red berries, a casually sensual idyll that's interrupted by a giddy Roong. But he breaks off their passionate kiss, claiming her touch hurts his skin. Meanwhile, when Weerasethakul shocks us by cutting between the pair's quiet picnic and the sight of a naked couple having sex, it takes us a moment to register that the jackhammering man and woman are not Min and Roong. When we see that the woman is Orn, it takes another moment to perceive that her partner is not her husband (whom we've met) but rather one of his co-workers -- the very one we'd earlier watched briefly come on to Min.
Blissfully Yours contains little dialogue, and long passages do not so much advance the story as build atmosphere and familiarize us with the glances and postures in which we read the characters' emotional states: Orn's desperation, Roong's yearning, Ming's passive distance. The performances are strikingly naturalistic, with details about the characters' lives and scraps of dialogue dropped like breadcrumbs: a line about Roong's abusive ex-boyfriend; Orn's sudden "I feel like hitting someone!"
The film's full emotional impact might wait until even after the end credits roll. Blissfully Yours comes together slowly in the mind, a grand portrait of human desire in miniature. Halfway through, Min, an illegal immigrant from Burma who till now has spoken little, is suddenly given an interior voiceover, and Weerasethakul overlays on screen some of the young man's charmingly crude drawings. Min has secrets, apparently, from his female companions, and the voiceover and graphics recast the story we're seeing into an already dreamlike past, one floating somewhere between reality and myth. At its best, Blissfully Yours is painfully intimate yet suggests, almost beatifically, redemption in our empathy for its misguided characters. In Thai, with subtitles.