APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL: DARKNESS VISIBLE
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL, the Thai independent director and artist, has attained widespread international popularity, but in China only his accomplishments as a filmmaker are known. His first solo show in China opened at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in late 2011. The show comprises the exhibition “For Tomorrow For Tonight” as well as screenings of short films and feature films, fully displaying Weerasethakul’s multifaceted creativity. In addition to this event, Weerasethakul has participated in a series of discussions and interviews— including an interview with LEAP, printed in the following pages— in which he reiterated his position on freedom in filmmaking and reflected on recent events in Thailand. Through these revealing conversations, his personal intuition and creative memory gradually floated to the surface.
“For Tomorrow For Tonight” includes new works created by the artist for a recent solo show of the same name at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. The exhibition is made up of four videos, five photographs, and one installation. Like a Chinese scholar designing a traditional Suzhou-style garden, Weerasethakul planned the exhibition with an emphasis on the overall flow of the layout. The allure of being able to physically draw the audience from scene to scene, illustrates the artist’s exploration of the possibilities of expression through images, and constitutes the reason for his moving out of the theater into the art space.
The contents of “For Tomorrow For Tonight” are the artist’s ode to the Mekong River and the “light of darkness.” Weerasethakul has long been fascinated with the “Darkness Visible” described in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and his artwork displays various kinds of light— from the natural light of dawn and dusk to man made light reflected on the horizon— in order to express the existence and allure of darkness. The yellow stains left by floodwaters in the small room that is the home of the actress Jenjira Pongpas, a longtime collaborator of Weerasethakul’s, are a specter of the Mekong River. Weerasethakul is privately distraught by the disaster wrought by the flooding of the Mekong, and he believes that the construction of hydroelectric dams by China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand are responsible for the devastation. The images of “Mud Man” and “Power Boy” blend humor with a sense of tropical melancholy. A profound encoding is nested within these artworks, which provide a path to understanding Weerasethakul’s thinking and his future work.
INTERVIEW WITH APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL
A few years ago, you came into direct conflict with government officials due to your opposition to the censorship of Syndromes and a Century. One official attacked you by saying that Thai people do not like your films. This event led directly to your starting the Free Thai Cinema Movement.
AW At the time, that was an extremely harsh criticism, especially coming from a government official, and it reflected the extreme narrow-mindedness of government functionaries’ understanding of cinema. For that woman to say that in fact was also harmful to her, because many people were angered by her words, like: how dare you say that? She said Thai people like comedies, which of course is not untrue, but the duty of a public employee is to serve the public; where does she get off acting so high and mighty?
The Free Thai Cinema Movement advocates freedom in the production, distribution, and showing of films. In 2007, Thailand passed a law that stipulated that the government would systematically assign film ratings. In your opinion, what does this imply?
AW This is a good thing, because at least we have a ratings system now. My ultimate goal is to have the arbitration organized by the filmmakers themselves, but we have to take one step at a time. Remember that the police were in charge of film censorship for the past several decades. Now, everybody is paying attention and discussing. I think that the problem is not the law, but who enforces the law. There are still a lot of idiots in the government, but the system actually involves both sides. Progress over the last five years has been really fast. Today, films still get banned, but people protest. Recently, a film about transvestites raising children was banned. People went to protest in front of the court, and the filmmakers sued the government.
Many people are fascinated by the artistry of your films, but there are also many people who have discovered a strong, personal political aspect beneath the surface. Primitive Project will be shown in Thailand in 2012, which could be said to have profound significance for the project.
AW In the past few years, more and more Thai people have become interested in politics because of things happening around them and in the streets. There have always been corruption and organized crime, but we can change these things once everybody becomes aware of them. I myself am always learning anew where we come from, and what has happened in the past. Primitive Project is an example of this. I spent a lot of time in that village [ed. note: the village of Nabua in northeast Thailand, where Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was shot, and the site of anti-Communist violence from the 1960s to the 80s] trying to figure out what happened there when I was very small. Of course, I wouldn’t to go write a book, or go make a really politicized film. To me, cinema is more of a kind of personal expression; if you just want to create political appeal, you don’t need to make a film.
What are the topics in which you are most interested at present?
AW Right now, in Thailand, the challenge is how to discuss those topics. A few years ago, I woke up one day and asked my boyfriend: is there anything that we cannot discuss in this country right now? I want to discuss those topics honestly, but because of the laws, these things have become impossible, making the whole business quite challenging. As for films, not discussing things directly is actually a good thing. Like certain Eastern European films from the 1960s: under conditions of strict censorship, filmmakers created all sorts of signs and symbols. I hope to meet this challenge. At present, I am struggling with how I should manifest in films the political topics I’ve been thinking about, but I am definitely not going to make a protest film. I must take a different approach.
Is it a problem for Asian filmmakers to cater to “international” tastes by shooting films in rural areas?
AW Films are not the same as National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. Films are a very personal means of expression. They can only represent individuals. They cannot represent countries or regions. They are only related to the filmmaker’s childhood, education, family, and so on. The situation in Thailand now is that people feel some guilt about being middle class. They feel uneasy about not being in the same class as the majority. This is a problem, but it is also a good thing, because it makes people begin to talk about class issues. I come from the middle class, but like many people, I am always educating myself, and learning about the history and traditions of our country. A lot of the things in textbooks are propaganda, not at all based in truth. Now we have the Internet, so we can share and study: What exactly happened in the past? How did the middle class form? What’s the deal with the farmers’ revolution? Shooting movies in the countryside instead of Bangkok will become “tasteful” in the future.
Your films and art projects have been well received internationally. Who is your audience in Thailand?
AW It is a combination of a lot of different people. Many of them are students, especially film students. Interestingly, there are also a lot of doctors and medical students. I don’t know why. In addition, there are many people who are already working. A mill worker who liked my movies mailed me a bag of rice. It really moved me: this is the result that a movie can produce. I am not very popular in Thailand— if I am, it is limited to cinema and art-related fields— which is probably why some people say I make films for Westerners. I think that’s truly bullshit. I make films for myself, for my background and my thoughts.
I have a feeling that you also make films for the people who appear in them. You use your perspective to turn them into images, giving them the opportunity to be shown and to be preserved.
AW Yes, I think that is for the sake of my own memory and surrounding environment. That is exactly why I left Bangkok. It is also why, in Asia and especially in Thailand, when you go to the museums, there are only pictures and documents of the royal family. There is no record of ordinary people. I think that everyone should pick up a camera or a paintbrush and make something for the future. Make our own legends. For me, this is not rewriting history. It is documentation. We need more perspectives. I don’t provide the truth, because it is a matter of subjectivity. The more we do now, the more the next generation will be able to see and understand.
None of your actors are professionals. How do you select them?
AW I choose actors who have experience that I lack. I can audition a hundred people in hopes of finding just one person who can bring their own experience and understanding to the role. I will also rewrite the script for an actor. During casting, the best actors are the ones who can lie to my face, because they are capable of bringing me into a fictional world. Most of the people I choose are people with really rich experiences. They can lie professionally, which means they can act professionally. Because they have experienced hardship in the past, they have become highly flexible. These things are all good for the film. Of course they may lie to me, but we have spent more than a decade together and gradually become like a family. We often visit each other, and when we make a movie, it’s like going to a super family holiday.
Your films are often nested together. For example, the character Uncle Boonmee is referenced in Tropical Malady, and when you were scouting locations for Uncle Boonmee, you began thinking about Primitive Project. Meanwhile, For Tomorrow For Tonight originated in Mekong Hotel. At what point do you normally become aware of the beginning of a new project?
AW I always take a lot of notes, and I’m always flipping through them. At the same time, I keep returning to the same places and visiting people. Ideas gradually emerge through this process.
Do you think that sexuality is necessary to your film? Of course, when I say “sexuality,” I am not referring to the sexual act. Can you give me a few examples of sexuality?
AW I think yes. My definition of sexuality is human interaction. How you bring the audience into the frame is a question of allure. It’s human condition, like a game— that is sexuality. For example, in one scene in Syndromes and a Century, people are doing aerobics. I think that is very sexual. Singing— I really like one person singing to another person. And musical instruments. My last work [Mekong Hotel] was made for television. It is a one-hour film about guitars. The sound of a guitar is very sexual.
What do you think of Tsai Ming-Liang?
AW Tsai Ming-Liang is definitely one of the best filmmakers we have today. He’s such an inspiration. His work Goodbye, Dragon Inn is my favorite.