PUSH AND PULL:
AN EXCHANGE WITH APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL BY JAMES QUANDT
Der folgende Text wurde in dem von James Quandt herausgegebenen und bei Filmmuseum Synema Publikationen erschienen Buch über Apichatpong Weerasethakul erstmals publiziert. Die hervorragende Publikation kann hier bestellt werden.
The following text has been edited by James Quandt and first been published at Filmmuseum Synema Publications. The book can be ordered here.
The following exchange took place by e-mail over the last months of 2008, as Apichatpong prepared his latest installation, Primitive, in the village of Nabua, for presentation at Haus der Kunst in Munich and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool. It goes without saying that the tenor of our “conversation” was very unlike our previous one, an hour-long, in-person interview at the 2005 Rotterdam Film Festival: the digital version to the former, analogue one perhaps, with all the artifice that implies. Embarrassingly, my questions often seem longer than Joe’s eloquent answers, but I hope they serve as an extension of the analysis in my essay.
JQ: May Adadol Ingawanij has written about the Bangkok/rural divide in Thailand: “the ideal of inherent rural goodness, morality, and beauty – the rural pastoral – is configured as a limited form of ethical critique of the metropolis [i.e. Bangkok].” Your films fit her generalization to a degree – the rural/urban hospitals in Syndromes and a Century, for instance – but they also resist it. You have told me you prefer being in the country to the big city. How do you feel this Bangkok/rural divide plays out in your work, and do your roots in the northeast influence your cinema?
AW: I think we cannot escape from our childhood years. So I can only speak from the point of view of a hybrid from a small city. Over the years, all cities in Thailand have changed quickly. I find it very stimulating to look at what’s changed and what has not. Now when you grew up in a town that seemed to have only the hospital, school, and cinemas, you noticed the changes. However, Bangkok is interesting in its own way because it too is like small villages put together. No matter how one tries to generalize it as Americanized, the city’s spirit is still rural. It is more complex than to say villages = real Thai, Bangkok = doom. I only know that Thailand will never be like the images it wants to be, either the ultra modern or the place full of traditional values. The whole country is one hybrid animal. A messy animal. Now I prefer places outside Bangkok simply because it is less routine. We have a chance to travel and sleep over. It doesn’t mean the places are less corrupted or more beautiful than what you find in Bangkok.
JQ: Critics rarely write about your work as being political, but I sense an undercurrent of social or political concern/critique in the films. For instance, the character of Min in Blissfully Yours – an illegal immigrant from Burma, probably driven into Thailand because of the oppressive regime and economic distress at home. And I believe that the thief in the final section of the film is from the Karen minority. And your new work, the installation Primitive which is related to your upcoming film of the same name, traces some of the grim history of your country, which few of us westerners know about, for instance the massacre in October 1976 of people protesting against the return of a dictator. On Primitive, you are working with the teenagers of Nabua, a village once occupied by the army during the 1960s–80s to wipe out communism. You tell me that a lot of abuses and murders occurred there, so, as you say, “this new generation is like fruit from a battered tree.” Do you feel your early films are political in any way, and are you moving in a more explicitly political direction? Do you ever see yourself like Jia Zhang-ke in China, who has traced the transformation of his country in the late 20th century/early 21st century, or Hou Hsiao-hsien who probed some forbidden history of Taiwan in such films as City of Sadness?
AW: Coming from a small town, I understand well the discrimination that is prevalent in Thailand. I talked about it in earlier films rather indirectly. It’s almost as if it’s a way of life. But because of the political tensions that occurred in the past few years and several “revelations” in moments I experienced, I find it hard not to reflect on these issues in Primitive. I don’t know if it will be explicitly political. At the moment the project is quite abstract. I think that if one wants to tell a story quite directly, one needs to write a book about it, not make a film.
JQ: Many western critics also tend to treat recent Thai cinema, including your films, as emerging ex nihilo – that is, out of nothing, but there is a long tradition of Thai cinema, melodramas and spectacles, even a kluen luk mai or “new wave” in the early Seventies that very few of us know much about. Do we need to know this history to understand your films, and do you see your work in relation to this tradition, or more in terms of the American influences you have often spoken about – e.g. Warhol and Baillie?
AW: When I re-watched the old Thai films, I found them very inspiring. I realized that they must have influenced me in some ways like those from Baillie and Warhol. It is not scene by scene, but more about the pacing and the “air.” It is hard to explain this space in the old films with direct sunlight and strong shadows. Perhaps it’s my imagination but this space seemed to exist in the past. I don’t know why.
JQ: You frequently mention Buddhist texts or principles as inspiration for your work – for instance, the idea of “Por” or “enough” when you were preparing Syndromes and a Century. Have you become increasingly Buddhist in your beliefs and, if so, what brought about this change? Is Buddhism a key to understanding your art? Speaking of religion or spirituality, I was a bit puzzled by your long quotation at the end of Swan’s Blood from, of all things, the Bible: Matthew 5:38–5:45 about generosity…
AW: Really, Swan’s Blood? Maybe you mean Swan’s Blood’s Japanese version? I gave the script (from memory) of a Thai television programme to two Japanese filmmakers. They each made their own movies… Anyway, I became more interested in Buddhism in 2003 when my father passed away, right before the shooting of Tropical Malady. It is real therapy to read Buddhist texts or listen to some monks talking about this never-ending cycle we are happily in. Buddhism’s point of view is very profound and very simple at the same time, like a good art work. And it is a practice-based religion that doesn’t ask you to believe. However, I have this conflicting feeling because sometimes I think filmmaking contradicts Buddhism. It is not about looking into yourself, but about making an illusion of that process. A monk recently told me that meditation was like filmmaking. He said that when one meditates, one doesn’t need film. As if film was an excess. In a way he’s right. Our brain is the best camera and a projector. If only we can find a way to operate it properly.
JQ: There seems to be a divide in your work between the feature films and the short works and installations. You have worked solely in film (both 16mm and 35mm) for the features, but often resort to digital for the other works. You also prefer long takes in the features, but often use heavier editing and different shots (such
as zooms and superimpositions) in the other work. Is this a conscious or accidental difference between your two fields of endeavour? Do you imagine ever making a feature film in digital?
AW: Those must be unconscious choices I made when confronting different formats. Perhaps I was thinking about the different ways people see the work. I will have to make a digital feature one of these days. I find it quite liberating. But if I can choose, I would stick with 35mm in my own masochistic way. The medium is very demanding when you operate on a low budget.
JQ: Lucrecia Martel recently said in an interview: “Lynch and Apichatpong oblige you to lose your mind.” Several critics have compared your cinema to David Lynch’s, particularly the two parts of Mulholland Drive. Do you see that connection yourself? What contemporary directors do you admire or feel an affinity with? (I think of Martel herself, and the “trance-like” quality of her films, especially The Headless Woman…) Do you know the films of Lisandro Alonso?
AW: I only saw The Headless Woman, which was one of the best films I saw in 2008. I haven’t seen any work by Lisandro Alonso. I remember seeing Mulholland Drive and thinking it was very smooth. Someone told me that it had two parts, but I didn’t see it. For contemporary directors, I love Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr, Almodóvar, M. Night Shyamalan, Guy Maddin, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. These are the names I can think of now.
JQ: The long take has become the hallmark of new Asian cinema; one thinks of Jia, Tsai, Hou. Why do you so often use long-duration shots?
AW: They are not really long for me. When I watch my films during editing, I like the pace like that. But when I watch long takes in others’ films, especially Asian ones, I get impatient! I keep dreaming about other angles. So maybe that’s the trick, to make the audience dream.
JQ: On your schedule for the next year or so is a documentary portrait of my old friend Donald Richie. I can’t imagine your making a conventional portrait film. Do you know how you will approach the project?
AW: I am very excited about this project, about the guy. I heard that he often comes to Thailand. I might shoot the film in Japan and Thailand. I imagine doing something fictional – filming a fictional portrait in one country perhaps.
JQ: You have said that you view your video-making as a kind of therapy. What did you mean exactly?
AW:Film is an excuse, or a medium that lets me communicate with the outside (people and places). I am shy and the camera is a great shield. However filmmaking is an addictive drug. Sometimes I wonder why I keep doing this.
JQ: Dr. Nohng explains why he is the rare male hematologist to Dr. Nant in Syndromes, he says it’s because his sister has alpha thalassemia. Is this another of your autobiographical-medical references?
AW: My sister has thalassemia. I am a carrier.
JQ: There are many kinds of memory in your films – private, communal, cultural. What do you mean by “the burden of memory,” a phrase you have often used?
AW: We have larger and larger computer hard disks to save our photos, our music, our stuff. But do we really need them? Similarly, for me there are innumerous memories that I want to keep, so that it becomes a burden. Sometimes there are indirect memories, like those from books and movies, that keep invading your direct ones.
JQ: Some political questions, one small and maybe stupid, the others larger: Is The Anthem in any way a political film? Given the current situation, with the mass protests shutting down the Bangkok airport, the demonstrations on either side (the yellow shirted anti-government protestors, the red-shirted pro-government supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship), and the recent court ruling against your country’s leader and ruling party… what do you think will happen? Are you participating in the protests at all?
AW: Thailand is really a country of symbols. I think I’m in the right place. I used to participate in the protests, but no more. There’s no real democracy to speak of so I see no point in arguing my political stand. I got away from Bangkok and work at a village in the northeast, with the former communists. That’s more substantial.
JQ: You are an activist, and your films have run into many problems with censorship, which you have long struggled against. Right now there is a sense of revolt against the Thai government (the recent riots), a regime which ironically has support in the countryside but not in the city, and building border tensions with Cambodia. Do you think Thailand will ever become more democratic?
AW: In my life time I don’t think so.