The director and I are pattering away in a bizarre mélange of Thai and English, often within the same sentence. “Thai films can really have a sang son quality, that textbook preachiness, sometimes,” director Apichatpong Weerasethakul muses. “I didn't feel like papayon should be like that.”
The linguistic switch-hitting is apt, considering Weerasethakul has a penchant for rupturing boundaries in his films -- between documentary and filmic fiction in his first feature (Mysterious Object at Noon), and between politics and sexual escapism in his second (Blissfully Yours). His latest venture, Tropical Malady, opens with a tender romance between two men, before plunging into a mythic tale of a soldier hunting a shaman-turned-tiger.
Trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, Weerasethakul extends his uniquely hybrid identity even to his name (he often goes by Joe). Raised on the horror films that would reach his then-rural town of Khon Kaen, Weerasethakul would grow up to be a fan of South Park -- “So experimental!” he exclaims. “Very simple, but for mature audiences.” -- and the darling of international critics, even as relatively few Thai moviegoers have seen his films. Luckily, his awards at Cannes for Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady have brought the director a certain level of artistic freedom within Thailand's rigid studio system, which usually sticks to churning out the formulaic comedies, seethingly maggoty horror films, or bloated historical epics that form the backbone of profit-making Thai film. Weerasethakul has seized the opportunity to not only make his own hauntingly beautiful films but to push for a wider diversity of Thai cinema through his production company, Kick the Machine.
“Audiences in Thailand expect a certain type of entertainment -- things that don't make you think!” he says. “So we have to educate audiences together. I'm not quite the go-with-the-flow type; you become stagnant that way.”
Weerasethakul's own films are of the “challenging” sort -- deeply idiosyncratic, genre-confounding. His first full-length outing, Mysterious Object at Noon, blurs documentary and feature, French Dadaist structure and Thai folklore. The film is an exquisite-corpse-style rendering of a traditional story, as recounted by different Thais the film crew meets on a road trip. Blissfully Yours is a bittersweet contemplation of the relationships among two Thai women and an illegal Burmese refugee -- politics made acutely personal. And Tropical Malady tells a seemingly simple love story before veering into a jungle legend that has the imagistic beauty and darkness of a tale told by the unconscious mind. Each film is a bit of a sat pralad -- the “strange beast” that is the Thai-language title of his latest film -- defying categorization, steeped in personal memory and local folklore, yet openly global.
“I want to make films that work locally and internationally,” Weerasethakul says. “Films that can look outside, and yet improve the condition of the local.” Not surprisingly, his films show aspects of Thailand often left neglected by the country's more commercial movies -- the lives of the marginalized, images of frank sexuality -- while they shun the didacticism that often bogs down Thai films like the mytho-historical Legend of Suriyothai or Bang Rajan.
“I dislike the films that are just so much spoon-fed ideology,” Weerasethakul says. “I'm interested in politics, but not separated from individual people, from personal memory.”
In the past, this unorthodox approach earned the director some challenges from the country's film establishment; a key sex scene was cut from the Thai DVD version of Blissfully Yours, for example.
“It's against the law for them to cut it, but you know Thailand,” he says. Indeed, I say, thinking of the censor-happy, order-first government attitude toward the media and artists that has resulted in the buying out of dissenting newspapers and the suing and intimidation of journalists in recent years. This hard-line, profit-motivated attitude permeates the cronyistic studio and cinema system as well, which has been known to yank low-grossing films within a day or two of their premieres and denies funding to more daring or offbeat projects.
Weerasethakul is optimistic, however: The recent international attention to Thai film is helping the government “understand that filmmaking is a business and art -- they've started to fund short-film initiatives,” some of which the director is helping to organize.
In the meantime, Weerasethakul is at work on his next film, which draws on his childhood memories of growing up around his doctor parents' clinical practice. All of the director's films seem to draw on the stamp of personal experience; when I ask him about the inspiration behind Tropical Malady, he says, “I was super heavily in love at the time, and also heartbroken.” The resulting film is a filmic tribute to “my love of cinema, of the male body, of the jungle … . It was very painful, shooting the film. Sometimes the actors recreated my life, my past experiences.”
Weerasethakul's films seem uniquely attuned to the decay at the heart of even the most rapturous moments. In Blissfully Yours, ants invade a lovers' picnic; the characters engage in strangely disconnected sex. “I've never been anywhere this beautiful,” says a woman to her lover, as they gaze out over the fiercely green forests separating Thailand and Burma. Meanwhile, a persistent background buzzing grows louder -- the sound of chain saws chewing through the jungle. In Tropical Malady, a group of soldiers smile and pose for a photograph by a dead body; one man smiles through a rhapsodic ride into the night, passing another man being thrashed on the street.
Despite his fondness for bisecting his films -- both Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady can be neatly split into two thematic halves -- elements of one world are always intruding on those of the other, or being subtly transformed. For all its realist trappings, Malady's dazzlingly lit romance has the quality of a dream remembered -- smiles gleam strangely; a big faux sun looms over a karaoke stage. Christmas lights at a shrine in the movie's first half are later incarnated into an electric tree in the second half. And, most movingly, a walkie-talkie flirtation -- “Sing me a song … that's static from my heart. It's calling out to you” -- is transformed into the soldier's confrontation with the tiger who seems to represent his feverish desire to merge with his lost love.
“Do you hear it?” the soldier whispers, speaking of the song of love embedded in his body. But it's a question also fitting for the Thai film industry. Will it pay heed to and support films that put forth complex narratives, stories other than those that provide diverting entertainment or build up state mythology? “I'm hopeful,” says Weerasethakul. “I hope it slowly changes.”
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.