More Than Meets the Eye
A Conversation with
Interviewed by Michael Koresky
the Thai auteur behind the fascinatingly
elliptical and drastically anti-narrative
Mysterious Object at Noon, an exquisite
corpse-style rumination on storytelling
and Thai daily life, and Blissfully Yours,
the delicate, stream-of-conscious lazy afternoon
stroll of two lovers returning to nature,
will finally see his 2004 Cannes Grand Jury
Prize-winning masterpiece Tropical Malady
reach U.S. theaters this summer. While working
on a new film in South Korea, the sweet
and soft-spoken Apichatpong took time out
to talk to Reverse Shot about his visionary
fairy-tale infused cinema and the dichotomies
of contemporary Thai life that inform his
RS: Your work is always defined by such
a mix of styles and ideas. They have a very
meta-textual European feel, but at the same
time theyíre very anthropological studies
of human behavior and daily life. Do you
consciously try to mix these modes of filmmaking?
Weerasethakul: I think I just do my films
instinctively. In the environment in Thailand,
everything is mixed. We absorb everything.
When you look at Thai food, or fashion,
or architecture, itís like we donít have
any real identity. Because at one time,
I tried to think, ďWhat is really Thai film?Ē
And when looking at four Thai films, you
see they are all different, a mixture of
many different influences. So I think when
I make films I try to express what I experience
just living. So they become like a diary.
I try to express things truthfully.
RS: How did you first become interested
in film, and discover European or American
filmmakers? Also, were you watching a lot
of Thai films when you were growing up?
Apichatpong: Through videotapes. When I
came to Bangkok from time to time, there
was a video shop where they had VHS. This
shop recommended to some titles. But not
really very many. Yes, and many Thai films.
In fact I think I watched more Thai films
than Western films when I grew up.
RS: Did you grow up in a small village?
Apichatpong: Not a village, but kind of
a town, about 5 hours from Bangkok by driving.
In the Northeast.
RS: How did it come about that you studied
at the Chicago Art Institute?
Apichatpong: I studied architecture in Thailand,
but I always wanted to study film and the
film schools here were not good at the time.
So I tried to look around, and Chicago was
the school with the latest deadline for
applications. I didnít know much; I thought
film schools must be all good in the States.
But it turned out that I was very lucky,
I had really good teachers, and they also
helped me financially. Because at some point,
when I was there the economy crashed in
Thailand. I was there í94 to í97. I think
at one point I went back to Thailand for
almost a year, also because of the economic
RS: How did your study of architecture
inform your concept of cinema?
Apichatpong: I think theyíre quite the same;
itís dealing with time. When you treat your
audience, in architecture, they walk into
the space, they experience the space, the
light and shadow, by walking through time.
So you design the space to evoke certain
feelings and certain reactions from the
viewer. The same with film; you use time,
but I think film is more forcing the audience
to experience while sitting in the dark.
So I think architecture gives more freedom
in a way. But in terms of the filmmaker,
making films has more freedom, because itís
more abstract. And you donít have to give
in much on the practical use of the space.
RS: Have you had a great freedom in making
your films? Have you been able to say what
youíve wanted to say without many impediments?
Apichatpong: I guess pretty much so, yes.
Like the new film Iím making. Iím writing
the script now. Iím not in production yet.
Iím pretty late, itís been a year and Iíve
just started on a new film. Iíve been able
to work without submitting the script first
to get funding. The trade-off is that the
financiers provide me with less money, but
thatís okay because I have more freedom.
Thatís how it goes. If I complete a script,
there is more money available, just like
applying for grants. But now I try to balance
things by telling the producer that I need
space, and I only need a little money. So
hopefully this little film will soon be
RS: The problem with Western audiences
and your films sometimes might be that they
simply look at them as exotic foreign objects,
which in my experiences watching them couldnít
be further from the truth. I find your films
to be lucid, relatable experiences.
Tropical Malady is singular, yet itís
also of a piece with your other films, such
as Mysterious Object at Noon, which
begins with ďOnce upon a timeÖĒ and ends
with the story of a witch-tiger. It seems
like youíre very interested in mythmaking
and fairy tales. What are you trying to
update in the idea of the fairy tale?
Apichatpong: Itís something that reminds
me of my childhood. Something uncomplicated.
When I shoot the location of the jungle,
the location speaks something of an uncomplicated
life, because when weíre in the jungle we
realize how dependent we are on technology
and what we use when weíre in the city.
So for me that space reminds us of our ancient
times, of living in caves, and not needing
many things to survive. So itís the idea
of this contrast between the city and the
jungle, and darkness and light, and happiness
and suffering. And when applying the myth
and storytelling, you need both sides. Because
one side is uncomplicated, like for the
kids, and another side is the side that
is quite dark, Iím interested in the existence
of two different sides in everything, the
real versus the fictional.
RS: All of your films seem to deal with
this contrast, not only in terms of the
stories but technically as well. Many people
view Mysterious Object at Noon and
Blissfully Yours almost as documentaries
because of the manner in which you just
watch and study your subjects onscreen.
Do you ever see yourself as a documentary
Apichatpong: Oh, no. I donít believe in
documentary as it is viewed formally. I
donít believe in reality in film. For me
thereís no reality, because filmmaking is
a very affected medium. So even what you
call documentary is not representing the
truth, because itís too subjective and you
canít create something like a film to just
look at certain things. So I think the films
I make are just my expression of my life,
but it doesnít necessarily mean the truth,
or a kind of assimilation of appreciation
of being alive. But I wouldnít call it documentary.
RS: The way you deal with fiction and
nonfiction and reconciling fairy tale and
day to day realities; do you feel thereís
any sort of counterpart to this in Western
Apichatpong: Iím not sure which films, but
I always feel connected to film history.
I think American film is very strong in
a way. For example this film The Conversation,
by Coppola, that is a super film. When I
watch it, I feel the beauty of assimilation
of fiction and truth. I feel the same way
when I make film.
Conversation is a very political film.
Do you feel you have made political statements
in your work or that youíd like to?
Apichatpong: For me, Iím not political formally,
but more through a personal point of view
that I hope in the future will be revealed
as political because of time passing. But
RS: I know you said before you feel thereís
a lack of an identity in Thailand. Is this
due to the way in which the West imposes
on Thai culture?
Apichatpong: Sure, but itís just the way
of the world. In Thailand, we exonerate
and accept other cultures. For me, I used
to really dislike certain kinds of things,
like really ugly buildings. Like sometimes
youíll see buildings with roman columns,
this cheap kitsch. But now I see the beauty
of the way we live and go with the flow
and record it, and of course the town I
live in is changing fast, and itís becoming
similar to Bangkok. So itís not something
to fight against, really.
RS: The evolution of the country to city
also plays out in the transformation of
your characters themselves, not just in
Tropical Malady but also in Mysterious
Object at Noon, which greatly revolves
around this one anecdote about a young handicapped
boyís nurse turning into someone else. Why
do you so often deal with this idea of transformation?
Apichatpong: Because we go through things
all the time. Transformation is important.
Like I mentioned before, I like contrast
in films. Even though my film is not much
of a story, I want my audience to feel life.
For example, you have to experience sadness
until you can appreciate happiness. Thatís
why thereís always transformation from light
to dark and dark to light. To emphasize
one thing or another.
RS: It all seems so radical to American
audiences. Recently in our very own Reverse
Shot film festival, we showed Tropical
Malady. The audience stayed in their
chairs silently until the last credit rolled.
Many people said they were moved but couldnít
Apichatpong: That would be very good; itís
my goal to make film as a film. Many films
I see nowadays are like reading a book or
something. I believe film has to be expressed
in a medium that is not theater, a book,
a narrative. Just the image. And it should
be open, so for me itís successful when
people look at this image and interpret
it in different ways according to their
experience. For example I like watching
things out of the windows, and when another
person watches the same thing from a different
angle, so much is expressed but not expressed.
So itís a different angle, a different point
of view. Itís great that they canít express
all that theyíve seen in the same way. This
comes back to the point that thereís no
reality, because each personís reality is
different, and each person experiences time
differently. Like, maybe after I hang up
with you, you can tell other people it was
a very long interview, and I can tell other
people it was very short interview. Itís
relative, itís different.
must feel a kinship with your audience,
you play with them, their expectations.
For instance, the way you use titles, and
where you place your title sequences. Are
you consciously doing that?
Apichatpong: I think it depends. For Tropical
Malady, itís conscious. For Blissfully
Yours, it came during the editing. I
try not to relate to contemporary filmmaking
in general, so I just try to forget everything
and figure out what is the best way to say
something, to put the title here or there,
and at the same time not alienate the audience
or trying to do it for the sake of shocking.
It comes through repeated viewings and editing.
RS: When the opening credits finally
rolled in Blissfully Yours, the audience
Apichatpong: HmmmmÖ..how do you feel about
that? Itís not really out of place. But
of course itís instinctual; itís never to
trick you or anything. I want it to flow
together with the audience. I think my films
are very easy if you donít think too much.
People are really accustomed to Hollywood
film, which is not wrong, but itís so complicated
I think. The narrative structure is a simple
three-act, but the way Hollywood film is
made is so complicated, more and more. Because
people are not satisfied enough, they need
to see new things. So I think filmmakers
use too many tricks to make audiences stay
until the end. I think my films are so simple
though that my audiences arenít used to
that kind of old-fashioned style. So they
become either bored or think itís too difficult.
Thereís a filmmaker here in Thailand named
Cherd Songsri, who I admire a lot and told
me that Tropical Malady is like an
old film to him; he said maybe 30 years
ago the audience would have more fun watching
it than they do now.
RS: Tropical Malady is about to finally
be released in theaters here. Have you noticed
differences in reception between Western
audiences and audiences in Thailand in particular
in regards to Tropical Malady?
Apichatpong: Iím more satisfied with the
reception in Thailand and, strangely, in
Korea. Itís not doing well compared to other
films, but we opened in three theaters only,
and the reception was not bad at all. I
think people understand me more now; the
last film did very badly here, and this
film people told me they understood more
of what Iím trying to do. So I think itís
getting much better. Itís like when you
speak a certain language or a certain dialect
and youíre not understood. You walk along
with audience and see their progress. Itís
all very good now.