The Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has received acclaim for such dreamlike films as Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006), quietly haunting explorations of time and space that have won the adoration of critics and art-house aficionados. This success has not been entirely without setbacks; the Thai censorship board tried to ban the award-winning Syndromes and a Century, resulting in a very limited release in Bangkok with the offending content blacked out, while Weerasethakul’s plans to shoot a logistically ambitious science fiction project in Canada in 2008 fell through due to funding issues. However, these problems did not deter the director from embarking on Primitive, a multi-platform video installation concerning a turbulent chapter in Thailand’s political history that was commissioned by the Haus der Kunst Museum (Munich) in collaboration with FACT (Liverpool) and Animate Projects (London). Primitive premiered at the recent Abandon Normal Devices festival, while Weerasethakul has also contributed some notes about his work to date to James Quandt’s recently published Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a critical appreciation that features essays by Tony Rayns, Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton. John Berra met with Weerasethakul during AND for an enlightening interview that explores the origins of the Primitive installation, his difficult dealings with the Thai censorship board, and his long-gestating ‘dream project’ Utopia.
John Berra:Your video installation work is more politicised than your feature films, is that because of the freedom afforded by this particular format following your dispute with the Thai censorship board regarding Syndromes and Century?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Primitive stems from many issues; I spent a year fighting and trying to make sense of the system, because it had not affected me before. It’s a very fascist system, but we cannot do much about it; new censorship laws have been passed, partly because of our movement [the Free Thai Cinema Movement], but it is still full of bureaucracy. I was thinking about how I live in Thailand. I started making lists of what I could not do, and what I could not say. There were a lot of lists. At the same time, I was reading books about the extinction of species and animals, so there was a link between rare species being hunted, and minorities and immigrants; immigrants in Thailand have been pushed to the margins and are disappearing. I was very interested in the disappearance of memories, and the other source was a book that was given to me by a monk called A Man Who Can Recall His Past Life, which is about a man who can remember hundreds of years. It’s supposed to be a true story. So I shelved an American project that I had been working on, and decided to make a film in Thailand about this issue of extinction. I’m not a political person. I’m not comfortable with expressing direct feelings through film, so I try to find my own approach. I talked to my producers but the process of gathering funding is getting harder each year for this kind of film. During the time of Syndromes and a Century, I also produced some artworks for galleries, photographs and videos, so we decided to try other forms of expression, and we found support from Liverpool, London and Munich.
JB: Primitive concerns the history of the border town Nabua, which became a ‘red zone’ in the 1960s when the Thai government targeted the local community as communist sympathisers. How did you settle on this subject, and is there a lot of recorded information about what occurred in Nabua?
AW: There are reports of what happened but they are not focused on individual or collective experience of what happened afterwards, or what happened to their psychology, how they were traumatised. The villagers are not really the focus of the reports. I travelled from my home town, where the monk gave me the book, and I did not know what I wanted until I went through this village, and I felt a connection, because the village has a very troubled history, which some villagers try to forget. When I interviewed them, a lot of them told shocking stories about how the military treated them, and there was no apology from the government until now. Primitive reflects Thai society now, because we recently had a military coup, and also during the making of this piece. It is a sad thing that we really have no voice. So I decided to spend time in this village. I was fascinated by the teenagers, who are farmers, and just hang around. When they harvest and grow the rice, they have nothing to do, like teenagers all over the world. I wanted to work with them and make a portrait.
JB: You worked with non-professional actors on this project. Your work is deliberately structured, how do you manage to get performances that fit into your vision?
AW: For this installation, I operated in a different mode, because these are not professional actors, they are farmers, so it was more of a collaborative project. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I just filmed every day. With feature films, there is a process of getting to know each other, so I like to make sure the actors have their own personality in the film, but at the same time I am very in control so that they serve the storyline and the mood. The important point is to be with them; it’s not just about coming to the set and improvising. It’s about spending time together, having meals together, and we would do that before shooting. I did not have first-hand experience of the history of the village, so it would have been difficult to work with the elders. The teenagers are more like me. We share some world views and listen to some of the same music.
JB: The notion of parallel worlds is inherent in your work, with dual story strands and different incarnations of certain characters. Does this stem from your own Buddhist beliefs?
AW: It’s more to do with legends; the world I grew up in was full of legends. I wouldn’t say I believe in them, but I am fascinated by them in a romantic way and also in a scientific way. Legend links together the circular relationship between humans, animals and plants. I went to China a few years ago, and I was told about a plant that, in one season, will turn into an animal and then, in another season, will turn back into a plant, and this can apply to our own span of being. I read texts about reincarnation and the mind, how the mind can travel, and I think there is a scientific link with the impermanence of things; they are moving all the time and they have particles inside that are not solid.
JB: Syndromes and a Century encountered censorship difficulties in Thailand for scenes that seem innocuous to Western audiences; a monk playing a guitar, a doctor drinking whisky, doctors kissing. To what extent does the power of the censorship board affect the Thai film industry?
AW: At the censorship board meeting, I was surrounded by 11 people, and it was surreal because I was brought in and attacked. They asked, ‘why did you have to show the monk like that?’ or ‘why did you have to show the doctor drinking whisky?’ In Thailand, there are always monks around, and I like to show monks outside the temple, playing soccer or playing guitar. This is very typical in Thailand, but it is not accepted in movies. A film scholar in Thailand commented that I should stop making films. This was shocking to me and I have become more protective of my work. The system we have is ridiculous; there is a scene in a Thai horror movie called Sick Nurses where the sign of the hospital falls down and kills someone. But the sign was a red cross, so the censorship board said that this was not acceptable and they had to digitally change the cross to the number four. The censorship board has a lot of power because they do not accept video, they only accept a real print, and it is very expensive for the studio to make digital alterations.
JB: How does the studio system function in Thailand?
AW: There are four or five major studios, but they operate more like a family business. If they have a plan for three movies, and the first one comes out and flops, they may not make the second; it is not very stable. I like a director called Yuthlert Sippakak, who directed Killer Tattoo. He makes maybe two films per year. We planned to work together, but he is too prolific and I cannot keep up with him. He is financed by the Thai studios and his movies do well.
JB: How do you feel about the work of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, a more transnational Thai filmmaker who directed Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves in collaboration with a Japanese star (Tadanobu Asano) and an Australian cinematographer (Christopher Doyle)?
AW: Pen-Ek is a friend of mine; his background is in commercials, but he is one of the few directors who tried to break away from mainstream Thai cinema, which is populated by nonsense. I have mixed feelings about his work, because it is both national and international. He has a very good sense of humour and I really liked his early films Monrak Transistor and Sixty-Nine because his personality showed through.
JB: Can you reveal some details about Utopia, which I believe is your ‘dream project’?
AW: It’s a science fiction film. I started working on it many years ago, after Tropical Malady. It’s a big movie and it’s based on my experiences of studying in the United States. I want to have the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek in the department store Macys, but broken down, and have the store surrounded by a snow-covered landscape. I want to work with the original science fiction actors, who are now in their 50s or 60s, and have them play scientists in this landscape who discover this broken-down Enterprise ship. There is a parallel narrative about a monster that is the product of these humans. The whole movie is about my memories of the science fiction movies that I grew up with.
JB: Music plays an important role in your movies, although it is used sparingly; in Syndromes and a Century, there is a discussion about pop music between the monk and his dentist, and people exercise to a loud dance track in a public park. Does the music in your films have personal significance in terms of memory?
AW: The music in my movies refers to the time of the shooting, the music that we would listen to on the set, in the moment. I’m not a huge fan of music. I don’t like noise. It’s more an appreciation of a particular time. I don’t like to have music on when I am sitting reading a book. Strangely, after I made Mysterious Object at Noon, I stopped listening to CDs. Syndromes and a Century was the first movie where I used a score, but I had a hard time adding the score because I don’t like telling the audience how to feel.
JB: Your films are very much open to interpretation. How do you respond to the various meanings that audiences and critics find in your work?
AW: It’s interesting because it shows that the movie has a life of its own. I like to hear what people have to say about my work, but when I have to answer their questions, I really struggle to find the right vocabulary to communicate what I do because a movie cannot simply be explained by words. It’s very difficult.
JB: It becomes my difficulty when I write about your movies.
AW: I would like to apologise, I feel sorry for you. (laughs)
Interview by John Berra