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A Shape-Shifting Cinema: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Discusses His Entire Filmography

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist May 22, 2011 at 3:37AM

As part of the New Museum's exhibition of his latest installation project "Primitive" and his month-long residency, Thai filmmaker, visual artist and last year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul held a four hour tour of his oeuvre (the museum hosts referring to it as a "master class"), beginning with his his more well-known feature work before revealing brief snippets of his installation-only short films (including those found in his current exhibit). He shared many personal tidbits in relation to each work, describing (though not too specifically) what he hoped to achieve with his camera and spicing up each presentation with a humorous aside here and there.
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As part of the New Museum's exhibition of his latest installation project "Primitive" and his month-long residency, Thai filmmaker, visual artist and last year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul held a four hour tour of his oeuvre (the museum hosts referring to it as a "master class"), beginning with his his more well-known feature work before revealing brief snippets of his installation-only short films (including those found in his current exhibit). He shared many personal tidbits in relation to each work, describing (though not too specifically) what he hoped to achieve with his camera and spicing up each presentation with a humorous aside here and there.

"Mysterious Object At Noon" seemed like the most appropriate place to start; the director's first long-form film was created after his time at the Art Institute of Chicago. "When I went back to Thailand, I realized it had a lot to offer. I was really inspired by American and European film, but I cannot express myself in landscape that I did not grow up in," explaining the return to his homeland. "So I started a film which unintentionally became my first feature film." Inspired by a painting he saw in which various collaborators continued from where the preceding artist left off (a practice titled "exquisite corpse"), Joe traveled the country side and asked various locals to build on a tale about a handicapped boy and his teacher. Later on, he hired actors and directed the "fiction" part, enjoying the differing blend of documentary and narrative. "I was influenced by the Iranian cinema at that time, in terms of the line between fact and fiction," noted Apichatpong. "You can see Kiarostami and Makmahlbaf always doing that. New Taiwanese cinema was also very influential." Since there was no independent cinema in his country at the time, people were very excited to be contributing to the magic of film, and Joe captured this joy very eloquently. One woman, an elderly country bumpkin, giggles and talks a mile a minute to the camera. "And she was very drunk," he joked.

Some time after "Mysterious Object" came the short "Haunted Houses," a video piece that had the director taking a script from a popular soap opera. Everything remained the same - story beats, camera angles, music -- but the talent was comprised of non-acting villagers. "They were all very addicted to soap operas, so it was like switching the role of the viewer to become a star. When they watch TV at night they always project themselves onto the beautiful people in Bangkok, but now they have the task of being stars themselves so it's kind of awkward, they realize it's not that easy." Every scene would take place in a new house with new actors, but the characters and story would continue from where each left off. Apichatpong was so taken by this experiment that he repeated it for short "Fresh Blood," though he would pass off directing duties to a Japanese director and only take the scripting duties

Joe could not be kept from a more traditional (well, so-to-speak) film, and his next feature "Blissfully Yours" was born. "I like making cinema as a dialogue. In 2002 there were a lot of historical epics, most of them about the conflict between Thailand and Burma. They were always very nationalistic and propaganda in nature, and I made "Blissfully Yours" in reaction to that." His sophomore feature centers on a couple - the Burmese Min and the overworked native Roong -- as they retreat to the woods and make love. Along with them is Om, an older woman who longs for a similar passion. "Blissfully" is the beginning of many Apichatpong constants -- his admiration of nature (specifically the jungle/woods areas), examination of medicine, unabashed looks at sex, patiently observant long takes, and what eventually became his regular batch of actors. "Jenjira (Jansuda/Pongpas) was as an agent for extras, and she always put her picture at the bottom. So I would get these resumes and I'd say… oh, there's that picture again! I asked her if she would try acting, and during this time I fell in love with everyone; the actors, the crew, and we started our little filmmaking family."

"Before "Tropical Malady" I made one trash movie." This was the cryptic way he introduced "The Adventures of Iron Pussy," a severe but amusing departure for the art-house auteur that he co-directed with fellow Thai Michael Shaowanasai. "Iron Pussy" apes old serials and melodramas produced in the 1970s, serving as both an homage and parody. Shaowanasai plays the titular character, who by day is a gay 7-11 clerk and by night is a transvestite secret agent. "I proposed to send the character back in time to the old cinema and soap opera landscape, because a woman back then was not supposed to kick ass. They were supposed to be very reserved and had to be pretty all the time," he elaborated, "She was confined by the rules of old cinema." Still, those expecting another second-coming on celluloid will be nothing short of let-down. "I didn't have time to analyze, we shot only ten days and I couldn't figure out character motivation, etc. It was like the old days when you had a movie star and they worked on 2 or 3 films at one time. We had to rush and the movie shows that. People ask me why I made such a trash film, but I think it went along with my interest with the Thai media and such, so it's pretty relevant for me." Those hankering for a good time and able to properly lower their expectations will find a lot to love; though in all honesty it may just be for completists.

Aside from "Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall Past Lives," the Thai director's third feature "Tropical Malady" seems to be the one that most can get behind. While originally booed at Cannes, it won the Jury Prize and went on to receive positive reviews post-festival. Split into two parts, the first follows a story about two homosexual lovers and the second about a soldier on the hunt for a tiger shaman (the soldier and spirit played by the two lovers from the former section). By combining a straight-forward narrative rooted in realism and following it with a highly metaphorical and spiritual successor, Apichatpong deeply analyzes the various facets of a relationship beginning and ending, starting on the surface of things and then burrowing deep within the human psyche and soul. This project was also, unsurprisingly, a very personal one for the director, who found himself uneasy during the production. "It was super difficult to make because of the budget and because it was a personal story that I was channeling. It also started when my father passed away, he died only a week before we started the movie but I decided to continue. I really became a monster on set, it put me such extreme emotions that I lashed at all of my crew members. I think if I didn't do that the film wouldn't have this raw energy…" he playfully jabbed, "But now we joke about it. It was like I was a different person."

For some of us, our haunted past as a teenager and slandering bands for making a bit of money with the dire term "sell-out" continues to torment us to this day. Thankfully (read: Hopefully), we've all properly grown up and realized how juvenile that behavior is. That said, it is odd to discover that a popular experimental filmmaker was recruited by a famous French fashion company to do a piece for them. "Vampire," a commission for Louis Vuitton, centers on a blood thirsty bird that dwells on the mountain between Thailand and Cambodia. "The company is totally out of my sphere, but it was good money," the director admitted with a chuckle. Originally supposed to feature one of their products, Apichatpong refused and tried his own pitch. "They sent me a big catalog and inside are all advertisements of their items from the past, you see a model in Cambodia holding a bag, in front of the pyramids… to me that is colonialism and capitalism. I proposed that I wanted to present a journey to a unique place, not a touristy place but one where you can be enriched by the experience. In a way it's a bit of a criticism of Vuitton, but more importantly it's how people border between light and darkness, and how the border forces immigrants from Burma into Thailand."


His newest projects make up the installation "Primitive," focusing on the small village of Nabua in Northeast Thailand. Taken by the youth culture in the community, Joe spent time with them and created a wealth of little movies featuring the teenagers. From music videos to avant-garde sci-fi, everyday was used to create some sort of no-budget movie project. "With the teens we designed a space ship, I think because there couldn't be a better time to leave Thailand. This was a year before the mass killing in Bangkok. We built it with the help of the teens and documented all of them, and also improvised a movie together, semi-science fictional." Originally he was going to display the nut-looking vehicle as part of the exhibit, but when he learned that the locals were using it in various ways (at first it was a place for the young to party, now it is used to store rice), he decided it was of better use to them than sitting in a museum. "The point is for it to stay there and be utilized. I already used it, so new they use it and it belongs there."

"Primitive" can be seen at the New Museum in New York City until July 3rd. Those making the trip should note that the artist himself will be there hosting special events, more information can be found here.

This article is related to: Foreign Films, Foreign Directors, Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul