A mysterious, violently loud bang that may be 'in here' or 'out there'. Viruses and fungi. A skull, three thousand years old, opened with a trepanation hole to 'let the spirits out'. Hospital rooms and corridors. A room whose door is blocked by a chair, as if waiting is an obstacle to the past. People observed as they listen. The difficulty of describing a sound. A man who lies down to die, then returns. To watch sleep is not the same as seeing death, in the same way that watching a person listening is not the same as watching a person not listening. Death can be seen; so can listening, but both keep their secrets carefully concealed. Memories that float about as delayed transmissions. The language of howler monkeys understood by humans. A ship, mysterious object, like a huge stone or whale, taking off into space with a loud bang. Sounds which grow in intensity without any narrative correspondence, in an ambiguous space somewhere between diegetic and non-diegetic. Music as transfigurative stardust. Plants and animals. Human bodies, their sickness, their healing.
On a number of occasions I have experienced the so-called sleep disorder known melodramatically as Exploding Head Syndrome (EHS). Mostly it happened to me in the 1990s when I was under extreme stress – a sharp bang with some similarity to the sound of an inflated paper bag burst violently. The sudden violence, 'heard' in sleep but felt as a vertiginous transition between deep sleep and wakefulness, makes it hard to recall in detail but I am conscious that there were no really low frequencies, which makes it convenient, if we are using the hopelessly bathetic vocabulary of sonic events, to describe the bang as closer to pop than boom. There was a crack to it, a frequency characteristic that might be instantly recognisable to an expert in munitions. Then I heard it again recently, alert to detail, and was almost able to retain its particular quality in memory. This time it possessed a silvery aspect, a texture of something slippery, smooth, mercurious, moving between two radically different states and causing, as it did so, the neurological equivalent of a sonic boom. This is metaphorical, of course. As I said, there was very little 'boom' component in the structure of my EHS event and besides, a sonic boom is a shock wave caused by the compression of pressure waves. Both phenomena are related to a sudden change of state so in that sense they express the extremity of moving between worlds but one happens in the physical domain while the other is what we call an imaginary event.
I thought of all this, watching Tilda Swinton trying to describe the sound of her increasingly troubling EHS events to a sympathetic sound engineer in the sterile operating theatre of a contemporary recording studio. Both are patient and determined to reach the truth of a sound, if there can be such a thing. This was Memoria, an early point in Apichatpong 'Joe' Weerasethakul's recent film, when memory might still be sufficient to duplicate with exactitude a sound that exists without sound waves, a sound vanished almost before it can be perceived. So something of the brain or thereabouts, like memory or thought itself; a random, unverifiable occurence presumed to be 'in the head', a body event rather than a vibration event, EHS raises enough questions to become what it is in the film, a quest to uncover something barely there. But then again, the car alarms were triggered. Did I do that?
Blue is a short film, twelve minutes, made by Apichatpong Weerasethakul in 2018. Opening in darkness with gentle nocturnal sounds – crickets, cicadas, frogs, forest geckos, a distant dog bark – a woman (Jenjira Pongpas Widner, a regular actor in his films) is revealed, apparently sleeping under a blue blanket (a blue that visually echoes the blue fabrics, blankets, lights, walls, signs, shirts and lake of Cemetery of Splendor). The scene contains a memory of a different scene, Jen sleeping in Uncle Boonmee, watched over by the fading ghost of her dead sister.
Cut to an idealised painted scene, Thailand, its lush beauty, karsts, a sun that threatens to outgrow the sky. Squeaking as the backdrop is rolled up to reveal a different scene. The woman is now awake, her body audibly sounding the blanket fibres as she clasps her hands. Squeaking again, as the first scene is lowered. Then footsteps and a flame which seems to cause restlessness in the sleeper. A dream with all the ambiguity that fire suggests. She turns over, the flame grows, audible and visible as a fire which seems to have caught the fabric of her blanket. More dogs bark, provoking and answering each other as dogs do. Under the sound of fire and night voices, another sound manifests, a subliminal unpitched turbulence, perhaps the fire, perhaps not. Cut to a garden scene, its canvas gently moving in the air, then squeaking as the first scene is unrolled again to cover it. The fire grows, burning into, or out of the woman's heart. She is awake now but still. Her eyes open and close, as if she is woken by dream, restless. Now we see the frame on which the painted backdrops are suspended. The fire seems to have spread to the corner of one of these backdrops, no more or less illusory in its scenery than the real plants that wave gently in a breeze. The woman is alight now, a funeral pyre. The sea is alight; so is the sun. The fire seems to be speaking, inarticulate speech. As the credits run on black, we hear night, fire, squeaking, unpitched turbulence.
This churning, low frequency undertow, imagined or not, is a key element in Apichatpong's films. It says what, exactly? "What's the sound?" a character asks in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). “Do you hear it?” Again, a subliminal, grinding sound almost buried under night insect sounding, as if dry concrete is mixing with the mutterings of demons yet not so dramatic as that, more neutral, only ominous in the imagination and not quite tangible. Is it heard by others or only by me? And what does it signify? A beautiful, if alarming scene in Uncle Boonmee: Auntie Jen sits alone at night, waving an ornately shaped electric bug zapper at the light. She catches mosquitos in its path, snap, snap, snap. This is a definitive sound of death. The grinding drone is less final, a threshold, maybe an omen of change, transformation.
War and militarism haunts these films. In Cemetery of Splendor (2016), soldiers sleep in a hospital ward, their sleeping deathlike suspension, sickness. Outside, a mechanical digger churns up the earth. Overhead, fan rotating, shik-shik-shik-shik. They are walking somewhere, in unconsciousness. The sound of a hand washing skin. “I could hear you in my sleep,” a soldier says to Jen when he wakes. At night, a soft humming in the ward, lights changing colour as if the sound and light are materialising a collective dreaming, ghost theatre. Beings oscillate between life and death, perhaps yearning for escape on the blue spacecraft that hovers above, a mysterious flying object that could transport them away from the human condition.
Blissfully Yours [Sud sanaeha] (2002) begins in a hospital with listening. “Let me listen to your lungs,” the doctor says, “breathe in, breathe out.” The patient, a Burmese man, is silent, unresponsive, as she asks him questions. His voice will betray him so he has become mute. Then a car journey, engine noise inside the car, no speaking. This is a recurrent feature of Apichatpong's films, a sound of travelling without dialogue. We hear thought, not speaking. Travel exists for itself. Later, there is the friction sound of sex on a fibrous mat laid over dry leaf litter, bird song and cicadas, the laboured, desperate breathing of sex, then movement sounds, eating, water, food packaging, a bottle opened. Just the sensuality of bodies, water moving langourous and soft, heat, bird song repeated over and over, half-sleep, trance of dissolving into sound as it envelops.
Jungle as metaphor, a sounding place where humans go to become not themselves, to become animal, ghost, listener. Metaphors, Apichatpong titled the CD of 'his' sound works (released by Sub Rosa in 2017), but maybe the title was not his. I say 'his' soundworks because he works closely with sound specialists, notably sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr and Japanese electronic musician Koichi Shimizu. “When I work on sound for Joe's films,” Akritchalerm told Filmmaker magazine (Scott Macauley, Winter 2022). “I need to be super focused on every detail.” His own recording of Thai cicadas is embedded secretly in every film he works on, he reveals, and so, like the recurring tropes of Apichatpong films – doctor and patient conversations, in-car travel, stories told and re-told in changing forms, outdoor aerobics, awkward romantic liasons and so on – a cycle is enacted, subliminal, transformative. Time circles and resonates, like sound.
The level of detail in sound design is unknown to those not attuned to its complexities. A touch of reverb, textural density, a sense of whether sound is concentrated within the observable reality of the screen or whether it pulls out beyond the frame, a subtle sense of physical location. In Uncle Boonmee, as they walk through jungle to the cave where Boonmee's life will drain away, Boonmee asks, “Auntie Jen, what's the sound?” He is filmed from behind but the sound of his breathing seems to follow him, rather than issue from his mouth. From a distant place, no place, comes a sound, rhythmic but indistinct.
Tropical Malady begins with a quotation: “All of us are by nature wild beasts. Our duty as human beings is to become like trainers who keep their animals in check, and even teach them to perform tasks alien to their bestiality.” The quote comes from a short story, Tiger-Poet, also known as The Moon Over the Mountain (published 1942, the year of the author's death) by Japanese writer Ton (Atsushi) Nakajima. Set in China and based on a Tang Dynasty Chinese story, Tiger-Poet is, in broad outline, one of the templates for Apichatpong's film. A scholar named Li Chêng decides to devote his life to poetry. He gives up his civil service job for poetry but falls into poverty. Consumed by bitterness he is forced to re-enter the civil service. Posted to the south of China, he is overtaken by madness during the journey and disappears. As it transpires, he has turned into a tiger, notorious in the area for eating humans. An old friend, Yüan Ts'an encounters him in his tiger form and they converse, Li Chêng hidden behind thick foliage. A voice had summoned him, he recounts, “and an irresistible impulse caused me to obey.” He ran into the forest, running for the sake of running, then finally sees his own reflection as a tiger in a mountain stream. In the final scene, Yüan Ts'an rides to the top of a hill, looks back and briefly sees a tiger leap out from cover onto the road, look up at the moon and howl three times: “As the last wail echoed through the valley, the tiger jumped back into the underbrush and disappeared from sight.”
A human voice issuing from the forest has no physical body. This is the nature of sound and the instability of identity. The environmental sounds of Tropical Malady, whether urban/human or jungle/animal (and crossing between them) function on two levels: as indicators of space, distinctively a region, city, village, way of speaking, time of day or night, weather, interior or exterior, but also work as a form of continuous electronic music underscore, either in the style of musique concrète or tape music (for historical examples of a tendency to equate electronic music with bioacoustic sound environments listen to Alien Bog, 1967, by Pauline Oliveros or Night Music, 1960, by Richard Maxfield). So Tropical Malady is divided into two distinct halves of sound. In the first half, traffic noise, ice sawn in half by circular blades, an outdoor aerobics class working out to fast techno, ambient sound of bright interiors, the violent percussion of heavy rain, human activity (including pissing, heard on two occasions). Yet the other world, beyond human affairs, may emerge at any time, signalled by ominous, ambiguous sound. Keng and Tong, the two men whose shy romance occupies the first half of the film, enter a Buddha cave. As they pass through a tunnel into a second cave, a roar becomes audible. “What's that sound?” one of them asks, fearful. They go back.
Just as pissing is the sound of a body releasing part of itself back into the earth, so the unknown sound is an intangible premonition of unknown events taking place in the world beyond human materiality, the world addressed by superstition, mysticism, religion, fictions, music, cinema, and the training by which humans keep their animal selves in check. After the cave, alone in a room, one character looks through photographs, a folder of memories. As he turns them one by one the turning sound, a flick of plastic as shocking and mysterious in its way as Tilda Swinton's EHS bang in Memoria, suddenly pitches us into blackness. The grinding roar becomes present, almost inaudible, rising in volume through some seconds of darkness, rising to the quiet (un)sound we call room tone, as a drawing of a tiger is revealed along with a new title, A Spirit's Path, inspired by the stories of Noi Inthanon. A Khmer shaman could turn himself into various animals, but then there is the soldier who fears the tiger whose roar we hear – aughwooh, whagou – camouflaged soldier whose path through the forest is betrayed by a crunching of dry leaf litter, the borborygmic sounds of his own stomach, the hiss and fuzz of his radio. The tiger-ghost who pursues him is fascinated by this mysterious sound device, tries to enter his dreams. “Every drop of my blood sings our song,” he says. “Do you hear it?”
In Syndromes and a Century [Sang Sattawat] (2006) an elderly monk tells a doctor his self-diagnosis of aches and pains, attributing them to his cruelty in childhood when he would deliberately break the legs of chickens. Their clucking annoyed him, he confessed, and now, despite offering prayers to them for years he is tormented by dreams in which he is chased by chickens. A monk who wanted to be a DJ is treated by a dentist who sings romantic luk thung songs as a hobby. Night, and what follows is a reminder of another outdoor stage (in Tropical Malady) of hallucinogenic vividness on which a singer performs with touching sincerity. Wearing a green jacket the dentist sings a ballad, “Smile”, on an outdoor stage, makeshift roof of green plastic sheeting waving gently overhead, ocean upside down. In his heart, he sings to the monk, we assume. In the hospital, a sustained tone, pulsing slightly, more chord than tone, then down to the basement where war veterans are treated, a different drone, like rushing air, then lathe sounds in a room where patients are fitted with prosthetic limbs.
Hospitals are places where different belief systems confront each other. As the hospital empties out in the evening, another sound predominates and spreads, eerie, insistent, a memory of the future. Originating as a field recording of a boat recorded from an abandoned building in Bangkok, the sound is thick, tidal, pulsating, evoking an orchestra of trumpets, reed instruments, trombones playing in a misted space, spread out across a wide expanse of land, answering each other like dogs, their dwelling on repeated notes filling up a secret air in rooms in which human life is absent or barely present. The film ends with an outdoor aerobic session, its soundtrack a frantic silly/clever song by Neil and Iraiza – “Fez” – an example of the Japanese cut-and-paste 1990s microgenre known as Shibuya-kei, inspired by clever 1960s pop and indeed mutating every eight bars from intimations of jazz fusion to computer games to rock guitar to Tokyo city pop to cheerfully inane happy hardcore. In life there is constant flux, it seems to say. Sound can lead us to bliss and transmutation whether low or high, humble or exalted, 'in here' or 'out there'. Exercising together in light, heart rate raised by the tempo of music, community comes into being.
Asked about his use of sound, Apichatpong has this to say: “I want it to resonate in the heart.” Does it resonate in the world? “What's that sound?” Apichatpong's films suggest many answers to this recurring question, or no answers at all, only openings. Loud bang in sleep, subliminal roar, deep groaning voices of howler monkeys; all inchoate, the invisible entity that stalks us through life. Sound is here on earth with us, calling to another place, beyond physical life.
Image (1) from Loong Boonmee raleuk chat [Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives] (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Image (2) from Blue (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2018)
Image (3) from Rak ti Khon Kaen [Cemetry of Splendor] (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)
Image (4) from Sud sanaeha [Blissfully Yours] (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)
Image (5) from Sud pralad [Tropical Malady] (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
Image (6) from Sang sattawat [Syndromes and a Century] (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
Image (7) from Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021)