Change the World:
An Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul
by S. Mickey Lin and Genevieve Yue
Just days before the premiere of Unknown Forces, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first solo exhibition in the United States, his latest film, Syndromes and a Century, was banned in his native Thailand. It was the first independent feature to be submitted to the Thai Board of Censors without studio backing, and four cuts were demanded before the film would be shown. The filmmaker refused the edits and accepted the ban, but the board would not return the print. The announcement was shocking, not the least because the film, a lyrical, contemplative work, seemed such an unlikely target.
“Political” is hardly a word that springs to mind when discussing Syndromes, despite its pointed shift from country to a construction-heavy city. More than a statement, the film meanders, seemingly content to follow its characters wherever they might go: ambling down long hospital corridors, pausing at street vendors, and resting under the trees where wild orchids bloom. In one telling shot, the camera splits away from two characters and lingers at a ledge overlooking a garden, as if irresistibly drawn to the lush landscape outside. Syndromes and a Century, in the director’s words, is an “experiment in recreation” of his parents’ lives before he was born, an imagined past set amid an ever-changing world, or perhaps a world already changed.
In some ways, this world is present in Unknown Forces, which is itself charged with the heady turbulence of the 2006 military coup in Thailand, when the prime minister was forced out of office. The video installation uses four screens to depict people riding the back of a pickup truck, talking or dancing, but their voices are drowned out by the sound of wind and determinedly bright music. On one of the screens, a dark tent is set up in the jungle, surrounded by production lighting and smoke. Apichatpong Weerasethakul constructed Unknown Forces as a question, one that is as important in its country of exhibition as that of its origin: In a “free” society, what freedoms truly exist? What is the difference between the world we imagine and the one we live in? What are we not seeing?
REVERSE SHOT: Syndromes and a Century has become something of a lightning rod for a number of political issues right now, though it seems like the most unlikely film for that. When we heard it had been banned, we couldn’t imagine what was offensive about it.
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL: Right, it’s like a PG film, and I didn’t understand. That’s why we were surprised in a way. But then looking back, all Thai filmmakers have been treated like this, with a small favoritism given to studio films. But not our films. So I started a petition, and in a way it became like a political act, without intention in the beginning.
Around the same time, before the censorship happened, we were developing Unknown Forces, and I had been seriously thinking about the idea of freedom. It was something I really wanted to talk about but couldn’t. Unknown Forces is like a tiptoe, a little step into this territory of what it means to live there. I always say that I’m really happy to live in Thailand, it really inspires me, the culture is so unique—but then I start to realize that another point of inspiration is this struggle. Because you go on the streets and you see these vendors, all the unorganized things, people changing laws to suit their needs, the whole country run by a few people –we are part of this and we happily accept it. So to “happily accept it” is something I question.
Why are we happy? Are we drunk on something? Or are we getting used to this and becoming so numb that we don’t question things anymore? Unknown Forces is about that. In our petition for Syndromes and a Century, we talked about how they confiscated the print. Then some people even said on the website, it’s good that they have censorship, because if you cannot show your film you can show it somewhere else, like France. If France bans your film, then you should go to hell.
This kind of response shows the mentality of people, that they’re very not in tune. I’m not talking about freedom in the American sense; I’m talking about basic things like being able to say whatever we want to say. But we cannot. Some people don’t have this sense because they’ve been under this mind control for a long time, and it’s become part of their mentality. So for me, if we get real change, we’ll be ok. We can say more things but not everything, and those people can stay in their shells and they’ll be happy. It’s not affecting them anyway.
RS: On the petition website, there are so many signatures, and most of them are from Thailand. We were in some ways surprised about that, but it’s also very much a local issue.
AW: Yeah, because they put up with this for so long and not only independent filmmakers, either. Well, we don’t have independence. And especially videomakers who want to show their work have had to put up with this. This dialogue is good for people. In the petition, some people said, I don’t like your film at all, but I support your cause. So, wow, thank you!
RS: So what is it like as an independent filmmaker in Thailand, as a person outside the studio system? Is there a community of independent filmmakers or visual artists?
AW: You get into an alliance with many videomakers and artists. Still, I think it’s quite difficult because the Thai-speaking market is quite small when you think about how much money you need to spend to make one film. If your film is quite personal, then it is limited to certain genres; you need an outside market.
RS: You tell a story about waking up one morning and realizing that the world around you was not exactly as you thought it had been. Unknown Forces responds to that feeling in some way.
AW: I think it started with the political issue in 2006, when there was a coup to oust the prime minister. I started to realize that this is part of the thing we have freedom to do. In other coups, we always got bad results, and it never succeeded. During the last coup, I was thinking it’s the same, we never learn, and then it happened, people ousted the prime minister. So I think that this is the way that we start to question other areas where we’ve been repressed: politics, monarchy, religion, and so on. I am starting to think seriously about that and trying to educate myself more. My themes, my work has been about my personal life, focusing on my happiness I want to share, or my sadness. Now the political is really becoming part of this happiness or sadness.
RS: For Unknown Forces, we noticed there’s a kind of obscurity to each screen, each having something that is in some ways blocked, hinting at a language being spoken, something being spoken, or an object to be revealed. Like with the tent, you think that what’s inside is going to be revealed, the wind’s blowing, but…
AW: Ah, so you guys were waiting.
RS: Yet there’s nothing.
AW: There’s something! After fifteen minutes.
AW: No, I was joking.
RS: But still, you expect the light to reveal something, and all it does is blow in more smoke, and the smoke becomes more opaque, and the object suggested under that shape doesn’t become any clearer. You feel this kind of limitation of expression— this guy seems happy to be dancing, but only to an extent. Then on one side, you see the back of the truck and on the other side, it’s the front of a truck, which puts you in this mode of transport. But it’s very narrow. On that axis of the installation, you’re in a liminal space, one that exists in between other things.
AW: Wow, you guys have the best interpretation I’ve ever heard! For me it’s like you mentioned about showing something. How when you shine a light on something it doesn’t reveal anything; it’s even more opaque afterwards. I want to show this part in my filmmaking. So now, in many of the works we show a lot of process, we show the camera, the lighting, the smoke machine. It’s about becoming transparent. Why do we need to hide the process?
RS: Why do you choose to shoot so many of your films in the countryside?
AW: For me, it is an excuse to leave the city. With Syndromes, we have the city part, and it is like tracing history because I grew up in a small town. That’s why I made Worldly Desires, because it’s like okay, I’ve had enough of the jungle, let’s try to go back to the city. So Syndromes is a start. The next film is Utopia and another one that I’m developing is about Chiang Mai, which is another big city in Thailand. In the end, the city can wait, but the rural is changing so fast, I feel I need to document those changes.
RS: Your upcoming film, Utopia, will take place in a foreign country. As it deals with issues of memory, which suggests something personal, why wouldn’t it take place in Thailand?
AW: It’s part of a project where nine international filmmakers were asked to take a look at America. Utopia developed from wanting to take all my crew on a trip to America, so we would be on the Amtrak, making a film together. The main idea is that we would live on the train and just make something up and try to talk about our memory of Thailand. But at the same time the landscape outside would be America: its changing, the snow, the desert. We would stop sometimes and look at people. At the same time, there would be some kind of connection to the memory of each crew: there would be a scientific device that is sent to the cabin somewhere in the snow landscape, and a grandmother that controls our memory. It kind of developed from there, but now it’s changed to something totally different. Now it’s become a prehistoric man’s journey into the snow landscape.
RS: How often do you modify the script when you film?
AW: All the time.
RS: Just to see how you feel.
AW: Yeah, I have to think like lighting.
RS: Earlier when we were talking about Utopia, you used the word transformations. There are a lot of transformations that occur in your films, with shape-shifting characters and a very fluid sense of identity, as in Tropical Malady and Mysterious Object at Noon. Even the story concept of Utopia has transformed in so many ways, it seems very much a product of your thinking.
AW: It’s always about collaboration. For example, today I met an actress who was from Star Trek. She read a treatment of Utopia and gave me some of her ideas. She talked about how she really liked the script and how there is one point that really stood out to her, where the prehistoric man is being tracked by a group of women. He has a red tracking device under his skin that keeps beeping, and then when he retreats further down into the cave, the beeping disappears. For her, she said this is about her son, who is 16 years old, the age of change. The woman is trying to protect or trying to communicate with the prehistoric man, just like she’s trying to do with her son, but then it’s also the time you should let go. It could be something like letting this individual be himself, or in the movie, it’s just that, “Okay, the battery is low—we have no more batteries so we need to get some AAs.” It’s a comedy in a way.
She’s really incredible. She talked about the notion of home. In Utopia, the group of women stumbles onto a spaceship in the middle of the snow and then everyone has their own interaction with the spaceship. Because some are from Star Trek, some are from other movies, and so for her it’s like home. She said that one time when she took her three-year-old son to the set of Star Trek, they blew up the spaceship. She thought that it would be great for a kid to see the special effects, but when they blew up the ship, her son started to cry. His reason was that her home was destroyed. He identified the ship with her character.
RS: You do a lot of split narratives. What is interesting about these bifurcations is not the fact that they’re different but the way they’re connected. So they’re not split only in terms of narrative but also between city and country, male and female, past and present—like the psychological test scenes in Syndromes. As with Tropical Malady, it feels like the same story being told in two different ways.
AW: It is what we do. We always repeat things. When we fall in love, it’s always the same. And when we think about something, we always keep thinking. Do you remember the first time you met your boyfriend? It was the same. But then maybe you got different angles. You don’t like this angle? Okay, maybe next time we’ll change the angle. I think we operate in this way.
RS: Even seeing the film multiple times is always different.
AW: I’m so glad that my films are affecting people in unexpected ways. I have a friend who was living in Thailand, and then he moved France. He saw Tropical Malady there, and then during the second part, he was crying and crying. Everyone was like, what’s wrong with this guy? Because he was thinking about his boyfriend and how he couldn’t do anything or be with him, so he walked out like a zombie. He went dancing the whole night. So it’s very effective in that way. It’s a great honor for a filmmaker.
Unknown Forces opened at REDCAT in Los Angeles on April 18, 2007. It will be on view from April 19 – June 17, 2007, in addition to several screenings of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films in early June.
Photographs: Top, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Unknown Forces, 2007, HD/HDV, 4-channel video, courtesy the artist; Bottom, on the set of Worldly Desires, 2005, video, courtesy the artist.