Giovanni Marchini Camia
A discussion on cinema, past and future, with Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Memoria begins a run at 7 Ludlow Friday, February 17.
It’s perhaps a contradiction that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s serene personality, which is reflected in the distinctive mood of his films, should be coupled with a restless and prolific curiosity. Forever trying out new modes of expression, his practice spans artisanal shorts, theatrical features, gallery works, and innovative formats, such as a multimedia stage production and an installation that doubles as an overnight hotel. When I first met Apichatpong, in northeast Thailand on the set of Cemetery of Splendour (2015), he spoke about feeling creatively frustrated. He wanted to get out of his home country for his next feature; five years later, he was shooting Memoria (2021) in Colombia. It was a radical departure: new environment, new language, new team, and his first time working with a professional cast, including Tilda Swinton in the lead role. I visited the shoot and, seeing him at work, the revitalizing effect of this change was evident. The result is a film at once recognizably his and markedly different from its predecessors.
After finishing Memoria, he made his first foray into virtual reality. A Conversation with the Sun premiered last October at the Aichi Triennale in Japan. A few weeks later, Tropical Malady (2004)—arguably his breakthrough feature—was included in the 100 Greatest Films of All Time, the decennial poll conducted by Sight and Sound magazine. This happy conjuncture felt like a good opportunity to catch up with him via Zoom for a discussion on cinema and its evolving role in his life.—Giovanni Marchini Camia
Tilda Swinton and Elkin Diaz in Memoria (2021)
GIOVANNI MARCHINI CAMIA: Hello, how’s it going? You’re at home in Chiang Mai?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL: I’m in Khon Kaen, where we shot Cemetery of Splendour.
GMC: Oh, you’re visiting family?
AW: Yes. I’m also here with my sick dog, because the vet is supposedly better than in Chiang Mai. I will leave soon, maybe in two days, I haven’t worked at all while here.
GMC: I want to know more about what you’re working on, but first I must congratulate you: Tropical Malady was just voted one of the 100 best films of all time. I imagine you saw the Sight and Sound poll. Does that kind of recognition mean anything to you? And are you surprised Tropical Malady was singled out, rather than one of your other films?
AW: Well, sometimes I am asked to make a list, and often I change that list. So, it doesn’t mean much… And for me, it doesn’t mean one work; Tropical Malady belongs to the other pieces of my memory because they are all connected. Whatever film is in there, it’s the same, they’re connected. What is meaningful is that the film still resonates after all this time. It’s like a very, very old memory, so I’m surprised.
GMC: You’re in the process of restoring Tropical Malady, right?
AW: Yes, hopefully we’ll be able to release it by August next year.
Sakda Kaewbuadee and Banlop Lomnoi in Tropical Malady (2004)
GMC: What was the experience like, diving back in after all this time? How do you relate to the film now?
AW: We’re not up to the technical part yet. We’re still looking for materials, for the best sources of sound, of image. Maybe I’ve been trying to avoid it all these years? I always dream of seeing the work like a regular audience, where you don’t already know which cut comes after which cut... I’m still waiting, maybe until the sound mix, so that I can really encounter the film again.
GMC: Over the last couple of days, I have been reading some of your older interviews. One thing which struck me is that early on in your career you spoke about watching lots of films, about being a voracious cinephile. Whereas you’ve told me that, nowadays, you rarely watch films.
AW: These past few years I’ve been doing a lot of artworks and fewer movies. Making visual arts, that trajectory, has forced me to be quite focused on the process of making. Because of this process—researching, sketching—when you see a film, it becomes quite superficial to just see the product. In creating art, every process is beautiful, you know?
I feel overwhelmed, let’s say, by living. By that I mean work and life, they’re on the same path, it’s not separate. That’s why I dedicate less time to movies. Reading is now more inspirational to me. And being with whatever is at present, even though sometimes it doesn’t produce anything, it’s so enjoyable. The words “overwhelm” and “enough,” they mean the same thing to me: it’s enough.
GMC: How do you relate to your own finished films then? Does this “product” represent an end that you would actually prefer never happen?
AW: When you make a movie, it involves so much. Luckily, I have [my producers] Simon [Field] and Diana [Bustamante]. In the past, I myself did a lot of the communicating with different producers, funders, going to festivals, doing press. That cycle is not so exciting. Even though I used to make one film every two years, somehow I feel more productive now. There’s so many different photographs, sketches, many things that I just enjoy doing.
GMC: This slowing down, is it also related to the changing realities of film production? To the fact that, in the 20 years since you started making films, it’s become much more complicated?
AW: For sure. And I want to challenge myself. That’s also why for Memoria I decided to work with Tilda, and to go to Colombia. It involved a lot of shifts.
Tilda Swinton and Juan Pablo Urrego in Memoria (2021)
GMC: It was your first time shooting a feature outside of Thailand. Can you talk a bit about how you ended up choosing Colombia?
AW: I was always fascinated by Latin American cultures—ever since I was young, reading those adventure books on the Amazon. When I became a filmmaker and started to travel, to Peru, Brazil, Colombia, I felt the familiarity. I was attracted to the chaos, the colors, it really felt like home.
In 2017, I had the chance to travel more extensively in Colombia. That’s when I was experiencing this condition, Exploding Head Syndrome—that’s what it’s called, the “bang” I would hear in my head—so I started to write. I had also just gone to the film festival in Cartagena. They screened a retrospective of my films and they made this clip, a montage, very nicely, of all my past films. Watching that made me very emotional. It felt like a funeral, like something was supposed to end there, and a new beginning was starting.
So, Colombia is this symbolic place where this revelation happened. It also synchronized with what I’d talked about with Tilda, that we had to find a country in which to work together, where everything would be foreign to us. We needed to embrace the idea of not knowing.
GMC: You had already decided to work with Tilda before choosing to shoot in Colombia.
AW: Right, right. But we didn’t know what the film would be, and then these images accumulated during the trip.
GMC: There are elements throughout the film that gesture towards the armed conflict in Colombia: the man who mistakes the bursting tire for an explosion and runs away, for example, or the older Hernan character’s traumatic memories. On set, you told me you found it difficult to approach this dimension because it wasn’t your history, it wasn’t your story to tell. At the same time, in Colombia, this history is so present—it’s in the air, you feel it constantly. Inevitably, it’s in your film.
AW: It’s in the title itself: Memoria. I got the term while location scouting; I saw the [Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliación in Bogotá] and the team explained that, for Colombians, the word “memoria” is specifically tied to the trauma and violence of the armed conflict. The title kind of shaped my approach to the film. And looking back at my research, I can see that I had unconsciously focused on this trauma already, I’d just approached it very instinctively… Maybe that’s also why I was drawn to the country in the first place? Because of these ominous, very heavy feelings.
Now I want to go make a film in a different country. This time, I want the production to be more flexible. It’ll be a smaller budget, and probably with Jenjira and Sakda. It’s the same old gang.
GMC: In the film’s finale, the communion that happens between Jessica and the older Hernan can be understood as an expression of the possibility of empathy, of connecting across cultures. Do you think you felt a particular affinity with Colombia because of Thailand’s own troubled history?
AW: Maybe the idea to shoot the film there started from that as well, because I needed to get away from Thailand for a while. But while shooting, it wasn’t on my mind.
Now I want to go make a film in a different country. This time, I want the production to be more flexible. It’ll be a smaller budget, and probably with [my longtime actors] Jenjira [Pongpas] and Sakda [Kaewbuadee]. It’s the same old gang.
After Colombia, I want to be closer to home. And to be even more free, to not control everything and just let things flow—as in, the freedom to jump into the new territory. I was thinking of Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) [Apichatpong’s debut feature, an itinerant documentary with an exquisite corpse-like structure, in which people across Thailand are asked to add to a fictional story that is then represented on-screen]. What we were doing, in 1999, there was a kind of freedom to it. It really was an experiment. In Colombia, it was more complicated because of the bigger production, the language. For he next production, I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’d like to not have a concrete list of things to shoot each day. What would be the same as in Colombia is the mode of not knowing what you want.
Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)
GMC: By not knowing, are you referring to the fact that, for Memoria, you shot a lot more material than you ended up using? Even by your usual standards, you left out so much from the final edit.
AW: The way we shot Memoria was like throwing a net, a wide net. If you look at the Memoria book that you made, you can see there were a lot more elements that inspired me. Then, through a process of reduction, I tried to understand the heart of the film. This film was my most challenging. I had to make a lot of difficult decisions, in order to discard and find that Tilda, or Jessica, is the one whose needs I should respect. She needed to breathe, and I just had to make the movie become her.
In the script, there is much more this idea of the landscapes and other settings. But when I looked at Tilda, at what she contributed, it was almost like everything was embodied in her, you know? We just need her to guide us to these places. She becomes a landscape, part of the reflection, like a mirror. I wrote the script with her in mind and, automatically, the script became quite loose. Meaning, it’s tight but at the same time nothing much happens, because I knew I would have to make it become meaningful through her. That’s a difference from the other films. Don’t you agree that Tilda is a big catalyst?
GMC: Definitely. She brings in a whole new energy that didn’t exist in your previous films. Did you already know that this would be the case beforehand, or did you discover it while making the film?
AW: I even discovered it after some of the screenings. The most powerful one was the premiere in Cannes, actually—sometimes I don’t know the core, the heart of a film, until it has been presented in certain conditions, or with other people. I think the film will continue to play differently to me in different times. Like you said, Tilda is such a force, I honestly don’t think that even she knew while we were making it.
GMC: The protagonists of your previous films, like Tong in Tropical Malady or Jenjira in Cemetery of Splendour, were in large part based on the actors’ biographies. In Memoria, you created a completely new character for Tilda. It’s interesting that Sakda and Jenjira brought so much personal history to their characters, yet their presence in the films is softer than Tilda’s, even though Jessica is somehow emptier, more reflective.
AW: The other films are so rooted in the actors’ territories and stories, whereas I think Tilda is playing a ghost. The scene in Memoria by the stream, that is the turning point where Jessica, to me, is no longer Jessica; I think she realizes that she doesn’t exist. She’s an entity, she’s a ghost, and she’s cinema, you know? That’s what I was trying to tell my producers, and they didn’t get it: “What do you mean, Jessica is cinema?” I don’t know if I can try and convey this feeling but she is to me. It’s almost symbolic. She’s the one who carries images and sounds.
In Memoria, she really embodies my spirit, or both of our spirits, us being there in Colombia and trying to synchronize. To be synchronized, you have to become silent, right? You have to listen. That’s the key: reducing your presence and just absorbing. People talk about Memoria like my other films, but I feel like it’s quite different, in that regard.
She’s an entity, she’s a ghost, and she’s cinema, you know? That’s what I was trying to tell my producers, and they didn’t get it: “What do you mean, Jessica is cinema?”
GMC: Is this an avenue you’d like to keep exploring?
AW: I actually miss Jenjira. I want to go back to exploring her, and also the religious part of me, and how our lives deal with the aspect of dying. We’re getting old, her husband just died. The end is something so fascinating to me.
GMC: On this idea of further exploring your religious side, you used to say that there was both a parallel and a contradiction between Buddhism and cinema. Has your thinking about their relationship evolved?
AW: It’s more personal. It’s about the relationship of my activities: this idea of living without attachment, without thinking, without planning that much, which is contrary to constructing in cinema. There’s some overlap in that you can evoke the idea of non-self, or the illusion of self, in cinema—obviously, cinema is another kind of non-self, in the way it engrosses you, entertains you, makes you lose yourself for a while—but it’s a different method, it’s not the same thing.
GMC: Your wish to return to a more experimental, freer mode echoes what Tsai Ming-liang did. After making Stray Dogs (2013), he said he wanted to scale back, and to just keep experimenting with his actor Lee Kang-sheng, to see what came of it.
AW: I think it’s also a resistance. When you go to festivals, once you’ve become accepted, there’s so many expectations. Of course, there’s an awareness that comes along with that. It’s dangerous, this question of how can you outdo yourself. It forces you to think in the same trajectory: always bigger. If I had to guess, I’d say Tsai wanted to take back control, to explore something that had no expectations from other people.
GMC: And that mode eventually produced Days (2020), which is such a beautiful film.
AW: I really appreciate the way it was made, because you can tell he enjoyed it, but for me, the film is too personal, it’s not for the public. I feel uncomfortable being in that sphere. You understand?
GMC: You felt like a voyeur?
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
GMC: What else? Are there any current developments in cinema that excite you?
AW: Maybe you can tell me. What’s going on?
GMC: Hmm, did you see Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)?
GMC: And did you like it?
AW: Yes. It’s so simple, right? It’s such a classic storyline, there’s no innovation there, but the technology is amazing. In other movies that are completely computer-generated, you can feel there’s something missing, whereas in this one you are able to identify. The characters have those very big eyes, they’re like babies. It’s a mass market product, and I admire that aspect which only Hollywood can do.
GMC: Speaking of computer-generated worlds, I’d like to know more about A Conversation with the Sun. What motivated you to try out VR?
AW: First, the Japanese producer sent me the headset. I was so excited about the possibilities, I was sure that this technology would change cinema. But once I started working with it, I thought, “Okay, this is not going to change cinema, this is something else.” It’s moving image, but it belongs to a different category that is more like theatre. I think in the future it’s going to be more relevant than cinema, though, in terms of how it can be applied to our daily life. The day there’s no more cinema, life will continue, whereas once VR has developed to a certain point, there’ll be chaos if suddenly there is no more VR.
A Conversation With the Sun (2022)
GMC: At a masterclass a few years ago, Jia Zhangke said that VR opens up a completely new philosophical horizon for cinema.
AW: It’s an opening, but it also severs the link: there’s no more cinema. Cinema has its own world. When you make cinema, it’s really dictatorial. You force the audience where to look, you place a frame for people to look through. Although people think VR is immersive, cinema can possess you more, it makes you become. VR gives back this freedom to look. So, what’s left for the director?
My work in Japan is wireless—you can walk wherever you want, and you see the other audience members as dots of light. Your perspective is not led by anyone. It’s all about what is happening in which part of the space. The director becomes more like a set designer, and you can visit the set.
GMC: Was it an enriching experience for you?
AW: I’m pretty happy with the work that we created. It was challenging, I’m so used to cinema that I only communicate in pictures and storyboards. When you’re dealing with a technical team who has to build a world from scratch, from all angles, you cannot communicate in two dimensions. For a film, when I talk to my sound designer, when I talk to my editor, I know the software—here, I had no vocabulary. No matter how much I drew, how much I explained the world… you have to describe everything: the texture, the lighting, everything. It becomes so open that I would lose my focus in terms of timeline.
Working in VR, you see that cinema is very limited, but you’re also made aware that it’s so beautiful. VR cannot replicate this idea of point of view, or even the idea of empathy.
Giovanni Marchini Camia is a writer and a programmer for the Locarno Film Festival. He co-founded Fireflies Press, the publishing house behind the book Memoria.