Inside Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Fever Room

A performance that immerses one into another dimension without once having to leave one’s seat, blurring the line between dreams and memories. Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Fever Room, which took place in Yokohama as part of the Tokyo Performance Arts Festival, leaves a lasting impression.

March 01, 2017
In that space between asleep and awake, in the grey where memories and dreams blur, it is difficult to really know if what we have seen has actually happened and is now a memory or if, perhaps, it is a memory that has morphed into a dream. In a hospital room where two people lie next to each other, attached to a drip, recounting their dreams, they find that they speak of the same dream; the images of this dream appear before us momentarily as if they are scenes, fading as the speaker forgets certain images.
We first learn of these dreams from Jenjira Pongpas Widner, who, lying in her bed, describes images of a town by the river to her friend, Banlop Lomnai. Jenjira and Banlop are Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular actors and, through the years, we have continued to meet them in his oeuvre since our first introduction to Jenjira in Blissfully Yours (2002) and Banlop—as Keng—in Tropical Malady (2004). There is a familiarity of the two: having seen them on screen for years, they have formed a part of our memories of our cinema-going experience as if, in an odd way, we feel like we know them.

In Fever Room we are confronted with a conversation between Jenjira and Banlop, who are describing their dreams to each other. Then the screens move and, before we know it, there are two screens parallel to each other. Then the walls on the sides also become a part of the moving landscape, swaying trees surrounding us as the walls also become screens. We are in box where, from all sides, there are images and we are likewise surrounded by sounds from nature, ambient noise, and people. I distinctly remember banana trees swaying in the wind; I can hear the wind and the rustling of leaves. Then there is music—or what I remember to be music—though it could have been the sound of raindrops, making me believe for a second that I was getting wet—or would have been, had I not been protected by the roof of the theater.
Courtesy of Kick the Machine
Courtesy of Kick the Machine
We are then transported to a cave, in all its stalagmite and stalactite glory. Before we enter this cave, however, we are shown engravings of men who existed before us: kings and men engraved into stone to be remembered forever. We see a light shining on the engravings of those kings and men as we enter the cave with a man whose head is covered in a balaclava. As he ventures deeper into the cave, it gets darker, but his light reveals more drawings from the past, from ancient civilizations. These drawings come to life from the play of light, much the way that the earliest cinema employed light and shadow. In the cave, the flashlight animates the story taking place in front of us: it is story-telling in its most primitive form. Then again, it is the primeval cinema that Apichatpong is credited with having founded.
Photo by Martin Agyroglo
The man’s journey reminds us of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which the shadows from a fire represent the limits of reality to the men chained to the walls of the cave, for these shadows are all that they knew. The shadows of animals and objects “come alive” in front of the prisoners as animals and objects pass between the men’s backs and the fire that casts moving shadows on the cave wall before them. The shadows represent the totality of reality for these men, who are both literally and figuratively in the dark.

We watch the man as he falls into a slumber in the cave. As he sleeps, we are taken on a journey: perhaps we are in his dream. In that moment, as the film in front us becomes our reality, as Apichatpong performs a grand act of suspension with fog, lights, sound, and a turbine fan, all working in unison, another dimension has been created. Somehow, as we are transported into a tunnel of light, one that embraces us fully and seems to have no end, we move with it in a circular motion: we see clouds, we see lights, and at times we become one with the crashing waves, feeling as if we are the water. Or perhaps we are in the water, remaining afloat, transfixed on a light on the horizon: a sharp, single plane of magnificent light that appears from time to time as we move with the crashing waves, oblivious to the fact that we are still sitting in our seats.
Photo by Martin Agyroglo
We feel like David Bowman, the astronaut in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as we are catapulted into this “Stargate” tunnel as all the universe flies by. We are in another dimension. It is hard to explain this experience: it was nothing short of transformative as the shadows and lights, smoke and sounds took over, transporting us to another reality. The reality that we knew was left at the door, on the other side, and we became one with the shadows in an alternate reality that lasts for a full 90 minutes. Then there is darkness. And only the memory of this journey when we leave.

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Two weeks later, I can close my eyes and immediately feel myself again in that tunnel. It was probably the closest I will get to feeling like I am in the Stargate: I can touch the rain and feel the waves. The bright light on the horizon beckons me. It’s like a dream. The memory that I have of Fever Room has merged into my subconsciousness and become part of the fabric of my dreamscape. As I try to describe the experience of Fever Room, I can only do so by describing a dream I once had: a dream that confirms my belief in art and how a collaboration of lights and sounds and production can suspend reality. And how this great artist and auteur, Apichatpong, can continue to suspend us in a dream, should we enter his world and let him.