Despite filming his works to date almost exclusively in Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has become one of the most recognisable, influential and groundbreaking figures in cinema today. Apichatpong won a prestigious Un Certain Regard for Blissfully Yours at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, before going on to take out the Grand Prix in 2004 with Tropical Malady, eventually taking out the Palme d’Or with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Beyond this, however, Apichatpong’s cinema is defined by its breadth and depth; a feeling that audiences are watching more than a film, and entering a larger world with his works – affirmed through the director’s work outside of the feature length film format.
Apichatpong shot his first exhibition Primitive around the town of Nabua, between Thailand and Laos. It was a work that navigated the history of the area and the ghosts that existed within. Uncle Boonmee emerged from this exhibition, as did the shorts of Mekong Hotel and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. This approach to transforming the filmmaking process into something far more complex and far-reaching has defined Apichatpong’s work in recent years, with his latest film Cemetery of Splendour enamoured in a world of its own. From the Photophobia exhibition, which returned to the director’s hometown of Khon Kaen, to his most recent stage production Fever Room – which concerns itself with similar thematic material as the film – Apichatpong has established himself as a markedly unique artist and a deeply thought-provoking figure through his intricate and rewarding approach to filmmaking.
Despite his success, Apichatpong is a filmmaker deeply intrigued with his own experiences and surrounds, having filmed all of his features to date within Thailand. Kong Rithdee poignantly described Apichatpong’s work as “not setting Thai cinema adrift in the void of globalised aesthetics”1 but rather “bringing it home.” Cemetery of Splendour has established itself as one of 2015’s most critically lauded films throughout its festival circuit this year. Much of Apichatpong’s success – both in his latest work and previous films – has stemmed from a sublime and intrinsic connection to place. Considering this, it’s hard to imagine him filming outside of Thailand. That said, considering his history of fighting against the censorship of his work within the country, if and when this does occur, it’s almost certainly going to occur on Apichatpong’s own terms.
We caught up with Apichatpong a few weeks after the debut of his first stage production, amidst continued screenings of Cemetery of Splendour across the globe.
You were working on a project in the last few months called Fever Room? It was your first stage production as well?
Yes – it’s just finished. It was performed in Gwangju in South Korea. It’s my first experiment in that field.
I read that it was centred around the idea of “the cave”.
Initially yes, but then it developed into many different ideas – and these linked a lot with Cemetery of Splendour, particularly in terms of that idea of sleep and escape.
How did you become involved with that?
I got involved through the curator of the Asian Arts Theatre; it’s a newly built space and they just had the official opening at the beginning of this month. So last year, they commissioned a lot of performances, and the curator… she’s a film lover, and she invited me and other filmmakers to present theatre works – as a challenge, maybe? There was Tsai Ming-Liang and Raya Martin, but I think for them [it was straight-forward] – like Tsai Ming-Liang, he’s already done some theatre works in Taipei, but for me it’s totally new. The fact that the curator gave me total freedom meant that it ended up being a really good learning experience, as well as being kind of eye-opening for me.
Do you think you’ll do that sort of thing again?
Yeah, definitely. In fact, I would really like to tour this work, perfecting it along the way. Yeah.
You wrote a piece called ‘The Memory of Nabua’ as part of the Primitive project in 2009. In it you said that you had “no set plans, except to try and find Boonmee’s offspring and visit Jenjira’s family” when you started that work. I’m curious about your process in devising these installation works, that way in which you move from having no set plan to putting on something as diverse and intricate as Primitive?
For me, this is the beauty of so-called ‘art projects’. It’s almost like research – just travelling and meeting people – and for me it’s almost like performance art in itself. Just kind of discovering not only the history and the stories, but also discovering myself – to be conscious of how I interact with people and how I digest certain information. So it’s quite liberating compared to making a movie, but in the past few years I’ve been trying to approach making films like that as well, to keep it a bit open. So I mostly have outlines of locations, and then I go and immerse myself in the project. This is similar to what I did with Fever Room as well.
I remember seeing the Photophobia exhibition in Kyoto, when ‘Cemetery of Kings’ was still the title of the film. I thought it was really interesting how you were recording and presenting so much of the process of filmmaking as an art of itself. Has this always been an important part of the artistic process for you?
Before I used to think of film as maybe just one project. With my process being finishing it piece by piece, before moving on to different themes or interests. But lately I think of film like satellites: surrounding this ongoing universe; even building that universe. So when I finished Cemetery of Splendour, it wasn’t really finished. It’s almost like a platform, to move onto another work that can be built from it. But it all ends up being one piece; all together.
Yeah, I guess it’s one of the most fascinating parts of your work – how these worlds are built around these locations. Obviously in Cemetery of Splendour the work is framed around Khon Kaen. I read that you were living on the set making it, and Jenjira plays a character based a lot on herself, and it’s all very close to reality. I was wondering if that was something you sought out in that approach?
Yes, yes, it’s the part that I enjoy. I used to dislike some processes of filmmaking but now I think that everything is part of one larger performance, or part of the work. That is, that everything matters, that you’re not really looking forward to the finished work but looking forward to every moment; enjoying every moment. And of course, it’s really fun – and being in my hometown, working with Jenjira and discovering new talents at home is really eye-opening… and inspiring, actually.
There was an interview where you were talking about Khon Kaen and the areas of it that were in your memory the most, where you described this film as a merging of these places. I saw an image of what was the ‘Kaen Kham Theater’ that’s since closed down and it reminded me a lot of an the abandoned hotel in the Emerald exhibition. I feel that whole idea of interacting with the past and present, these once vibrant spaces and the ghosts and memories that they can evoke is really central to a lot of your cinema. I was curious as to how close that project was to your vision when you were filming in Khon Kaen?
In this work they’re defined by a similar architectural style, from the ’70s. I think there’s quite an attachment to them being in a state of rotting away. Also to the people I grew up with, I think that’s even clearer. To us the changes are pretty obvious too. Of course, you notice when there’s a new generation coming. Most of my friends have babies, and a lot of these buildings are gone. With the small town having changed so quickly it’s impossible not to feel nostalgic. Yeah, so I’m really… I think, lucky to be able to share these feelings on film.
Was it difficult to capture your memory of the city and reconcile that with what it’s become today? As in, did you have to shoot in the outskirts or were there still enough locations that matched the earlier era of Khon Kaen?
I think in Thailand, especially in cities outside of Bangkok, you still have this mixture of old and new places. So you can easily find areas that match what they looked like a long time ago. So for me, it’s not really difficult to find these ruins.
Where was the first section of Syndromes of a Century filmed? That was based on part of your childhood, I believe.
In fact, it was not far from Bangkok, but it’s supposed to represent Khon Kaen in a way. It had to do with the budget, so we had to plan with the hospitals near Bangkok. I like to shoot chronologically, so we cannot travel back and forth between shooting locations. But for the second part of Syndromes, many of those shots were able to be shot in Khon Kaen.
Is it difficult to think about financing films when you aren’t able to have proper releases for a lot of your works in Thailand, or is there enough international support?
I had more support from Thailand in the past, but it’s my own decision not to maintain that. I feel like I would like to produce my own work, and it’s hard to get support. If I had Thailand’s money, just logically the rights would go to that company. So, with me producing and owning the rights in Thailand, I have this decision of what to do with the film in Thailand. For example, I’m trying to release a box set and some books, and that is difficult because I have to go to various companies that have been involved with my previous works. So, I feel like in the long run it’s better for me to produce my own works to avoid that, yeah.
Khon Kaen and Isaan is known for and has a history as a place of anti-state rebellions and resistance. I remember reading an early take on Cemetery of Splendour that put forth this idea of the sleeping soldiers as a metaphor for what you called the “dead end” that Thailand’s political situation had reached – was this something you had in your mind throughout?
Yeah, I think the film is pretty open, but if you want to look at a political angle it’s in every frame. And of course, this is very obvious in the idea of sleep – as someone who has no power – or simply feels powerless – or someone who uses sleeping as an act of escape.
Coming back to that idea of ‘photophobia’ – the fear of light – it carries through in Cemetery of Splendour in such an incredible way. I feel like light is really important in all of your films, especially in your most recent works – but that hospital scene in Cemetery that anchors it as a work is one of the most phenomenal recurring shots. It almost feels like a science fiction film, but at the same time has this very natural element to it. Where did the idea for building those lights in the hospital come from?
Well, I thought a lot about Plato, especially Plato’s cave – you know the story right? – about these people who were living in caves with nothing except fire and their shadows as the only means of getting narrative and information. So when the guy came up to the real world from the cave, let’s say, to see the real sunshine, the real shadow, real objects – he had a hard time convincing the people in the cave about reality. I think in Cemetery it’s the same kind of feelings about being trapped in their own world. In fact, I want the audience to feel this confusion about the different planes of realities – or fantasies. I have these feelings more often lately, you know, because of the difficult political situation we’re going through at the moment.
There’s an essay by Kong Rithdee where he talks about your films as being part of a cinema of reincarnation. It was interesting thinking about this in relation to Cemetery of Splendour, as you were filming in your hometown and filming in the hospital. I’ve noticed that in your films hospitals are often presented as these very surreal and safe spaces rather than a place where death looms or is feared. I was wondering if that image been inspired a lot by your childhood, with your parents as physicians?
Yes, because it’s a place where there’s the beginning and an end. I mean, classically, if you’re born there, you die in a hospital. For me, it’s a much longer beginning because I grew up there. I don’t know… it’s a place that I have a lot of respect for. At the same time, I like to document what’s going on. There’s one project I spend a bit of time on about the place of ‘the hospital’ as a big organisation in Thailand: about how, maybe like everywhere else, doctors become like God. Sometimes I like to portray doctors as human beings, that make misjudgements, errors, and all these things.
I feel that really comes across in the framing of the shots, particularly in Syndromes and a Century, with the figures always on shot these equal levels, in slow-paced conversations. But there’s also a lot of fragility in your films, and frequent reminders of mortality – especially in the scenes under the hospital in Syndromes and a Century – but it’s always cut against these awe-inspiring scenes of nature. It’s in Cemetery of Splendour too, where that relationship between the two really takes on a life of its own.
Yes, when you observe things in the hospital it’s just fascinating to see what you mention. At the same time, it’s almost like an experiential diary when I have the pleasure to accompany Jenjira on her trips to hospital and see her progress. So I guess these films are almost like a documentation of change, you know, in the body.
Jenjira is in such an extensive array of your works. What drew the two of you together?
It started in 2001 when she came to work for Blissfully Yours and she was working for a talent agency where her job was to supply me with photos of actors. Even though I was looking for a younger actress at the time, about 30, she always sneaked her own picture into the pile. So I just got to know her after repeatedly seeing this picture thinking “who is this?”. Once we got to know each other I was astonished by her strength and her history. So it became part of something for me, almost like a friendship; but also like a mother and son type of relationship. The fact that she came from the same region as me really taught me a lot too; especially with what had happened in the past, politically. At the same time, she taught me a lot about her family as well.
I guess that’s something that’s unseen on screen with a film like Cemetery of Splendour; that process of the two of you making a film in a place where you’re both from and have never filmed before. What was it like on a personal level to go back to Khon Kaen to make such a personal film?
Each time is was more revelatory. For me, I’ve looked for opportunity to work out of Thailand for such a long time, but I never could because every time I went back I’ve discovered new information. So yeah, I keep going back but I think at some point I will have to leave.
I guess that’s an interesting aspect to your work, that you’ve never filmed outside of Thailand. That said, your works always seem so inextricably linked to that sense of personal experience. I remember in that same Kong Rithdee essay he actually wrote of your works as “not setting Thai cinema adrift in the void of globalised aesthetics, but is indeed bringing it home.” I thought that was a really interesting way to put how both place and spiritual elements – in recent films – create these certain worlds that manifest on screen. I’m interested as to how you view that idea of filming overseas occurring in an organic way?
Part of it is my reaction towards contemporary cinema in Thailand. When I look at many films today, they don’t look like our everyday life; instead they’re more like some kind of a fantasy – with a very American kind of approach to logic and appearance. You know, when I look at these films, I look a lot at their makeup and costume… and they are very unreal. I’m annoyed by this, so I make films about something I remember, or what I see. Sometimes people kind of accuse me of making films for foreigners. For me it’s pretty sad, because come on… people always think of cinema as something not as part of life, which I think is pretty upsetting because cinema can be much more.
In terms of bigger inspirations you’ve cited in the past, from Tsai Ming-Liang to Hou Hsiao-Hsien – who has made quite a few films overseas, such as Cafe Lumiere – but I was curious if there were more obscure or lesser-known figures in cinema who’ve inspired you that haven’t had similar adoration?
Ah… I don’t know. The thing is I know a lot of young filmmakers, but their work is still developing. Living here in Thailand makes it quite difficult to access various kinds of films – so I only saw what you saw. Mostly, I read about them; especially with classic cinema where there was no chance to see them here. So I was more inspired by what was close to me, you know, dogs or my partner – that’s the real inspiration for me.
So is there a large kind of cinema scene that operates internally within Thailand or is it still quite sparse?
Yes, we have quite an industry for production and post-production and we have film studios that produce perhaps about 30 to 40 films a year; which is much less than before but still, under this climate, it’s not really interesting or at least… let’s just say there’s not that much innovation.
Does that make it difficult to think about making your next film in Thailand within this climate?
Yeah, that’s why I feel like I’d like to try somewhere else too… it’s like a new chapter for me, especially since Cemetery of Splendour is kind of like a farewell chapter.
It can also be, maybe, an indicator towards the future as well through that kind of slight element of science fiction with those tubes and lighting. I saw an interview where you said you were “more and more desperate to make a science fiction film” after wanting to make one for so long. You had this idea of one called Utopia. Could you tell me a bit about what Utopia is?
Haha, it is just that – Utopia – because it’s so expensive, you know. It’s meant to be this exploration of Western civilisation as I know it; which is through cinema, particularly through science fiction cinema in the ’70s. But I think it’s probably something that would need a lot more time – and a budget – for the ideas and script to become more concrete. But at the moment, yes, I am curious about making more obvious science fiction. I think Cemetery is already a kind of science fiction in a way, or kind of science inspired… during the research there was a lot of hearsay about sleeping and the mechanisms of the brain. So… I don’t know. I want to do a different kind of science movie, let’s say.
Do you think you’ll build a spaceship again?
(laughs) Maybe, yeah.
I remember seeing some shots of inside the ship and they were incredible. From here, do you see another film as your next step or are you approaching it in that same way of scoping out a location and idea?
Both, I’ve got certain ideas – mainly, again, about brain function under the influence of drugs and chemicals, but also its relation to time. That’s something I’d like to explore, although it’s just one of the main themes. At the moment there’s a lot of possibilities in these different kinds of expressions; especially in the area of visual arts and performance. I think it takes me more and more time to release new films these days. I think with me it takes 5 years? Before that it was every 2 years. I was kind of surprised with how I could do that.
Has Cemetery of Splendour got many more screenings left now?
Yeah, in Europe they are about to do the release – but many of the other places, maybe the beginning of next year?
Thanks so much for the interview and everything.
Oh, my pleasure.