Magic and memory: Matt Sussman chats with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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Whereas David Lynch at times utilizes all the excesses of a bad rock video to give form to the dream logic of his films, Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul creates quietly evocative cinematic reveries. Paced to the unhurried rhythms of their character's lives and structured around the landscapes (frequently, the verdantly green jungles of his native Thailand) in which they unfold, Apichatpong's films invite introspective contemplation as much as they have puzzled many an audience and critic. His elliptical narratives, shot through with moments of sharp humor and unexpected beauty, are imbued with a sense of openness, a kind of responsive flexibility that allows their course to be redirected by other forces: a song, memories, folktales. These last two items, in particular, kept coming up as Apichatpong discussed his latest feature Syndromes and a Century (a twice told tale loosely based on how his parents met, showing April 13-15 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), his love of American disaster movies, and the magical potential of film. (Matt Sussman)

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul and actor Sakda Kaewbuadee accepting the Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival

Guardian: You are doing a scene by scene breakdown of Tropical Malady at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive. How do you feel about that kind of engagement with your film?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I'm not sure. I'm excited about it, because it's a film that's quite difficult to explain. One part of my mind thinks that it's not good to talk about this film because it's very open to interpretation, but another part thinks that it's a very nice way to get the audience's feedback. And I may learn that we can also maybe adapt [the format] and do similar events in Thailand, where very few people relate to my films.

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Syndromes and a Century

G: You have mentioned in previous interviews your frustrations with the Thai film industry, and Kick the Machine [Apichatpong's own production company] was started up in response to that. Do you think conditions have improved over the past few years?
AW: Yes, in a way, there's a new kind of audience—mostly working people and students who are getting more into what I do and what other young video makers are trying to do. I'm getting a wider audience, but still it's never enough.

G: Have you found that Thai audiences have been receptive to some of the other national Asian cinemas that are booming right now, such as Korea or Japan?
AW: Definitely Korean films, but not so much Japanese ones. The Koreans have infiltrated everything—television, music and movies. The new Korean youth culture has really influenced [Thai] pop culture. Part of it has to do with fact that the Korean Film Commission is very strong. But we don't have an organization like that in Thailand.

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Syndromes and a Century

G: To go back to Tropical Malady, you often incorporate elements of folk tales or other modes of story telling into your films, such as the tale about the lake filled with gold that's in both that film and Blissfully Yours. What is your attraction to these different ways of telling stories and what's their place in your films?
AW: They are stories which I either heard growing up or from people on while on location. Lots of the stories are in my sketchbook, that I record when I travel. These kinds of things are like accumulations of memories. I think that in Thailand, and even in Bangkok, we still have the same belief in and same fascination with folktales.

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Syndromes and a Century

G: Folktales have a kind of flexibility, too: the same elements may carry across many variations. I sort of saw that structure going on in Syndromes and a Century where you have the two parallel tales set in different time periods, and you reencounter events and conversations that occurred earlier, but the setting is now different and the camera angles have shifted. Do you feel like there's ever a fixed position from which to tell a story?
AW: I think the film is about memory and how it's always defective. This was why I couldn't make a biographic film about my parents. It has to be from me. During the course of making [Syndromes] I had a memory of making other films, I wrote down many things the actors told me about their lives and what happened at the locations, and sometimes I tried to simulate the pattern [of] how we remember. Sometimes when we really like something we remember very vividly, and sometimes we repeat certain things with a certain focus. I like the idea of repetition and recycling. In Syndromes there is a recycling of the script from Tropical Malady, so it's a recycled movie [laughs] and is about filmmaking as well.

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Faith

G: Last year you did an installation piece, Faith, for the Liverpool Biennial. What was it like working in a medium that is similar to film but has its own parameters?
AW: Other video work I've done has been more immediate. But for Liverpool we tried to have the film look a certain way by using a high definition camera and by setting up the film as if it was going to be shown in a cinema theater. The concept was that I try to remember the two guys [the "main characters"], but the memory is fading, so I have tried to preserve them in my own context, in this never ending space above the clouds [note: The piece's Thai title translates to "above the clouds"].

G: I have only seen film stills from Faith but the aesthetic seems very different from your other work. All the pristine white interiors and space gear kind of reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
AW: [Laughs] Well, for the video installations there are many techniques and many styles that I use.

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Faith

G: Do you feel like there's less pressure working with video, and that you can try out new things?
AW: Video opens more space for trying things with differently. There's no length restriction. Anyway, [video's] different but it relates back to channeling certain feelings through moving images.

G: So many of your films pay attention to landscape -- it seems that where the film takes place is given as much attention as what's happening with the characters. Does landscape shape the film or do you have certain locations already in mind?
AW: It depends. Sometimes I just sketch what I want and I go location hunting. But many times when I see the location I change the story to fit that place. Or sometimes a situation [in the story] will change as well. For example, in the hospital [in Syndromes] there are men and women running down the halls. I first saw them in the hospital where we were filming, but of course there were not as many [as in the film].
The same applies to actors and actresses, when I talk to them. As I said before [making movies] is not about making a biography but more like a diary of filmmaking. I have a very intuitive way of working, that's open, which is possible probably because I have a generous producer [laughs] who is very open to my ideas and suggestions.

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Syndromes and a Century

G: What sort of movies did you watch growing up?
AW: In the 1970s I watched a lot of old Thai films and a lot of American films. At that time there were all the catastrophe movies like Earthquake or Towering Inferno. I love those films! And then there were [the] Spielberg and Lucas films. I was really into their special effects.

G: The pacing of your films creates a really immersive experience. How do you develop a rhythm for your films?
AW: It's hard to say. Some people say [my films] are long, some people say they're short, but when I decide the length of the shot it never feels long. It's a matter of working with my editor, who has been working with me since my first film. We understand each other very well. It's really amazing how I learned from him that length can kind of shape certain emotions even though the image is the same.

G: What are you currently working on?
AW: I'm working on a film called Unknown Forces. It's going to be the first work of mine to talk about politics in Thailand. I'm also working on a possible collaboration with another Thai director [Yuthlert Sippapak]. This director is one of the most commercial directors in Thailand. His movies are not that well known in the West, and he produces a lot of junk [laughs], but it's junk in a good way. I like his stuff a lot. Because we have such opposite ways of filmmaking I proposed that we should do a movie together.

G: Do you think you two can find a middle ground between your styles?
AW: Yes, we are actually going to make two movies. Because we are from the Northeast of Thailand, which is close to Laos, where the country is divided by the Mekong River, we are each going to be in a different country and we are going to make two movies with the same characters crossing borders.

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Syndromes and a Century

G: At least in your case, it sounds like there's more collaboration and dialogue going on in the industry and you are less isolated. Is there anything in the works at Kick the Machine?
AW: We are developing another film very slowly. It's being done by a young filmmaker who has only done video work, but all of it is very strong and very personal. So now he is developing this script for this film based on a popular magazine in which people write out their love stories. In Thailand it's still popular for the working class people to have their stories published [in this magazine]. So we want to adapt this into a movie.

G: I read in an interview that you did with the website Criticine that you said movies are a form of black magic. I was really taken with that quote. I wondered if you could perhaps build on that sentiment.

AW: I don't know if there's a message there. But for me, the power of film is not just to hypnotize, but also it's a kind of magic for living as well. I have to be able to express as a filmmaker, otherwise it's very hard to share my ideas or feelings. [Film's] like medicine, but it's not (laughs). So maybe that’s a way in which there is some magic going on.

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