Tropical memories

Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) won celebrated Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul the Palme d’Or, the highest honour at the Cannes International Film Festival.

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul talks about the film experience.

YOU don’t just watch an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film. You experience it. That’s probably the best way to express what an Apichatpong film is like.

From the feverish jungle sensuality of Blissfully Yours to the mysterious, mythical fantasy of Tropical Malady and the folkish magic of the Cannes-winning Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives, his films have the ability to reach into the dream-like depths of our psyche.

But that is also the problem with his work, which often leaves audiences dumbfounded. The best example of this is Tropical Malady, essentially a love story between a soldier and a young man, but which switches gears halfway and without warning to become a dark, psychological and anthropomorphic fantasy.

During our interview in Kuala Lumpur recently, where Tropfest South East Asia announced Apichatpong’s appointment as the festival’s ambassador, I told him that I loved Tropical Malady but would be hard-pressed to explain why, if anyone should ask. I asked if that’s the reaction his films usually got.

“Yes!” said the soft-spoken director. “And I’m very happy because I always say that I really wish I can make a film as a film. Because a film is not a book. For me, a successful film is something that you cannot express in words. It’s film, it’s feelings. It’s not a book. You cannot explain it, you have to experience it.”

Born in Bangkok, Thailand to a couple of doctors (he later put his parents’ story in his 2006 film, Syndromes And A Century), Apichatpong recalled his childhood days climbing a guava tree in his neighbourhood. It was the beautiful scenery he saw from atop the tree that still inspires his cinematic vision today, he said.

Apichatpong sees his stint as ambassador for Tropfest SEA as a learning process.

“I, myself, started a film festival more than 10 years ago, and we managed to keep it small,” he said. “So, I was very curious about how Tropfest has become such a big event and is still not commercialised. It still celebrates variety.

“I think to be ambassador is to support, and at the same time, to learn. You will learn a lot, especially about organisation ... Another benefit, to me, is to discover the new voices of the region. It is sometimes hard to find these new voices, even though we are so close.”

Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) won celebrated Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul the Palme d’Or, the highest honour at the Cannes International Film Festival.

The 43-year-old director is currently preparing for his next film, titled Cemetery Of Kings. It tells the story of a group of soldiers who gradually fall prey to a “sleep disease.” Shooting will commence in September next year.

According to a Hollywood Reporter interview in March this year, Apichatpong was quoted as saying he may have to change the title to avoid any controversy as Thailand has strict lese magiste laws. Anyone perceived to be insulting the king can be jailed.

“Yes, I was thinking about that, but we’ve been advertising it everywhere as Cemetery Of Kings,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know, I might change the title, but for now, it will remain as that. And because I’m still developing the script, and rewriting it, it might change.”

He said he doesn’t agree with the laws as he feels constructive criticism can help the monarchy and there should not be an atmosphere of fear.

Apichatpong is not new to controversy in Thailand. Syndromes And A Century drew the ire of certain parties because of its depiction of a monk playing guitar and doctors kissing and drinking alcohol in a hospital. Following that, he and several other filmmakers launched a protest called the Free Thai Cinema Movement.

Apichatpong lamented that not much has changed since then, but said at least censorship is now under the jurisdiction of the Culture Ministry and not the police.

“It’s a learning process for the officials and the government as well,” he said. “Every time there is a ban, people on social media will oppose it. And obviously they learn. It has become true that the government is working for the people because people are dictating the way they operate.”

Some people find your films hard to understand or inaccessible. How do you respond to this?

But the more important thing is you’d want yourself to appreciate your own work. (Laughs) So, you must be true to your heart first, and then of course, there will be other people who will agree or disagree. You cannot please everybody.

Even Hollywood films can’t do that. As such, when you set out to make a personal film, where the structure of funding and the distribution strategy is different from Hollywood movies, I think it would be counter-productive to constantly think about what the audience wants.

A lot of filmmakers, from Chris Marker to Alain Resnais and yourself, seem intrigued by the idea of time and memory. What draws you to this?

I have a very bad short-term memory! (Laughs) I’m not joking! I really need to keep what I remember and what I can interpret out of it. Film is like a time machine, really. I’m also interested in science.

I think many filmmakers are interested in science because films are the magic of science. It’s just light creating an optical illusion, and it creates this illusion of movement.

And you start to think of the fundamentals of an image and the after-image. And you compare them to what’s going on in your mind, another kind of image in your mind. So, inevitably, it will lead to the issue of memory.

Even though Uncle Boonme won the highest honour in Cannes, some French critics panned it. One called it “a work that never goes beyond the theoretical intentions of the director and which uses dramatic arbitrariness as an artistic posture.” What then, is your approach to story?

I think it depends. Cemetery Of Kings is very story-based. It has a very narrative style. But for Tropical Malady, it’s more of light and feelings. So, it depends on what kind of mood you want people to get into.

For me, most of the time, the story is not so important, because the world is full of stories. For film, you operate differently. Story is just one part of it. There are many things that create a film – the sounds, the colours, all these things. It’s dealing with the sensory and also memory. When you read a book, you can stop any time.

But for a film, you follow it, very linear actually, but at the same time, you can play around with it and make it non-linear, and make the audience aware that hey, this is an illusion, make them feel there is something larger than the film itself.

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Tropical memories


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