A Conversation with Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Interview by: Thunska Pansittivorakul
It is Possible That only Your Heart is Not Enough to Find You a True Love: but cinema can help capture that feeling.
In the first of three insightful interviews with persons of import in the contemporary Thai cinema, Thunska talks to filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasetheakul about B-Movies, the film scene in Thailand, room for the personal in cinematic works, and his upcoming projects.
Thunska Pansittivorakul: Why didn't you choose to study film when you were studying in Thailand?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: At that time I didn't have any affinity for Thai films, and I stupidly thought that [Thai] films are like this because of the educational system, so I avoided it and took architecture instead. I thought [architecture] would offer more opportunities for experimentation.
TP: How [do you think] architecture is related to films?
AW: Everything is related to films. Architecture has its own stories, it is just another way to tell stories. It is characterized by how a person experiences art by using space and time. It is walking from one point to another, which is very similar to cinema. Lighting, shadow, and space are about the story of emotions and of the mind. Some places do not make the person who enters feel that this place was constructed for so and so purpose, and it is able to take the visitor to the activities in that location, which are all prepared in such a way that we do them naturally. Just like humans—each person has a story. People will have different reactions in a relationship. Going to places will give us different feelings or atmospheres, and we will have different reactions to each space. When I first began, I had to try to understand this media form (film) and know what it could do. I created a new structure, so it stands out in structural terms.
TP: Would you call it "deconstruction"?
AW: Something along those lines. Deconstruction is the taking of volume, mass, light, shadow, and utility and improving on it without clinging to the original rules. If the building was originally square, is it possible to turn it into another shape? It's the same with films—what if it doesn't follow the rules of Hollywood? Is it possible to follow the principle of feeling? Yet film is more individualized. Architecture has to serve the people using it everyday, but film is a one-time experience for each individual. Therefore it is a substance that reflects the [film]maker rather than [being] for the viewer's use.
TP: People often say that your films are personal films. Do you agree?
AW: One hundred percent. It is true that films are created for the masses, but I think that at present both the filmmaker and the viewer want more personalization. That is why there is "Movies By Demand" where we can choose films as we wish—we might not want to see the films currently shown in cinemas, or we are lazy to travel to the cinema. These conveniences are happening increasingly to meet the demands of each individual.
TP: Meaning that it also reaches the masses?
AW: Not really. There are more people in this group, but it is a mass in which individuals know what they want. Hollywood has become routine, rather than being something new or interesting. It is human nature to search for things that are not tedious—the desire to travel into new environments. Some may like mountains, others the sea. Everyone has different individual needs, but the same desired ends.
TP: What is the word "film" mean to you?
AW: It is a film that reflects the filmmaker's own self. It does not necessarily have to be easy to interpret. Like all humans, we are not sure what the other person is thinking. But that's why it is fascinating. There are unknown viewpoints, which often happen with experimental films. But that is one extreme—what I am doing is not so extreme; I still want to deliver some kind of message.
TP: Does this mean you want to make films for the [mainstream] market?
AW: No. And it's not that I despise [mainstream] market films, but it is not in my nature. I don't know how to make them. This may be extreme, but it is like a person who wants to be alone on an island, while mainstream films are like orators and politicians who communicate to entertain or sway the masses. My personality is not like that. I am not talkative. I don't have the ability to weave my words to get to the hearts of the masses.
TP: Lets talk about the film you are making now. What is Intimacy [since retitled Syndromes and a Century. -Ed.] about?
AW: It is a project by six filmmakers from around the world who came together to make a film that commemorates the 250th anniversary of Mozart, which will be screened at the same time in November. It is funded by Austria. It does not have to be about Mozart, but it has to have the spirit of Mozart. I see his music to be about miracles and its connection to everyday life. My film will look back at the past in order to see into the future. Just people living life, inhaling and exhaling, meeting each other—these are already miracles. It's a film about beauty.
TP: At first, I heard that it was about your father and mother?
AW: It's not anymore. There's still some element of them in it. I began with my parents' story, but it has sprung to other things. When I met the actors, when I found the location, there were other stories combined and added in. I try not to limit it—I allow it to flow whichever way it goes. It is very exciting.
TP: And your latest project Utopia?
AW: Two years ago, Dviant Films had a project called American Dreams which asked over ten directors such as Jia Zhang Ke, Barbara Hammer, and Fruit Chan, to present ideas regarding the term "American" . We had to film there [in the U.S.] as well.
TP: About Heartbreak Pavillion, film to be produced by Apichatpong, and co-directed by Thunska and Sompot], why do you want to be a film producer?
AW: I want to have the experience of film producing. When I saw the films of Poon (Thunska Pansittivorakul) and Boat (Sompot Chidgasornpongse), I became interested in producing. Their films seem to have the driving force to move towards feature-filmmaking since iteven when it would be very difficult for these two to make feature films in the Thai system.
TP: What do you think of the film industry in Thailand?
AW: From an industrial viewpoint, it is not professional enough. We do not even have a union that can protect filmmakers. It's like a freelance profession, not something you cannot rely on as a career. The system in our country is like a household enterprise where you ask your father for fundingrather than setting up your own factory or establishment. If it was a factory of mass production, the price of investment per piece would be cheaper than in a household enterprise. There are many risks here, and it's not worth the size of the market, which is still small. You invest 30 million (baht) and if you go bankrupt, that's it. It's not ready to develop films for the global market. I'm not saying that we should go and make films only for the foreign market, but we need to have some standards.
TP: But it seems that Thailand is creating the image that we are very professional. Our film labs have higher standards, many foreign films have contacted us, and Thailand is also the location for many foreign films.
AW: That is true in terms of equipment and tools, but we are still lacking in terms of management and structure. The result is that if one project falls, so does the next. We do not have long-term projects—whatever happens, happens. Most of the films that we sell are low-grade films, which create the general view that all our films are like that. What Thailand needs are new thinking processes and a restructuring that is suitable for marketing. It's like the daily newspapers that have exciting headlines but do not have any concrete analysis or serious content at all.
TP: What would you like the schools to teach?
AW: The local educational system, through analysis and research, should find an appropriate approach for each field of study and adapt the curriculum to construct a proper system. This is difficult because even the film festivals in Thailand are full of corruption. They're about self-interest over the collective interest, about making a foreigner who does not know anything about film festivals organize the event so that Thai taxpayers' money can be swindled every year. Thailand is plagued by the greed of a small group of powerful individuals—greedy people who do not think of creating anything beneficial for the country, unlike Korea or Hollywood. They can't even tell [the stories] to entertain [people in] Thailand. People like to use the excuse that it is the Thai-ness that is limiting, and that foreigners do not understand this fact. This is not true. We use foreign-branded cars. Don't we use the Internet? Everything has gone international—all that is asked for is that the story is told well. Look at the writers in our country. How many of them can think out of the box? Japanese books have been translated to Thai and Thais have become addicted to these. Korean series are a hit all over town. We do not have a good grasp of moving towards standardization. Everything is connected. The system of education for creating groundbreaking work is not there. There is only the teaching of people who are fed back into the system to create works of the same sort. There are no international standards.
TP: Then should we all just create B-grade films to feed the international film market?
AW: I think it's okay [to do that]. It is a good start. If we can get to that point, people will know that the market wants variety. The profit-margin through selling and buying will be very different. Competition will be created, and so the quality may be better. I want to emphasize that we are not making films for foreigners to watch, but right now there is need for the word "Thai" anymore because these are films created to present perspectives—whichever country's audience it can connect to is the film's issue. A film has its own life, but right now Thailand is like a robot which just continues to work without any passion or responsibility for the outcome.
TP: If you were someone who had power and unlimited money to implement change, what would you want to do?
AW: We need a film center that distributes [information] and allows people to search for knowledge, as well as something on a larger scale that aids in the production process. The smaller center will create the new generation of films; it will be a center of knowledge that has no limitations in presenting a wide variety of films. It has a library, with activities and workshops, which are created to feed the main center, helping the industry move forward. But we should promote the center and set the trend, open up the center and allow people to participate. It also has to function in labor creation—developing human resources that can depend on the industry for their careers. There has to be an educational system that has a wider coverage, that doesn't just include the production process. It also has to include conceptualizing the project and writing the script. There has to be variety in terms of the films that are produced, including those that are practical and could compete with films from other countries.
TP: Does we have to improve the censorship policy in Thailand?
AW: That too. It still has to exist, but with more standardization. You must be able to check why a film did not pass the censors. The producers must be able to debate why this or that scene is necessary. There must also be leeway for films that did not pass the censors, meaning that if [the film] did not pass then it can still be screened in a limited [number of] cinemas. The producers will then have the alternative of either choosing to go with a decreased market size or cutting out scenes so that the film can have a bigger market.
TP: Is a ministry that deals with contemporary arts still necessary?
AW: Yes, to store and promote the values in Thai society as well as to support people who create works of art. Throughout the past, we have been following global trends, therefore we need this ministry as a means of exchange and presenting new ideas. If we don't do this, we will only be slaves to foreign thought.
TP: Why should people watch movies anyway?
AW: We don't have to, but we have a thirst for them. We need to relax, we need to travel, we need to interact with others. Movies are a [form of] black magic. It's instinctive. In the past we even needed to draw on the walls of caves so that we could tell stories. Films are about human curiosity; it is our inborn trait.
TP: Why must you make films?
AW: Films connect me to the world. I'm not good at speaking or writing. When I made my first film I never imagined [that I would be able] to turn it into a career, but I got lucky. I do what I do now because I think I can still get by, and it is something I am not afraid to do.
(Interview first appeared in Siam Contemp, a magazine published by the Ministry of Culture, Thailand. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, Thunska Pansittivorakul, and with a new Thai to English translation by Vipavinee Artpradid)