The Shifting Shapes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a storyteller. A storyteller for whom narration and formal experimentation are not mutually exclusive. Crucial to his work is a continuous and often unexpected shifting of shapes. Characters appear, disappear, and take on different forms – human, animal as well as otherworldly – while the films themselves are a game of forms too. And for this, Weerasethakul draws from many different registers and traditions. His interest in local characters and specific locations in North-East Thailand has led him to folktales, Buddhist reincarnation, personal memories and Thai political history. His sensory aesthetic, which links the physical to the dreamy and the ethereal, suggests an affinity with contemporary filmmakers such as Carlos Reygadas and Tsai Ming-liang, while Weerasethakul himself has referred to the (American) experimental cinema of Andy Warhol and Bruce Baillie. Add an interest in Thai soap operas and genre cinema to the mix, and Weerasethakul’s films might turn out to be postmodern intertextuality at its finest. In addition to this, it’s also striking how often he films spaces – the jungle, caves and film theatres – where the resemblance to the cinematic experience creates an extra layer of intensity. Onscreen memories become perceived memories, as ephemeral as cinema itself. Flowing along the intense, subdued rhythm of his films, you watch cinema being shaped, but Weerasethakul’s self-consciousness about film mainly focuses on the basic parameters of cinema. What makes the wondrous interaction between light and dark come to life? How do interiors and exterior relate to one another? How does a character move through the space? Can cinema transfer memories and retain traces of the past? Working closely with his actors, whose life stories are a source of inspiration to him, Weerasethakul always seems to wonder what cinema can do. In his case, cinema is intimate and suggestive, simple and profound, naïvely astonished and skeptic, personal and political... “Film has become a pretext to live.”
Bjorn Gabriels: Your work is strongly rooted in the region where you film, in personal memories and in the actors you work with. At the same time it’s also an exploration of what cinema can be. From your feature debut Mysterious Object at Noon  onwards, you have explored how film can collect stories in a very collaborative approach.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I think this approach started in Chicago, where I found a different kind of film practice [during his education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago]. Experimental cinema expanded my definition of movies and encouraged me to think. Making films this way is liberating. It was a little act of rebellion to such a conservative society [in Thailand], in which we have many unspoken rules. It is also coupled with, I think, [the fact that] I am not really a social person, so I feel that making films in a collaborative nature allows me to get in touch with this group of people. Normally, I would be really introvert. Film has become a pretext to live.
In that way, film becomes a way of interacting with the world. You have described the films you’ve made after your first introduction to experimental cinema as ‘experimental narratives’, as if to incorporate experimental as well as more narrative traditions.
In the beginning, I was mainly interested in form, and not at all in narrative. But gradually, I felt the beauty of narrative in the world, and in Thailand. Up to a certain point, I think that trying to tell a story in a different way is probably more challenging than purely experimenting with forms.
Part of experimenting with forms and storytelling also consists of exploring how to create cinematic spaces. One of the places that interest you is the jungle. In the course of your films the jungle has taken on different forms. There’s the luminous jungle in Blissfully Yours , the pitch-black dark in Tropical Malady , and the day-for-night scenes in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives . In Cemetery of Splendor , the scenes in the park are luminous again, but the trees and the dead leaves there create a very different atmosphere. It’s very dry, and not dense at all.
Yes, actually, I’m trying to get away from the jungle! (laughs)
Yet, here I am, bothering you about it once more…
No, no… In fact, again, it feels liberating to work in a space where I can move the camera and play with the shadows. It’s really like a game, because you have to think about the continuity and you can’t control the light as the sunlight keeps shifting. That’s very fun for me. But at the same time, I want to avoid becoming formulaic, so I feel like experimenting and trying something different.
In relation to filming sunlight, you have mentioned Bruce Baillie as an important inspiration.
Yes, I was lucky to see his films in 16 mm. This was such a religious experience, almost, because the way he controls the lights and colors is so organic. Later, I found out that he sometimes developed his films himself or that he sent specific instructions to the lab, and that’s so admirable. Especially now that everything is automatic. I would call watching his films ‘religious’ because they are so profound and it’s like watching the wonder of nature.
And at the same time, it has to do with the material of film and nature itself.
Yes, it’s a reminder of beauty… Sometimes there’s a narration you have to deal with [as a filmmaker], but Bruce allows you to free yourself of that narration. When I look at Quick Billy [Bruce Baillie, 1971], I often think it’s like another, totally different chapter of Tropical Malady. Even though I saw it after I made Tropical Malady.
In relation to filming in the jungle, you have also mentioned The Emerald Forest  by John Boorman.
I think The Emerald Forest and a film like The Mission [Roland Joffé, 1986] fit into this Hollywood tradition that continues a romanticized account of the jungle. When I was younger, I was attracted to Thai adventure stories [by Noi Inthanon, a pen name of Marlai Choophinit] that were always set in the jungle, with various dangerous animals. These stories were influenced by the Western infatuation with the Amazon, which romanticized the jungle and all of its dangers from a colonial viewpoint. This Thai writer [Noi Inthanon] used the Amazon as a bridge to different cultures, but at the same time you come to realize the brutality of these invasions. I grew up with those stories and then you start to compare them with what happened all around the world and also in the country [in Thailand] to indigenous people. The jungle is very rich in memory and that’s why I can picture it like home in my films.
Considering that, it’s striking that Boorman has said that, unlike what most filmmakers might think, filming the forest requires it to be lighted like a room, an interior, rather than like an exterior.
Yes, that’s very interesting… It’s funny how we are trapped by the rules. When I wrote the scripts, I still called the jungle an ‘exterior’ and then you start to operate accordingly. And, of course, you have to deal with the sun and all these elements of the exterior. But it’s amazing to look what happens when you destroy this definition.
When filming the princess sequence in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, you’ve merged the classical method of filming day for night with a traditional Thai story.
That’s a tradition, but it doesn’t go back that far. It dates from my childhood and has been developed from stage plays and costume dramas [on Thai television]. But for me, those scenes were more about reflecting what I saw when I was younger. I wasn’t really attempting to quote a tradition. Filmmaking is a game, and sometimes you need to approach it from a children’s point of view. It’s exciting to see everything in wonder through the lens and play around with the films you saw when you were a kid.
It’s no coincidence then that you’ve mentioned the influence of Steven Spielberg, who often makes films from a children’s perspective or a naïveté even. Such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial .
Yes, exactly. The influence he has had on my generation is immense.
Another film from the eighties that pops up in your list of favorites is Chantal Akerman’s The Eighties [Les années 80, 1983].
I haven’t had the chance to see a lot of Akerman’s films, but The Eighties is really monumental. In this film, the exterior and interior we talked about earlier are again very striking. If I remember correctly, there’s no exterior until the very end, when she pans from a rooftop over the city [of Brussels]. Wow! That’s the religion! [= That’s truly amazing!] Suddenly you are pulled back… I don’t know how to explain it, but that is such a graceful move. Akerman has been very influential all over the world. From what I’ve seen – Jeanne Dielman [Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975] and a few other films – Akerman liberated this structural way of filmmaking because her work is still very intimate and human.
When discussing your work, international non-Thai critics – who often have little knowledge of the audiovisual culture in Thailand – mostly refer to Western film traditions. Are they missing out less obvious aspects of your work?
No, it’s all western… (laughs) Today, everything is so globalized that it seems a little bit rude to claim anything as specifically Thai. We all influence one another. Audiovisual language, the language of cinema, is so common and – at least in Hollywood – the vocabulary is always the same. The representation of a Thai dress or Thai food in a movie doesn’t count [in shaping the identity of your film]. It’s about the way you make films, and about how you make them represent your identity. But in my view, it’s not necessary to say that this is Thai or whatever. It’s really hard for me to point out what is Thai. I don’t think it exists anymore now.
In Thailand, there’s this tradition of playing the Royal Anthem before every film screening. With your short film The Anthem , you have created an alternative for this. Both parts of that film, each in its own way, come across as an ode to cinema.
It’s a celebration of filmmaking and the viewing experience. There are so many rituals in life. Thai people have this tradition to stand up while the Royal Anthem plays before a movie [in order to honor the King]. But I’m more interested in just sitting down. In its core, The Anthem is the same ritual [but as a celebration of cinema].
In Cemetery of Splendor, there’s a scene in a film theatre in a big shopping mall, where people watch a trailer of a supernatural thriller. These images are spectacular and filled with in your face violence, which is rare in your films.
I was pretty shocked when I saw those images because they’re not so common anymore. Maybe you can see them on television, but in cinema it has become quite hard to see this kind of film [The Iron Coffin Killer by Phyungvet Phyakul]. It really amazed me that this was a new film, and I wanted to share it.
Instead of hearing the Royal Anthem after this trailer, there’s a cut to the whirring fans in the hospital and to a succession of street scenes with homeless people and a billboard for a ‘EU wedding studio’. That’s a more sinister replacement of the Royal Anthem than The Anthem, isn’t it?
Well, that billboard is a fake one. We made it because I feel that is the future of the region there [around Apichatpong’s home town Khon Kaen, in North-East Thailand]. There’s a high percentage of marriages between Thai women and foreign men. It’s almost very fashionable and people strive for it. I have no judgment about that, but I fear that the landscape will change with the next generations. When you’re a foreigner, you of course want to have the best education for your kids, so you might send them away to international schools. Whereas, in general, the north-east of Thailand is a region of poverty and lower education. So the landscape will change.
The actress Jenjira Pongpas, who has been a recurrent collaborator, has recently met an American man [as seen in Cemetery of Splendor] and has also changed her name.
Well, Thai people sometimes change their name for good luck. So Jenjira changed her name to Nach, which means water, and then she met an American guy and added his last name to her own last name. Her memories are a real treasure to me.
In Tropical Malady, the two boys also visit a film theater, but that time the cinema setting seems to be more a place of intimacy. That scene, especially when it’s followed by a scene in a toilet, seems to have a close relationship to Goodbye Dragon Inn [Tsai Ming-liang, 2003].
Goodbye Dragon Inn is the best film I’ve ever seen. I think I saw it a year or two after it came out, after I finished Tropical Malady. It really is the ultimate film. Tsai Ming-liang and I share many aspects: the big cinema and the characters there, like the woman who eats watermelon seeds… I really love that.
These scenes set in cinemas seem to explore the very nature of what cinema can be, and how it relates to life. It can be a delight, but it can also be a nightmare.
Cinema has a lure, which I sometimes approach quite skeptically because cinema is an illusion and you know it’s a trick. But at the same time, you realize how powerful it can be. Cinema is this simple trick of light on a screen that creates this notion that it’s simultaneously fake and so deep.
The very basics of cinema haven’t lost their force. The simple act of placing one image after another, like you did in that incredible sequence in Uncle Boonmee in which Boonmee reflects upon this ‘time machine’ and the ‘future people’, remains very powerful.
Exactly, and cinema is so suggestive and so challenging. A book is always very open and you can imagine anything you like, but in movies the image is already there. The challenge is how to make this fixed image open, and so a film deals with time and structure to bring the audience a certain openness.
Film can be an immersive experience, but it can also be very imposing and block you, as a spectator.
Yes, in Hollywood, they do everything for you. Their special effects, which I love by the way, don’t allow you to do anything. You just marvel at them.
The special effects in your films are very basic, to a certain degree.
I want to make the audience feel that simply being able to see these various things through a lens and to capture these images on a sensor is a special effect.
One of your short films that struck me was Mobile Men , which has this fairly uncomplicated set-up of you filming two boys in the back of a driving truck. It really is an expression of joy and youthful exuberance. And it shows something of the simplicity of cinema.
That film was, like you say, about the joy of looking and sharing, and just feeling the wind and seeing the light. That’s Bruce Baillie again, you know. It’s just looking.
Do you sometimes feel that, as a filmmaker, you have to keep the conceptualization that surrounds cinema at a distance in order to allow yourself and your crew to go out there and enjoy yourselves?
No, not really. That’s also why I keep making these shorts, because when you’re making a feature film it’s quite difficult to be free. Rehearsals can be very free-flowing, but once we’re on the set it’s quite strict.
You’ve also said that you’re considering to no longer make feature films in Thailand.
Yes, indeed, if the current dictatorship continues, I won’t make any feature films there... [Apichatpong’s next feature film project is set to take place in Colombia and Mexico.] It might be difficult for outsiders to understand because when you go to Thailand, it’s so pleasant and everyone enjoys their life, but it’s really hard if you want to express yourself, like I do. People ask why do it then, why criticize a dictator who may bring goodness to a lot of people? It’s a real struggle, not on the creative level, but on a practical daily basis.
Considering your work is strongly rooted in your region, are you worried that filming abroad might impact the creative process as well?
Actually, that is the main goal: to change.
I’m curious how that will play out, because up to now there seems to be this string connecting all of your films.
Well, I’m curious too… (laughs) I may have to bring along Jen [actress Jenjira Pongpas] to have this continuing thread. (laughs) But for now, I’m enjoying all the current activities: the retrospectives, the exposition down here [in Cinema Galeries, Brussels] and the theatre performance [Fever Room, at Kunstenfestivaldesarts].
The basement setting of the Memorandum exposition in Cinema Galeries reminds of yet another cinematic space you have returned to a few times: the cave. Which may also be a setting that emulates the cinema-going experience.
It’s funny, you know, because we come back again to what we talked about earlier with regard to the exteriors and interiors. With these cave scenes, I asked myself: should I write ‘exterior’ or ‘interior’ in the scripts [of Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee], because they’re not closed caves and the sunlight came in… The space here [in Cinema Galeries] is somewhat like that, but when I came here last year I wanted to make something quiet, not like my previous installation pieces, and when I came back I wanted to make it even more intimate. So we changed some of the works, and included ones that have only been on my computer so far.
It’s been said that your work has become more political. Does this evolve in parallel with an increasing intimacy?
I’ve opened myself up more. It’s a way to merge cinema with your life and be honest. When you go to Cannes for the first, second and third time, you become stronger after criticism. But it’s hard because in the beginning people trash your films and so forth. Opening up like this [in the Memorandum exposition] is new for me. It’s my image and my identity. There’s this conflicting feeling in sharing and not being attached to it: the image is mine but at the same time it’s not mine. Exterior and interior, again. Opening up is a challenge to myself too. In a way, what I’m doing is not that extreme, because nowadays everyone is doing it with YouTube, Instagram and all these things. But I think it’s not enough, people need to share more and have more empathy. Imagine that you can sense the other person’s fear…
This notion of empathy is central to the cinephile experience. While there’s also a political aspect to it: you have said that cinema needs to dare to be political.
The political instabilities over the past few years [in Thailand] have changed the way I live and my identity. I have realized that politics is not a separate category. In life, everything is political. When you make a film, being honest is sharing. But people think that politics isn’t part of the conversation, because it’s dangerous or because they are afraid of insulting other people. My family and I, we rarely discuss politics, while I know we have different views. Not bringing the differences in opinion out in the open is a problem for Thailand and many other countries. Now, the military even takes people who have a different opinion to an ‘attitude adjustment session’. All of this doesn’t encourage the dialogue. Right now, the political situation is very intense and part of daily life. What you post on Facebook and so forth matters because it might impact your life. But we don’t talk about it…
In those types of situations, a personal expression of empathy becomes a political act in itself. Cemetery of Splendor has been called your most political film so far. But there was already a strong political side to your previous work, like Uncle Boonmee.
That project was triggered by a change in the history of Thailand. It’s really political for me. Uncle Boonmee embodied this search for a shifting identity in the noughties. Even though it started with an old book, Boonmee’s life and the concept of being reborn is still very relevant. [The English title of this book is A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives (1983). It was written by Phra Sripariyattiweti, a Buddhist priest at the Sang Arun Forest Monastery near Apichatpong’s home town Khon Kaen.]
Maybe the cinematic spaces we talked about – the jungle, the cave, and the film theatre – might also embody this longing for a change that seems to run throughout your work.
Yes, because many things have already changed, such as the way we make films. Uncle Boonmee was a way to go back and say goodbye to a certain kind of cinema.
Many thanks to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Johanne de Bie (Kunstenfestivaldesarts) and Cinema Galeries
Image (1) from Dokfa nai meuman [Mysterious Object at Noon] (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000)
Images (2) and (3) from Loong Boonmee raleuk chat [Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives] (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)