Filmmaker Chulayarnnon Siriphol offers an extraordinary gallery rendition of the popular tale
If Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s “Behind the Painting” were a mechanical drawing, a new exhibition built around his short film would be the “exploded view”. It’s broken up, magnified and more detailed than ever as viewed on a dozen screens across four galleries at the Silpakorn University Art Centre in Bangkok.
It’s also a refreshing approach to interpreting classical literature, “Behind the Painting” being one of several favourite Thai
stories that have over the decades been repeatedly adapted for film, television and stage.
Sri Burapha’s romantic tragedy, set in Japan, centres on Nopporn, a young Thai man studying there. A family acquaintance gets in touch – an elderly Japanese man returning home with his young new wife Kirati, a Thai of noble birth. He wants Nopporn to squire Kirati around and help her adjust to life in Japan. Predictably, romance blossoms between the two younger people.
The exhibition embracing Chulayarnnon’s short movie stems from his participation last year in the artist-in-residence programme at Japan’s Aomori Contemporary Art Centre, where it was first shown. The Bangkok exhibition is supported by the Japan Foundation.
Set in a colonial-style building on Silpakorn University’s historic campus across the street from the Grand Palace, this incarnation of “Behind the Painting” gets more interesting the deeper you go. But it’s intriguing right out of the gate, with the first room devoted to “Forget Me Not”, a mixed-media work that comprises a brief video loop of a key scene from Chulayarnnon’s film, when Kirati hands Nopporn a forget-me-not flower. The title appears on a handwritten note rendered in neon and lighting up the room.
The bulk of the short film is in the next gallery, where 12 small lightbox/video screens are suspended from the ceiling. On the back of each box is a watercolour painting of a key scene, while the front of the box has the video, running on loops of around two to four minutes apiece.
The best approach is to walk around the room clockwise and watch each video, starting with “The Letter from Siam”, in which Nopporn is informed of the Japanese man and his wife’s impending arrival. The tale unfolds as you move along, from “The First Trip” to the reflective epilogue, also titled “Behind the Painting”.
Other segments include “The Last Moment”, “Nopporn’s Dream”, “Kirati’s Letter”, “The Death of Chaokhun” and “Bad News”. They’re titles that might fit sequels to a goofy B-movie franchise – which makes them great.
While the story can be followed through English subtitles, earphones are supplied so you can listen to the dialogue, lifted from a full-length Thai movie of “Behind the Painting”, the 2001 version that was the last feature by revered auteur Cherd Songsri.
Chulayarnnon has employed a similar technique before. For one of his earliest works, “Golden Sand House”, he used the audio from the 1980 Jarunee Saksawat classic “Baan Sai Tong” over his own version of the oft-adapted tale of bluebloods threatened by commoners.
Another of Chulayarnnon’s trademarks is that he often appears in his films, always an immediately relatable Everyman character. In “Behind the Painting” he plays both Nopporn and, to hilarious effect, the refined Kirati. With the help of photo doubles and filmmaking magic that’s convincing to varying degrees, he puts Nopporn and Kirati in the same scene. He also uses that schoolboy trick of wrapping his arms around his shoulders so that, from the back, it looks like he’s making out with someone.
Still, it’s pretty slick. About halfway through the lightbox display I got over Chulayarnnon’s drag act and, despite his 5 o’clock shadow, I began see him as Kirati, not as a dude playing Kirati. And I suppose that’s a commentary on the increasingly fluid nature of society’s perceptions of gender and sexuality – notions being challenged right now in mainstream culture.
Venturing deeper, there’s “Incomplete Dream”, an unfinished 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Printed from the watercolour for “Nopporn’s Dream”, the pieces are arranged so the couple’s faces are obscured. Obsessive-compul
sive types should restrain themselves from completing the puzzle.
Finally, there’s the installation “Mitake”, in which you can actually go behind the painting of the painting from “Behind the Painting”. On one side of the lightbox is the watercolour that Kirati painted of her and Nopporn sitting by a pool in a Technicolor forest. The other side has a video with scenes from her isolated upbringing.
Chulayarnnon screened an early version of “Behind the Painting” at a retrospective in Bangkok last year. At the time I felt I’d seen enough of the story, but now it’s the art-gallery edition that must be seen and experienced. And, for me, this is the definitive version of “Behind the Painting”.
A classic revealed
Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s “Behind the Painting” is on show until October 13 at the Art Centre at Silpakorn University Wang Thapra.
For details, see www.Art-Centre.SU.ac.th.