Phantoms of Nabua


Written by Brian Welk
28 Monday 28th June 2010

There are mattresses sitting on the floor of a very dark gallery space at the BFI National Theatre in Southbank. A short film is playing in a 10-minute cycle on the back wall as the noise of lightning booms and echoes throughout the sound surrounded room. The film is Phantoms of Nabua, and it is just one part of the Primitive Project by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.


Weerasethakul is the acclaimed director from Thailand of Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, but he’s an artist as well, and Primitive is a multi-platform work that shows a delicate project in which so much effort has been put into the individual parts to create a cohesive whole.  
Primitive includes a short film called A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, an installation projected on multiple screens with the title name of the project, Phantoms of Nabua, a book full of short stories and photos of the town of Nabua, and most notably of all, a feature film. The film is Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, or better known as the winner of the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes festival.  
Watching Phantoms of Nabua and browsing Weerasethakul’s book, you begin to get a real sense of the message he’s trying to deliver about the eerie underbelly of this quaint town in Thailand. He suggests there is a lot that is unknown about Nabua’s violent history during the communist insurgency, and the theme of Phantoms is that both humans and nature have a power of destruction that in itself is its own haunting art form. 
As the film starts, a dim street lamp sits on an awkward angle in a field. Weerasethakul cuts away to reveal that the street lamp is a projected image on a curtain. At a nearby house, lightning is striking a dozen times over within inches of the same spot. Cut away again, and this image is the one being projected, with a flipped version of the street lamp illuminating it.  
A group of teenagers enters the frame, and a small red light begins to glow around them. They’ve lit a football on fire, and they start to kick it around in the dark. Weerasethakul’s camera moves low to the ground, unconcerned with the faces of the teens or the nature of the game. He’s interested in the way in which the flaming ball flies across the upper half of the frame, the droplets of fire it leaves behind in its trail and the echoing thud the ball makes as it travels. 
The game goes on in front of the screen projecting the film of the lightning strikes. When the ball passes by the curtain, it gets lit on fire, and in a glorious moment of destruction, starts to slowly burn. The silhouettes of the teens can be seen dominating over the flames in the foreground, and the strength of mankind is revealed. 
But lingering after the screen has long gone up in flames is the projector, emitting an ever-powerful light that flickers and gleams as the lightning still hits ground. Even as art within nature is destroyed, still it endures. 
You can watch Phantoms of Nabua online here, but the real way to experience it is to feel the immersive sight and sound of it at the BFI Gallery. Admission is free, and it will only be at the BFI Gallery for one more week before it is replaced. You can also browse Primitive’s magazine after viewing the film.  
Weerasethakul’s project has now become more than a work of art or an award winning film. It has taken on an iconic presence in the spirit of the rich history, humanity and nature contained within the quiet streets and forests of Nabua.


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