Three years since the release of his short feature Mekong Hotel (2012), Apichatpong Weerasethakul has returned to the international scene with Cemetery of Splendor (Rak Ti Khon Kaen), a mysterious and humorous film about the impact of memory and history. Combining meditations about war and death with explorations of everyday rural life through a linear narrative, Cemetery of Splendor is simultaneously similar yet different from Weerasethakul’s past works. At the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015, he and I discussed his body of work, with a particular focus on the motifs and stylistic decisions that connect his various films. I was also curious to discover what kept Weerasethakul silent for so long, and to talk about his reluctance to direct in Thailand, as well as broader political issues.
Dreams, reality and the human spirit are themes that appear to permeate your work. How is your treatment of these subjects in Cemetery of Splendor different from your previous films?
Compared to my past works, I think that the dream in Cemetery of Splendor is more personal. Here I’m really interested in the limitations of cinema, its codes, and a lot of experimentation with form, since I think that I’m working less on an intellectual level and more on an emotional one. This is why I shot the whole project in my hometown – I feel that the town had changed so quickly. With the military taking care of the country, I sometimes feel that people are really confused about what the future is and need to escape. One way to escape is to dream, to sleep and find a different reality.
It also appears that this movie is all about memory and how memories of the past always remain with you.
Yeah, I am really interested in how memory works and how it is shaped by experience, especially the experience of seeing movies. For our generation, I think that movies have a big influence on how we remember things. My filmmaking is mostly about that and looking at each space and what is happening in both the physical world as well as the internal world of the actors and the audience. It is almost like a play, a game to see.
Bruno Dumont, who is an atheist, once said that in the cinema you can have gods because you can have everything you want; you can have images of miracles in a movie. Yet I cannot think of one of your movies where we see a miracle: what are your thoughts on the presence of God in your cinema?
I think that religions are dangerous to humankind; that is my personal view; that is the problem when you present God in a movie. It is just repeating the imagination or repeating what has been done before to serve such imagery and icons, so we should stop doing that. We should move on. At least for me, I want to move on to a society where deities are gone, and a movie can evoke visually through different people’s imaginations rather than repeating the same thing for the next generation.
So why then you are so interested in supernatural elements?
I think that the whole film reflects the after effects of superstition in a country, the whole film feels like a spell. You just feel numb, you know? Or you just feel confused about whether this is reality or a dream. So, I think that on the surface it looked very peaceful but inside is a hidden storm of instability and a little madness.
In Uncle Boonmee there were ghosts with the faces of monkeys and red eyes who came out of the forest. These ghosts were obviously very different from real people. But in Cemetery of Splendor, when you show angels they are very similar to the real life characters – they look like us and even wear the same clothes. Do spirits or mythological elements have their own logic that can be lost if we try to make them like human-like? Does this negate the philosophy behind them when we use our own human conceptions to define what spirits should look like?
No, no. This is a very interesting point because then the characters would assume the preconception of what an angel should look like, and what a ghost should look like. I think that maybe we are just being programmed by past representations in cinema to picture what they should look like. However, this whole movie is not about that, but rather it is about our confusion of the world and how our beliefs can trick us. So the film just heightened this aspect by making angels very ordinary and dreams very normal.
What about the differences between dreams and reality? Are dreams and reality the same thing for you – is there no real difference?
I think so – it’s actually just about the mind and how we perceive things. I started to observe how I dream and think, and my dreams are mostly fairly narrative rather than being like a Hollywood film or something that has a lot of special effects. My dreams are more subtle, more like life. Don’t you think dreams are not like a Salvador Dali painting? They are more than that. Dreams for me are gentler than the typical dreams in movies.
Do you feel comfortable including these supernatural elements in your films? It seems to have become almost a routine for you.
Well, I think that this is simply a documentation of how I lived because in Thailand we are ready to believe and to see the invisible. It’s our reality so it has layers of this thing. I know what you mean – that it is becoming routine – so for this film I felt that I should try not to have monkeys!
Why did you shoot this movie in your hometown?
It is pretty rare to shoot outside of Bangkok since it it’s expensive to move all the crew to a new location, so mostly we stayed there. But for me, I found many of the crew in the town and I also feel more and more restricted around what I can say in my movies, so I wanted to make it the last film that I would shoot in Thailand. The best place to say goodbye was my hometown.
You also mentioned that you wanted to criticise globalisation by emphasising the local culture of your hometown. What exactly did you mean by this?
I think that my movie is about remembering the gist of the place that I grew up in, the old school and the hospital. I spent 15 years in the hospital area; our family lived in the hospital so it’s a mixture of these places into one.
Why is there an American person in the movie?
This is because in real life Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas, the lead actress) married a guy from the States four years ago. Many of the dialogues were based on real life.
In the press booklet you say that this was like doing a film for the first time. What exactly did you mean?
I was referring to the restrictions in terms of style, especially the experimental style. For example, in Blissfully Yours (Sud Sanaeha, 2002) I knew that I wanted the film to be very rigid so I had certain rules to observe. I set the rules for myself, such as saying that there would be no subjective point of view or that there would be one dolly and one pen or whatever. Even for Uncle Boonmee I felt like I could do this, but for Cemetery of Splendor I just worked without setting rules of any sort.
How would you define Cemetery of Splendour in terms of style?
For this film I tried to flow with the rhythm of the town and then I revisited the project and what I remembered of it. For me, it went a lot faster than my previous films, but it’s about playing. In the beginning you’ll see the pacing and it’s pretty conventional. However, after that it becomes Jenjira’s time and the movie is possessed by her, so it slows down and transitions into the dreamscape.
You worked on this film with cinematographer Diego Garcia, who previously worked with Carlos Reygadas. Reygadas has a very different style from you, of course. Was it difficult to work with somebody not very familiar with your style? What did he bring to your work?
I’ve had quite a difficult time working with others in the past, but not Diego. He is very sensitive and he looked at my previous works and we talked about style so it worked right away. However, he didn’t use the same approach he did while working with Carlos. So I think that what Diego brought was some sensitivity with light. He fit perfectly for this film because of the way he talked about dreams and beauty in everyday life.
During the press conference at Cannes you mentioned some political restrictions?
In Thailand you cannot talk about many things, like religion or the nation, which people probably associate with the Army. The nation, religion, the monarchy, and sex are all things that you can’t talk about, so what else can you say?
Does this make the film political in a way?
Yes, indeed. It is okay if you don’t know the background since you can approach it in different ways. I think for me, it talks a lot about the sorrow of the whole place, a country that is going down, and again feeling the suffocation of “not knowing” and of wanting to wake up but not being able to. And along the way there are lot of little things that are more local references.
Do you feel scared while working in a country with so many artistic restrictions?
It’s tough, it’s suffocating. Many times I asked myself if I could call myself an artist since I could not say what I wanted to say. This was because of the military dictatorship and the chance of them questioning me when I go back, but it’s okay because many of my friends have been questioned. So you go there and they can lock you up for many days, or they will lock you up until you sign something saying that you’re not going to do any political activities or else you’ll be prosecuted and your bank account will be frozen. Of course I’m scared.
Do you think you have more freedom compared to other artists in Thailand since winning the Palme d’Or?
The value of film is different in Thailand. It’s not that big. It’s not that important. Let’s compare it to sport: if you are a boxer and won a match then you get a house, a car, whatever – a lot of money. It’s different for movies.
But because you can criticise the government when you travel and do interviews because you’re known internationally – does that make it harder for you? Does this make you an easy target? They must have known you were going to do something in your next movie.
Thailand is now very political with debates going on all the time. I have my own beliefs and certain political ideas, and when I do interviews there are always lots of violent responses. I mean, I receive a lot of attacks online and very violent threats, including death threats. When you look at Facebook and see the people who have threatened to kill me and then you look at their other posts, you see that the same people go to the temple, they pray, and are kind. This is fascinating, but also crazy and sickening. If you becoming a public figures then you are more open to attack, but that doesn’t mean that it will actually happen.
So can you imagine them questioning you or putting you in jail?
It can happen.
Did you ever think about moving to another country?
Yes, that’s why I want to try and make a movie abroad, but I am curious about how it will affect me. Last year, I was teaching with Béla Tarr and he told me, “Don’t move. Don’t make movies outside of Thailand because you will lose. You cannot do it.” I think he’s trying to tell me that he lost something himself when he made that move (it is unclear which film Weerasethakul is referring to here, but possibly it is Tarr’s 2007 feature The Man From London, which featured an international cast and was shot on various locations around Europe and the U.K. – ed.)
So if this is your last movie filmed in Thailand, are you thinking of adopting a different style when working in another country? Or will you try to maintain the aesthetic and themes of your previous work?
I have to start it and see. I will lose something by going to a new place, but I will also gain something, so I don’t know.
There is an argument that censorship inspires creativity since it makes you think of ways to resist censorship. Do you think this will be one of the things you lose?
I agree that censorship can bring out a certain creativity in people, but at the same time I do not believe that it is the only way. Of course, creativity can also result from freedom. Regardless of whether you are in your country or Thailand, I think you need to act as yourself. How far are we going to try to talk about something using coded language? How long are we going to keep doing this? Will censorship become an excuse for not saying something, or to imply that this is creativity? With censorship I think it’s more the frustration of not being able to touch some subjects at all.
You have talked previously about this coded language you sometimes use in your works. What percentage of your words are “coded” in this way? I ask this because we critics want to attribute meaning to every image, but it appears to me that some images are more experimental than others, like an artistic experience without necessarily having any meaning attributed to them.
I would say that it depends on how you approach the movie. There are quite a number of references that I am of course conscious of. But at the same time, there is a level of openness in that I cannot put into a percentage. This is a movie of resistance but it can simultaneously be something of an escapist movie, too. You can look at it from different angles. It could be the start of something that you can Google later, but for me I do not think about what amount of information the audience will “get”.
So how are these codes related to your body of work more broadly, and to you personally and as a filmmaker?
I look at the codes from my own perspective because the movies, for me, are really my world; if there is a code, then it is a code that could create movies of my own movies. It’s like when you write a diary and you end up repeating yourself, or just documenting the progress of what happened before. For example, like Jenjira (the main character in Cemetery of Splendor), who is now in a new chapter of her life since she got married and is about to have an operation on her legs. So this thing is part of an ongoing process, such that if you referred to previous movies then maybe you could appreciate or look at this film with more layers.