Celebrated Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul talks about his new film, censorship, and why he’s leaving home
THAI director Apichatpong ‘Joey’ Weerasethakul was hardly known in Thailand before he picked up the Cannes Palme d’Or prize for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and even now in spite of his grand accomplishment, outside of a certain milieu most people in Thailand would not be able to recall a single film he has made. His latest, Cemetery of Splendour, which premiered at Cannes in May this year – a film that the Guardian called “sublime” – might not even feature in Thai cinemas.
Apichatpong’s almost dream-like films touch, if surreally, on themes such as death, rebirth, love, sexuality, and are often a kind of cinematic ode to the countryside in which he grew up in. The films can sometimes be demanding, with minutes going by languorously with nothing but leaves blowing to the hum of cicadas; stories unfolding mesmerizingly, but in terms of plot structure abnormal to most cinema goers. There’s a reason he’s been called The David Lynch of Thailand.
“It’s impossible not to touch on politics in daily life here now the country is ruled by a group of soldiers”
One of his less experimental films, Syndromes and a Century, had many scenes blacked-out by the Ministry of Culture’s censorship board, for as little as showing a doctor drinking alcohol, or a monk playing a guitar. Due to such inexplicable grievances with cinematic realism with other Thai film makers Apichatpong started the Free Thai Cinema Movement, which doesn’t seem to have helped curtail the actions of the over-zealous board – only recently was the film Arbat banished from Thai cinemas for attempting to realistically depict the life of a monk.
Following his Cannes win in an interview with Citylife magazine Apichatpong told me his thoughts on the censors cutting films, “They think the scenes will disrupt social stability, that political films will polarize people. But when they talk about disrupting national security anything can be lumped in to that.”
In the same story I referenced an interview with Ladda Tangsupachai – the then director of the Ministry of Culture’s Cultural Surveillance Department – in Time magazine. She told Time that Thais were not educated, and that was why the country had strict censorship laws. She also said, “Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong. Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh.”
In the Citylife interview Apichatpong said he, “treasures both the beauty and ugliness of Thailand”, relating mostly to cultural/political oppression, adding that this was partly the motivation for making films. Only now it seems he is leaving Thailand for South America, so I got in touch with him again to find out why.
Apichatpong was in Chiang Mai, where he spends part of his time, working with his production company Kick the Machine. Speaking of his move out of Thailand, when asked if this was a necessity due to censorship and frustration, he said that was half the reason but also because he wanted a new experience. “It’s impossible not to touch on politics in daily life here now the country is ruled by a group of soldiers,” he said, “I need a break to explore different parts of the world. I hope the faraway experience will provide me with a clearer perspective on Thailand.”
One of the things that mostly interested me on first meeting Apichatpong, or Joey as people call him, was his openness and very cogent insights into what you might call Thai problems. While his films are often mystical, you could also say that they also demystify; something which Thai cinema, and other forms of artistic expression in Thailand, direly needs. When asked the question of how much Thailand might need “hard realism” in films, he replied, “In general I think I am making my own realist films. But I understand what you meant by ‘hard realism.’ Yes, we need it more than ever, not just to look at the present but also at the past power-play events, at least for historical record. I must admit it is not my specialty. But who knows in the future my idea of reality might change.”
Cemetery of Splendour
His new film has been called ‘difficult’ by many critics, who nevertheless have been complimentary across the board – Apichatpong’s ‘poems on the screen’ might still be waiting for success in Thailand, but the majority of Western critics seem to adore his work. Much like David Lynch, who Apichatpong says he’s “flattered” to be compared with, a non-linear narrative and perhaps an intended shrouded meaning could be said to feature in his own films. Talking about the use of metaphors and if the audience is supposed to see more in his films than meets the eye Apichatpong says, “I try not to impose on the audience’s freedom to look and to listen. I position myself as one of the audience. Sometimes I am aware of the symbolism but most of the time I don’t operate for that.”
Regardless, critics believe his films are political. His latest film revolves around Thai soldiers suffering from narcolepsy, and a Thai female nurse who is a medium. In the Guardian review this was said to reflect the, “unquiet ghosts of guilt and pain in the Thai nation, as symbolized by the military.” If the present Thai military, or censorship board, feel the same way it’s likely Cemetery of Splendour will belong to the graveyard of banned films in Thailand. That depends on how much the board read into the symbolism, or if the Thai junta believes such a film is a danger to the public good.
Will it be shown in Thailand? “I am not sure, yet,” says Apichatpong, “But as you know well, it’s tricky because the censorship law here has no standard. A silly comedy can be banned if some elements are not in tune with the authority. The elements don’t even have to be in the film. If you are independent, not pro-army, etc., these traits can play the role in how the board treats you. I really believe that.” He goes on to say that in Thailand there are some projects that, because of censorship, are unrealized. He says he feels “frustrated not being able to express” certain ideas, adding that he is not by himself in feeling this way.
Apichatpong will be gone for a while, and even if his film does come to Thai cinemas, it’s not likely his name in Thailand will join the meager ranks of great artists to come out of the country. For a nation so determined to laud its face to the world, one of its most talented exports has been forsaken.
A few years ago he told me that something he would like to do is open a small art-house cinema in Chiang Mai, and so I asked him if this was still in his thoughts now. “Maybe a modest screening room for friends would be enough at this point. Even if we have democracy I still think it is better suited to me to treat film lovers on a family scale.”