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“When you believe in something, it is no longer fiction,” says Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai film-maker.
I believed him when he said it. Any artist is persuasive when talking to you on a Cannes terrace, with head backlit, halo-like, by the Mediterranean sun. But what followed in that interview seemed like fiction, even fantasy. The next day, Weerasethakul won the 2010 Golden Palm for the film we had been talking about — the first Thai feature to do so.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was an unlikely choice by the jury, even though the director is regarded as the most imaginative, even visionary, in Southeast Asia.
The film’s six tales hop between times and dimensions, from fact to folklore. A scene about a dying man based on the director’s father moves to a fairytale princess romancing a catfish by a waterfall. They are linked mainly by the quasi-mystical theme central to all Weerasethakul’s work: the belief that “everything connects”. Time, space, race, creed, nationality and other notional dividers have no power to separate humanity in an ultimate or ideal reality.
Weerasethakul is a film-maker of modern-day Thailand who honours the art, history and magic of the country’s past. From the ancient riches of Siamese fables to the popular films he grew up with — B-adventure and horror films — and on to the real and enduring dramas: the political conflicts that have long divided his country while also defining it.
He grew up aware of these divides. Born in Bangkok, he spent his childhood in remote north-east Thailand, near the Laos border. The region is dense with contradictions: it is the home of the rebel red-shirt movements, but has been scarred by communism’s costly incursions. It is also an area where poverty’s harsh reality mixes with folklore and superstition.
“Before Siam became Thailand,” he says, “the country had many communities, tribes, and the north-east has more the influence of Laos and Cambodia.” (The region’s southern border is less than 100 miles from Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world). “It’s a very animistic society, more Hindu. More about sorcery, witchcraft, enchantment.”
Weerasethakul loves that otherworldliness, embracing the macabre, the mystical, the magical — even when expressed in populist storytelling. Unexpectedly for an artist thought to be far out on an avant-garde limb, he answers a question about favourite cinema with Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “When I was growing up, [Spielberg’s] films were a turning point. Cinema culture came alive again, for me and many friends. It was later that I discovered experimental and independent cinema.”
Popular Thai cinema, in the director’s boyhood, was a kind of Bollywood-east, or Bollywood-lite. These were action adventures, love stories, ghost stories, even eastern Westerns. The biggest Thai hit of recent decades before Weerasethakul was Tears of the Black Tiger (2000). A colourful, rumbustious spoof of mid-20th century Thai cinema, a blend of Western and romance, the film became a global success. Its director, Wisit Sasanatieng, says it owed its charm and power to innocence.
“Most Thai directors, including me, never went to film school,” he says. They weren’t concerned with grammar or rules. That’s why Thai cinema has no standard style.”
Weerasethakul, meanwhile, did attend film school, graduating with a masters degree in film-making from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But in his way he is as militant an innocent as Sasanatieng; maybe more so. He goes beyond remixing popular Thai films. In some films he takes rule-breaking further, a style some call the New Primitivism.
His 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century, has a fragmented, episodic, quasi-autobiographical plot and is set in a hospital. Doctors are seen kissing, drinking — being “un-doctorly”. Monks are un-monk-like, as they play guitar, throw frisbees, and even in one scene admit to having gay feelings. Because Weerasethakul refused to make cuts, the film has never been shown in Thailand.
“Censorship can be bad,” he says. “The government bans books, movies. Even abroad if you say something bad against the government you can be put in jail.”
Yet Weerasethakul’s works include The Adventure of Iron Pussy (2003), a co-directed commercial hit with a gay storyline. The censors happily gave the film the green light. Transsexual spy comedy? No problem. It is only when themes of gender and sexuality stray into the serious that the hackles of authority rise.
“Thailand is supposed to be very open about gayness,” says the director, gay himself. “And in the media they are presented as flamboyant, comical characters. But practically and legally, the west is far more open. In Thailand, when you actually try to live together, it becomes impossible.”
Being gay is part of Weerasethakul’s rainbow vision for a whole existence. “For me the word ‘queer’ means ‘anything is possible’”, he explains. That vision is central to his cinema. He is the Thai that binds.
As an artist he combines diverse, incongruous, even adversarial elements. His most acclaimed film before Uncle Boonmee was Tropical Malady (2004). The first Thai feature shown in the Cannes competition, where it won the Jury prize, it is a work of two halves, surreally juxtaposed: a gay village romance followed by a dreamlike jungle fantasy (even the credit titles show in the middle of the film).
Cemetery of Splendour (2015), Weerasethakul’s latest film, has a plot straight out of a sci-fi film. Hospitalised soldiers suffering from a sleeping sickness are treated with pulsing fluorescent tubes that stand by their beds changing colour (note the rainbow theme again).
What are people waiting for in this film?, Weerasethakul was asked at Cannes. “They are waiting to wake up,” he answered. He implies that Thailand’s sleeping state is the response of a nation to military autocracy. But sleep is accompanied by dreams, which may point to the better world you want.
Politics is rarely far away in the solipsistic universe of Weerasethakul’s cinema.
“So many people in this area want to forget the past. They want to forget the killing, the raping, the wars. You cannot forget. You must not forget. I think of film as a diary. I make films because I want to re-encounter and re-experience the past. Cinema is remembering. It is a time machine. I want to explore the innards of that time machine.”