Apichatpong Weerasethakul: 'My country is run by superstition'

Famous for lyrical movies featuring reincarnation and talking apes, the Thai director of Uncle Boonmee also has a political side – now he is taking on Thailand’s generals with a film about sleeping soldiers

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has just stepped off a flight from Bangkok and, while he betrays no obvious signs of jetlag or exhaustion, apologises for any potential lethargy. He has come to Tate Modern for a three-day retrospective of his multifarious moving-image work – feature films, shorts, promos – the bulk of which was screened continuously for 14 hours overnight on 9 April to mark the reopening of the gallery’s Starr cinema auditorium. Weerasethakul, a charming, unfailingly polite and very neatly dressed 45 year old, says he doesn’t mind in the least that his delicately composed, subtly atmospheric films should be exhibited in such an environment; it is, he says “a celebration, a big party”.

But the fact that such a venue should be hosting such an event tells us quite a bit about Weerasethakul’s work, and his approach to it. He is the winner of one of cinema’s highest honours, the Cannes Palme d’Or, for his 2010 feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but is only now releasing a substantial follow-up, Cemetery of Splendour, which premiered at Cannes in 2015. (That’s not counting the hour-long Mekong Hotel, which emerged in 2012.)

Soldiers struck by sleeping sickness in Cemetery of Splendour by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Soldiers struck by sleeping sickness in Cemetery of Splendour by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Photograph: Chai Siris/Kick the Machine Films

Weerasethakul, bless him, says he still can’t understand why Uncle Boonmee – an elliptical tale of a dying man who is visited by the spirits of his dead wife and vanished son – made such an impact. “I liked it because there were so many personal references, but I didn’t think they could translate to the audience. Some of my other films I can understand why they got a reaction because there are certain things in them cinematically; but Uncle Boonmee, it’s such a strange one.”

Cemetery of Splendour is Weerasethakul’s seventh feature, if you include his long-form 2000 documentary Mysterious Object at Noon (due to be restored and reissued on DVD following the Tate’s event) as well as the normally glossed-over 2003 comedy The Adventure of Iron Pussy – mention of which elicits a sheepish giggle. (“It’s a bit embarrassing if the audience doesn’t know the context.”)

His film-making strengths – as displayed in Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century, and Uncle Boonmee itself – are a structural audacity that often results in narratives stopping dead, switching characters, or reformatting themselves; a languid, lyrical shooting style; and an unhurried investigation of memory and place. It’s a combination that – along with an unabashed cinematic eroticism – has made him a fixture at major international film festivals, and a three-time prizewinner at Cannes.

A scene from Tropical Malady, starring Sakda Kaewbuadee and Banlop Lomnoi.
A scene from Tropical Malady, starring Sakda Kaewbuadee and Banlop Lomnoi. Photograph: Kick the Machine Films

However, it’s clear that feature films are not necessarily his priority: Weerasethakul spends much of his time creating installations and performance pieces with glorious titles like A Man Who Ate an Entire Tree. In fact, he says, getting features off the ground has got tougher since his elevation to the Cannes pantheon: it is becoming “harder to finance” what he calls his kind of “small, no stars” films. “It’s the climate of funding. It’s all on a big scale now.” He’s actually doing more visual art, he says. “I am just enjoying experimenting and doing different things.”

It’s this tension – or cross-pollination – between art and cinema that seems to lie at the heart of Weerasethakul’s work. The shorts and art pieces, he says, are where he can film “without rules”; for feature films, he says, “you are leading the audience by the hand. In order for them to follow, you need to use the established rules.” His work is all rooted in the same ideas, he says, but the format dictates itself. “It’s instinctive.” He describes how it worked for Cemetery of Splendour, which takes place largely in a hospital for soldiers afflicted by a mysterious form of narcolepsy. It started, he says, with “this idea of sleep”. Then, “a bit of narrative comes along”, and “you get a larger picture”. “That tells you what it needs to be; that it needs to be a film.”

A surreal moment from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives.
A surreal moment from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives. Photograph: PR Image

Seen back to back, as most of them will have been in the night-long retrospective, Weerasethakul’s preoccupations emerge with some force. Some are stylistic and structural: a fondness for bifurcated storytelling; characters and actors that shift from film to film; a tip of the hat to the cheesy Thai TV of his youth. Others are thematic: an investigation and recreation of memories – he grew up the son of doctors, hence the frequent presence of hospitals and medical procedures in his films; reincarnation and the spirit world regularly invoked for its metaphoric value; the recurring presence of the military as a symbol of power and control.

A lot of his ideas, he says, derive directly from the people he works with. Anyone with a passing knowledge of his work, for example, will probably recognise the figure of Jenjira Pongpas (aka Nach) Widner, the woman whose romantic yearnings and undisguised limp – the result of a motorcycle accident – have become key features of what Weerasethakul terms his “universe”. Actors, says Weerasethakul, “are not just a shell, they are part of the movie”. Widner, whose story Weerasethakul also explored in one of his shorts, Cactus River, has become an even more significant figure in Cemetery of Splendour, which foregrounds her habit of knitting baby socks and her relationship with her American husband. “When I wrote Cemetery, Jenjira was in my mind from the beginning.”

Watch a trailer for Cemetery of Splendour

In Weerasethakul’s hands, Thai culture comes across as simultaneously profound and absurd, mysterious and mundane, heroic and trivial. His films’ – and characters’ – interest in reincarnation arguably gives his work its most distinctive flavour, allowing him to stage utterly strange sequences – such as the talking ape scene in Tropical Malady, or the princess-fish sex in Uncle Boonmee. It’s an active social force in his homeland he says: “People believe in it, and it drives the way they view life. [Belief in] karma makes people submissive; that’s how the country is run.”

For Weerasethakul, this issue is no longer simply aesthetic: after the 2014 military coup, it’s one of political urgency. Pointing out that “the army has its own fortune teller”, he sounds less than happy at the state of affairs: “The country is run by superstition.” Weerasethakul is in a relatively fortunate position, in that his arcane films are not exactly populist and don’t depend on the mainstream Thai film industry for funding, but he has become cast as a significant voice of dissent in a difficult time. “For the record,” he says, “Cemetery is not censored: I refuse to submit it to the censor board. It’s not that they ban it, but the fact they ban other things.”

Jenjira Ponpas Widner in Cemetery of Splendour.
Jenjira Ponpas Widner, right, in Cemetery of Splendour. Photograph: Chai Siris/Kick the Machine Films

But in retrospect, the heavy presence of soldiers and the military in his films suggests a presentiment that turned out to be correct. Cemetery of Splendour, if nothing else, is a pointed analysis of the wounds the Thai military have inflicted on the country over the decades. “I like to show uniforms anyway, but in the course of the last 10 years the role of the army has got more and more difficult. I have shifted from symbolic uses to do with power, like being a sexual predator, to more reflect the political involvement they have had for a long time.” The mid-1960s communist insurgency, supported by Maoist China and leading to significant conflict in the north-east of the country, is the subject of Weerasethakul’s touring installation project Primitive, which grew directly out of his research for Uncle Boonmee (which is set in the same region).

But, he says, there’s nothing like dealing with Thai bureaucracy for keeping your feet on the ground. “When I go to get a driving licence or to report something missing to the police, they want to write down my profession. I say, ‘I am a film-maker’; and they say, ‘What?’ Then they write: ‘Freelance.’”

“In Thailand, being an artist or a film-maker is not considered a career.” Oh well, give the boy time. You never know, he just might get somewhere.

  • Cemetery of Splendour is released in UK cinemas on 17 June, and the installation Primitive opens at Tate Modern, London, on the same date. Mysterious Object at Noon is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 25 April.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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