interview by CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT
portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
To journey to the home of Thai filmmaker, artist, and winner of the 2010 Palme d’Or at Cannes, Apichatpong Weerasethakul I traveled through a landscape reminiscent of his films: rolling rice paddies, dirt roads, trees swaying in the wind, rural cottages, and relaxed villagers — a connection with Thailand’s essence. I spent the whole afternoon talking with him about dreams and politics on the terrace of his wooden house, in his own little pocket of paradise.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — You’ve been traveling non-stop since we saw each other at the dinner which I hosted at the Monkey Bar in New York with Rirkrit Tiravanija, Francesco Vezzoli, Tilda Swinton, Marc Jacobs, and Brian Phillips, for your film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. How does it feel to have your feet back on the ground?
apichatpong weerasethakul — I wanted to come home for a couple days to make sure that the dogs remembered me — which they did — and to remind myself that I have a different kind of life. But like the changing of a clock, it’s difficult to adjust.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Chiang Mai is certainly different from New York or Bangkok. It reminds me of old family photos and what I imagine Thailand was like in the past. Was it a conscious decision to settle in this part of Thailand?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Most people think of Thailand as being only Bangkok, but I think this is Thailand. There’s a lot more to this country than just Bangkok. In the beginning it felt exotic for me, too, but it reminded me of home, of my childhood in Khon Kaen, in Esarn, a region in northeast Thailand. The housing compound where I grew up was by the hospital where my parents worked. There were so many trees — but now it’s changed and there are so many buildings. Things change a lot in 30 years. But being here is like going back to my childhood.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Did moving here two years ago have an influence on your work?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — This is home. When I’m here I just read. I’m with my boyfriend, Teem [Chaisiri Jiwarangsan]. He cooks very well and it’s just nice. I feel lazy here, like I’m taking time back for myself. I simply don’t want to move. I don’t even go into town. It’s not like being in Bangkok or other places. I mean, Rirkrit Tiravanija lives in town, and I should visit him, but I haven’t even done that. It’s too bad, because he has a really cute dog — the same breed as mine.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — His dog is on the cover of his cookbook! What kind of dogs are they?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Boston Terriers — super-affectionate dogs. I’m completely crazy about my dogs.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Do you feel disconnected from the riots in Bangkok?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — I’m not completely cut off. Strangely, I’m more aware of them because I’m always connected, through the Internet. We don’t watch TV, because we’re brainwashed in this country with TV.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — I’m totally aware of that!
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — This area is very active politically. You don’t see it, but there are many Red Shirts in the area. I’m not for any color, but you can see their struggle. After the crackdown, many people from here took off and are laying low.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — I’m learning more and more about our political history. We argue in my family about political colors and beliefs. I’ve been educating myself via the Internet and books — especially banned books — and it’s been slowly revealed to me that Thailand is not the place I’d been brought up to believe in. Has the political context shaped your films?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — I always make personal films. They’re about love, and my family. But now that politics has become so personal I want to make a political film. But first I need to educate myself, in order to be more confident about doing it.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — In the context in which you work, there’s a strong awareness of the environment.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — I’m definitely aware of it. I can’t imagine working anywhere else, which is why I go back to Esarn. I still don’t know much about it. It’s the same with politics. I need to learn more. It’s hard to explain. Watching a film that you really get into sometimes feels like a book. I don’t want to do that. A film is not a book. The challenge is to make a political film during a time when there are so many books and so many theories. I feel I have to find the film myself, a film that is more than a translation or adaptation.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — I remember when you started the Free Thai Cinema movement. Scenes from Syndromes were censored because they were considered to violate certain values in our society. That must have been quite a test, to see the audience sitting in darkness during the censored scenes. You took the film back, because you didn’t want to release a censored version, and then you started the movement. APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — It’s crazy, but I didn’t mind the experience. What I went through with Syndromes was really great!
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — That’s a good way to look at it.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Well, it’s part of the reason that I think I know more about Thailand. It’s not just about making films, but about showing them in theaters.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — I suppose that if you don’t question authority and act, it will all stay the same.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes, absolutely. And without that experience I would not have learned about the system.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — You said that winning the Palme d’Or enabled you to share Uncle Boonmee with us in Thailand.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes, but I like it that my life hasn’t changed much. Sure, I travel more and that’s nice, but my thinking about cinema and art has remained the same. I don’t have the ambition to make a blockbuster. When something great happens it makes me happy and I embrace it. Then I go back to my normal life.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — So your situation hasn’t changed much?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — No. But because I’ve made these films, I’m kind of settled. And if I don’t get the opportunity to make a film again, well, I’ll find something else to do. You could say that I’m content.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — In Uncle Boonmee you present a linear time, one that’s completely in the now, along with another dimension that embraces the future. But it’s all about a certain moment. Is this a theme of your films?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Perhaps it’s something that reflects my contentment with life. I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but it’s like my mother always said: be sure you stay true to yourself, because if things go up, they’re sure to come back down, so it’s better if you stay in the middle. I take that very much to heart. Of course, I was thrilled at Cannes, but I knew it was temporary. I think the film itself reflects this transience.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — I loved your first film, Mysterious Object at Noon. It was surreal, yet very real. What was the inspiration for it?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — I was inspired by these exquisite corpse drawings I saw in a museum in Chicago. The film is very organic. You can see the action, the random thinking pattern — and yes, it’s real.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — I feel that there is a common thread throughout all your films.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes, they are in the same universe — same characters, same climate, same logic.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — What kind of logic?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — A complete lack of logic. It reflects life, feelings, and certain moments. My editor, Lee Chatametikool, is very logical, so we work together well. It’s something you feel, and just know.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Would you say that this logic has changed since Mysterious Object?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes. As I got older it changed. When I made Blissfully Yours I was very strict about the duration, the time element, and the structure. Now I have more fun. In Blissfully Yours we didn’t allow a subjective point of view, which meant that if I looked at you, the camera was not allowed to capture what I saw. That was my rule: the camera should be a voyeur, observing from a distance.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — That wasn’t the case with Tropical Malady, the film you made after Blissfully Yours.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Tropical Malady is full of movie references. I threw out theory and everything else I learned in school. I made Blissfully Yours when I was young and fresh out of school and I felt I had a lot to prove. I wanted the film to be special. Later I felt like I didn’t have to try so hard to be special, and that it’s more challenging to not have a rule, to approach it like a dream — to make a movie the way dreams are weaved. How does one express dreams to an audience? My thing was to do this in my films.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Did you create rules for your world?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes, but different rules for each movie. Uncle Boonmee doesn’t have a two-part structure, like my other films do.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Doesn’t it consist of six reels of films? It drove me crazy figuring out when one ended and another began! So I was taken on an Apichatpong journey. Do you think that’s the experience people usually have?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — People have different takes on it. I don’t ever experience my films. Like my editor, I’ve watched my films repeatedly, so when I watch them I have other references, such as what happened that day. As a filmmaker you work with time — a pattern that’s always moving. It’s different from being, say, a painter. I’ve always wondered what that experience feels like.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — I can tell you — it’s wonderful! Did you plan it that Uncle Boonmee would complete the jungle trilogy, which started with Blissfully Yours?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Not at the beginning. After I finished Uncle Boonmee I needed to move in a different direction. Most of the films are about memories, or they’re tributes — Uncle Boonmee is a tribute to cinema, so, in a way, it gave me closure. Now with the political shit going on, which has become so personal, I need to do something that captures it. The challenge is how to make a film that will reflect the moment, the present, and what is happening now.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — This is very exciting. I’m curious about one of your earliest films, the one with the phone number.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — That was my thesis film. It was my mom’s phone number. It was an experimental short film I made when I was studying at The Chicago Institute of Art. It was very much influenced — in the structure, in the frames — by Maya Deren. She still influences me. I like her short film, At Land, very much. I also like Bruce Baillie’s films, Quick Billy and Valentin De Las Sierras.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — You often work with French artists. Would you say that Uncle Boonmee presents a reversal of what’s in Truffaut’s Chambre Verte — that the dead are alive because the living worship them?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — It’s actually an expression of the Buddhist belief that the dead are still with us, but invisible. I feel this as a higher energy.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Energy doesn’t just evaporate, right?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Right. That belief is deep in our blood. When the ghost of Uncle Boonmee’s wife appears and sits down, her appearance suggests that death is not the end, that she’s still present. At the same time, maybe she’s just a reflection of Uncle Boonmee. If you listen closely you’ll find that she only says things that Uncle Boonmee knows already. In Tropical Malady the tiger ghost suggests the same thing — that without the living he does not exist. Ghosts need to be with people, not alone in places.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — I just got goose bumps when you said that. Then there’s Monkey Ghost, who reminded me of Chewbacca from Star Wars, and of funny old movies.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Men in funny suits from old movies and the fantasy dramas we grew up with.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Was Monkey Ghost a reference to the beast in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Simon Field, my producer, sent me the DVD of that film, but I wasn’t influenced by it. In La Belle et la Bête the beast was too beautiful, too sexy. My monkey’s not like that.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — I found him endearing, with his red LED eyes. Monkey Ghost is actually Uncle Boonmee’s son, Boonsong. He mated with a creature in the forest and became Monkey Ghost. Is this character rooted in an animistic belief in metamorphosis?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes. He’s inspired by what I believe to be a wish to go back to nature, back to our roots. I’m sure that back when we lived in caves we had better communication with animals.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Are you more in touch with this, living out here in the jungle?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Two percent out here, zero percent in Bangkok. I try to take my characters back to the jungle — specifically, into a cave. Monkey Ghost longed to go back but he couldn’t, so he had to become a hybrid creature.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Stuck in between, like he went through a metamorphosis?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — In between worlds, like the princess and the catfish. In order to transform herself the princess had to make love to a catfish.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — To get back in touch with herself?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — No, to become something else, because she wasn’t comfortable with her appearance — it was an ancient method of cosmetic surgery, if you like.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Where did this erotic catfish come from?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Like Boonsong, the princess wasn’t comfortable with what she was. They reflect the history of Communism during the 1970s. The Communists were driven out into the jungle, especially around Esarn — where my films are made — because they didn’t belong. The government’s strategy was to eradicate them, so they needed to escape. It’s like the politics now. Back then it was Communism — this appealing ideology drove them into the jungle.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — I’m confused. Do you think that there’s a difference or that there’s a connection between then and now?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — The country makes you disoriented, especially in terms of what’s going on. There’s a need to escape. I talk to my boyfriend Teem a lot and sometimes he suggests that we have to leave. Then I come back and all is normal again.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — At the moment everyone’s saying we’re all the same and that we can all get along, but we’re really so different, and that’s what is so beautiful.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — There’s a sense of insecurity and indirection in Thailand. I feel that as I get older I’m like a tree whose roots have grown deeper. Then I feel like I don’t need to plant roots here. But that at the same time it’s not that easy to move.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Do you have a desire to express beauty?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — I’m like a sponge. I embrace other lives. That’s why I like to be surrounded by special people. I’m very curious about the lives of other people. It’s like I create another family and that we care for each other. Like with Jenjira, the actress who stars in many of my films, including Uncle Boonmee, who just sent me an email telling me very personal things about herself.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — How did you meet Jenjira?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — She was an extra in my films. She worked as a casting agent and she always stuck her picture in the mix, so I asked her to audition.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — It’s quite organic.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes. I’m even prepared to change my script to fit people.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Maybe that’s why your films feel so alive — especially the shorts, which seem to take on a life of their own. I really liked the short that Dior commissioned, My Mother’s Garden — it was so beautiful and so touching.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — That one was organic.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — So, if it’s so much about life and capturing life, why do you always present illness, death, and hospitals?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Because they’re a part of life: we eat, drink, sleep, have sex, and then we get sick. That’s what Blissfully Yours was all about. I’m obsessed with the idea of sickness, because it was a part of the world I grew up in.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Were you afraid of it?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Of course. At the same time, I’m comfortable in hospitals. I grew up around them. They’re like home, like a white chapel. I’m fascinated with how time slows down in them. In Khon Kaen there was a big pond in the middle of the hospital and patients moved very slowly around it. You sensed a different feeling for time, like in a temple. You go to the monk for your heart and to doctors for your health.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — That’s what you presented in Syndromes.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes, but I wasn’t trying to be controversial. It was just my memories.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — What about your portrayal of sex and sexuality, in Tropical Malady, for example?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — In the beginning I was concerned with putting overtly gay characters in a surreal movie. In that film they’re totally accepted and encouraged — that’s the fantasy. After I made the film I didn’t think about it. Love is universal.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Is there a dichotomy in Thai society? There is an open acceptance of gay couples, and yet there are so many contrasting rules.
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — In that way Thailand is quite open, for me anyway. Maybe it’s because of my family and my surroundings. I mean daily life here is fine. The problem is the portrayal of gay life in the media. What concerns me most is the treatment of the different political colors and ethnicities, and the way people degrade themselves, and automatically become part of a system. I become angry when I see this. The media endorses stereotypes. This is true in films as well. There are so many layers of rules and uniformity. I think more Thai films need to expose and challenge this reality.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Your films offer homage to the history of Thai cinema. How then did movies like Pandinwipayoak influence you?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — That film was a disaster. When I was young I just enjoyed watching the action. There was also something rather spectacular in terms of architecture, landscape, and the treatment of time. It took 10 minutes for a man and woman to court each other. That’s ages in cinema-time. These days you know everything in two minutes.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — You trained as an architect before you went to film school. Is there is a connection between the two arts?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Architecture, like film, is about moving through space, with the added dimension of time, the fourth dimension. Architecture, like film, tells a story about time through space.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — There’s a saying — if one can control time, one can control the world. When you write a script how aware are you of the time element?
APITCHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Movies are tools to control time. Playing with time reflects the idea that we’re in a dream, but we control it, and we rule the world. But compared to the mind, a movie is nothing. I believe that the mind can be synchronized with time, but we’re not there yet. In this regard, making a film is a reflection of the working of the mind. [Laughs] I used to think that a movie was everything. I would die for a movie. Now it’s different. It can be nothing. It’s not life. It’s art!
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Ninety to 120 minutes of suspended reality.
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes! Godard said that a movie is 24 lies per second — or 24 truths, I can’t remember. For me, it’s all the same. In that sense, it’s art. Or is that too much? My conclusion is that I should do what I want to do. I don’t follow rules anymore and this is why I feel content.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — So you only want to express things that touch and inspire you?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — I have no rules. I dream and think, but I don’t go into theory — that’s not my thing. I was fascinated with Rirkrit’s work, blown away by his thought process, the principles, and rules. But that’s not my process.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — You’ve collaborated with a lot of artists and other filmmakers, and you’re also a producer. What projects do you have coming up?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — As a director, I’ve worked with Christelle Lheureux — we did Ghost of Asia together. I co-produced a film called Adventures of Iron Pussy with Wisit Sasanatieng and Michael Shaowanasai. I’ve worked closely with my producers, particularly Simon Fields and Charles de Meaux, and through Charles’ company I work with Anna Sanders. I’m producing two films at the moment, one of which is by my editor, Lee Chatametikool — it’s a narrative about the life of a Thai-American who returns to Bangkok in 1997, at the height of the economic crisis, because of a family tragedy. It’s about a past love of his, one dating from 1985, which was a time when Thailand started a love affair with American capitalism, and the subsequent loss of that love in 1997, when the boom went bust. It’s about the loss of innocence, love, and belonging. Lee’s films are very different from mine. The other film I’m producing is an experimental film by Sompot Chidgasornpongse, which patches together images from a train journey he made through Thailand. I’m all for experimental films.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — What’s next for you?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — I’m trying to focus on my artwork — and on my next movie. I want to collaborate with Tilda Swinton, which is going to be a new experience. Tilda doesn’t know Thailand and I don’t know her that well. It will be a strange movie.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Will you go back to the jungle?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — I don’t think so. I want to focus on Nong Khai, the Mekong River, the more recent politics of the area, and the idea of water and man.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — So you’ll go back to Esarn?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes, to a border town. I’m interested in a disease. Pigs are dying off. The disease is very contagious. It’s happening near Jenjira’s house. This is the kind of thing that I feel attached to. What challenges me is how to put Tilda into it, how to make a movie with a foreign movie star and not turn her into a tourist. How do you talk about the love of two men and the jungle and pigs and Tilda Swinton? It’s very interesting. It’s like a game.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Is it a paradox?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — It’s a puzzle that I enjoy putting together. Tilda is strong, and Jenjira is strong.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — And there’s pigs!
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes, but the pigs are weak!
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Then there’s your art. You just came back from Tokyo. You’re doing your vines project there, right?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes — the one that got me sidetracked. I’m interested in the Mekong, and the ecological disruption caused by the spread of the vines, which is getting worse, because there are fewer than a hundred forest rangers for 500 million square meters of forest.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — The plants are so alive!
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Yes, they are. It’s threatening, a natural development that’s gotten out of hand. Research shows that the rangers were too effective at controlling forest fires, so nature is making a comeback in a silent way with these crazy vines, and we’re trying to find a balance. When I sent the crew there I realized that some of the workers take katom, a drug that exists in a very common leaf. It gives you energy.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Like Red Bull?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — Exactly. I’m interested in how man uses a natural substance to put himself into a certain state in order to deal with nature — like nature to nature, but it’s a disaster. I show this as a double image.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Then there’s your video installation, Primitive, which unfortunately will not be shown at the Guggenheim, though it was short-listed.
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — It will be shown in Mexico! The Primitive project was the start of something important for me — a new path, I think. I’ve always wondered about how we can automatically smile every time there’s a problem. We think like slaves. But I rarely see a Thai movie that reflects this slave mentality. So it’s my mission to do one in the future.
CHOMWAN WEERAWORAWIT — Yes, the political film you spoke of earlier. I thought the Primitive installation was the completion of the jungle series, but I guess it’s opened up something else.
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL — It’s ongoing. There’s always something to discover. What I do in film and in art represents the same world. Some people think it’s disconnected. But in the work there’s a signature, a trap. I don’t want to fall into that trap.
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