Not an ordinary Joe:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tropical Malady
by Alissa Simon
Tropical Malady, by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the first-ever Thai film to compete at Cannes, came away with a special Jury Prize. But the 34-year-old filmmaker was no stranger to Cannes success. His first fiction feature, Blissfully Yours, captured the "Un Certain Regard" prize in 2002. At this year's Cannes awards dinner, French actress and jury member Emmanuelle Beart told Joe that she had never seen anything like his film. Her reaction will be shared by many - it's a special film, not for all tastes.
Experimental and personal, Apichatpoing's work deals with parallel worlds, where meaning emerges from landscape and emotion rather than classical narrative structure. This makes sense considering his background. He trained as an architect in Thailand, then obtained a MFA in Filmmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
I first met Apichatpong at the SAIC when he was seeking a work-study job at the Film Center where I was Associate Director of Programming. As the staff gazed at his name on the application, our office manager sighed and asked, "Do you have a nickname?" "Yes, Joe," came the reply.
Tropical Malady is comprised of two distinct stories that are not explicitly linked. The first story centers on the attraction between young soldier Keng and country boy Tong. They spend pleasant evenings with Tong's family, go to the movies, explore an underground Buddhist temple and play video games. Then life is disrupted by a disappearance. Some kind of wild creature is slaughtering cows. Local legend has it that humans may somehow be transformed into beasts. The second story moves from the natural world into the supernatural, from the light of the young men's shared affection to the darkness of the jungle. In this haunted realm, animals communicate with humans and an enchanted tiger desires the soldier, as both prey and companion.
Alissa Simon interviews Apichatpong ("Joe") Weerasethakul:
Please talk a little more explicitly about what the "tropical malady" is to you and how it relates to desire and landscape.
The film was made while I was unstable emotionally. I was contemplating on my failed love life and my father passing away. It was a dark period that I don't want to visit again. During the shooting I tried to capture the pain of happiness. Shooting these happy scenes in a way was torturing. I looked at these characters smiling like they were from a distant past. Memories were fragmented. The film's first part was unstable structurally. I shot how I felt each day, some as short clips, some long, building the emotional structure along the way. On Blissfully Yours, I was more focused. Tropical Malady, to me, was more temperamental. But when we shot in the jungle, I was more aware of how the movie is going. The finished film reflects my mood quite well. During editing, I tried to understand the pacing, the way this soldier moves through different landscapes. The jungle was a powerful character that was hard to edit. We cut out many action scenes because it looked disrespectful to this character. In this way, the landscape was more complex and mysterious, equally to the mind of the character.
Please talk about how you select and work with your non-professional actors. You've mentioned the pressure you put on the actors to get the results you want...
Sometimes they acted too naturally. Film is not real. It is a representation of both my memory and the actual filming at the time. So I want the actors to also portray the "acting" element. There were many takes of the same thing until the actors were in between natural and tense - maybe not knowing what I wanted. That state was what I looked for.
Okay, as long as we are talking about how you work with the actors, how did you work with them to do the explicit sex scenes in Blissfully Yours? And enable them to get the right tone for the relationship between Keng and Tong? Was it difficult to direct them in the elemental mythological nude section of the film?
We prepared a lot for the sex scene in Blissfully Yours. The actors were on a workshop where they touched, fondled, etc., expressing emotion without words. So they were used to each other's body language. It became routine on the screen, like in life. As for Keng and Tong, they were playing themselves. They are not stars. So they spent all the time with the crew, with each other. So the friendship developed. The guy who played Keng really felt for Tong character, even though he is straight.
Please tell me about the two experiences that made you believe in ghosts... What interests you about the possibility of parallel worlds?
Yes, in fact I have become more and more interested in this parallel world concept. It will show a lot in my next project along with other Buddhism elements. But the ghost is another story.
I was in a room when several dogs outside, on the left side of the house, howled strangely. It came closer until my dog howled. Then there was a wind passing my face, from left to right. It carried a heavy incense smell. But the room was closed and the curtain didn't move. It passed through the right. Then other dogs on the right side started to howl. It was as if some transparent thing was passing through me. I felt it very strongly. Another time was when I was at a hotel in Paris. I woke up in the middle of the night to see a woman in white gown standing near my bed. She didn't say a word. It was dark. I didn't see her face well. I asked her what she wanted. Then she disappeared like in a movie - slowly faded out. I wasn't scared. I was more curious of why she appeared.
Please talk a little about the technical challenges of filming the second, dark, mythological half of Tropical Malady...
It was hard to capture darkness when there is a moon as the only light source in a movie. We tried some ways, but they all looked fake to me. So we ended up using little light, which scared the producer very much. My original idea is to have many parts of the second half in total black - that's not possible commercially. So the producer was OK at least to see something. So we went on to light the night to be very heavy. I am not sure how to explain - to have weight of the black on the actors. Some scenes were actually so dark that we could not use them. The result was like the theater was in the middle of the jungle. The audience shares the weight. During the daytime, I was more comfortable shooting in the jungle than in the city. There are many shades of greens to choose. The concentration was high. The only hardship was for everyone to carry heavy equipment long distant into the jungles.
You studied to be an architect and a designer, what made you decide to study film?
I always wanted to make films. But there was no good film school in Thailand at the time. Even now, I cannot say it is much better. We are more concentrated on the technical parts, racing with Hollywood.
Did you know immediately that you wanted to create a more theoretical, experimental cinema? Or did this come out of your studies?
I wanted something different. But I didn't know what I was looking for exactly. The study, especially Art History helped me to understand the connectedness of art and everything. I appreciated Thai filmmaking from the past more and could see how it can evolve in many ways.
How did you wind up at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago? What did you find most valuable in the curriculum there?
It was the school that had the last deadlines for application during the time! I didn't know anything about it except that it had a nice brochure. Finally, I believe I was lucky to be in this place. I was encouraged to experiment with the idea that nothing was wrong. That's the opposite from Thailand's education system.
What about exposure to extra-curricular things such as the Art Institute and the Film Center?
I had a chance to see many foreign films, many from countries that are so close to Thailand but it is impossible to see them here. You know that I worked at the Film Center, compiling film news. That helped me to appreciate the vastness of the film world. I was so happy working there because it was like a journey, seeing many filmmakers from everywhere.
What do you think this education outside your country brings to your work?
More insight to my country.
What experimental filmmakers do you enjoy? Or think have influenced you?
Bruce Baillie is one of them. His film, Valentin de las Sierras, is always in my memory.
How do you feel about critics that are comparing your work to that of Hou or Tsai or Kiarostami?
I am of course honored. When I saw Hou- or Tsai- films, the settings were pretty much like Thailand and I felt connected, more than many Thai films.
As an architect/designer, do you conceive of your films as constructions?
Yes, I am interested in American experimentalist structural films. It is to see film as a frame-based unit. To design a building is similar process for me. You provide space for users who experience the construction visually, through time. The darkness and light, the angles, etc, everything contributes to how you want the users to feel. Filmmaking is the same. But it is more emotionally direct and can be more playful - like a huge sculpture that people can walk in. So when I think about the film's narrative, I think in 3 dimensions like creating a space. But somehow the experience is very linear because it is like you are walking through this space, you do not see it from the top point of view, as god. I am not sure if I explain it well.
How does The Adventures of Iron Pussy fit into your filmography? How did you get involved with that project?
It was in between Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady. We were waiting for French finance and wanted to do something fun, to go out of Bangkok. I view this project as a part of my video art projects. It is quite interesting to make an old-style Thai movie where the heroine is played by a man. Take Gus Van Sant's Psycho, I don't think he cares about the movie, but more determined to execute it as a conceptual piece. My videos were in a similar tradition.
I know you have been a champion of personal, experimental and avant-garde cinema for a long time and have done a lot to make it viable in Thailand, such as founding the Experimental Film Festival and your company, Kick the Machine.
The Bangkok Experimental Film Festival (BEFF) was born because we need to meet similar people locally who would like to see something different. Thailand needs variety, and to provide other choices in moving image experience is our goal. We will soon have BEFF 3 ½ either at the end of this year or early next year. It will be an event where we expect around 150 people bring their own TV monitors and video players, and everyone plays his/her creation. Kick the Machine (evolving from 9/6 cinema factory), is my production company that initially aimed to support local filmmakers in a technical and distribution level. But lately the finance is difficult; there is no government support. So we focus on producing feature films. We hope to establish the company to a respectable level and apply for grants when the times come. So that we can realize our original goal. We also try to support foreign independent film productions. I see how much people charge foreigners to shoot a film here and think that it is not fair in some cases. Not all foreigners have a huge pile of money.
Let's face it... personal filmmaking is not as remunerative as making Hollywood blockbusters, so let me inquire (I hope not rudely), how do you support yourself financially? (I was thrilled to see that Blissfully Yours won big cash prizes at festivals such as Thessaloniki and Tokyo FilmEX).
I start to make installations or videos that I got paid, even though minimal. But Thailand is not so expensive to live. And I don't have a family to feed. I still have debts from Tropical Malady, but I try not to think about it! I will just slowly clear it. Kick the Machine operates on a project by project basis. Our crew is small but experienced. More important is to get interesting projects off the ground. I believe one day this system will click and runs smoothly because there will always be audiences who want something different.
Do you think working with Anna Sanders Films (and what is the significance of that name?) and Celluloid Dreams will make it easier to produce your next films? And will it help your work to be more widely exposed?
Certainly. ASF is full of creative people. (Anna Sanders is an anonymous character who exists in various media - it's a French art thing). We did a co-production when a French director came to shoot a film here. We are also talking with Japan on a next project. And a possibility of Thai-Laos co-production. The situation is getting more active.
I wanted to ask, about the public reception/audiences for your films... Do you find that main-stream film critics have trouble with your films? How are they received in Thailand? Where are they screened?
We screened Tropical Malady at three theaters in Bangkok for a month. Amazingly, the reception was very good. The reaction of the audience here and in Cannes was so different. People here have many references. Many enjoyed the first part of the film, the two guys in love. And many also related to the second half with its folk tales told in a serious manner. Of course it is not a box office film and the snores were heard, but I deem that it was well received, unlike Blissfully Yours.
The film has been acquired for the U.S. by a very good distributor called Strand Releasing, who represent art films, but are also known for distributing gay films. How do you feel about the film being "marketed" as a gay film?
I don't know yet how they will market it. I cannot know the marketing atmosphere in the US. So I am just grateful that it is in good hands.