By Wise Kwai
Published on April 20, 2010
Gilded in acclaim and eyeing projects with big foreign stars, the experimenter still frets that his formula doesn't work
Set to make his third appearance in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Apichatpong Weerasethakul wonders if he'll ever be able to make another movie the same way.
It's the way we're accustomed to, and it applies to the new feature too - "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives". But he's painted himself into a corner.
Since his first outing in 2000, the 16mm black-and-white experimental documentary "Mysterious Object at Noon", Apichatpong - Joei to his friends - has approached filmmaking as performance art, with elements fluctuating in organic improvisation.
A book written by a monk in Apichatpong's hometown, Khon Kaen, inspired "Past Lives". "He wrote about a guy who came to meditate at the temple, and the guy claimed he could remember his past lives," says the director, who also referenced the book in 2004's "Tropical Malady".
"Boonmee was the starting point, and it just gradually became this kind of movie about how he remembers, but it's only an inspiration, because the other stories I wrote myself."
"Gradually becoming" is part of Apichatpong's process."The film became more of a memory of old cinema," he says. "It's about the feeling of being there and the richness of the narratives, of belief in the region, the mood. So the movie comes out as something very antique. The acting, the lighting, is in a very old style.
"It's also about Isaan, Thailand's changing Northeast.Ç
Fans will recognise some of the cast. His regulars, Jenjira Pongpas and Sakda Kaewbuadee, "witness this guy's life and his vocation and his environment. The film follows them through two days in the provinces."
"Past Lives" is part of the multi-platform art project "Primitive", which focuses on Nabua in Nakhon Phanom, where in 1965 the military cracked down brutally on communists. The art project deals with those memories, and with extinction and transformation.
The cast and crew came across Nabua while driving around Isaan in search of movie locales, "like making film without shooting", as Apichatpong puts it. On the road trips, "we experience it together so that when we make the film or the installation, the inspiration doesn't come from just me but from everyone.
"Nabua stood out because of the history, and especially how the local teenagers live with a political situation of the past and what they're doing now, because some of them are still activists. "I went back with a crew and we spent several months there, just basically hanging out and trying to find what I could do. In the end I thought we should do a building project, so we built a spaceship. It was like a performance."
The egg-shaped wooden "spacecraft" is indeed primitive, but it's taken Apichatpong - and Nabua - to many places.
"Primitive" has so far been exhibited in Munich, Liverpool and Paris, and it might go to Japan and the US.
The seven-part installation presents various scenarios. One is a music video with Moderndog. There are two short films: "A Letter to Uncle Boonmee", which has won awards in Germany and the US, and the spectral "Phantoms of Nabua", which won Apichatpong the first Asia Art Award two weeks ago in South Korea.
"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" ranges further afield, though it still has links to Nabua.
"It echoes other works in the 'Primitive' installation, which is about this land in Isaan with a brutal history. But I'm not making a political film - it's more like a personal diary.
"Next month it's taking him back to Cannes, where his 2002 film "Blissfully Yours" won the Un Certain Regard competition and "Tropical Malady" won the main-competition jury prize in 2004, and where he served on the Palme d'Or jury in 2008. He's looking forward to returning, particularly because he'll get to see his movie via "one of the best projection and sound systems on this planet".
Though lauded elsewhere, Apichatpong remains controversial in Thailand. His 2006 feature "Syndromes and a Century" was censored, and when it was finally shown commercially after two years, he'd replaced the missing chunks with silent, black frames.
He says he won't give the censors another look at "Syndromes", despite the new ratings system that might allow it to be shown uncut.
"Why do that? To pay them to watch the film and get the stamp, just to find out - I don't think it's worth it, to have these people judge, because in the end I don't think I'm going to show it anyway. I think it's more practical to just move on and submit the new one and see what happens.
"While some authorities frown on Apichatpong, others want to support him. He says he stands to receive Bt3.5 million from the government's Thai Khem Kaeng (Strong Thailand) "creative economy" initiative. But that too has been controversial because half of the Bt200-million film fund is going to veteran director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol for "The Legend of King Naresuan 3".
Apichatpong and other independent filmmakers have cried foul, saying smaller projects by younger talents are more deserving."Even though I've been listed as one of the recipients, I want to see an independent party investigate the whole procedure," he says, adding that he won't accept the funding otherwise.
Meanwhile Apichatpong's star continues to rise. The Toronto Cinematheque and other list-makers last year named "Syndromes and a Century" the best film of the decade. "Tropical Malady" and "Blissfully Yours" also made the lists. Greece's Thessaloniki International Film Festival seeks to celebrate him with a complete retrospective.
But fame actually makes it harder for him to make the kind of movies he wants to make."People think it gets easier for me, but sometimes it's even more difficult, because when you ask for a grant they go, 'Oh, but you're already well known and there are younger filmmakers that really need support'.
"Apichatpong will be 40 in July. "Hey, I really need the support too! I do the art stuff to support myself. When I make film I get into debt. It's hard to balance.
"Already adept at working with many producers - "Past Lives" involved production companies in France, Britain, Spain and Germany - he's looking at doing co-productions with the backing of major stars, among them Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton and Italian-French actress Chiara Mastroianni. His next project is a documentary about the eminent Japanologist and cinema expert Donald Richie.
There's also something about "water", specifically the ocean and the Mekong. "I'm really interested in the situation about the Mekong drying up and flooding," he says. Above all, Apichatpong says he wants to keep taking on challenges and encouraging younger filmmakers "to present the reality".
"Which I haven't done either, I mean seriously," he admits. "But I think it's at the point where you question yourself as a filmmaker. When you see filmmakers in their late 40s, 50s, 60s and they're still doing stupid comedies ... I don't want to be like that.
"I think 'Boonmee' will be the last film I can do like this. I think it's good because it really summarises everything. The memories of the old movies ... it's time to move on to the other movies."