Between light and darkness


Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is Tropfest SEA’s ambassador. The Palme d’Or winner attends film festivals to learn from the audience.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (feature film, 2010).

Throughout the interview, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is soft-spoken and down to earth; I almost have to speak to him in hushed tones. The only time the film director raises his voice is when we talk about Thailand, his home country. This is unsurprising – Apichatpong had a brush with the Thai Censorship Board when he heavily resisted the Board’s decision to remove four scenes from his 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century. That said, Apichatpong’s devotion towards his country is discernible. Due to the protests in 2010, he almost didn’t attend the Cannes Film Festival to receive the Palme d’Or for his feature film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

The humble director often pauses to collect his thoughts before responding. Much of what he says is phrased very simply in his Thai-accented English, but you can tell that his words come from somewhere deeper, and this makes me wonder if much of this depth is being lost in translation. This quality is certainly not lost in his films. In fact, far from being simplistic, the director is attracted to the freedom that comes with experimental films. Even his feature films, such as Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee, are complex explorations of his personal memories, a consistent theme in his work.

For Tomorrow For Tonight (installation, 2011).

Apichatpong was appointed as the ambassador for Tropfest South East Asia (Tropfest SEA), and the director was in KL at the Majestic Hotel on November 22 last year to attend the press conference. He had just come in from Singapore, and after a long round of interviews, he was spirited enough to meet with me.

I was struck by Joe Sidek’s (managing director of Tropfest SEA) introduction of you during the press conference. He described you as being a very brave filmmaker.
Okay… (laughs)

Do you see yourself that way?
That’s a compliment... I would not say I’m brave, but I agree that you need to have gone through certain struggles to become the filmmaker that I am. Films are usually made for the masses, so it is not easy to make films which are personal. I think what he means about being brave is about being crazy enough to be headstrong.

I’ve noticed that you’ve made many self-references in your films. Syndromes and a Century had a lot to do with your parents while Tropical Malady dealt with a very personal subject.
There are always bits of myself in my films but sometimes people don’t know that. I used to feel very distant from my films. In my earlier films, I really kept myself out of the picture. But now every film is more or less a personal experience, from dreams or from people close to me. That’s why I keep making films in certain locations.

Chung Ling logo.

Such as the jungle? That’s one place you feature a lot in your films. Why do you keep going back to these kinds of locations?
childhood memories. I keep revisiting them to try to – how do you say – reinterpret my memories. That’s why I repeat things. You get a rounder picture when you get more information.

What is the first thing you notice about a new location you’re in?
Oh, it’s hard to say because it depends… I would say light…

Yes. I always feel like I’m on a mission to make films. So I always imagine what kind of light or time of the day would be appropriate if I wanted to capture something.

It was in Tropical Malady, wasn’t it, where the second half of the film was much darker than the first half?
Yeah, that was the main idea about darkness and light, and how the characters had to be together. But there are always grey areas in filmmaking. It is the same as with what’s right and wrong. Now it’s crazy in Thailand because it’s become a very righteous and xenophobic country… I think it’s really stupid that people have become very moralistic. For them good is white, bad is black.

It’s interesting because you still seem to speak with a certain fondness for Thailand.
Thailand has become uglier and uglier to me. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve wanted to leave the country. But the darker it is, the more it draws me in. The more you know about the violence and corruption, the more you think, “How come I didn’t know about it before?”

Luminous People (short film, 2007).

How Thai would you consider yourself to be, considering that you were influenced by a lot of experimental filmmakers when you studied film in Chicago? Would you consider yourself a product of different cultures?
We’re all hybrid beings so I think we’re all products of different cultures. No matter what you read in tourist propaganda, I don’t believe there’s a general Thai culture because the country is so young. Thai cinema has a lot of influence from abroad, especially from the US. When you go to see popular movies in Thai theatres – it may be a ghost story, comedy or about transvestites – you can see that they are influenced by Hollywood. But when I make the films inspired by the Thai films I grew up with, people say that they’re not Thai. So I don’t think it’s fair when people basically copy Hollywood and then blame me for not being Thai.

It’s apt that you’ve become Tropfest SEA’s ambassador. You started a film festival of your own, the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival, so in what ways can you identify with Tropfest?
Tropfest started out very small, like our festival. I’m curious as to how they’ve managed to grow this large and still keep this “big party” spirit. The outdoor screening was really a big draw for me. I like the communal idea of enjoying cinema together, like in the old days. Now we’re in our own living rooms. I think Tropfest has brought back this feeling of happiness, of being together under the stars.

How do film festivals have the potential of creating new films, as you mentioned earlier?
What I meant was that without the audience, there is no film. The audience makes the film at a film festival. Of course, festivals create good filmmakers because at festivals, especially the big ones, you get a lot of feedback, which makes you stronger as a filmmaker.

Which filmmakers have caught your eye so far?
I like the guy from here, Malaysia, Tsai Ming Liang. When you watch his films, you see him. You don’t see anyone else. You see his memories, not just in one film, but when you watch his films over the years.

There’s an expansion of his character.
Yes, it’s like talking to a guy and getting to know him better and better. There are not many elements that he keeps repeating, but you see that there is a kind of melancholy with the water in his films. It’s his world. It’s like me and jungles.

What sort of narratives drive you? How do you know what would make a good film?
I think making films is about reduction. There are so many things that would make a good film, so you have to simplify those things until you find the core idea. Let’s say it’s “sleep” – these other things then branch out from that one concept.So to me, the narrative, or the story, is not as important compared to how the filmmaker can give life to that core idea.

That sounds like something you draw from your personal beliefs. Would you consider yourself to be spiritual?
I’m interested in how the mind works. I think belief is very important because it verges on religion. But I think religion is dangerous, so there is a conflict in that sense. That’s why I’m interested in finding out the culprit of violence in the world.

Is there one question I haven’t asked you, which you would have liked me to ask you?
(Pauses) It’s hard to say. I just want to say to Malaysian filmmakers or creative makers that you need to strive to abolish self-censorship and state censorship. This kind of thing is a conscious choice. It has to do with your own core. In Thailand, we have festivals where we ask people to make movies they think will definitely be banned, and they compete in a secret space, because it’s not illegal if it’s not public. Then people select films so badass which they think would be banned for every second. As a creative person, you have this duty to yourself. I know that I cannot do this alone, but I’m working on it.

LEFT TO RIGHT - Tony Nagamaiah, HE Miles Kupa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Zuly Chudori, Tan Kheng Hua, Joe Sidek and Saw Teong Hin.

Amanda Yeoh is a student, a writer and, of all things, a minimalist.

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