Transformers, More Than Meets the Eye
A Conversation with Apichatpong Weerasethakul
by Michael Koresky

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 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 filmmaking.

Reverse Shot: 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 they’re very anthropological studies of human behavior and daily life. Do you consciously try to mix these modes of filmmaking?

Apichatpong 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, it’s like we don’t have any real identity. Because at one time, I tried to think, “What is really Thai film?” 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 didn’t 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 ’94 to ’97. I think at one point I went back to Thailand for almost a year, also because of the economic crash.

RS: How did your study of architecture inform your concept of cinema?

Apichatpong: I think they’re quite the same; it’s 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 it’s more abstract. And you don’t 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 you’ve wanted to say without many impediments?

Apichatpong: I guess pretty much so, yes. Like the new film I’m making. I’m writing the script now. I’m not in production yet. I’m pretty late, it’s been a year and I’ve just started on a new film. I’ve 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 that’s okay because I have more freedom. That’s 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 finished.

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 couldn’t be further from the truth. I find your films to be lucid, relatable experiences. Tropical Malady is singular, yet it’s also of a piece with your other films, such as Mysterious Object at Noon, which begins with “Once upon a time…” and ends with the story of a witch-tiger. It seems like you’re very interested in mythmaking and fairy tales. What are you trying to update in the idea of the fairy tale?

Apichatpong: It’s 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 we’re in the jungle we realize how dependent we are on technology and what we use when we’re 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 it’s 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, I’m 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 filmmaker?

Apichatpong: Oh, no. I don’t believe in documentary as it is viewed formally. I don’t believe in reality in film. For me there’s no reality, because filmmaking is a very affected medium. So even what you call documentary is not representing the truth, because it’s too subjective and you can’t 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 doesn’t necessarily mean the truth, or a kind of assimilation of appreciation of being alive. But I wouldn’t call it documentary.

RS: The way you deal with fiction and nonfiction and reconciling fairy tale and day to day realities; do you feel there’s any sort of counterpart to this in Western filmmaking?

Apichatpong: I’m 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.

RS: The Conversation is a very political film. Do you feel you have made political statements in your work or that you’d like to?

Apichatpong: For me, I’m 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 not yet.

RS: I know you said before you feel there’s a lack of an identity in Thailand. Is this due to the way in which the West imposes on Thai culture?

Apichatpong: Sure, but it’s 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 you’ll 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 it’s becoming similar to Bangkok. So it’s 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 boy’s 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. That’s why there’s 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 couldn’t express why.

Apichatpong: That would be very good; it’s 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 it’s 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 it’s a different angle, a different point of view. It’s great that they can’t express all that they’ve seen in the same way. This comes back to the point that there’s no reality, because each person’s 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. It’s relative, it’s different.

RS: You 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, it’s 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 gasped.

Apichatpong: Hmmmm . . . how do you feel about that? It’s not really out of place. But of course it’s instinctual; it’s never to trick you or anything. I want it to flow together with the audience. I think my films are very easy if you don’t think too much. People are really accustomed to Hollywood film, which is not wrong, but it’s 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 aren’t used to that kind of old-fashioned style. So they become either bored or think it’s too difficult. There’s 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: I’m more satisfied with the reception in Thailand and, strangely, in Korea. It’s 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 I’m trying to do. So I think it’s getting much better. It’s like when you speak a certain language or a certain dialect and you’re not understood. You walk along with audience and see their progress. It’s all very good now.