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Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul: ‘Thai people have to self-censor all the time’

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director of dreamy, meandering, mysterious films, had long wanted to work with actress Tilda Swinton, who wrote to him after seeing his 2004 film Tropical Malady at the Cannes film festival. But the director could not imagine casting her as an expat in a film set in Thailand: “I kept thinking of foreign movies that came to shoot here, and they all looked ridiculous to me,” Apichatpong says in a Bangkok gallery where he is mounting an art installation.

At the same time, he was taken with the thought of shooting in Colombia, whose lush landscapes and recent memory of violent conflict reminded him of Thailand when he went there in 2017 to attend the Cartagena Film Festival, before travelling around the country on a three-month residency. “I was attracted to the people, to the landscape and to this temperamental weather,” he says. Apichatpong prefers to shoot his films outdoors and Bogotá typically provides tropical sunshine, brooding clouds and cold downpours in a single day.

The film he made with Swinton, Memoria, shot in Bogotá and Colombia’s coffee-growing region of Quindio, won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, sharing it with Ahed’s Knee by Israel’s Nadav Lapid. This was Apichatpong’s fourth Cannes win; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d’Or in 2010.

Tilda Swinton in Apichatpong’s latest film, ‘Memoria’ © Alamy Stock Photo

Memoria tells the story of Jessica, an Englishwoman in Bogotá who awakes one morning to the sound of a shattering explosion, but no evidence of one. Apichatpong says he was inspired in part by his own bout of “exploding head syndrome”, a condition caused by stress that he suffered around the first time he visited Colombia. “It’s not a sound; it’s the sense of sound,” he says, adding that he experienced it every morning for a period. “It was not traumatic; for me it was just curious. I just lay there listening to the point of being able to control it.”

I asked what it was like filming in foreign languages. Memoria, which is in English and Spanish, had two language coaches to work with Swinton and the rest of the cast and the language on the set was English, but he acknowledges that it was “tricky trying to tell what sounded natural and what did not”. “I just released all this idea of control and let the team do the job,” he says. “I was just enjoying watching and focusing on Tilda especially.”

This year is memorable to Apichatpong for more than just his prize at Cannes, though.

During the summer Thailand has been in the grips of its biggest wave of coronavirus infections of the pandemic and its gravest political and economic crisis in decades. Covid-19 has upended the kingdom’s globalisation-reliant economy and emptied its megacity capital of visitors. A youth-led democracy mass movement that spilled on to the streets last year has resurfaced in 2021 with smaller, angrier and more violent protests attacking the government for its mishandling of the pandemic and calling for prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to go.

“I feel we are at a crossroads leading to something very important,” Apichatpong says. “The past year was the first time I felt hope.” The director made open reference to Thailand’s crisis at Cannes, when he urged the Thai and Colombian governments to “please wake up, and work for your people now”.

Apichatpong’s 2006 film ‘Syndromes and a Century’ was censored in the director’s native Thailand © Alamy Stock Photo

Despite Apichatpong’s success overseas and reverence in artistic circles, where people call him Khun (“Mr”) Joe, many Thais have not seen his films. Memoria is not streaming or in cinemas at the moment, and the director has clashed with Thai censors, who ordered cuts in his 2006 film Syndromes and a Century. It offended conservative sensibilities by showing one monk playing a guitar and another playing with a UFO toy, and two doctors — drawn from Apichatpong’s memories of his parents — kissing and sharing drinks at work. The director excised these scenes, but left black frames in their place so viewers would know they had been cut. He launched a Free Thai Cinema Movement with a group of friends to try and change the law.

“I think Thai people have to self-censor all the time, not only through art but through living, to survive,” he says. “The system teaches you not to be direct, to manoeuvre in an indirect way.” 

Apichatpong’s art installation, “A Minor History” at the 100 Tonson Foundation, is characteristically oblique on the surface but cuts to the quick of Thailand’s political impasse. He tells me the work was inspired by a road trip to the Isan region, where he grew up as the son of two doctors of Chinese descent. There he met a local who was part of a team that found a corpse thought to be a political activist in the Mekong river.

In a dark room at the gallery, two screens show footage of an abandoned cinema and the flowing river, with a voice narrating a dialogue about a naga (a mythical water creature) that has “swallowed a drifting corpse — perhaps from Laos”.

Installation showing stills and projection
Apichatpong’s current installation, ‘A Minor History’, at the 100 Tonson Foundation in Bangkok © Watsamon Tri-yasakda
Framed photographs of upside down landscape images
Photographs at the installation of an abandoned cinema and the Mekong River © Watsamon Tri-yasakda

The reference is unmistakable: in December 2018, the bodies of two Thai antimonarchist activists who fled to Laos after Prayuth’s 2014 coup washed up on the bank of the Mekong, with their hands bound and their bellies slit and stuffed with concrete blocks. The body of Surachai Danwattananusorn, the third and most prominent missing activist, now presumed dead, has never been found.

The installation, according to gallery notes, “hovers in the realms of reality and dreams” and “is a tribute to the political dissidents whose forced disappearance lingers like a myth”. For me, covering Thai reality at a time of convulsive change and growing repression of free speech, the exhibit packs a punch.

Prayuth’s government recently announced an emergency order outlawing online reports that cause “fear” — even if they are true — after Thais lambasted its handling of Covid-19 and shared pictures of people dying on the street. A court struck it down as unconstitutional, a rare victory for free speech in a country where the ruling camp usually get its way. “It’s not about national security, but their own security,” Apichatpong says. “Covid is a testimony that they are not going to save us, or don’t have the capacity to.”

Protestors and a dinosaur costume gathered in the street
A pro-democracy protest in Bangkok last November, where a dinosaur is used to mock the establishment. Apitchaptong joined some of the protests, capturing them on film © Getty Images

Thailand’s youth protest movement last year used humour, satire, and trenchant critiques, and Apitchaptong tells me he joined some of the demonstrations, documenting them on film. The protesters pushed the boundaries of censorship — and exposed themselves to being charged under Thai law, which prohibits lèse majesté (“royal insult”) — by criticising the unchecked powers and considerable wealth of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. They raised questions about the disappearance and murder of Thai activists in exile; protesters also mocked their country’s largely elderly leadership by donning dinosaur outfits.

The regime responded by charging or imprisoning dozens of people, some of whom are still in detention without bail, under lèse majesté or Thailand’s other laws outlawing political speech.

Apitchaptong likens Thailand’s current regime to a dying animal that, “when it’s going to die, will create havoc around it”. The image makes me think of the Mekong naga. “It’s thrashing around, and the body is so big that everything will be cleared along the path of the living,” he says. “That’s what’s happening: you see a lot of destruction because this big animal is dying.” 

Apichatpong is convinced Thailand’s old regime will change, but it may take a decade or longer. “This older generation with older attitudes will have to go,” he says. “It’s natural, and the people have awoken.”

To February 22 2022; 100tonsonfoundation.org

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