Film Show 011: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
An interview with director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose new film 'Memoria' won the Jury Prize at the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival
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Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an independent Thai filmmaker whose works conjure a hypnotic state between waking life and dream states, bridging the everyday and mythical into surreal portraits of life and history, mortality and memory, sex and violence and nature and intimacy. His films have won numerous awards, including the Palme d’Or for 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. His most recent film, Memoria, stars Tilda Swinton and is the first to be shot completely outside of Thailand. It premiered at the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize. It also screened at FID Marseille, where Weerasethakul received the Grand prix d’honneur and a retrospective of his films were shown. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Weerasethakul on July 22nd, 2021 at the Mercure Marseille Centre Vieux Port Hotel, discussing exploding head syndrome, Weerasethakul’s childhood, and being skeptical.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello!
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Hi! How are you?
I’m good, how has your day been?
It’s been good. Are you based in the United States?
Yes, I’m from Chicago.
(in disbelief) No, really?
Yeah! And I know you went to SAIC [School of the Art Institute of Chicago]. How was that for you?
It was a really immersive experience. Just being in Chicago, I wouldn’t really travel anywhere else and just watch a lot of films. So Chicago, as a city, is really close to me for the cinema experience.
What was your favorite theater?
The Music Box, for sure. It’s still there, right?
It was the Music Box and also the Film Center. When I was there it was behind the Art Institute; it was not the Gene Siskel Film Center at the time.
Is there anything specifically about Chicago that you miss at all, that you wish you could experience today?
Let me think (pauses). No, I don’t think so. It was a good time… I filled my senses, my senses were opening up. The idea of just living there and jogging along the lakeshore, seeing a film in the evening—most evenings, because I worked at the Film Center—it was just so nice. It was like living in a village for me.
It’s so nice to have a routine like that. I wanted to tell you that I didn’t read anything about Memoria before I went into it, and I was shocked to see that the film involved “exploding head syndrome,” as I’ve had that before.
Did you see the film here [at FID Marseille] or in Cannes?
I saw it here. I was surprised because I’ve never really talked about it with other people, or know many people who’ve experienced it.
Do you still have it?
Not anymore, no. I read that you had it, too. Do you mind talking about your experiences with it, and how that ended up as part of the film?
As you know, it’s quite an experience, no? It’s an internal experience… it’s not a sound, it’s an idea of a sound—it’s in your head. And the echo there feels like what Jessica [Memoria’s lead character, played by Tilda Swinton] tries to explain. It’s this metallic feeling. For me, it’s more like a rubber band stretching and snapping on a drum or something. At one point, I started to see or experience geometric forms, but it was not for long and not that often—not enough to see a circle or square, or the idea of them. Did you experience that?
I didn’t see anything, it was only aural. And the sounds were very similar to the sounds that Jessica hears in the film—just this extremely loud and resonant bang. I’m pretty sure I was experiencing this because of my anxiety, and that coupled with my terrible sleep schedule led to hearing it a lot.
For me I would hear it in the early morning, was it the same for you?
Yeah, usually. It would be early in the morning or late at night, because I’d usually be sleeping and then wake up from it.
For me, it wasn’t jumpy, like for Jessica; I knew it was coming. It doesn’t make me anxious or have to jump out of bed. The film is just inspired from that symptom and I tried to integrate it into this idea of reconnection, of trying to understand and accept yourself. Jessica is in a period of grief and I think I was too, in that moment.
It was almost like, when I was grieving, I tried to reach out to people—in Colombia, where I traveled—to hear their stories… so I could forget my own stories. I listened to a lot of traumas and I visited hospitals, especially mental hospitals. I tried to bury my own traumas, but as in the movie, it’s impossible: you have to confront them.
What made you eventually face those traumas?
There are multiple things, but it was about love for me. I went to a film festival in Cartagena and festivals started to do retrospectives of my films—not just in Cartagena, but at other film festivals too. From one angle it’s a celebration, and from another it feels like a funeral. You feel that, and I feel the heaviness of aging. I felt the hopelessness of Thailand until now, when young people were rising up in the streets last year. It’s not grieving in a negative way, it was about accepting the transformation, about coming to the end of something, of life and love.
Memoria was quite abstract. We shot a lot, actually, and we cut a lot out of the so-called “narrative” or “explanation” and left a lot up to the audience. I wanted to respect the audience’s freedom and let their own solitude synchronize with Jessica, with Bogotá, with the clouds.
It’s interesting hearing about this idea of transformation. You were born in Bangkok, right?
Yes, but I grew up in Khon Kaen.
In the Isan region?
Yes, the Isan region.
I’m wondering then, what sort of person were you as a child? What sort of memories come to mind when you think about growing up in Khon Kaen?
I was a shy kid… and still am. I was attracted to animals and I’m really into solitude, which means that I only have close friends. I don’t like to join groups. I don’t like logic and mathematics, but I love science. I love biology—it’s magic. I had the best art teacher when I was young.
This is random but I’m a high school science teacher for my main job, I teach biology and chemistry.
No, really? That’s crazy. I think science is so beautiful. I’m into science but I’m also into spiritual things. As a kid I was really into ghost stories and these things that are non-science (laughter).
What’s your favorite ghost story that you heard when you were a kid?
It’s this ghost that, how you say… its feet were flipped. They were backward, so when the ghost is walking, it looks like it’s walking away from you but it’s actually walking to you. It’s a bit creepy (laughter).
You said you had a really good art teacher. What sort of things did you like about your teacher? What sort of things did they teach?
He gave us a sense of freedom. It was one of those classes where we could lie on the floor and draw whatever. There was no right or wrong, which is why I liked it. In the Thailand system, it’s pretty strict and conservative, so there were teachers with rods who were whipping you. When I look back, it was pretty traumatic. And it’s surprising to learn that there are teachers now who still do it. I still remember doing this [stretches out both arms, palms down, and then uses one hand to strike the other]. It was very traumatic.
Were your parents also conservative? Were they into art?
They were pretty liberal for their time, but now, judging from the current standard, they’re quite conservative. From my memory they were pretty open-minded and back then, for that small town, it was always the case that parents chose the future profession of their kids, but my parents were open. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now but it was back then. Even though I was small, I knew that even though they were busy, they cared. Because we grew up in a hospital house [Editor’s note: Weerasethakul’s parents were doctors at Khon Kaen Hospital and the family lived in a doctors’ residence], at maybe 2 o’clock in the morning, there’d be a knock at the door and my parents would have to go to the hospital. They were really dedicated doctors. As a result, they didn’t have much time for us kids, but they tried to, at least once a year, take us all on holiday.
And obviously you’ve been around the world to a lot of places. Is there something you feel like you’ve learned and have taken away from all your travels?
I just learned that people are really similar. We share the same anxieties, the same happiness. When you share a film that’s really personal and it manages to touch people, it’s moving to hear from someone approaching me from a village in Peru say, “Oh, your film meant this and that to me.” It breaks the barriers of language and culture. It’s a bit cliché but when I experience this firsthand it’s very moving.
I read an interview recently where you said it’s important to not completely tie your identity to film. What sort of things define you outside of film?
That’s my problem—I’m really tied to film (laughter). To be an artist or filmmaker is really addictive, but also dangerous.
Dangerous, how so?
When you tie your identity to something like that, in the future when you’re no longer able to make film or art, you suffer. Your self-worth is in making films but then it’s gone, so you’re depressed because of that. It’s dangerous. But hmm… I don’t know what else I can do.
Is there anything you’d like to explore if you had the time?
Wow, good question. I’ve never thought about this. I like to be around dogs. Maybe I’d like to work at a shelter. I want to do something that helps people.
Is helping people the most important thing to you?
Mm… helping people close to me, who are part of my cluster. I cannot be a hero or an activist. The urge is like that because the country is plunging. For someone like me who has a semi-platform or voice, I should do things like call out the dictator but sometimes it’s really out of my comfort zone. And then people say, “Why not?” It’s really hard to live in Thailand, but also everywhere too, just with everyone’s expectations of you.
What’s your relationship with Thailand now given that you have a platform and are somewhat well known, and you feel this pressure? I’m also thinking about how you grew up there and have known the country for decades.
I was just talking about this yesterday with my friends, about the best place to live or die. It’s really hard to get out of Thailand because of all the memories, and the people there are so beautiful. I feel that I’m part of this group of people who suffered together through this dictatorship, through propaganda, and at this moment now we’re starting to wake up and feel a sense of confronting this hopelessness, of confronting these guys with guns and tanks. There’s a sense of needing to be there with your friends, but at the same time, in reality, you know that when you get older and you demand healthcare, it’s not going to be there. This country is only for the ultra rich. So for me, I’m saving money just to pay for my hospital bills (laughs) because the government doesn’t take care of you. That’s what it’s like to live in Thailand.
Also, I feel like there’s no place in the world that can really satisfy anyone. At Cannes, when Memoria was so well-received, there was a split-second where I thought, what if this film got the Palme d’Or? It was just this small feeling. And I was like, why did I think that? It’s this addiction. It’s like, hey, you already got the Palme. I felt like a person could never be happy in life. The richest man in the world can’t be happy because he’ll always be thinking, what if I have more? You’ll never get enough. It’s human nature to always want more. That’s quite a deceptive way we harm ourselves. Living in Thailand is hard, but living in the States or France, you’ll find something to harm yourself anyway, because you’ll always want more, you’ll always demand more for yourself.
For you, what is something that does make you happy then?
It’s just now. It’s a basic principle of, I think, Buddhism—being aware and content with the now.
I know you mentioned how you have a close group of friends. Do you mind talking about one of the people you’re close with and why you love them? Like, what’s something about them or something they do that you appreciate?
This one guy, we talk about everything: our love life, our sexual life, politics, everything. He is… how do you say this in English… a drughead? He’s into experimenting with all kinds of substances and he shares his experiences with me. Sometimes he shares with me his concoctions, and we enjoy so much our company. And he’s so funny. He just makes me loosen up.
It’s really nice that you have someone like that.
It’s really valuable to share that… it’s almost like you’re talking with yourself.
Before the screening, you shared that the film was “17 years in the making.” What did you mean by that?
It was the first time Tilda discovered Tropical Malady. She wrote about it and she got in touch. It’s been a long communication.
What was it like working with her?
She’s such a strong person—she’s fearless. She’s also really funny. I’m really comfortable being with her. We don’t really talk much but when I’m with her, I just feel very safe. I also feel a shared love of cinema—she has a lot more cinema references in her head than me. For this film she opened up to everything I wanted to try and then she slowly gave me Jessica. And that is the most precious thing, when you think about how a person of her status and schedule just threw everything out the window and just stayed with me in Colombia for a long time.
I know you were in Colombia for a while prior to making the film. Do you mind talking about this period of time?
For Tilda, I think it was internal. For me, I think it was a mixture of internal and trying to synchronize with not just Tilda but also the crew. It’s a team effort. Also, the weather of Colombia is so temperamental. It was a lot about dealing with the weather.
I heard that Jessica was named after Jessica Holland from Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie. How did that come about?
Jessica was already in my past film, Cemetery of Splendour, at least in terms of the floatiness of it, with this character who was awakened by the sound of drums. I didn’t use that feeling and then when I was developing Memoria, Jessica Holland was really fitting, and the fact that she’s white and being called by this Indigenous group of people… there was something about colonialism and everything that this ghost woman reflected of that environment. So I was thinking about that film but I didn’t initially think of using the name Jessica—it was initially a different name. And then I thought, oh, why not.
How do you think you would’ve made Memoria 17 years ago? I guess another way to phrase this is, how do you feel you’ve grown in the past 20 years?
When I look back at films like Tropical Malady or Blissfully Yours, there’s already a sense of solitude there. I even think that I was much slower during that time in terms of technique. With Memoria, it was just continuing down this path. I will say that there was more about acceptance with this film, acceptance about filmmaking. If I was younger, I don’t think I could have worked as well with the crew members in Colombia and maybe with Tilda too. With this film I was more relaxed and trusted the team.
Sound has always been a big part of your films, and you had the Metaphors compilation album too. Memoria in particular feels especially focused on sound design. I wanted to ask, do you have a favorite spot in the world to be in, in terms of the nature and sounds you can hear?
Oh, wow (pauses). I’m just thinking of my home (laughs). I’m so lucky to have so many trees and dogs and crickets. With the pandemic I felt so aware of the changing of the seasons, and there’s an orchestration of insects at night. The frogs and toads at night… hundreds of them. The awareness of other animals like snakes, because they come for the frogs. And then there’s the occasional dog barking (laughter).
Is that something you regularly do? Just sit and listen to sounds?
Do you feel like your time doing that has influenced the way you make films?
I think so. I try to heighten these feelings with the sound designer. Film is about manipulation, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s about bringing out a certain sense of awareness.
I know that you said you wanted to make your next film in Mexico.
I would say Latin America in general, yes. I’m so hopeless with Spanish and I need to be there to learn. When I was in Colombia, I was just so focused on the film. I was communicating and wrote everything in English, and that wasn’t helping with Spanish.
Are there specific themes or ideas you want to explore?
A spiritual journey. It’s not Memoria but it’s about this questioning… (pauses). Ah, it’s too early to tell. I have something in mind but I shouldn’t disclose it.
That’s fine! Jia Zhangke was the producer for Memoria, what do you feel like you’ve learned from your relationship with him?
There was this freedom that he gave me, even with the editing. It’s not that there were no comments, but he and other people were very… protective, let’s say.
He gave you this permission to be free, and that sort of permission will always change your whole mindset. It’s similar to what you were saying earlier about your art teacher.
Exactly, right. I never thought of that but yes.
I did want to end with a question I always ask everyone I interview: What’s one thing you love about yourself?
There’s so many things I could say (laughter). Maybe my skepticism.
Why do you love that?
It’s just so fitting to live in Thailand with this mindset. You’re so surrounded by different kinds of beliefs, which affect you in everything: politics, health, your way of living. To be a skeptic is something that can ground you, to make sure you don’t go with the flow. I’m a skeptic in nature… but is it contradictory to say that I’m also not a confident person? I accept that, and I think being unconfident is beautiful too. With filmmaking, for example, I ask everyone. Even with the poster, I ask, “Is it good?” It’s about synchronization with people and allowing people’s opinions to pass through you. It’s about being more light.
Wow, I love that. I’ve never really heard anyone say that not being confident is a good thing. But it makes sense because for you it’s paired with a willingness to ask for help. I feel like a lot of people who aren’t confident are afraid to do that.
Right. It’s also tied with my desire to reduce my sense of self, which is really hard when we talk about how to get rid of this thing of “being a filmmaker.” When you really loosen that, you have less of an opinion of yourself. It’s a really peculiar feeling, no?
More information about Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria can be found at the NEON website. More information about Weerasethakul can be found at the Kick the Machine website. A book chronicling the making of Memoria is available via Fireflies Press.
Thank you for reading the eleventh issue of Film Show. Let’s all be a bit more light.
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