Trop­i­cal mem­o­ries

Thai film­maker Apichat­pong Weerasethakul talks about the film ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MOVIES - By AL­LAN KOAY en­ter­tain­ment@thes­tar.com.my Bliss­fully Yours

YOU don’t just watch an Apichat­pong Weerasethakul film. You ex­pe­ri­ence it. That’s prob­a­bly the best way to ex­press what an Apichat­pong film is like.

From the fever­ish jun­gle sen­su­al­ity of to the mys­te­ri­ous, myth­i­cal fan­tasy of Trop­i­cal Mal­ady and the folk­ish magic of the Cannes-win­ning Un­cle Boonme Who Can Re­call His Past Lives, his films have the abil­ity to reach into the dream-like depths of our psy­che.

But that is also the prob­lem with his work, which of­ten leaves au­di­ences dumb­founded. The best ex­am­ple of this is Trop­i­cal Mal­ady, essen­tially a love story be­tween a sol­dier and a young man, but which switches gears half­way and with­out warn­ing to be­come a dark, psy­cho­log­i­cal and an­thro­po­mor­phic fan­tasy.

Dur­ing our in­ter­view in Kuala Lumpur re­cently, where Tropfest South East Asia an­nounced Apichat­pong’s ap­point­ment as the fes­ti­val’s am­bas­sador, I told him that I loved Trop­i­cal Mal­ady but would be hard-pressed to ex­plain why, if any­one should ask. I asked if that’s the re­ac­tion his films usu­ally got.

“Yes!” said the soft-spo­ken di­rec­tor. “And I’m very happy be­cause I al­ways say that I re­ally wish I can make a film as a film. Be­cause a film is not a book. For me, a suc­cess­ful film is some­thing that you can­not ex­press in words. It’s film, it’s feel­ings. It’s not a book. You can­not ex­plain it, you have to ex­pe­ri­ence it.”

Born in Bangkok, Thai­land to a cou­ple of doc­tors (he later put his par­ents’ story in his 2006 film, Syn­dromes And A Cen­tury), Apichat­pong re­called his childhood days climb­ing a guava tree in his neigh­bour­hood. It was the beau­ti­ful scenery he saw from atop the tree that still in­spires his cin­e­matic vi­sion to­day, he said.

Apichat­pong sees his stint as am­bas­sador for Tropfest SEA as a learn­ing process.

“I, my­self, started a film fes­ti­val more than 10 years ago, and we man­aged to keep it small,” he said. “So, I was very cu­ri­ous about how Tropfest has be­come such a big event and is still not com­mer­cialised. It still cel­e­brates va­ri­ety.

“I think to be am­bas­sador is to sup­port, and at the same time, to learn. You will learn a lot, es­pe­cially about or­gan­i­sa­tion ... Another ben­e­fit, to me, is to dis­cover the new voices of the re­gion. It is some­times hard to find th­ese new voices, even though we are so close.”

The 43-year-old di­rec­tor is cur­rently pre­par­ing for his next film, ti­tled Ceme­tery Of Kings. It tells the story of a group of sol­diers who grad­u­ally fall prey to a “sleep disease.” Shoot­ing will com­mence in Septem­ber next year.

Ac­cord­ing to a Hol­ly­wood Reporter in­ter­view in March this year, Apichat­pong was quoted as say­ing he may have to change the ti­tle to avoid any con­tro­versy as Thai­land has strict lese mag­iste laws. Any­one per­ceived to be in­sult­ing the king can be jailed.

“Yes, I was think­ing about that, but we’ve been ad­ver­tis­ing it ev­ery­where as Ceme­tery Of Kings,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know, I might change the ti­tle, but for now, it will re­main as that. And be­cause I’m still de­vel­op­ing the script, and rewrit­ing it, it might change.”

He said he doesn’t agree with the laws as he feels con­struc­tive crit­i­cism can help the monar­chy and there should not be an at­mos­phere of fear.

Apichat­pong is not new to con­tro­versy in Thai­land. Syn­dromes And A Cen­tury drew the ire of cer­tain par­ties be­cause of its de­pic­tion of a monk play­ing gui­tar and doc­tors kiss­ing and drink­ing al­co­hol in a hos­pi­tal. Fol­low­ing that, he and sev­eral other film­mak­ers launched a protest called the Free Thai Cin­ema Move­ment.

Apichat­pong lamented that not much has changed since then, but said at least cen­sor­ship is now un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Cul­ture Min­istry and not the po­lice.

“It’s a learn­ing process for the of­fi­cials and the gov­ern­ment as well,” he said. “Ev­ery time there is a ban, peo­ple on so­cial me­dia will op­pose it. And ob­vi­ously they learn. It has be­come true that the gov­ern­ment is work­ing for the peo­ple be­cause peo­ple are dic­tat­ing the way they op­er­ate.”

Some peo­ple find your films hard to un­der­stand or in­ac­ces­si­ble. How do you re­spond to this?

But the more im­por­tant thing is you’d want your­self to ap­pre­ci­ate your own work. ( Laughs) So, you must be true to your heart first, and then of course, there will be other peo­ple who will agree or dis­agree. You can­not please every­body.

Even Hol­ly­wood films can’t do that. As such, when you set out to make a per­sonal film, where the struc­ture of fund­ing and the dis­tri­bu­tion strat­egy is dif­fer­ent from Hol­ly­wood movies, I think it would be counter-pro­duc­tive to con­stantly think about what the au­di­ence wants. I have a very bad short-term mem­ory! ( Laughs) I’m not jok­ing! I re­ally need to keep what I re­mem­ber and what I can in­ter­pret out of it. Film is like a time ma­chine, re­ally. I’m also in­ter­ested in sci­ence.

I think many film­mak­ers are in­ter­ested in sci­ence be­cause films are the magic of sci­ence. It’s just light cre­at­ing an op­ti­cal il­lu­sion, and it cre­ates this il­lu­sion of move­ment.

And you start to think of the fun­da­men­tals of an im­age and the af­ter-im­age. And you com­pare them to what’s go­ing on in your mind, another kind of im­age in your mind. So, in­evitably, it

will lead to the is­sue of mem­ory. I think it de­pends. Ceme­tery Of Kings is very story-based. It has a very nar­ra­tive style. But for Trop­i­cal Mal­ady, it’s more of light and feel­ings. So, it de­pends on what kind of mood you want peo­ple to get into.

For me, most of the time, the story is not so im­por­tant, be­cause

Un­cle Boonme the world is full of sto­ries. For film, you op­er­ate dif­fer­ently. Story is just one part of it. There are many things that cre­ate a film – the sounds, the colours, all th­ese things. It’s deal­ing with the sen­sory and also mem­ory. When you read a book, you can stop any time.

But for a film, you fol­low it, very lin­ear ac­tu­ally, but at the same time, you can play around with it and make it non-lin­ear, and make the au­di­ence aware that hey, this is an il­lu­sion, make them feel there is some­thing larger than the film it­self.

Un­cleBoon­meWhoCanRe­cal­lHisPastLives (2010) won cel­e­brated Thai film­maker Apichat­pong Weerasethakul the Palme d’Or, the high­est hon­our at the Cannes In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. (Inset) Weerasethakul says he used to climb a guava tree as a child and what he saw up there still in­spires his cin­e­matic vi­sion.

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