Seeing Things with Joei

 |  July 1, 2010

Reporters from a TV station and another magazine impatiently sit outside the offices of Apichatpong’s production company, Kick The Machine, in Bangkok. They’re all waiting to talk to the man who in May picked up the Cannes Film Festival’s most sought after prize, the Palme d’Or, for his film ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’. Catapulted from virtual obscurity, he’s recently become an Asian lodestar to the world’s ‘art supplement’ coterie, whisked around Europe for an endless tally of tête-à-têtes and photographs, then subsequently corralled here in Thailand for two weeks or so giving interviews and handshakes on and around the clock with everyone from a primed Abhisit to a proud Nation. In spite of undoubtedly having had to repeat himself into a state of interview enervation, the clean-cut, congenial filmmaker of the moment answers the questions put to him animatedly with no sign of fatigue or weary dispassion. “Still high,” he says of coming back full-handed from Cannes, explaining that after making just five feature films he feels comparatively young for such an achievement – he’s 40 – and winning, he says, “felt sudden”, though weeks after his glass elevator ride in Europe, and the subsequent melee in Thailand, he now acknowledges, “I’m ready to come down.”

His films have picked up less prestigious Cannes awards in the past and have won prizes and accolades all over the globe, including high rank in many ‘best of decade’ lists. It seems, within the European and American art-media milieu, Apichatpong’s often gentle streams of Thainess, do-it-yourself filmmaking, are a welcome anodyne to mainstream mania. His films have been hailed as “brilliant” at the apex of western film criticism, described by one British journalist as a “poem on screen”. In spite of his European successes, until his recent big win at Cannes, he has been somewhat of a non-entity in the Thai ‘pop-culture’ nexus, what impressions he had made – outside his artist/intellectual following – were more akin to that of a meddlesome pariah than an experimental hero. He may be something of a golden egg amongst western cinéastes, though between the Thai man-in-the-street and the prosaic echelons of Bangkok governmental ministries, he’s perhaps a bit of an ugly duckling due to his ostensibly subversive and confounding style.

Ironically, much of the subtlety in his films concerning Thainess, cultural nuance, social hypocrisy, etc, will indubitably be lost on most foreign movie-watchers and critics – though perhaps the not-understanding of what is happening, or the challenge that affords, is what floats the critics’ boat. Thailand unsurprisingly, being a surreal country by nature, when poetically illustrated by Apichatpong, is a story the avant-garde West seems to find fascinating. His films are not blockbusters, nor, he says, does he ever intend to make blockbusters, instead his stories – that outside of Thailand could certainly be deemed esoteric – are a dreamy patchwork of incidences filming Thai people doing mostly Thai things. His movies are pervaded with themes of sexuality, dreams, death, rebirth, and filled with awkward eerie moments involving such things as monsters, and monks with panic disorders. His recent winning opus for instance is a transmigratory tour of a dying old man’s (Boonmee) former lives from a hospital bed in north-eastern Thailand.

“I grew up in Khon Kaen (Nakorn Rachasima) and lived in the hospital grounds for fifteen years as my parents were both doctors,” explains Apichatpong in light of his penchant for hospitals and illness in so many of his films. “I got used to the hospital structure . . . but as a kid there was nothing philosophical about death or rebirth, the life cycle, for me it was a playground. I’d go watch my father at his clinic and listen to the villagers from all over Isaan, I was fascinated by the local people and the sights and smells of the clinic.” Even now, he explains, the smell of antiseptic is a “comfortable smell” for him. “It’s a form of nostalgia,” he says, “I try to recreate what I cherished in my childhood.” The “rapid acceleration of development in Thailand”, even though with some positive attributes, he feels is “ugly”. “When the Chinese shop houses sprung up all over the country we lost the charm in architecture,” he explains, “we also lost something in movies when films became more about mass consumerism.” His ‘primitivist’ leanings can be seen in most of his films, where he tends to focus on the rural or provincial side of Thailand.

“I’m comfortable with this side of life, not city life; Bangkok is not Thailand.”

Whilst studying at the School of Art Institute Chicago he became fond of experimental cinema. “I was very much influenced in America,” he says, “having the freedom to travel, having a great teacher and for the first time seeing films from countries like Taiwan, Malaysia and Iran.” He took inspiration from experimental artists and filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Luc Goddard, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and part Chiang Mai based installation artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, whom he accredits as being “one of the most important artists in Thailand right now, one of the few I respect.” He explains how he “hated school in Thailand” for its regimental, “teacher based” methodology, though even as much as he enjoyed his new lease of life in Chicago, “I still felt conservative”. His profound dislike of the Thai education system is something still ‘close to the bone’; he recalls how his psychology teacher in school, after he’d said he wanted to be a filmmaker, had told him in no uncertain terms that he should have more “realistic goals”. “It’s this kind of education I despise,” he says, “in America I was developed, I was pushed, I learned there was no right and no wrong.” He ran with the freedom of expression fostered in him in Chicago and admits emphatically, “I’ve become pretty obsessed with this freedom.”

“In a way I came back to Thailand with new eyes,” he says, adding that after returning and becoming somewhat a vociferous critic of some aspects of contemporary society he nevertheless “treasures both the beauty and ugliness of Thailand.” Apichatpong has held seminars on education and the arts, one of which was entitled, ‘What’s wrong with the Thai education system?’ In reference to this he invokes his fellow artist again: “Rirkrit said that ‘Thailand is a big school with a headmaster and students’, he calls it a ‘culture of obedience’. But this is also the charm of Thailand, it keeps me going . . . it keeps bugging me.”

Along with other Thai filmmakers Apichatpong started the ‘Free Thai Cinema Movement’ in opposition to Thailand’s strict censorship laws. His films, most notably ‘Syndromes and a Century’ have been literally blacked out in parts by the national censorship potentates under the belief that the filmmaker’s radical scenes are a threat to moral decency. In one scene from the aforementioned movie a monk quite unspiritually plays guitar and in another a degenerate doctor prepares to imbibe whisky. Aspects of ‘reality’ – realism – Apichatpong admits, in Thai cinema are almost impossible to recreate due to “stupid censorship laws”. He continues, “They think the scenes will disrupt social stability, that political films will polarise people. But when they talk about disrupting national security anything can be lumped in to that.”

“I think people want to see reality, if it’s done right, if filmmakers have the capacity to do it right.” The very people who are denied the censored scenes he credits with often being “more advanced than the government” though he adds that the government still feels it needs to protect the people from themselves, or artists such as himself. “I’m pro freedom,” he says, adding “even porno should have a place. You can access everything underground anyway.” He explains that one woman at a seminar had told him that she thought he held this conviction as he didn’t have children. “But we have a 20+ rating in Thailand, so this means she mustn’t trust the system, and who can blame her?” He explains that with lax laws – “something you see every day in the street” – people don’t trust the filmmakers or the authorities, something he says, “is very dangerous, but very Thai.”

Ladda Tangsupachai, director of the Ministry of Culture’s Cultural Surveillance Department – somewhat of a bête noir to Apichatpong, was famously quoted in Time Magazine as saying Thailand’s moviegoers were “uneducated”, and “not intellectuals, that’s why we need ratings.” She also noted that “Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong. Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh.”

“I wondered if I could sue her”, Apichatpong says laughing, and tells a story of how recently he bumped into her in a lift. “I was trapped in the lift with her and I even waied her; I shouldn’t have, I’m so Thai I surprised myself. She boasted that the surveillance team had been upgraded and she’d been promoted. I told her,” he grins, “good luck”.

“I like watching people, not being watched.”

Whether Boonmee will ever make it to Thai cinema screens Apichatpong is not sure about, though he hopes he’ll be able to show the film at festivals and one-off showings around the country. Even after his historical win, he admits that it won’t change much within the Thai cinema scene. “Cannes is nothing in Thailand,” he explains, “the Oscars is something. Cannes is more of an artistic achievement.” He explains that he would like to see smaller, indie or art house cinemas throughout the country, notably Chiang Mai, where he has been living in his much favoured bucolic surrounds for the last three years out in Mae Rim.

“I know my film isn’t perfect, and I don’t want to mislead people,” he says discussing the ‘indie’ or experimental nature of the film. Perhaps in correlation to his ‘obsession with freedom’, he follows no provided structure when it comes to filmmaking, consequently, his films have been called difficult by some. Being plot-less, and disregarding what many filmmakers say is impossible, mainly to make an interesting film ignoring conventional modes, and certain other elements of story development, he has taken some flak from a small number of critics. Apichatpong believes that people might be more “open to differences” in film if they have more exposure to other forms of film.

He even equates the recent political turmoil to this ‘one way of thinking’ attitude: the attempt to reduce a naturally heterogeneous mass to a more agreeable whole under the auspices of national “watchdogs” such as surveillance departments. “The world doesn’t have one language,” he says, “we all have different voices, we have to acknowledge these differences, whether in film, sexual preference, religion, politics . . .”