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Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Photo: Melle van Essen

Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The World’s Most Famous Thai Film Director 0

Arta Tabaka

If you believe in something, it is not longer imagined.”
(Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Having received the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 for his film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, the Thai film director and artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul had the opportunity to hold the world-premier of his latest film, “Mekong Hotel” (2012), at Cannes as well. Although winning the Palm d'Or gave Weerasethakul recognition and fame of the likes he had never seen before, his full-length feature films have been regularly and successfully shown at Cannes, Venice and other global film festivals since 2000, and his video works and installations have been shown in galleries the world over. Ironically, Weerasethakul's popularity lags only in his own homeland; in Thailand, viewers like movies that are fast, action-packed, and full of jokes and passion. These days, Weerasethakul is the world's most famous Thai film director, but virtually unknown in Thailand; the situation has only slightly improved with his latest film, “Mekong Hotel”, which had a relatively high viewership in Thailand for films of this genre.


Although “Uncle Boonmee” can be enjoyed as a stand-alone work, it is worth remembering that the film is only a small part of Weerasethakul's several-years-long project “Primitive”, which consists of a number of short films and installations in addition to the full-length feature film that closed the project. Like most of Weerasethakul's previous works, “Primitive” was filmed in the northeastern region of Thailand, Isan. But unlike his previous works, which concentrated around the director's own homeland in the central part of Isan, “Primitive” was mainly filmed in the village of Nabua, which is located at the very northeastern corner of Isan, not far from the Laotian border.

A scene from the film “Tropical Malady”

Weerasethakul and his film crew ended up in Nabua by looking for the story behind a book that he had received from a monk several years previously – about a man who could remember his previous lives. The short films and installations contained in “Primitive” came about from the process of searching for Boonmee, and most of them involve the local inhabitants – as actors, as technical help, and even as the authors of ideas. For example, the video-letter from Weerasethakul to Boonmee himself, titled “A Letter to Uncle Boonmee”, begins with these words: “Uncle, I've been here for a while now. I would like to see a film about your life. That is why I handed in a project on reincarnation.” On-screen we see the insides of houses, views from their windows, their yards, and the nearby fields and forests; a narrator tells of the search for Boonmee, which has led them to Nabua. The same voice admits that it wants to know what his house was like and that, perhaps, one of the houses in the villages is similar to it. It should be noted that, already in the 2004 film “Tropical Malady”, there's a scene in which the two main characters sit under a lean-to in order to escape from the heat and the sun, when one of them begins to talk about his uncle – who can remember his past lives up to 200 years ago. This is a clear indication of Weerasethakul's interest in Boonmee years before he actually headed out on his search for the man.

The video installation “Primitive”, at Media City in Seoul, 2010. Photo: Myoung-Rae Park


It is unlike the ever-developing and urbanized center of Thailand, with its capital city of Bangkok; it is unlike southern Thailand, its economy based on beaches and resorts; and it is unlike northern Thailand, which has the historic city of Chiang Mai and its own tourist magnet – elephants. The northeastern region of Isan, which takes up a third of the country, is the most deserted and poorest region of the country – mostly made up of fields, forests and jungle, the majority of its inhabitants are farmers. Notwithstanding the deep respect and piety that all of Thailand holds for the musical traditions and excellent cuisine of Isan – both of which are regarded as national treasures – the inhabitants of this region are still met with harsh discrimination: they are often reproached for their country ways and their cultural links to the people of Laos. The region's poverty, and the inability to escape it, made fertile ground for the infiltration of communism from neighboring Laos; consequently, the Thai army occupied the territory from the 1960s to the 80s. The occupation spurred the local farmers to revolt, and the resulting bloody battles led to many villagers, mostly men, fleeing to the jungles. Practically only women and children were left in the villages, which gave rise to the label – “village of widows”.

In his video work “Making of the Spaceship” (from the “Primitive” series), Weerasethakul brings together the village young people that he has met on his search for Boonmee; most of the young people's parents and grandparents experienced the military occupation, the fleeing into the jungles, the bloody battles, and the demise of Nabua. Together, they build a spaceship; the process has been saved for posterity in the video, while the resulting object itself – a spaceship – was later used in other videos and installations. What happened was not only the coming together of the local young people to work on a cooperative project that would give them a sense of unity, nor was it just a chance for the director to get a feel for the village's daily rhythm of life; the spaceship was also an attempt to imagine a different world – the village of Nabua that could have been. But just as well, the spaceship is a place in which to hide and run away from reality; it encourages a youthful boldness to imagine or dream, but it also inspires a clean and deep belief that everything can still change.

Scenes from the video work “The Making of a Spaceship”


As much as “Primitive” is an art project, it is also a deep and wide-scope anthropological study about the ruling traditions in Isan, about the region's history, and how history has created the current situation. Although Weerasethakul himself comes from a wealthy family that could fund his architectural studies in Thailand – and later, film studies in America – and has never had to deal with issues of basic survival, his films are about the simple inhabitants of Isan, their daily lives, their ideas about the world and their society – which are at once very harsh and full of wonder. Up until his “Primitive” project,  Weerasethakul had mostly made his works in his birthplace, in the central part of Isan; in addition,  “Primitive” is Weerasethakul's first work (or rather, series of works) that does not concentrate on his own experience, but rather tells the story of Uncle Boonmee and takes the viewer into Boonmee's world. This fact has allowed Weerasethakul to widen the scope of his searches in both geographical and thematic senses, transforming his work in film and art into a sort of expedition that is constantly invading new territories. His next film, “Mekong Hotel”, takes a look at the region on the very border with Laos – where the Mekong River divides Thailand from Laos. Much like in the case with “Uncle Boonmee”, the idea for filming “Mekong Hotel” arose long ago, due to the fact that one of Weerasethakul's actresses lived there. Even the Mekong River itself, which now serves as the border between two countries that used to be one, influenced the director during his many visits to the area.

Even though most of “Uncle Boonmee” takes place in his house and the nearby environs, the viewer is often taken into the world of the jungle and the wild – which is where Boonmee lived his previous lives as an animal. The beginnings of Weerasethakul's great interest about the jungle and the world of the wild can be found in the film “Blissfully Yours” (2002), Weerasethakul's second full-length film; it follows two pairs of people and their wanderings through jungles, mountains and rivers, paying special attention to how the light changes throughout the day and how it is reflected in the water, and to the sound of walking through fallen leaves. In filming this piece, the director waited for days, even weeks, until the light and weather were just right; he began to think of the jungle as not a location, but as a separate character in the film – with its own personality, features and whims. By observing the jungle and adapting to it, a freedom entered Weerasethakul's works that had not been seen before in their usually tightly-planned structures, allowing the filming environment to bring about changes in the film, and for the actors to freely direct the narrative. A few years later, in the film “Tropical Malady” – which is about a soldier in a desolate part of Thailand – the main character meets the spirit of a shaman in a tiger, which makes the soldier flee ever deeper into the jungle and, eventually, get lost. The jungle becomes one of the film's most powerful characters, taking over not only the other characters, but even the whole film itself.

A scene from the film “Blissfully Yours”


Although the general impression of Thailand, by those outside of it, is a country of sunshine, smiles, beaches, frivolity and absolute freedom, the situation inside it is actually quite different. Twice a day – at eight in the morning and at six in the evening – the national anthem is publicly broadcast, inviting all to take a break in their daily routines and to honor the flag and anthem of Thailand, so as to strengthen their national identity. Although the broadcast is only an “invitation”, is against the law to decline it. Along with the national anthem, which serves as a daily reminder that honoring and showing respect to the state's symbols is the duty of every citizen, Thailand also has a royal anthem honoring the royal family and its head – the king.

It is this royal anthem that one hears in cinemas (and in theaters and concert halls) before the start of every film, accompanied by photographs of the royal family on the big screen which, along with the musical accompaniment, tell of the king's good nature, might and nobleness. As soon as the anthem starts, everyone in the audience immediately stands up. At first, the fact that there is no one in the theater who doesn't get to their feet, seems to be an amazing show of deep respect; in truth, not standing is a show of disrespect to the monarchy and is punishable by law, and can lead to a prison sentence lasting for many years. Not only is not standing during the royal anthem against the law, but so is any other show of disrespect towards the royal family or the monarchical government.

In 2006 Weerasethakul made the short film “Anthem”, the main idea of which is the ritualistic playing of the royal anthem in cinemas, the increasing resistance that audiences are showing by not standing during the anthem, and the resulting increase in arrests that are taking place because of this. Much like the royal anthem glorifies the king, Weerasethakul's five-minute-long short film glorifies the cinema, and it should be shown before the screening of the main movie to show it the honor that it deserves, and to celebrate the art of film and the act of watching it together with others. This minor work highlights the main features of Weerasethakul's creative works – an absolute wonder and respect towards visual language and the art of film, as well as a clear understanding of the political situation in Thailand.

Along with the strict rules concerning national and monarchical symbols, constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech is restricted by severe censorship; in the last year, this situation has not improved in Thailand, but has, instead, worsened. Printed media can be censored if it “threatens the ruling peace or public safety, or if it crosses moral norms”. In television, the things that are most often censored are nudity, alcohol and drug use, and weapons, but in the last few years, it is the internet that has been hit the hardest by censorship. If before, it was mainly pornography that was being restricted, the censors have now turned to political issues – tens of thousands of internet sites are blocked every year, and hundreds of bloggers have been arrested.

A censored scene from the film “Syndromes and a Century” – a Buddhist monk plays with a toy spaceship

In Thailand, the rule of law governing censorship could be said to be under free improvisation – its rules are unclear and abstract, allowing for the people in power to censor anything that they wish to, and at any given moment. For example, only the sex scenes were censored in Weerasethakul's film “Blissfully Yours”, whereas his 2006 film, “Syndromes and a Century”, suffered a drastic attack of censorship that ended with it being prohibited from being shown unless certain scenes were removed. The director refused, maintaining that if that were to happen, the film would no longer be his; as a result, the film was only shown twice, and in private circumstances. After a while, the director agreed to show the film, but only if the censored scenes were replaced by a black screen, so that the viewers would realize the problems of censorship in Thailand.


“Syndromes and a Century”, one of Weerasethakul's highest-rated works, is made up of two parts: the first is about a doctor in a rural hospital, while the second is about a doctor in an urban environment, with both parts featuring the doctor and the daily life of his hospital. The film is also a dedication to the director's parents, both of whom are doctors; the whole family used to live a doctors' village not far from the hospital. The daily life of doctors has appeared in previous films by Weerasethakul; for instance, the film “Blissfully Yours” begins in a hospital and with a visit to the doctor, as the main characters desperately try to get a prescription for medicine. Getting the prescription and bringing gifts to the doctors, as well as other goings-on in the doctor's office, make up a significant part of the film “Syndrome and a Century”, in which Buddhist monks visiting the hospital play a large role. The scenes featuring the Buddhist monks were some of those that were censored – in one of them, a monk plays a guitar (the same monk wanted to become a DJ), while in the other, a monk plays with a radio-controlled flying saucer. Both scenes were deemed inappropriate for the portrayal of monks, since neither “could happen in real life”.

The most interesting scene that was censored is one of the daily life of doctors – in a room in the hospital, several doctors are sitting around a table and talking. While they talk, one of the female doctors gets up and places a prosthetic leg on the table; she removes a bottle of whiskey from it. The only remark made by any of the other doctors is: “Isn't it a bit early?”, and then the drink is quickly divided amongst all those present. While drinking her whiskey, the doctor says that she has dressed up today because she has to go on television; when a patient, who also happens to be the son of another doctor, comes into the room, the same female doctor begins to speak about chakras, and makes him imagine a waterfall and the sun's energy. One of the reasons for censoring the scene was that “doctors never drink alcohol”. Similarly, another scene was censored for showing a doctor kissing – because “no one ever does that”, either. After all of this censorship, in 2007 Weerasethakul, along with other film directors, created a movement for freedom in Thai film; they actively campaign for freedom of expression and for the right to portray things that the government claims “do not exist and are not possible”.

“Syndromes and a Century”