Friday, April 13, 2007

THAI CINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Apichatpong Weerasethakul

In April 2007, the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) programmed two Cannes award-winning films by Apichatpong "Joe" WeerasethakulBlissfully Yours (Sud senaeha, 2002) and Tropical Malady (Sud pralad, 2007)—in the second installment of their "Closely Watched" film series wherein directors are invited to provide shot-by-shot analysis of their own films. I was delighted that my favorite Weerasethakul film Tropical Malady was chosen for the shot-by-shot. As PFA video curator Steve Seid synopsized: "If ever a film called for close contemplation, it would be Tropical Malady, with its extraordinary fable in which the commonplace and the mystical mesh. Mystery, too, is at its core—in the journey from civilized space to jungle haunt, in the mercurial nature of the characters, in the veracity that underlies the two-part parable. With the insights only a director could possess, Apichatpong Weerasethakul will help us see the forest for the trees."

My thanks to PFA publicist Shelley Diekman for arranging a conversation with Apichatpong Weerasethakul earlier in the afternoon before his shot-by-shot presentation.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First and foremost, welcome back to San Francisco! We're always so delighted when you accompany your films here.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul ("Joe"): Thank you.

Guillén: We gain so much insight by your returning with your films. I participated in your Yerba Buena residency when you were here before. It was wonderful. Also, I wanted to thank you personally. I was the fellow that you comped a ticket to at the Toronto International Film Festival….

Joe: Oh really?!

Guillén: Yeah, I was really poor at the time and $15 a ticket was a real hardship so I really appreciate that you did that. It would have broken my heart not to see Syndromes and A Century (2006) when it premiered at TIFF. And it worked out well because I was then asked to write the program capsule for the Asian American International Film Festival.

Joe: Okay.

Guillén: So much has been written about Syndromes, Tropical Malady, Blissfully Yours and Mysterious Object At Noon (Dokfa nai meuman, 2000) that I prefer to explore first what I don't know anything about, namely your upcoming projects. You've announced a few at Kick the Machine and I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about Because (2007), My Mother's Garden (2007) and Unknown Forces (2007)?

Joe: Because is a music video I've done for a Thai singer. He's an art collector so he's commissioned artists—me, and other artists [including]
Rirkrit—to do all his songs and he's going to put them in a show, hopefully in a gallery or museum somewhere. There are many media artists who are working on this [proposed exhibition]. I made a three-screen installation for this music video.

My Mother's Garden is a short film I made for Dior. It's an impression of the jewelry they have in their collection. It's very special because the designer is inspired by [carnivorous] plants. The designer really liked Tropical Malady so we talked about it and we developed a short film from my seeing the designs. I made an eight-minute film from [personal] experiences. I focused on my mother's orchid garden when I was young.

Guillén: Did her garden include carnivorous plants?!

Joe: Not really. [Laughs.] I wish.
Unknown Forces is the new installation I'm opening in L.A. on April 18, in two weeks, at the Redcat Gallery. It's a four-screen installation.

Guillén: Between your video installations and your film work, is there a major difference between working in the two mediums?

Joe: Yes and no. I work with the same idea of starting with concept, use the same crew and cast sometimes, but video is more like sketches of ideas and it allows me a lot of trial and error to really express something that is sometimes very abstract that I cannot do with feature films yet. Something that is purely feeling. That I don't have to explain why—specifically or concretely—the reason behind it. It's more a visual and aural reaction. Video allows me this freedom. Usually when there's a commission for an installation, it's very free. There are no t.v. station producers sitting behind you, consulting. For me, it's personal business.

Guillén: Speaking of the feeling of your work, I recently was talking with Hong Sang-soo about his films and how—though they're not quite as cryptic as yours—they often repeat imagery or themes to such an extent that they invite facile equations of certain images with symbolic interpretations. This especially came up at his public appearances during a retrospective held by the Asian American International where he fielded questions from his audiences. I noticed he became very resistant to confirming or—for that matter—denying any exact equations or interpretations of his films. Later we were sharing soju together and I gathered that Director Hong suffered from all this cerebral analysis because he was in essence an emotional filmmaker. The intelligence of his films is emotional. He was trying to capture feelings more than ideas. I sometimes sense that from your films as well, especially now as you talk about the freedom to feel when you're creating your video installations. There's a lot of feeling in your films and I was wondering how you use your camera to—not so much depict emotion—but to evoke emotion?

I'll give you a case in point: in the scene in Blissfully Yours where the young couple leave the village to spend the day in the countryside, you film from the back of the vehicle, showing the village receding. I could feel the torque of that departure as the car turned corners and that feeling of getting away was quite palpable for me. Can you talk a little bit about how you use your camera to physicalize emotional states?

Joe: It's for me, personally, because making films is a way to express certain things I cannot through words. I'm not really good at speaking. I think nobody's good at speaking about these things directly. [Laughs.] It's as simple as showing the places I like, the people I admire, the landscape, architecture, sound. This is the root of filmmaking. I simply present those and that's why I think the movie is very open. When you see the shot from the back of the car, and if you are moved, it is because of you; your experience of certain things—I don't know—in your life relating to these kinds of movements, certain colors or whatever. For me too. But I don't really aim at others like you; I aim for myself. Does this shot have a certain relevance to my experience? Most of the shots have to have a certain meaning and that's why it's very difficult maybe for Hong Sang-soo to explain why. [Laughs.]

Guillén: And it was almost unfair to ask that of him, I thought.

Joe: Well, yes. And I'm quite curious about tonight how this shot-by-shot will turn out because everything is personal. For my film Syndromes and A Century, when it played at festivals, people were trying to pinpoint, "What is this? And does this mean this and this?" For me that's quite useless in a way because we each have our own subjective experience.

Guillén: Interestingly enough, that's another thing that Hong Sang-soo mentioned to me that I felt was amazingly similar to things you've been quoted as saying in other interviews: that there is no reality in film. For anyone to try to pinpoint specific meanings in one of your films proves to be a fruitless enterprise because each audience member invests their own subjective experience into the film.

Joe: Yes. Film is illusion. Once you cut the film, it's subjective already, or how you frame it is the subjective point of view of approaching it from many ways.

Guillén: When they announced that you were going to be doing this shot by shot analysis of your own film, after having seen you at the Yerba Buena residency, I thought, "Oh this poor guy. They're going to grill him!!" [Joe's eyes widen and he chuckles.] I wish you luck with all that.

Joe: I'm okay.

Guillén: I'm sure. I recently read an interview Kong Rithdee conducted with Pen-ek Ratanaruang wherein Pen-ek stated that he started making movies because he was curious, not because he had a fixed idea of what he wanted to do; unlike yourself, he added, who he considers a visionary of Thai film and someone who has a clear vision and knows exactly what you want to do with cinema. Is that true? And if so, what is it exactly that you want to do with cinema?

Joe: It's a tool. It's an extension of myself. I try to merge my life with movies because how I live and how I make film are inseparable. When I go to places I like, I think, "Oh, I wish I could show this to people. I wish I could convey this feeling." I don't know if I have a clear vision; making films is more about trying to have it be a part of my life. How I live is such an integration.

Guillén: So creativity, artistry, is your life? It's not like you make objects of art that are separate from your life? It's the creative process that is your life?

Joe: Yes. It's not working when I make a film. It's an integration of things I have written down. It's like meditation in a way when you breathe in and out. Every moment is important. Film is the same. It's parallel. [Joe gestures his hands alongside each other, as if praying.] Making films influences how I live and how I live influences my films.

Guillén: So it's symbiosis?

Joe: Yes. I've just started making films. It's still early. I don't know how making films will be like for me in 10 years. But for now it's like a diary.

Guillén: I'm glad you reference meditation because that leads to something I wanted to ask you. When you had your residency at Yerba Buena, you said things that have lingered with me since then, that I've thought about again and again, so I appreciate the opportunity to ask you directly about them. You stated that Blissfully Yours was Buddhism 101 for Straight people and that Tropical Malady was Buddhism 101 for Gay people.

Joe: I said that?

Guillén: You sure did. Syndromes and A Century seems to be Buddhism for everybody; no one's left out! But your comment made me consider that one of the problems Western audiences have with processing your films is that we're not Buddhist, most of us. What is essentially Buddhist about your films?

Joe: The idea of living itself, I think, of watching movies. My films encourage the idea of self-awareness. To be conscious of yourself but, at the same time, try to get rid of the self. It's in conflict but it's not. You're aware of yourself, but at the same time you're just part of the universe; you're nothing. [Laughs.] To be able to be aware of this. When making a film, my films always encourage the audience to explore the movie but also themselves. Most of my films are talking about film watching. When you watch the film, you're aware of watching the film. Whereas in Hollywood films—and this is generalizing—you get into the story and you forget yourself. You get hypnotized by the story.

Guillén: So watching a film, then, would be like sitting meditation?

Joe: I would hope so.

Guillén: Like watching the process of thought itself?

Joe: Right. And you're aware of yourself. Like in the second part of Tropical Malady, once it shifts and you're five or ten minutes into it, you realize, "This is a movie." You realize about film. Suddenly you're not lost in the stream of narrative, you're aware of sitting and watching and your environment. This is the idea of awareness. Also, in the film Syndromes and A Century as well there is the basic idea of reincarnation, about the assimilation of life, and recycling. I recycled the script from Tropical Malady to put into the new film. Film making and living is the same recycle.

Guillén: That's reminding me of when I was in Toronto and got to speak with Tsai Ming-liang. He said something comparable. He said he was upset with the narrative intrusion of story when there were so many stories just to watch. Which reminds me of what you're saying right now. We've become so accustomed to having the story put inbetween us and the screen, making us passive. Your films, on the other hand, and Tsai's filmmaking, demands an audience pay attention, to watch, to be aware, to be engaged.

Joe: To be aware of oneself and one experience. Because you can approach the film in many ways. Sometimes it's a little thing, like memories, and though they're my memories I present, you can approach them from your own point of view and how you make up this material.

Guillén: Your films are very personal and I know that you are not, by agenda, political. Yet there are political resonances in your films. What amazes me is how well-received your films are for being as experimental as they are. Brett Farmer at Senses of Cinema described you as "transnationally cosmopolitan." [Joe laughs.] And Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot was saying that there is what he called a "metatextual European film consciousness" to your films. [Joe laughs more.] What I'm trying to say is that—you're being very personal—but somehow that's universal and that's why audiences can relate to your films. Has it surprised you that your films have been so well-received internationally?

Joe: A bit. A bit. I'm happy of course that they're well-received, but at the same time it's a confirmation that when you really say something frankly, it will come across. Film is universal; it has no boundaries. A film is like a personality. You're this kind of person or that kind of person and—when you get to know someone—they have sides, many sides. I'm always cautious about someone who is very popular. I wouldn't say my films are super well-received. There's a super big attack as well against them. I would say the film has its own personality. Either you like it or hate it. It's like a person that takes time to get to know. It's in this way that my kind of film or European films operate, not to please everyone but to just be myself.

Guillén: Another thing you said at the Yerba Buena residency that has stuck with me for a long time was when you asked your audience, "Do you think Tropical Malady is a Gay film?" I didn't know whether you were joking with us?

Joe: No, no.

Guillén: At the time I responded, "No. This is not a Gay film." This ties in somewhat with the Buddhist themes. One of my main concerns as a self-identified Gay male is the American appropriation of foreign expressions of gender variance. What I find so radical about the "Gay" elements of your films are that they are actually speaking about reincarnation. Your erotics are chance manifestations and not so much the lifestyle choice that I associate with the commodified definition of "gayness" in the United States. Do you understand what I'm saying? How do you think about that? Do you think your films have this Gay element?

Joe: That's interesting. I've never thought about that. I think what I was trying to say is that it's not by choice. It's by design and the pattern of life.

Guillén: Exactly. And though it really isn't, that idea comes off as radical.

Joe: Is it?

Guillén: I think so. I resent this a lot by American queer film reviewers who try to appropriate these things and shove them into lifestyle choice. You're not talking about lifestyle choice.

Joe: No.

Guillén: You're talking about this chance encounter between souls, which could be between male-female, it could be male-male, female-female, human-animal. It varies according to how the souls manifest. In my opinion, within this culture, that is a radical concept because it eschews choice.

Joe: I think it's less so in Asian belief. It's just the way it is. It's past cause and effect. It's past some origin. It's just there to manifest itself in the world and then it transforms into something else. This is not just in Tropical Malady. I have other films where it's just the way it is.

Guillén: Moving on then. Like yourself, I am fascinated with the rainforest. For nearly two decades when I was training as a Mayanist and leading tours in Central America, I spent countless hours sitting in the dark watching the rainforest with dilated perception, which is what I felt informed my love for Tropical Malady—admittedly my favorite of your films. Again because the film gave me a visceral feeling when it shifted from the first to the second part. There was that brief moment of feeling unmoored, lost, as people mumbled, "What happened? Did the projectionist fall asleep?" Whereas I was sitting there thrumming with anticipation, telling myself, "It's time to watch to see what comes out of this tropical darkness." Your capturing of night in Tropical Malady is the most accurate depiction of night I have ever seen in a film.

Joe: Thank you.

Guillén: Much ink has been spilled on your tendency to bifurcate your films. I see your bifurcations as the process of recursive transformation. It's like going from one room into the next with the memory of the room you have come from affecting your impression of the room you are going into; one section of the film informing the next section of the film. And what's so effective about the transformation is that—as an audience member—you can feel it. Much like I could feel my pupils dialate adjusting to the darkness. I know you've been trained in architecture so that you have a spatial sensibility. Can you talk about bifurcation as an architectural principle in your films?

Joe: Oh. That's very difficult.

Guillén: I'm sure. That's why I exist.

Joe: [Laughs.] I wasn't conscious of using architectural ideas. I was more focused on the idea of realizing memory's possibilities. When you go from one space to the other, looking at the same story but from a different point of view, that's more how I was looking at the film, not from an architectural point of view.

Guillén: But are you creating parallel spaces?

Joe: Yes. But it's not only two. It could be many layers. [Joe makes a gesture of stacking one flat hand on top of the next, again and again.] To evoke that in the film, made me realize there are other layers going on, including a spiritual layer. It's also about the history of watching him as well. When you go to the second part, the first part becomes history, the history of living.

Guillén: In Syndromes, let's say, the first part was—if I understand correctly—moreorless a faithful depiction of your mother and father before you were born; but, the second part was more an amplification with your sensibility in a present context laminated onto those memories? Would that be accurate to say?

Joe: [Hesistating.] For me, there's nothing right or wrong, but both parts are a mixture of this thing that you mentioned about the inspiration from their lives and my personal life, my personal appreciation of people and space, so on both planes it operates that way. In the second part it's more about looking at the first part. I wrote the second part later when we finished shooting the first part. We had quite a long break and I started to write the second part. It was more a contemplation of what I had done with the history of the first part. Much of my filmmaking process is improvisational and instinctive.

Guillén: Well, it works! And that's why I used the term "recursive" because the perceptual sensibility of the second part of the film is informed by and contingent upon the first part of the film. Could it stand on its own? Sure. Does it have more resonance by being partnered with the other? Absolutely.

Yesterday I was speaking with Susan Weeks Coulter at the Global Film Initiative. I'm aware that you're an advisory member of their film board. We're collaborating on youth outreach and we wondered who you thought was the youngest Thai film maker working today who shows great promise?

Joe: Youngest? I would say two people because there are several; but, from the circle that I know, I would say
Thunska [Pansittivorakul]. He has a Thaiindie website. He has his own Kick the Machine but it's different. And the other guy is [Sompot] Chidgasornpongse. He's studying at CalArts right now. [Sompot has a Thaiindie profile as well.]

Cross-published on


Anonymous said...

please out your voice for let Thai film free at

Michael Guillen said...

Thunska, thank you for stopping by to encourage signatures on the Free Thai Cinema Movement Petition which Dave Hudson has likewise profiled on The Greencine Daily. I've signed and I hope others do as well.

HarryTuttle said...

Great interview Michael!
Did you record it before the censorship issue? It would have been interesting to ask him about it.
I signed too, although I doubt Thailand instittions are ready to install a liberal rating system.

Michael Guillen said...

Hi, Harry, thanks for stopping by to comment. The censorship issue was in full swing when I had my talk with Joe, he even mentioned it at the public appearances, but I don't think he had yet made up his mind about withdrawing his film from local distribution.