Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul: “Thais have to censor themselves all the time”
Twisty, mysterious, dreamlike Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has long wanted to work with actress Tilda Swinton, who wrote to him after seeing his 2004 film. Tropical disease at the Cannes film festival. But the director could not imagine castering her as an expatriate in a cinema set in Thailand: “I kept thinking about the foreign films that came to shoot here, and they all seemed ridiculous to me,” says Apichatpong in a gallery in Bangkok where it rises. an artistic installation.
At the same time, he is taken to the idea of filming in Colombia, whose lush landscapes and recent memories of violent conflicts remind him of Thailand when he travels there in 2017 to attend the Cartagena Film Festival, before traveling the country with three months of residence. “I was drawn to the people, to the landscape and to this capricious climate,” he says. Apichatpong prefers to shoot his films outdoors, and Bogotá typically offers tropical sunshine, gloomy clouds, and cold showers all in one day.
The movie he made with Swinton, Memory, shot in Bogotá and the Colombian coffee region of Quindio, won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, sharing it with Ahed’s knee by Israeli Nadav Lapid. It was Apichatpong’s fourth victory at Cannes; Uncle Boonmee who can remember his past lives won the Palme d’Or in 2010.
Memory tells the story of Jessica, an Englishwoman in Bogotá who wakes up one morning to the sound of a shattering explosion, but no proof of one. Apichatpong says he was inspired in part by his own attack of “exploding head syndrome”, an illness caused by the stress he suffered on his first visit to Colombia. “It’s not a sound; that’s the meaning of sound, ”he says, adding that he has experienced it every morning for a while. “It wasn’t traumatic; for me it was just curious. I’m just lying there listening to the point that I can control it. “
I asked what it was like filming in foreign languages. Memory, who is in English and Spanish, had two language coaches to work with Swinton and the rest of the cast and the language on set was English, but he acknowledges that it was “hard to try to say what seemed natural and what was not “. . “I just released this whole idea of control and let the team do the work,” he says. “I just liked to watch and focus on Tilda in particular.”
This year is however memorable for Apichatpong for more than its price at Cannes.
Over the summer, Thailand plagued its biggest wave of coronavirus infections in the pandemic and its most severe political and economic crisis in decades. The Covid-19 has disrupted the economy of the kingdom dependent on globalization and emptied its capital megalopolis of visitors. A mass youth-led democracy movement that took to the streets last year resurfaced in 2021 with smaller, angrier and more violent protests attacking the government for its mismanagement of the pandemic and calling for the departure of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
“I feel like we are at a crossroads leading to something very important,” says Apichatpong. “Last year was the first time I felt any hope.” The director openly referred to the Thai crisis in Cannes, when he urged the Thai and Colombian governments to “please wake up and work for your people now”.
Despite Apichatpong’s success abroad and reverence in artistic circles, where people call him Khun (“Mr”) Joe, many Thais have not seen his films. Memory isn’t streaming or in theaters at the moment, and the director has run into Thai censorship, which ordered cuts in his 2006 film Syndromes and a century. It offended conservative sensibilities by showing a monk playing a guitar and another playing with a UFO toy, and two doctors – taken from his parents’ Apichatpong memories – kissing and sharing drinks at work. The director excised these scenes, but left black frames in their place so viewers would know they had been cut. He started a Free Thai Cinema Movement with a group of friends to try to change the law.
“I think Thais have to censor themselves all the time, not only through art but also through life, to survive,” he says. “The system teaches you not to be direct, to maneuver indirectly.”
Apichatpong’s art installation, “A Minor History” at the 100 Tonson Foundation, is typically oblique on the surface but gets straight to the point of Thailand’s political deadlock. He tells me that the work was inspired by a road trip to the Isan region, where he grew up as the son of two Chinese-born doctors. There, he met a local who was part of a team that found a dead body believed to be a political activist in the Mekong River.
In a dark room in the gallery, two screens show images of an abandoned cinema and the flowing river, with a voice recounting a dialogue on a naga (a mythical aquatic creature) who “swallowed a drifting corpse – possibly from Laos”.
The reference is undeniable: in December 2018, the bodies of two Thai anti-monarchist activists who fled to Laos after Prayuth’s coup in 2014 were washed up on the banks of the Mekong, with their hands tied and their stomachs split and stuffed with concrete blocks. The body of Surachai Danwattananusorn, the third and most important missing activist, now presumed dead, has never been found.
The installation, according to the gallery’s notes, “hovers in the realms of reality and dreams” and “is a tribute to political dissidents whose enforced disappearance persists like a myth.” For me, covering Thai reality at a time of convulsive change and growing repression of free speech, the exhibit packs a punch.
Prayuth’s government recently announced an emergency order banning online reports that cause ‘fear’ – even if they are true – after Thais blasted its handling of Covid-19 and shared photos of people dying in the street. A court ruled it unconstitutional, a rare victory for free speech in a country where the ruling camp usually gets what it wants. “This is not about national security, but their own security,” says Apichatpong. “Covid is a testament that they are not going to save us, or do not have the capacity to do so.”
Last year, the Thai youth protest movement used humor, satire, and scathing criticism, and Apitchaptong tells me he joined some of the protests, documenting them on film. Protesters pushed the boundaries of censorship – and exposed themselves to indictment under Thai law, which prohibits lese majesté (“royal insult”) – by criticizing the unchecked powers and considerable wealth of King Maha Vajiralongkorn . They raised questions about the disappearance and murder of exiled Thai activists; protesters also mocked the largely elderly rulers of their country by donning dinosaur outfits.
The regime responded by indicting or imprisoning dozens of people, some of whom are still in detention without bail, under lèse majesté or other Thai laws prohibiting political speech.
Apitchaptong likens Thailand’s current diet to a dying animal that “when it dies will wreak havoc around it.” The image reminds me of the Mekong naga. “It gets agitated, and the body is so big that everything will work its way out of the way of the living,” he said. “This is what is happening: you see a lot of destruction because this big animal is dying.”
Apichatpong is convinced that the old Thai regime will change, but it could take a decade or more. “This older generation with older attitudes will have to go,” he says. “It’s natural, and people have woken up.”
As of February 22, 2022; 100tonsonfoundation.org