PRINT May 2005


When APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL’s fourth feature shared the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year, it made official his standing as the preeminent Thai filmmaker—and one of the freshest voices in cinema anywhere. In anticipation of Tropical Malady’s arrival in American theaters this summer, JAMES QUANDT spoke with the director about his films.

“Princess Tea,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul murmurs, inspecting the tag on a tea bag fetched by a publicist before our interview at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival. “Princess Tea,” he repeats, as if hypnotized by the phrase. When I joke that they could hardly bring us anything less, he smiles in his vague, boyish way, perhaps mentally filing the item for future use. Like so many odd, dreamy details in his films and videos—the chopped-salad skin cream in Blissfully Yours (2002), for instance, or the fake swan in Tropical Malady—the tea will surely turn up again, transmogrified into something strange on the screen.

That is Weerasethakul’s modus—to turn everyday objects and images into the ineffable and enigmatic, inhabitants of a phantom zone where the hard, “real” world of cars and bodies and buildings cedes dominion to a magical realm of reverie and desire. There, all is fleeting, elusive, and mutant: Stories morph, change course, or start over; genre slips moment to moment from fiction to fantasy to documentary; characters shift shape, male to female, human to animal, extraterrestrial to earthling, and what they report is often unreliable; time becomes suspended, and setting ebbs from landscape into dreamscape. Weerasethakul’s opening credits may start more than half an hour into the film, his closing titles can confound your understanding of the foregoing story, and his narratives may either repeat themselves endlessly or abruptly begin again midway. Tending in setting toward the natural world, the jungle especially, and in tone toward the ecstatic—the director has often spoken of being suffocated with happiness—Weerasethakul’s works are unnerving in their utter abandonment of rationalism. They are among the most sensuous, tender, and bewildering films in contemporary cinema.

Weerasethakul obtained an MFA in filmmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he picked up the nickname Joe, fell in love with the work of Bruce Baillie and Andy Warhol, and encountered films by countless European and Hollywood directors, though he seems to owe little to their influence. Indeed, his marked debt to the indigenous—Thai soap operas and ghost stories, love songs, talk shows, children’s tales, and Buddhist fables—can be disconcerting to the critic accustomed to, say, tracing the influence of Robert Bresson in the films of Jia Zhang-ke (Weerasethakul’s main competition in his bid to join Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai, and Tsai Ming-liang in the pantheon of new Asian cinema). Infinitely serene and enigmatic, shot in languorous long takes, and elliptically edited, Weerasethakul’s films derive from the domestic horror films and melodramas he imbibed as a child in the Thai provinces. Watching a granny ghost chow down on a steaming tangle of human entrails in one of the ’60s Thai potboilers that influenced Tropical Malady, one glimpses the primitive source of Weerasethakul’s ethereal sensibility and is doubly awed by his powers of transformation.

If there is a Thai equivalent of Gesamtkunstwerk, Weerasethakul’s cinema is it. His many video pieces, often commissioned for art installations, interlock and overlap motifs, characters, and incidents with his feature films. Just as the ten tales set in ten villages of Haunted Houses (2001), made for that year’s Istanbul Biennial, all seem to be variations on the same story, each of Weerasethakul’s four feature films appears to be part of a whole, aspects of one edifice. (Like Nicholas Ray, Weerasethakul trained first as an architect, and he compares his films to spaces into which the viewer enters.) Stray details and narrative fragments from his first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), turn up in later works: The tale of a tiger eating a boy prefigures the last half of Tropical Malady, for example, and the characters of the deaf father and his impatient daughter reappear in the early scenes of Blissfully Yours.

Shot in fits and starts over three years on a minuscule budget, Mysterious Object was an add-a-story variation on the “exquisite corpse” structure famous from French Surrealism, but its black-and-white cinematography owes more to homegrown nostalgia than to art-school aesthetics, and its peculiar, uninflected admixture of tones and tales is all Thai all the time. Mysterious Object opens with the wrenching story of a young woman sold by her father for bus fare, and just as quickly places a question mark over the veracity of her sad tale before embarking on a road trip through remote Thailand, during which workers and children along the way are prompted to extend and embroider on a story involving a teacher and her disabled student. Their responses—spoken, sung, written—have both the pungency of native storytelling and the knowingness of modernist narrative, and the film functions simultaneously as documentary and fiction, portrait of a country and account of its deeply strange dreamworld. Weerasethakul ended the film at the point his ramshackle camera gave out, the abrupt cessation as disorienting as everything else in this most mysterious object.

Ostensibly more classical than its weird predecessor but actually twice as strange, Blissfully Yours is the love story between Min, an illegal immigrant from Burma, and Roong, a young Thai woman whose happiness gives the film its title. Her bliss, like much in the film, is only seeming, and her feelings about Orn, her sad, middle-aged coworker and Min’s guardian, give the film’s final Edenic sequences the tension of imminent violence. The film’s unhurried surface, all quotidian tarry and erotic langour, begins to roil with portentous incident and unspoken sorrow when the lovers leave the city for an afternoon tryst in the forest (emblematically set on the Thai-Burmese border; borderlines are a key motif in Weerasethakul’s work). Orn, too, has chosen this remote place to rendezvous with her lover, and their furious fucking, bluntly interpolated into the film’s hitherto drifting, asexual tenor, soon ends with the man being shot to death offscreen by unseen assailants. Later, when Orn cries, alone, smoking on a riverbank, oblivious to Min and Roong as they cuddle in postfellatio pleasure nearby, the depth of her isolation and grief is shockingly palpable; she seems to be grieving for a lifetime of loss. Like its Sandra Dee title, Blissfully Yours’s dreamy, deadpan tone has, it turns out, disguised much: a bifurcated structure and severely compressed time frame, a grave portrait of individual anguish, and an oblique political critique.

The Adventure of Iron Pussy (2003), a camp combo of kitsch musical and James Bond parody, was something of a Thai vacation, a collaborative detour with gay performance artist Michael Shaowanasai. Weerasethakul is very fond of Iron Pussy, and admittedly its tale of a meek, bald convenience-store clerk who morphs into a towering transvestite avenger with minesweeper eyelashes has a certain sweet charm; but for all its use of split screen, mock-sententious intertitles, musical travesties (“What’s Wrong with Being a Tootsie?”), and its written-on-the-run story of brother/sister incest and multinational intrigue, Iron Pussy is ironclad and inert. Shaowanasai claims the lion’s share of credit for the film, so perhaps he should shoulder the blame.

Weerasethakul’s next and latest feature, Tropical Malady, returns to the double structure of Blissfully Yours—he has described it as that film’s “evil twin”—but extends the earlier work’s strangeness into realms of shamanistic mystery. Malady tells first one story, a romance about a soldier on leave from a patrol in central Thailand who falls in love with and courts a young countryman, and then recounts another, in which the soldier pursues a beast that has been preying on local livestock through the nocturnal jungle. The two halves, separated (one might say “interrupted”) by a new set of credits, seem a study in contrasts—the first frequently sunlit, social, and urban, the second set in deepest, leafy darkness, a night isolation soon populated with bloodthirsty leeches, ghostly glowing cattle, talking monkeys, trees that speak in electronic gurgles, and a tiger that appears to be the soldier’s destiny, at once his lover and destroyer. Malady may be the same tale twice told, of a pursuer yearning for convergence with his prey, his object of desire. But Weerasethakul’s sense of mystery, quotidian in the first half and mystical in the second, makes any such attempt at rational analysis laughable. What is more uncanny, one wonders—the unnerving moment when a man turns back at the door of a washroom and flashes a movie-star smile at an old friend (lover?) in the first tale or, in the second, the soldier’s succumbing to amour fou, his “tropical malady,” as he stares down the tiger with burning eyes in the jungle?

In person, Weerasethakul belies his reputation as the godfather of Thai independent cinema (his production company carries the rebellious moniker Kick the Machine) and as the untiring opponent of the homophobic policies of the Thai government under authoritarian tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra and its notorious Cultural Ministry, which temporarily banned video and DVD sales of Blissfully Yours. (The closeup of Min’s erection in that film is just one of Weerasethakul’s many provocations.) Weerasethakul appears mild, modest, ruminative, hardly a cultural warrior, much less the international man of mystery or Thai Warhol others have made him out to be. (Though the comparison isn’t altogether unjustified: Just as Weerasethakul’s use of extended duration and certain moments in his films evoke his hero—the impassive ecstasy of Roong’s upturned face at the very end of Blissfully Yours recalls Warhol’s Blow Job, for example—the Thai director’s pronouncements sometimes sound Warholian in their offhand deflation, that Mysterious Object at Noon is about “nothing at all” or that he aimed to retain “the low-fat version” of the characters while editing Blissfully Yours.) On this cold gray day in Rotterdam, in any case, Joe seems utterly without guile or ironic armor, genuinely ingenuous in his engagement with and amazement at the world. When my tape recorder seizes up, he sweetly attempts to fix it and then settles in, shivering, with his cup of Princess Tea, to explain how the ineluctably strange in his films often has its source in the actual and the autobiographical.

James Quandt: Maybe illness is not the best place for us to start, but the “malady” in Tropical Malady seems to be part of a motif of illness in your films. There’s the daughter and her deaf father who appear in both Mysterious Object at Noon and Blissfully Yours, Min’s psoriasis in the latter, and several important episodes set in doctors’ offices or in hospitals, like the long opening one in Blissfully Yours and the sequence in Tropical Malady where they discover that the old dog has cancer. Is this just a coincidence or is it a metaphor?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Both my parents were doctors, so I grew up in that setting. It brings back memories of my childhood, seeing sick or dying people. But I’m also very interested in hospitals—Thai hospitals—and how class and power are reflected in them, the authority of the doctors and submissiveness of the patients. I am very concerned about such codes, which we often don’t recognize: patients and doctors, maids and masters.

JQ: The jungle is the other setting you seem drawn to. In Haunted Houses, a young woman says, “This place has so many trees, it feels like home,” and your films all seem to end up in the jungle. The last halves of Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady take place deep in the jungle.

AW: First, it again reminds me of my childhood, of where I grew up. It takes me back to my roots. I don’t like Bangkok and feel more at home in the countryside. Emotions are revealed by the jungle; it becomes a kind of mindscape. Sometimes it’s a character—passive in Blissfully Yours, active in Tropical Malady. It’s also a stage, a 360-degree setting, which gives me great freedom. But the jungle is also challenging, because it’s not easy to block the actors in that space and sunlight.

JQ: The night shots in the jungle in Tropical Malady make the audience work to see.

AW: They scared the producers for just that reason. I studied other films to see how the night shots could work. I wanted them to reveal the mind of the character, because at night the jungle is not visual; you rely more on sound. It becomes something else—spiritual, mysterious.

JQ: There’s a paradox in your work that’s a bit hard to describe. On one hand, there’s a documentary realism, an emphasis on process: the making of that weird skin cream in Blissfully Yours where you see all the chopping of vegetables, for instance, or that wonderful little “documentary” about ice cutting in the first half of Tropical Malady. But this realism becomes surreal, almost dreamlike in its matter-of-factness.

AW: In Thailand, reality is that way. There’s no sense of its being strange or surreal. The architecture mixes everything, like Greek columns, with other styles, but no one sees it as unusual. Simply looking at things is fascinating for me, and I just put it in my films.

JQ: You’re also fond of traveling shots, despite your reputation for having a static, long-take aesthetic.

AW: I want to give the audience the freedom to fly or to float, to just let their minds go here and there, to drift, like when we sit in a train, listen to a Walkman, and look at the landscape. It’s liberating, and also, the audience understands that they’re not watching a routine three-act narrative.

JQ: In a way, your films all feel part of one big work, very interconnected. Characters, names, bits of plot migrate from one to the other. The corpse at the beginning of Tropical Malady is the man who gets shot toward the end of Blissfully Yours, for example.

AW: Films are like diaries for me. My life is made fictional, and I need to put in those connections so I can look back in the future to see each film as a variation of my interests. The actors are like a family; we create a world together. The characters grow as the work progresses.

JQ: You use the phrase “conceived by” rather than “directed by” in the credits—suggesting that you see the process of creation as something other than traditional directing.

AW: When using the term “direct,” I think about ordering things, which is true to a certain degree. But “conceive” means something more personal. I feel that my works are my concepts, but then they branch out with the contributions of other people. I will ask anyone on the set—my assistants, my cinematographer, the trainees—what I should do next or what they think the characters should do in a given situation. But in 2003 when I made The Adventure of Iron Pussy, I used “directed by” because that film was a simulation of a working style from the past, or at least what I imagined it was.

JQ: Speaking of Iron Pussy, I think you can’t quite pull off the camp in it because it’s not in your nature to be mean or ironic.

AW: [Looks abashed, laughs.] It’s gentle because that’s Thai style!

JQ: It’s also very generous, like all of your films, particularly to a group that is often derided or just ignored: older women.

AW: [Laughs.] Older women? Really?

JQ: They’re always shown in your films as complex, erotic beings, full of life and sex and sorrow: Orn in Blissfully Yours, some of the women in Haunted Houses, the two sisters and even the “older sister” singer in Tropical Malady, and the materialistic mother, “a proper Thai lady,” in Iron Pussy.

AW: When I was growing up I watched lots of Thai films and have a real fondness for many older actresses of that period; many of them now appear in soap operas on television. I like to revisit my cinematic past. But I’m also very emotionally linked to my mom. All my memories are about her. We don’t communicate that well. She says the same thing all the time—you know, “How are you? I’m fine.” But we’re very close, even if she’s very quiet. My next film will be about her, and about death. It will have less to do with style, will be quieter and more restrained.

JQ: It sounds a bit like Ozu, maybe Tokyo Story?

AW: It’s difficult for me to treat this subject in a way totally different from the approach of other masters. It’s a dilemma. How does a director do something different? How can I make it new and genuine at the same time? I admire Tsai and Hou, for example, and was pleased to see how relaxed Hou’s style is in Café Lumière, especially after Millennium Mambo.

JQ: Regarding the subject of death, I wonder about your attitude toward Buddhism. It’s presented as a kind of kitsch thing in the first half of Tropical Malady, where the shrine in the cave is covered in lights and plays Christmas music.

AW: During the making of Blissfully Yours, I became very interested in Buddhism. Since my father died, I’ve wondered about reincarnation, about the purpose of being human. Buddhism is a way to understand life better. I don’t think I fully understand it at the moment, and Tropical Malady reflects this question: How do we attach to the object, and why does that make us suffer?

JQ: Everyone, including me, seems determined to make the two halves of Malady into a whole, to impose a pattern that makes it less strange or disjunctive. For me, it’s the same story told twice, of a pursuer (and his prey) who yearns to merge or converge with the other.

AW: The break in the middle of the film is a mirror in the center that reflects both ways. I based the two characters in Tropical Malady on the two actors. It was rewritten to take into account their particular qualities—like shyness—and their improvised gestures during the shoot, and it changed again in the editing.

JQ: A theme that connects both halves, both stories, is memory.

AW: Yes, the burden of memory. I wanted the first half to seem unrealistic, like a memory of something, so that when you leave the theater you question what was real and what wasn’t.

JQ: I understand that a sex scene was shot for each of the two halves of Tropical Malady—that is, between the two men and between the man and the tiger. Was it fear of censorship, or some other reason, that led you to leave these out of the film?

AW: We shot the soldier licking, eating Tong in the end (for one of the three endings). And we shot the soldier making love with a tiger. I wasn’t concerned about censorship at all. But these scenes didn’t fit well in the edit. They were always too much for me. Like nature scenes, some shots are way too beautiful, so we had to cut them out.

JQ: To return to your generosity of vision, it seems to come from something I think you share with directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien in Taiwan and Jia Zhang-ke in China: a real love of your country and its people. Not patriotic or nationalistic love but an open-hearted love.

AW: I can’t make a film outside Thailand. My time in Chicago was very difficult for this reason. I had to come back to Thailand, the “source.” Once I spent eight months in France, in a landscape that many tourists admire, but I was totally uninspired and couldn’t do anything the whole time. I need interaction and couldn’t speak French. It’s difficult to work in another setting. I have a project coming up in the States. . . .

JQ: That worries you?

AW: [Laughs nervously.] Yes, a lot.

JQ: Aside from Thai films, many of your influences are American: Andy Warhol, Bruce Baillie. And am I mistaken in finding a kind of Hitchcockian suspense in the long river sequence with Orn and Roong in Blissfully Yours? Roong has told Min that she thinks Orn is a bitch, a mental case, and that she just wishes that she weren’t there. (Of course, we don’t see Orn as a bitch—rather, she seems lonely, compassionate, sad—so we wonder about Roong’s severe opinion of her.) It almost feels like Roong’s playing with her in the water could easily become sadistic, even murderous. There’s an unease over this sequence because of what Roong has said. It feels like she could happily drown Orn.

AW: You’re the first one to link this film with Hitchcock! In fact, there’s a phrase from Psycho that circulated in my head during the shoot, something like “to put her in some place.” It was when Janet Leigh suggested putting Mother in a retirement home or a mental institution and Norman suddenly got mad. I’m not sure if I put that phrase in Blissfully Yours. Maybe it’s in the scene where Orn is in her husband’s office, and one of them said this about Min and Roong. But during the river scene, I just thought about how the three were so fragile that they needed the water to support them, to float, to be happy. The way Roong felt toward Orn was more a play on the sort of simple love triangle found in soap operas. She suddenly felt possessive. The water scene heightened the vulnerability of the three characters.

JQ: Your films are all “mysterious objects,” and critics spend a lot of time trying to figure them out. And they’re filled with all these conceptual tricks and jokes and surprises: the “exquisite corpse” structure in Mysterious Object at Noon, the ten houses/ten stories that all seem to be the same tale in Haunted Houses, the late credit sequence in Blissfully Yours, the “starting over” in the middle of Tropical Malady. Should we just respect their mystery and stop trying to analyze or interpret them?

AW: Not at all. I like reading interpretations of my films. In Thailand, there’s a lot of film description but not too much criticism, so I find it refreshing to read what others think my films mean. It helps me think about my next film.

James Quandt is a senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.