Off-screen Voices & Other Ghosts

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's A Letter To Uncle Boonme

published in Film Comment Vol.45 No.5, New York 2009

The advent of phonology—as applied to recorded sound as medium and practice—represents a unique moment in technological history. For just as the 20th century inaugurated the rise to pre-eminence of industrialized process, so the recording of the human voice channeled the spirit realm into the new machine age. Most reports of the introduction of the telephone, phonograph, and radio mention audiences perceiving the disembodied voice—the vox sans corpus—as a spirit. The effect persists to this day. Audiences conceive of the recorded voice as an ethereal being irrespective of its origin.

A multi-platform installation by filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Primitives, investigates spirits rooted in the Northern Thai township of Nambua. Via photographs, single-screen digital projections with headphone playback, and two discrete short videos, the project collectively documents and stages issues of cultural identity.

The strength of one of the shorts, A Letter To Uncle Boonme, lies in how issues of region-specific spirituality are audiovisually rendered to cinematic effect. With its off-screen recitation of a letter from a young man to his dead uncle, the film resembles an homage to Marguerite Duras’s 1975 film India Song. The spoken text is addressed to the uncle as both an imagined memory (the young man never met him) and a reincarnated presence in the rooms around which a slowly tracking camera pans. The letter is recited thrice, each time by a different young man. Rather than corrupt the narrative integrity, this shift toward multiplicity highlights an acceptance of spirits intermingling with present company.

Duras once remarked that she could not begin writing a scene until she knew the room in which it would be filmed. This accounts for her unique cinematic take on chamber drama wherein space and how it is inhabited take precedence over production design and presentation. In Duras’s conception of cinematic grammar, filmed space becomes a character in its own right, one with which characters perform a protracted yet elegant dance.

Spare and languorously paced like Duras’ films, Letter devolves into a pregnant silence that allows the acoustics of the space to speak. While previous shots frame lush, swaying vegetation viewed through doorways, an extended final shot holds on an empty room wherein we hear a droning tone with percolating shudders. In semi-darkness, the camera pan comes to rest on the source: a small, electric fan rotating. The noise engulfs the soundtrack and carries across successive outdoor shots and the end credit roll. This unnerving sound is possibly Uncle Boonme, occupying his space: the man-made device seems to be breathing out his unspoken presence in measured observational tones.

Or perhaps the uncle’s spirit-presence is manifested via the fulsome atmospheric field recordings post-dubbed for most of the film. Following cinematic convention, the persistently tracking camera leaves no audible trace whatsoever—an aural sleight-of-hand considering how noisy the tracking would be on the house’s weathered floorboards. This combination of slow-gliding visuals and absence of the film medium’s own bodily noise implicitly instills the shots with a ghostly presence. Contextually echoing this effect is the strange sound that fades up with the whirring of the fan. Occasional staccato taps of sonic grit punctuate a bed of soft pink noise characteristic of AC circuit electrical fluctuations audible when a shortwave radio is tuned between stations. Like the departed uncle, the town of Nambua is situated at the periphery of existence.

The bulk of Letter aligns on-screen image with off-screen sound. While the indeterminate location of voice-over is a textual trope of nouveau roman adaptations, it is remarkable how much sound in non-Western cinema is not empirically matched to a visible source. The ease with which non-Western cinema generally incorporates this supposed breach links up with Weerasethakul’s core concerns: the incorporation of spiritual post-embodiment in everyday life. The anxiety with which traditional sound design in English-speaking cinema mandates on-screen audio-visuality and is averse to off-screen aurality uncannily recalls the same disconnect experienced by those naïve listeners of bygone times who assumed the recorded voice was a spirit from the beyond. That voice was simply off-screen.

Text © Philip Brophy 2009. Images © Apichatpong Weerasethakul