The man with the exploding head: the director inspired by his medical condition

When acclaimed Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul discovered he had ‘exploding head syndrome’, he let the condition feed into the film about trauma and memory he was making with Tilda Swinton

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s house in northern Thailand is a luscious jungle paradise full of polished concrete and teak, palm trees and bamboo. Even the air smells zen. The house’s three gatekeepers, Dracula, King Kong and Vampire, do little to disturb the peace. They are pugs – named because Weerasethakul loves horror movies – who have a proclivity for tenderly licking human toes, further adding to the sense of being biblically cleansed on arrival.

Weerasethakul, 49, is filled with the same soft stillness that pervades his films. In 2010, the director won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his eerie mouthful of a film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. His 2015 follow-up Cemetery of Splendour won huge critical acclaim. Equally embraced by the film and art worlds, he has just been announced as a nominee for this year’s Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international contemporary art.

It can be easy to categorise his work as magical realism, existing in a blurred mythical space between waking and sleeping, where ghosts of Thai spirits and ancient Laotian princesses communicate with the modern mortal world and no one bats an eyelid. But for most Thais, this ancient belief in a powerful world of spirits and ghosts is almost universally accepted as a part of daily life. Offerings to spirit beings are can be found on every street corner.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul
‘When I’m with the green landscape I can always communicate with the trees … and with myself’ … Weerasethakul on location. Photograph: -

Weerasethakul’s work partly explores a tussle between the superstitions instilled in him as a child and what he describes as his “rational beliefs”. “Even though I approach the world scientifically, I cannot shake off the feeling of having spirits around,” he says. “I feel that when I’m with the green landscape I can always communicate with the trees, with the memory of the jungle and also with myself.”

The conflict is not Weerasethakul’s alone. Thailand increasingly exists as a place of contradictions, where ancient animism coexists alongside hyper-capitalist modernity. It is the peaceful “land of smiles”, yet ruled by an often brutal military regime. The countryside region of Isaan (where Weerasethakul is from and his films are set) still bears the scars of a bloody campaign against communism fought by the Thai and US military throughout the 1960s and 70s. Around 95% of Thais are Buddhist, yet the numerous stories of monks arrested for multi-million-dollar corruption scandals, or photographed on private jets carrying Louis Vuitton luggage, conflict with the supposed spiritual rejection of materialism.

Weerasethakul says his films are about peeling back all of these elements of Thai society, exposing them in his gentle yet unforgiving way. “There are so many layers of truth, of reality, in this country,” he says. “It’s modernising so fast, but when it comes to freedom of expression, nothing has changed in 50 years. This country is so repressive, but is also very liveable – and I’m fascinated by that contrast.”

His work is more subversive than it might first appear. His interest in sleep comes in part from the fact that it remains a realm of defiance, untouched by the creeping tentacles of Thai censorship. All films in Thailand are vetted by the military government, and while heavy-handed censorship exists across the arts, it is enforced most strongly in cinema.

Watch the trailer for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

“Being here you cannot talk on certain topics, especially when it comes to the military,” he says. “Self-censorship is automatic.” Weerasethakul knows “so many artists” who have clashed with the authorities. After the release of his 2006 film Syndromes and a Century was postponed in Thailand because of scenes deemed inappropriate – such as a monk playing a guitar – he talked to the ministry of culture to try to encourage it to introduce an age-certification system, which would mean more explicit films wouldn’t simply be banned outright. But his suggestion fell on deaf ears.

His mounting frustration with the system has driven him to make his first feature film outside Thailand. Memoria is about to start filming in Colombia and stars Tilda Swinton. “The last few years working in Thailand, it’s been about trying to be subversive. But I can only go so far.”

‘We are both foreigners’ … Weerasethakul’s next film will star Tilda Swinton.
‘We are both foreigners’ … Weerasethakul’s next film will star Tilda Swinton. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Like Weerasethakul’s previous works, Memoria was developed through interviews with local people. As he was researching it, Weerasethakul developed “exploding head syndrome”, a disorienting condition when a person experiences loud noises and flashes of light on waking. As a result, he focused his interviews on doctors and psychologists, digging into ideas of trauma, suffering and memory. Casting Swinton in the lead role was born out of a long desire the pair had to work together. She was originally meant to play the lead in Cemetery of Splendour, before Weerasethakul decided it felt “somehow wrong” to include a non-Thai “outsider” in the film. They chose Colombia as the location for Memoria: “We are both foreigners there.”

Weerasethakul has not given up on Thailand. He hopes to kickstart a documentary film movement in the country, and one day make a slasher movie there – possibly a remake of Grizzly, his favourite of the genre. But politically, even with an election due in February, Weerasethakul struggles to be optimistic. He says people have “given up” and considers the current Thai prime minister, Prayut Chan-ocha – who has released several pop singles while in power, the most recent one a Valentine’s Day ballad, Diamond Heartto be “a joke”.

“Five years ago I was really positive, but now I don’t have much hope for anything to happen in my lifetime,” Weerasethakul says with a sigh. “In Thailand, nothing changes.”

Contributor

Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Chiang Mai

The GuardianTramp

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