b. 16 July 1970, Bangkok, Thailand

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema is one of transgression, of social, carnal and metaphysical border-crossings. Born on July 16, 1970 in Bangkok, Weerasethakul was raised in Khon Kaen, a rice-farming region in rural North Eastern Thailand, which has provided the setting for the majority of his films. The region is one rife with contradictions: it is the home of the rebel red-shirt movement but has also been scarred by communism’s chequered history in the region. 1 It is an area where harsh political realities mix uneasily with traditional folklore and superstition. This intersection between traditional Thai culture and the incursion of Western ideologies has imbued the director’s body of work with a dynamic, transnational cosmopolitanism that itself can be viewed as markedly Thai. As Gridthiya Gaweewong claims, Thailand stands “at a critical position… in the middle of intersection[s] between globalization and localism; tradition and contemporary culture; Buddha and cyberspace” 2 and Weerasethakul proves the nation’s foremost observer of these heterogeneous conditions of Thai globalisation.

Weerasethakul received his Bachelor of Arts with a major in architecture from Khon Kaen University in 1994 and received his Master of Fine Art in filmmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997. In 1999, Weerasethakul formed the aptly-named production company Kick the Machine. Making a series of short films and art installation pieces from 1993’s Bullet to 1999’s Malee and the Boy, Weerasethakul’s oeuvre exhibits a singular style offsetting realism and surrealism in equal measure. Often, the portrayal of the everyday is juxtaposed with supernatural elements suggesting a distortion between empiricism and folklore, the subconscious and the latent and the hierarchical nature of power. His work also reveals stories often excluded in recorded history, providing a voice to the poor, the marginalised and to those who have been robbed of the power of expression for personal and political reasons.

Specifically. Weerasethakul has shown an interest in exploring the dialectical symbiosis between human’s relationship with nature and the fissure caused by the introduction of Western social structures. For Weerasethakul, the Thai people have traditionally held a relationship with nature that is one of immanence. This is an important idea in Buddhism that dictates that we are not, in fact, disparate from nature: we live in nature, through nature, and we help to constitute what nature is. This is in direct conflict with the influence of the West. Following Marx, this is a culture of materialism where under late capitalism, labour is divided, such that workers operate distinctly from one another and their environments. This gives birth to the possibility of human control and so, in a society that elevates technological progress and commodity fetishism, our identities are largely constructed via the products that we consume, disconnecting us from our ‘authentic’ selves. For Weerasethakul, the attempt to return to nature is usually encapsulated through the expression of his characters most ardent desires.

Sud Sanaeha (Blissfully Yours, 2002)

Weerasethakul’s first feature-length film, Dokfa nai meuman (Mysterious Object at Noon, 2000) is his first full-form act of transgression, blurring the lines between documentary and fiction. The film is based on Exquisite Corpse, a parlour game adapted by the Surrealists in the early 20th century in which each player contributes to the making of a sentence without knowing what preceding players had written. Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Weerasethakul’s follow-up and first fiction feature Sud Sanaeha (Blissfully Yours, 2002) follows three characters living in a North-Eastern Thailand: Min (Min Oo), an illegal immigrant from Burma suffering from a severe skin condition, Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram), his Thai girlfriend and Orn (Jenjira Pongpas), an older woman who serves as Min’s caretaker. The first in a loose trilogy of diptychs (with the film’s credits creating a blistering fissure, 45-minutes into the film), here Weerasethakul paints a portrait of rural Thailand imbued with the machinations of global market forces and the limitations of borders both enforced and implicit.

The film opens with a scene in which Min is being treated by a doctor for his skin condition. With Min remaining mute to pass as a local, Orn speaks on his behalf. She persistently pleads with the doctor to sign a certificate granting Min a clean bill of health so that he can work, but she refuses to do so without sighting official documentation. Later, it is implied that in lieu of this, Orn has been selling Min’s medication and treating him with a homemade remedy she’s been producing from a concoction of fruit and pharmacy-bought balms. Weerasethakul elucidates that in contemporary Thai society we see that a degree of control, over one’s body, one’s health and even one’s financial independence has been commandeered by the bureaucracy of Westernised medicine.

Likewise, Roong toils in a factory where she painstakingly colours mass-produced figurines of American cartoon characters. She works for a tyrannical boss, who steadfastly denies her leave despite her claims that she’s contracted malaria. Roong keeps incarnations of Fred and Wilma Flintstone as talismanic mementoes on her car dashboard, highlighting the insidious transnational miscellany of modern Thai life. 3 As Min and Orn travel to meet Roong, Weerasethakul presents an extended scene shot from the back of a car, capturing the impoverished shanty towns that line the rural vista. The trio attempt to escape the oppressive bounds of their habitual alienation by stealing to the countryside for an afternoon’s respite. This bucolic jaunt instigates the film’s distinct second half which is punctuated by long, drawn-out scenes, set in almost real-time and peppered with only the sparsest of dialogue.

Min and Roong have planned a picnic, which they first set up on a cliff-side lookout and then later by a flowing brook. Min’s status as an illegal alien elicits a profound sense of dread, symbolically manifesting in his skin condition, and as a fear of exposure that renders him mute for much of the film. To counter this, Weerasethakul presents sketches from his diary etched into the film image to give his émigré a voice. One child-like drawing implies that Min’s rash most likely came from hiding in a septic tank to avoid legal authorities. Another shows that he desires not only Roong but has erotic thoughts about Orn. The drawings substitute Min’s relative silence – the implied outcome of a life sentenced to the margins, while conveying his desire for physical intimacy, to inscribe himself on another’s skin. 4 Hence, Min’s desire to transgress social boundaries manifests in a desire to transgress physical ones as well.

What follows is an impressionist rendering of a lazy afternoon in the mountainous border region between Thailand and Myanmar. Adopting a painterly aesthetic, Weerasethakul lingers on limbs under water and the way that movement and the refraction of sunlight serve to create visual abstraction. Min and Roong also lay under trees, their bodies the speckled shadows of leaves, creating variants of shade and light that recalls the masterworks of Monet and Renoir. Such visual splendour however, is permeated by the spectre of materialism the trio are attempting to shake. The very sun that serves to create such beauty is also an existential threat to Min, whose psoriasis means that he should avoid direct sunlight. The steady streams of water also fail to conceal the rashes and scarring that cover Min’s skin. Later, Ong joins the pair. In a surreal twist, she walks through the forest that transitions from lush green to infested with barrels of toxic waste, picking up an antiseptic mask along the way to protect herself from the noxious fumes they emit. When she arrives at the idyll, her body is scratched up from the shrubbery. Roong leads her into the water so that she may get relief, but this only conjures up sad memories of her son, who had previously drowned. All this points to the ways in which the forces of nature can be both friendly and fatal, but ultimately underlines the merely transitory reprieve of desire.

For Weerasethakul, implicit even in joy is the inevitability of decay, appropriated in the image of the red ants who infest the picnic during the final scenes, ruining everything and devouring whatever food they find. The flaws in this pastoral scene also recall darker, off-screen realities. For instance, the Burmese military junta, which has hindered development and made the country one of the least developed and entrepreneurial economies in Southeast Asia, driving chancers like Min abroad to seek their fortune. It also recalls Thailand’s own government under Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the richest man in the country, whose stated ambition to make Thailand as prosperous and sanitised as Singapore is implicitly challenged by every act of subversion in the film. 5 By way of conclusion, Weerasethakul discloses via on-screen text that Min will go on to get a job in Bangkok; Roong will find a new boyfriend and the pair will work at a local noodle stall. Orn is said to continue to work as a movie extra. Jolted out of the narrative world, this blunt epilogue serves to underline the film’s ephemerality. In bittersweet fashion, Weerasethakul concedes that escape from the machine is futile, but we see how these characters at society’s margins can confront and transgress such symptoms of modernity at local, social and physical levels, constructing for themselves permeable ideas of selfhood.

Sud pralad (Tropical Malady, 2004)

His next feature, Sud pralad (Tropical Malady, 2004) continued Weerasethakul’s Cannes success, winning the Jury Prize in 2004, as the first ever Thai film to be selected into the main competition at the festival. The film opens with a group of militias posing for a photo with the corpse of a civilian that they have pulled from the jungle: an image recalling a trophy hunter’s portrait from yesteryear. The body has been savagely mauled, purportedly by a tiger who has been preying on the local villagers’ cattle. This scene, which Weerasethakul will return to, to introduce the film’s second half, serves as the meeting point for educated soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and naïve country boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) between whom a romance quickly blossoms.

Like Min in his previous film, Weerasethakul focuses on a pair of outsiders, this time queer protagonists whose romance is forced to flourish on the margins of a largely conservative Thai culture. The first half of the film plays out in an understated, realistic depiction of the pair whiling away the days, the more-worldly Keng introducing Tong to video game parlours, the cinema and pop concerts, as their feelings for one another almost imperceptibly bubble to the surface. There is however, something that feels inherently abortive about this budding romance. We see Keng cruising men’s bathrooms, sharing knowing, implicitly intimate looks with fellow soldiers, suggesting that his bond with Tong is far from committal. In a scene at the cinema when Keng attempts to touch Tong’s thigh, Tong playfully crosses his legs, at once teasing but also supressing this act of intimacy. Physical affection will only be depicted once in the film, when the pair lick each other’s hands before going their separate ways, Tong entering the darkness of the forest and Keng on his motorbike and through the neon-lit city.

Continuing his exploration of the impacts of cultural hybridisation, Weerasethakul again explores Western culture’s impact on Thai traditions and its impediment to authentic expressions of desire. This is encapsulated in an early scene in which Keng and Tong visit a mall and Tong wanders up to a big advertisement for mobile phones emblazoned with the slogans “connection” and “communication.” More than anything, this trip to the Lotus Mall (operated by multinational Tesco) seems alienating and disconnecting, with Weerasethakul filming Tong adrift in a sea of shirt racks and sale posters as though lost in a jungle (a metaphor that will be inverted in the film’s second half). In fact, mobile phones and electronic devices are ubiquitous in the city, but these do not particularly seem to connect people. Riding on a bus, Tong smiles at a woman with a dewy-eyed innocence that borders on leering predation. She smiles back awkwardly, only to pull out her phone and averting her gaze, avoiding any semblance of human interaction.

Weerasethakul also playfully points to the ironies of Thai culture, which have emerged as a result of its encounter with Western modernity. In one scene the statue of Buddha is accompanied by the sounds of Christmas carols – a spiritual tradition overridden by one with its roots in corporate America. We also hear a Buddhist parable about the folly of greed that finds a modern-day counterpoint in the story of a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire who loses money by reaching beyond their limitations. In this way, the first half of the film then foregrounds Keng and Tong’s relationship in an aimless drift amid the details of cultural spectacle. As in Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady is also split into two halves, the second here overtly titled A Spirit’s Path. What begins with a light, sensual mood infusing the first half, with its constant shifts between urban modernity and tranquil rural lands, gives way to the dark, sombre and frightening aura that hangs over the second half’s shadowy night time images, exploring psychological aspects Tong and Keng’s relationship as an unseen menace. 6

In what may be a past or future life, we learn that the killer of livestock referenced at the start of the film is actually a shaman who can shift between human and animal form, primarily taking the shape of a tiger. Weerasethakul effectively begins the film again with Keng hunting the shape-shifting tiger-shadow who is now played by his boyfriend Tong. If the building passions at the end of the first segment gently revealed themselves to be too strong to control, the second half visualizes the full, terrible power of unchecked desire. Although set deep in the jungle, technology still looms large in the film’s second half and is key to interpreting the film’s dialectical meaning. Keng has a radio, but all it can pick up is a garbled voice. Eventually, it doesn’t even get that, totally lost to static. This same sound-design element is later heard coming from a firefly trying to communicate to Keng, and then again from an entire tree aglow with the insects, like a supernatural antenna between nature and society: the true voice of nature drowned out by an icon of modernity.

The only verbal communication made in the jungle ironically comes from a monkey telling Keng that he can either kill Tong to free him from the ghost world or allow himself to be devoured and enter his. In the end, after Keng’s modern acculturation has been symbolically “devoured,” he confronts the tiger-shaman, and then submits. “Monster I give you, my spirit, my flesh, and my memories” as his voice is modulated to sound gradually more and more like the tiger. Tong, representative of tradition and the rural (country) in the first half, is fittingly thrust into the role of the tiger-shaman. Keng, an educated soldier and symbolic representative of developed Thailand, must undergo a period of degradation, physical and symbolic, before he can fully coalesce with nature; before he is fully able to “submit” to a state of what Marx refers to as “ecological integration.” 7

This recalls the quote from Japanese novelist Ton Nakajima that opens the film: “All of us are by nature wild beasts. Our duty as human beings is to become like trainers who keep their animals in check and even teach them to perform tasks alien to their bestiality.” Here, is referenced the Heideggerian concept of the Master/Slave dialectic, a markedly Western concept that sits in marked contrast to traditional Buddhist precepts of human relations. Weerasethakul laments that civilisation obliges us to perform tasks alien to our true nature and in response asserts that it is our duty as human beings to submit to the beasts of our better nature. Fables, myths and legends remain relevant and alive in Weerasethakul’s films, and buttress uncomfortably up against the bombast and chaos of modern life. 8 Such stories still resonate in the present, mysterious and beautiful and sometimes frightening. These intense tales of transgression and desire that can bind two people together feel more appropriate and instructive than ever re-contextualised by Weerasethakul against a modern world, where love is often repressed, and spiritual revolution is required the most.

Sang Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century, 2006)

Weerasethakul’s next feature Sang Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century, 2006), is a story inspired by the lives of his parents in the years before they fell in love. It was commissioned by Peter Sellars to premiere at the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth (though Weerasethakul makes no explicit reference to the genius composer, believing his influence to be inherent in all things). A year after its initial release, despite being Weerasethakul’s most innocuous film to date, Thai censors demanded four cuts be made (which largely showed doctors and monks behaving “inappropriately”). 9 Weerasethakul refused to make the cuts and the film was not released locally. His final bipartite narrative to date, Weerasethakul sets both parts in hospitals. The first one is rural and vaguely old-fashioned (the type of hospital in which he spent much time as a child) and the second an urban and high-tech facility of the future.

In the first half, Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) interviews Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram). Toey assigns Nohng to new duties in the emergency ward and then proceeds with her day. She tends to an elder monk and negotiates the gifts, amorous pleas, and a marriage proposal from Toa (Nu Nimsomboon). Uninterested in Toa’s advances, Toey recounts her own experience of unrequited love with an orchid expert named Noom (Sophon Pukanok). In another film where illnesses abound, the real ‘syndrome’ that most preoccupies Weerasethakul is desire or more precisely, the stuttering, shambling awkwardness of expressing one’s love, (as opposed to the single word or gesture it takes to open up a chasm in an existing relationship). As a pop singer sardonically croons early in the film: “love is always the answer.”

At the film’s halfway point, we see Nohng’s job interview repeated. The second half then goes on to play as retelling of the first, with characters reincarnated, the location transplanted, and society irrevocably changed by the emergence of technology. Aside from the difference in setting (green landscapes outside the windows of the first hospital and high-rise towers outside the other) the two halves are distinguished by their quality of light. The first takes place largely in natural light (and dark), whereas the second is lit mostly by fluorescent-tube ceiling lights. In this sense, Syndromes and A Century reverses the shift from civilisation to nature found in his previous films. For philosopher Gilles Deleuze, these repetitions and divergence exemplify a radical kind of transgression. Deleuze has argued that the failure to exactly replicate an antecedent indicates a break in the oppressively fixed patterns of social order and frees time from the cyclical modes that subjugate content. 10 In this sense, the minor alternations are provocations to question absolute truths and cultural norms, and another way in which Weerasethakul’s dialectical disturbances become subversive.

In the scenes of the second half of the film, the varied colours of nature are replaced by the monochromatic whites and greys and metallic colours of the industrial world, while the background sounds of wind and insects are replaced by buzzings and mechanical drones. Weerasethakul asserts that we are not only alienated from our most essential selves and our happiness. We are alienated from one another as well. Listlessness and depression are unique characteristics that appear in the second half of the film. Inauthenticity appears when people make small talk while playing with their mobile phones and distractedness appears when characters uncannily stare off into nothingness for long periods. Again, Weerasethakul suggests that Buddhistic mantras might provide greater potential for fulfillment and contentment than any capitalistic ontology.

The theme of unrequited desire is also echoed and expanded upon in the film’s second half. Here, Nohng and his girlfriend Joy (Jarunee Saengtupthim) meet in a hospital laboratory, kiss, and she tries to coax him into moving to a new development area outside the city. It is clear that he is not interested and that as with most of Weerasethakul’s characters, the pair are simply going through the motions. Joy tells him that it’s close by the sea, but his retort is glib: “don’t try and tempt me with nature.” This is the reduction of nature to a commodity; diminished to a mere bargaining chip.  The scene ends with another kiss and Nohng laughing with embarrassment as he adjusts the erection in his pants. This act of physical intimacy triggers a sense of happiness in the doctor, which the phallic towers of a bourgeoning, soulless metropolis failed to generate. We see again that Weerasethakul’s collective cinematic memory is all about exploring elation, experienced through human connection, fleeting, transgressive but no less real.

Likewise, the forest of the opening stanza is mirrored by the mechanical wilds of the hospital in the second. In the background of the frame are office chairs, an uncovered electrical outlet and its wiring, along with inexplicable twisted tubes and prosthetic legs. These are literally the techno-scientific divided, commodified substitutes for parts of humans, and the patients who test them, not quite whole. In a later scene two doctors discuss selling Red Cross t-shirts, there is no real sense of treatment happening here, just blatant profiteering. There are other, more abstracted echoes that reverberate between one half of the film and the other. In the first half, for instance, an anecdote about greedy farmers (reappropriated from Tropical Malady) is paired with the image of a total eclipse of the sun. This is then paralleled in the second half by the image of the dark orb of an extractor funnel sucking up noxious fumes in the hospital’s basement; Weerasethakul’s camera tracks around and towards it, producing a vision of abject terror, the black hole of technology that consumes everything in its path.

Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010)

Weerasethakul’s next feature, the Palme D’or winning Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010) was made as part of multi-platform art project called Primitive. Including his short films Phantoms of Nabua (2009) and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009) (which functions as a prologue of sorts to the feature), this is Weerasethakul’s memoir project, dramatizing violent events that took place in 1965 in the village of Nabula, near the Thai-Lao border in which the Thai army killed numerous communist sympathizers. Together, the pieces tell of a devastating history of Communist oppression and immigrant exploitation that weighs heavily on Boonmee, who was regretfully forced to join Communist forces in a handful of farmland massacres in the 1960s.

Inspired by the director’s father, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying of kidney failure. His sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee, reprising his role from Tropical Malady) have come to care for him. Early in the film Boonmee is visited by the ghost of his first wife Huang (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) and his missing son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who has taken the form of a red-eyed spirit monkey. In a formal departure from his previous works, the film incorporates distinct vignettes, like a series of past lives, each major sequence shot in a specific cinematographic élan. While the film can be interpreted through many lenses, most notably the teleological and as an allegory for the death of cinema, Boonmee’s past lives contain within them hints of transgression against political boundaries. In the film’s opening scene, we see a bull inhaling the twilight air, then breaking free of its tether to run loose through a lush meadow. It is slowly and sumptuously filmed, clearly inspired by the spiritualists like Tarkovsky, Bresson and Tarr, slow tracking shots following the buffalo as it wanders through the jungle until a herder comes and reattaches a rope and leads it away, and it paces after him, obediently, fatally: a wild beast tamed by its Master.

Another past life, aesthetically influenced by Thai costume dramas of the 60s, and shot in a mesmerizing aqua hue, concerns a deformed princess who can see a ‘beautiful’ and unblemished version of herself reflected in a magic pond. In the pool, she sees a catfish, who lures her into the water before having sex with her. In order to enter the water, the princess sheds her robe and jewels, vestiges of her royalty that sink to the bottom of the pond, leaving her natural body bare, and aligning her with the animalistic. As in Weerasethakul’s past work, boundaries between past and present, dream and reality, body and spirit are made to be transgressed. The world of nature, properly understood, contains all of those disparate elements and affords them roughly equal value. Boonmee, a believer in karma, inhabits a world in which a Buddhist understanding of the transitory nature of various forms of being coexists with animist beliefs in the supernatural power of particular places, objects and living things. 11

The most telling components of the film however, have no bearing on the beyond but instead examine the organization of labour on Boonmee’s farm and his relations with his hired help. Like Min in Blissfully Yours, Jaai, the main worker on the farm, and also Boonmee’s carer, functions as outsider as a Laotian immigrant. In the film’s opening scenes, we see Jen articulate her prejudice against the Laotian workers, saying that they’re “smelly” and warning that they sometimes rob and kill their employers. She goes on to talk to Jaai, who reveals that he is soon leaving, heading back home to marry a girl who he’d been courting from a distance. He has maintained his connection to his native country, and he knows that even if Boonmee treats him well (though it’s implied that he isn’t paid fairly) this existence doesn’t really represent freedom and the land he occupies is not his home. Like Min, Keng and Tong, before him, it is through the desire that Jaai wards against his latent exploitation.

From the oppressed to the oppressor, there is also a political component to memory throughout the film. One of Boonmee’s dying regrets is his time spent as a soldier, violently suppressing communists for the government. He links his illness to karmic retribution, though Jen shrugs off such concerns, reinforcing the importance of intent. She recalls her own father who had been sent into the woods to hunt people but reveals that instead he hunted animals, communing with nature and avoiding the horrors of murder. Again, for Weerasethakul, wilful disobedience of authority and forging a deeper connection to the natural world appears to be the answer. The film is subtly haunted by this violent, military past, a mostly unspoken past of bloodshed and repression and points to the ways in which political violence can echo across time.

Perhaps it is this very idea that inspires Boonmee’s retreat deep into the forest, finding a cave with his loved ones where he plans to die. Filled with minerals that glisten making the walls look like the vast night sky, a cavity in the cave’s roof allows the moon to shine through. Boonmee compares it to a womb and Weerasethakul’s lingering camera does make it feel like the birthplace of all creation. Boonmee tells of a dream of an authoritarian future in which the past can be erased by the government, in which those who maintain a connection to the past are hunted and captured, then made to disappear. It’s an obvious metaphor for government coverups of atrocities perpetrated against whole cultures and groups, like the Laotians and Burmese, like the monkey ghosts who may represent primitive ethnicities or cultures and can be made to disappear by the inevitable onslaught of progress and modernity. Weerasethakul depicts this in a series of still photographs, both macabre and humorous, of young soldiers detaining a spirit monkey, evoking Chris Marker’s masterpiece La Jetée. Directly mirroring the photographs of the new city in Syndromes and a Century, this is a vision of cultural and spiritual stasis and the totalitarian society that Weerasethakul has spent his career warning against.

Ultimately, the characters return to town for Boonmee’s funeral. and the lushness of the farm gives way to signs of modernity: television sets and air conditioners, gaudy karaoke bars and neon lights that brighten not only urban restaurants but sacred temples in equal measure. Even Boonmee’s coffin is revealed to be a gaudy tower of flashing lights disrupting the sombre, spiritual tone of the funeral, and introducing the abrasive disjunctions of modernity, in which the cheap and the superficial eat away at the spiritual. There are no ghosts in the darkness here, just flickering apparitions on a television screen, a dirge of its own kind for the ever-vanishing majesty of nature.

In the film’s final scenes, Weerasethakul further examines the changes of modernization when Tong appears as a monk at the end of the film. Tong is depicted as too restless for the monk’s life, too reliant on modern conveniences and appliances. Such signifiers of technology also infiltrate the monasteries, as Tong describes how many of the monks have stereos and computers to send emails and wishes that he also had such possessions. In perhaps the film’s most perplexing image, we see Tong undergo a physical bifurcation, splitting into two and looking back at himself watching television as he exits the farm for a quick bit to eat. In this, we see materialism’s power to divide the self, Weerasethakul’s subtle lament for a culture that has perhaps lost touch with the sacred and the divine. The film then comes to be partly about Thai culture’s increasing emphasis on the worldly and the material. In this context, Weerasethakul’s emphasis on reincarnation, ghosts, rural legends and romantic folk tales comes as a radical assertion of the resistance of these traditions against encroaching modernity.

Cemetery of Splendour (2015)

In the five years between Uncle Boonmee and his next feature, Cemetery of Splendour (2015), much would change politically in Thailand. 2014 saw the rise to power of General Prayut Chan-o-cha who in a bloody coup d’état, deposed the country’s prime minister and installed a royalist military junta. New constitutional amendments granted sweeping, virtually unchecked powers to the National Council for Peace and Order, allowing the junta to stifle any party, person, or demonstration that is deemed critical, dissenting, or inharmonious. 12 It is unsurprising then, that this film offers Weerasethakul’s most overt and scathing critique of authoritarianism to-date. Like Syndromes and a Century, the film is set in a rural hospital in the forests of Khon Kaen. Here, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner, reprising her role from Uncle Boonmee), a middle-aged volunteer, oversees a unit of soldiers suffering from a sleeping disorder. She befriends Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) a psychic who works at the hospital, serving as a conduit of communication between the comatose soldiers and their loved ones. She also experiences a strong connection with one of her patients, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), a young soldier in possession of a strange notebook full of maps and arcane symbols. There’s no clue to the medical cause of the soldiers’ mysterious deep sleep and they receive treatment in the form of fluorescent light machines, formerly used on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan as a way to induce positive dream-states.

When Jen is visited by two princesses (at Planet Dinosaur, a tacky theme park emblematic for Thailand’s hybridised culture), we learn that the hospital has been built on a historical site teeming with the ghosts of ancient warriors, who are sapping the soldiers’ energy to continue their battles in the spiritual realm. This revelation takes on new meaning in light of Thailand’s wide-sweeping lèse majesté law, which has been used to imprison citizens for years at a time over minor (or completely oblique) critiques of authority. 13

While Itt and Jen’s relationship develops platonically and at a languid pace, there is an underlying sense of thwarted desire between the two, Jen’s sensuously massages under Itt’s pants and the two go on dates in town, where Itt playfully enquires about Jen’s romantic life. In one scene, the pair sit through a trailer for a salacious supernatural horror film. The audience rises for the Thai national anthem before the main show (as is mandated by law) but instead of music, the viewer is presented with only silence. What follows is like nothing else in the film; a montage of tableaux that undercuts any propagandistic picture of progress. Weerasethakul presents a brutally realist montage of homeless people sleeping under a street lamp next to a mural of Sarit Thanarat (a soldier who staged a coup in 1957 and remained Prime Minister until his death), 14 a man gathering trash near a reservoir, and another sleeping in a bus shelter underneath an ad for the ‘EU wedding studio.’ When we return to the neon mall, an unconscious Itt is being carried out of the theatre, down a Dante-like labyrinth of escalators. The screen slowly dissolves back to his fellow soldiers lying awash under the neon lights of the hospital. Echoing the basement in Syndromes and a Century, it is as if Itt has been pulled down into to pits of Hell. All of this serves to push against the structural forces of systematic mind-washing and national hypnotism rife in Thailand: against the pillars of nation, technology and control, the nation’s enforced iconography of power.

The idea of skewering the Thai regime’s delusion of faultlessness finds another kind of expression in the skin creams that are sold during the film. Targeting the lonely and insecure, these creams may treat the surface but usually have no meaningful effect at all. However, Weerasethakul’s far more haunting images are those linked with the wars and genocide around the spread of communism in the region. At one-point Keng taps into Itt’s psyche and as a spirit from a past life and leads Jen on a tour of a local palace that only he/she can see. Keng-as-Itt glides through the hallowed halls, seeing the rooms of a gorgeous palace and magnificent vistas of an unspoiled land. In contrast, Jen sees what’s actually there: refuse, debris and discarded moralistic quips painted on signboards (the only one that transcends platitudinous truism, acerbically reads: “A tycoon the size of an ant is always noticed but a pauper as large as a mountain is completely ignored.”) As Keng describing the fertile lands of the past Jen looks out at the urban sprawl and describes it as lonely. Mirroring both the physical and preternatural decay of Thailand over the ages, the pair pass two sculptures, (which also appear in Weerasethakul’s installation Fireworks (Archives)) one which depicts two lovers embracing on a bench, and five feet away, the same couple posed as grinning skeletons. Weerasethakul asserts that both these realities exist. More pertinently, there are ancient forces and battles underpinning the actions of many Thai authority-figures, and that contemporary Thailand is a wasteland of consumer detritus, didactic commands and surreal incongruities.

After their phantasmic tour, Jen asks Keng how she knows that she is awake, and the psychic advises that she just needs to open her eyes as widely as possible. In the film’s final scene, Jen stares intently at an image at once devastating and absurdly beautiful: school children attempting to play soccer amongst the craters that have been dug up on the hospital site. Whether the cranes are excavating the past or creating graves for the future remains uncertain; however, Weerasethakul suggests that it might be too late for Jen, grimly forcing her eyes open as widely as possible, to wake up from this particular nightmare.

Jen in Cemetery of Splendour (2015)

In the years that have followed Weerasethakul has worked on yet-to-be-released projects Ten Years in Thailand and Memoria. His latest installation Sleepcinemahotel (2018) played at Rotterdam in 2018. Weerasethakul transformed an operational hotel into a cinema hall playing for guests and visitors and on 24-hour loop. In the works covered, Weerasethakul explores a deep, socio-political divide we all must constantly overcome: the divide between succumbing to oppressive forces of authority and actively trying to unite with a deeper energy; the divide between who we are individually, collectively and how we should like to function as a society. With each successive film, Weerasethakul has refined his method of visually capturing that metaphysical connection that binds us all. If anybody wants to overcome this invisible, multivariate divide, he suggests it be done through transgressive acts of love (reaching back to the inborn, connective tissue that binds us all, that drives us to grow and form meaningful connections) as transient and fleeting as these may be. In his films he commands us never to be submissive, but to be subversive. Despite the pain, the most transgressive act of all involves looking, between social and metaphysical liminalities, we must always keep our eyes wide open.

Filmography:

Feature Films

Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)
Blissfully Yours (2002)
The Adventure of Iron Pussy (2003)
Tropical Malady (2004)
Syndromes and a Century (2006)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Mekong Hotels (2012)
Cemetery of Splendour (2015)
10 Years Thailand (2018)

Short Films and Installations

Bullet (1993)
0116643225059 (1994)
Kitchen and Bedroom (1994)
Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves (1996)
Rice Artist Michael Shaowanasai’s Performance (1996)
100 Years of Thai Cinema (for Thai Film Foundation, 1997)
thirdworld (1998)
The Lungara Eating Jell-O (for World Artists for Tibet, 1998)
Windows (1999)
Malee and the Boy (1999)
Boys at Noon (2000)
Boys at Noon / Girls at Night (2000)
Haunted Houses Project: Thailand (for Istanbul Biennial, 2001)
Secret Love Affair (for Tirana) (2001)
Narratives: Masumi Is a PC Operator / Fumiyo Is a Designer / I Was Sketching / Swan’s Blood (for Intercross Creative Center, 2001)
Second Love in Hong Kong, co-director (2002)
Golden Ship (for Memlingmuseum, 2002)
This and Million More Lights (for 46664, 2003)
GRAF: Tong / Love Song / Tone (2004)
It Is Possible That Only Your Heart Is Not Enough to Find You a True Love: True Love in Green / True Love in White (for Busan Biennial, 2004)
Worldly Desires (for Jeonju International Film Festival, 2004)
Ghost of Asia, co-director (for Tsunami Digital Short Films project, 2005)
Waterfall (for Solar Cinematic Art Gallery/Curtas Vila do Conde International Film Festival, 2006)
Faith (for FACT/Liverpool Biennial, 2006)
The Anthem (for LUX/Frieze Art Fair, 2006)
Unknown Forces (for REDCAT, 2007)
Luminous People (in The State of the World, 2007)
Because (2007)
My Mother’s Garden (for Christian Dior, 2007)
Meteorites (for Short Films for the King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 80th Birthday, 2007)
The Palace (for National Palace Museum, 2007)
Emerald (2007)
Vampire (for Louis Vuitton, 2008)
Mobile Men (in Stories on Human Rights, 2008)
Phantoms of Nabua (for Toronto International Film Festival, 2009)
Empire (2010)
M Hotel (2011)
For Tomorrow For Tonight (2011)
The Importance of Telepathy (for Documenta, 2012)
Cactus River (for Walker Art Center, 2012)
Mekong Hotel (for Arte, 2012)
Ashes (2012)
Sakda (Rousseau) (2012)
Dilbar (at Sharjah Biennial, 2013)
Fever Room (at Kunstenfestival des Arts, 2016)

Selected Bibliography:

Apichatpong Weerasethakul. “Dear Khroo,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul Sourcebook: The Serenity of Madness, (New York and Chiang Mai: Independent Curators International and MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, 2016).

Apichatpong Weerasethakul. “Jogging Around the Swamp.” Gagarin: The Artists in Their Own Words 9:1 (2008).

Brynjar Bjerkem, ed. Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Photophobia. (Transnational Arts Production, 2013).

Dana Linssen, “Apichatpong Weerasethakul” (nai010, 2018).

Erik Bordeleau, Toni Pape, Roanald Rose-Antoinette and Adam Szymanski, “Nocaturnal Fabulations: Ecology, Vitality and Opacity in the Cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul,” (Open Humanities Press, 2017).

James Quandt, “Ghosts in the Darkness,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul. (Vienna: Synema, 2009).

James Quandt, “The Folly and Future of Thai Cinema Under Military Dictatorship,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul, (Vienna: Synema, 2009).

James Quandt, “The Memory of Nabua: A Note on the Primitive Project,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul, (Vienna: Synema, 2009).

Leo Fabrizio. Zurich, “Anomalies and Curiosities,” Dreamworld, (JRP/Ringier, 2010).

Maeve Butler and Eimear O’ Raw, eds. Apichatpong Weerasethakul: For Tomorrow For Tonight. (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2011).

Massimilian Gioni eds. Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Primitive (New Museum 2011).

Articles in Senses of Cinema:

Amir Ganjavie, “A Homeland Swansong: Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Cemetery of Splendor,” Senses of Cinema 77 (December 2015), http://sensesofcinema.com/2015/feature-articles/apichatpong-weerasethakul-interview/

Brett Farmer, “Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Transnational Poet of the New Thai Cinema: Blissfully Yours/Sud Sanaeha,” Senses of Cinema 38 (February 2006), http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/blissfully_yours/

Vera Brunner-Sung, “Phantoms of Liberty: Apichatpong Weerasethakul edited by James Quandt,” Senses of Cinema 54 (April 2010), http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/book-reviews/phantoms-of-liberty-apichatpong-weerasethakul-edited-by-james-quandt/

Endnotes:

  1. Nigel Andrews, “Weerasethakul’s Waking Dreams,” Financial Times, 6 October 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/e23e05e2-105a-11e5-ad5a-00144feabdc0
  2. Brett Farmer, “Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Transnational Poet of the New Thai Cinema: Blissfully Yours/Sud Sanaeha,” Senses of Cinema 38 (February 2006), http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/blissfully_yours/
  3. Brett Farmer, “Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Transnational Poet of the New Thai Cinema: Blissfully Yours/Sud Sanaeha,” Senses of Cinema 38 (February 2006), http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/blissfully_yours/
  4. Katrya Bolder, “Laying Bare the Implications of Touch in Blissfully Yours,” Cleo 5:1, http://cleojournal.com/2017/04/21/laying-bare-implications-touch-blissfully/
  5. Tony Rayns, “Blissfully Yours: Towards the Wondrous Void,” Vertigo 3:4 (Winter 2007), https://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/vertigo_magazine/volume-3-issue-4-winter-2007/blissfully-yours-towards-the-wondrous-void/
  6. Jake Cole, “Tropical Malady” Not Just Movies (May, 2011), http://armchairc.blogspot.com/2011/05/tropical-malady-apichatpong.html
  7. Matthew P. Ferrari. 2006. “Mysterious Objects of Knowledge: An Interpretation of Three Films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Terms of the Ethnographic Paradigm” Masters Diss. University of Ohio
  8. Ed Howard, “Tropical Malady” Only the Cinema (May, 2011), http://seul-le-cinema.blogspot.com/2011/05/tropical-malady.html
  9. Dianne Daly. 2006. “In the Frame of Mind to Take Control: Politics Surrounding the Banning of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century” PhD Diss. Monash University
  10. Jecheol Park. 2014. “Beyond the Neoliberal Governance of Time: Syndromes and a Century at a Standstill” 54th annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference
  11. A.O Scott, “A Farewell to This Life, and All Its Ghosts,” New York Times, 1 March 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/02/movies/02uncle.html
  12. Michael Blum, “An Homage to Thailand’s History and Elegy for Its Future” Hyperallergic (October, 2015), https://hyperallergic.com/241319/an-homage-to-thailands-history-and-elegy-for-its-future/
  13. Kong Rithdee, “Cemetery of Splendour,” CinemaScope 63 (Summer, 2015), http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/cemetery-of-splendour-apichatpong-weerasethakul-ukfrancegermanymalaysiathailand/
  14. Violet Luca, “Dream State” Film Comment, March/April 2016, https://www.filmcomment.com/article/apichatpong-weerasethakul-cemetery-of-splendor/

About The Author

Nathan Senn is a Melbourne-based arts and film writer. He is Head of Programming at both the Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF) and the Environmental Film Festival Australia (EFFA) and regularly contributes to programs for MIFF and Sydney Film Festival.