Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one of the most remarkable directors working in contemporary cinema. He has created a dazzling series of narrative features, shorts and installations, united by their playfulness and their sheer visual and aural beauty, which constitute one of the most singular and distinctive bodies of work in twenty first century cinema.
His cinema is intimately tied to Thailand, its history, mythology and folklore, but in an avant-garde, international cinematic register that refuses to indulge in lazy exoticism, making his films difficult prospects for some casual western viewers.
Still, he stunned international audiences in 2002 with Tropical Malady, a bifurcated love story in the jungle that left viewers in a state somewhere between shock and trance.
I first encountered Apichatpong and his work with the immersive installation Primitive, at the excellent festival Abandon Normal Devices, an extraordinary work dealing with the violent suppression of a Communist insurrection in Thailand in the late 60s. Out of this project would emerge Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, with which Apichatpong would win the Palme D’or at Cannes and the most attention of his career. The first Thai director to win this award, one might have expected this to be a source of local pride – rather, this deeply conservative, monarchist society was scandalised, particularly by a scene of intercourse between an ugly princess and a catfish who lies to her about her beauty.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
This was not Apichatpong’s first problem with the Thai censors – the situation has now escalated to the point where he feels he can no longer make features in Thailand. He is, however, still making an array of short films, which he has been presenting in unconventional viewing settings, most famously the SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL he built for Rotterdam Film Festival this year, a 24 hour screening room where the guest is invited to sleep, attesting to Apichatpong’s interest in altered states of consciousness and their relation to cinema.
This year, Glasgow Short Film Festival is mounting its own Apichatpong all-nighter – I asked him some questions about his work in advance of the screening.
Q – I first encountered your work with your installation Primitive, dealing with a failed Communist insurrection in Thailand, and its aftermath. How important are memories and history to your work?
A – My identity has always been shifting over the years from learning about history, as it has multiple angles. I think making films is one of the best ways to notice this shift, because you confront the truths and try to present or to fictionalise them. Then you realise the memories and narratives of the land have been manipulated from the start.
Q – You freely move between cinema and visual art – does one give you more freedom?
A – Yes. I love different techniques and image-making devices. They allow me to be a kid again, to feel like the time when looking at simple things was magical.
Q – You have used previously used sleep as a metaphor for the political situation in the country in Cemetery of Splendour. Would you like to talk about the different uses of sleep in your work?
A – I am interested in a special condition when you are allowed to connect with your inner images. It’s is another kind of freedom.
SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL – installation view
Q – How did SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL come about, and the idea of all night screenings in general?
A – It’s about the combination of real architectural space and intangible space of the films, to stimulate the audience’s inner images. Sometimes when you watch a film you forget yourself and your surroundings. For me it is more interesting to be aware of our body and mind, the ritual of cinema-watching and dream. Sometimes they are inter-changeable.
Q – You’re one of the few filmmakers who seems to take shorts as seriously as features – can you explain how your shorts and features relate to each other?
A -Feature filmmaking is about planning a long voyage. Short film can be very liberating from the rules. There is a lot of intuition and spontaneity, or simply a pleasant time hanging out. But in the end, the shorts need to convey certain feelings – this is a challenging part. Making shorts remind me that cinema is not about a story but waves of feelings.
Q – You’re also one of the few filmmakers to seem to take animals as seriously as humans, and show them respect. I’m intrigued by this, whether it’s as satirical as the catfish in Uncle Boonmee, or as moving as the tiger in Tropical Malady. Would you like to talk about this?
A -I like folk tales. I really believe that our ancestors could communicate with animals, and that over time we lose this ability. These films are simply a hint that there are so many layers of consciousnesses. They decentralise us.
Q – I understand that you’re about to shoot your new film in Colombia. Can you tell us about it, and why you’re not shooting in Thailand?
A -I started to feel too comfortable making films in Thailand. At the same time the military junta here makes it hard to touch on many subjects. I am still making shorts and installations here, but for a feature, I feel that the challenge is outside. Colombia is one of a few countries that I want to immerse myself into. It has an active landscape, traumas that could reflect how I view Thailand.
Text – Brian Beadie
Glasgow Short Film Festival runs from 14 to 18 March 2018
Apichatpong’s all-night screening is on 17 March, with individual programmes screening on Mar 18