Northeastern Thailand rarely features in internationally acclaimed cinema, but the region has been the setting for filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s beautifully allusive and atmospheric films for years.
Apichatpong grew up in the Northeast and graduated in architecture from Khon Kaen University. He then proceeded to study cinema at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In his films, Apichatpong creates mesmerizing images and nonlinear plots that often blur the boundaries between reality and imagination. While his work eludes any clear political leaning, Apichatpong cultivates a vivid interest in the margins. He often focuses on characters who rarely make it on Thai screens, like homosexual soldiers and migrant workers.
This fascination with borderlands and his enchantment with Khon Kaen have kept luring him to the Northeast. He once referred to the region as “the most precious treasure” of filmmaking possibilities in Thailand, and he wondered whether Isaan’s energy is “the backbone of contemporary Thai society and culture.”
After Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010, and the hour-long Mekong Hotel from 2012, Apichatpong now returns with a new feature set in the Northeast.
Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen) tells the story of a middle-aged woman who cares for a group of soldiers who contracted a mysterious sleeping sickness. Apichatpong calls the film a “very personal portrait” of his hometown Khon Kaen and “a rumination of Thailand, a feverish nation.”
This week, Cemetery of Splendour will have its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France. The Isaan Record talked to Apichatpong about childhood memories, Isaan dreaminess, sinking ships, dinosaurs and the Northeast’s communist past.
Interview by Fabian Drahmoune
IR: How is your personal relationship to the Northeast reflected in your films?
A: Most of my films are more or less based on my memories from my time growing up in Khon Kaen. The landscape around and also the architecture. I prefer to depict the mood of Isaan, I guess it’s also the charm of the region.
My grandfather was from China and he relocated to Nakhon Sawan, so my father is actually from there. And my mom is from Bangkok, she is also from a Chinese family. After they graduated as medical doctors, they chose to live in Khon Kaen, to work at the hospital there. At that time nobody wanted to go to the Northeast.
When I was a little boy, I spent most of my time around the hospital. We lived in the doctor’s housing unit in the hospital area. And most of the doctors were from somewhere else and not from the Northeast.
I wasn’t really conscious about featuring the Northeast in my films in the beginning. I was more interested in borders. For one of my first films, I was interested in the Thai-Burmese border. I always was fascinated by the act of crossing borders.
It was only later when we had more of a budget that I started to feel that I wanted to move my films closer to Isaan. About half of Syndromes and a Century was shot in the Northeast. And Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was about 95% shot in Isaan, in Khon Kaen and Loei Province. My newest film Cemetery of Splendour was shot completely in Khon Kaen.
IR: You are quoted saying that when you were younger you tried to hide your background of being from Khon Kaen. How has that changed over time?
I would say that I was from Khon Kaen, and people would laugh.
A: Yes, it has changed a lot. When I was younger, up until my 20s, when I was trying to get into architectural school, I went to a tutoring school for architecture. I would say that I was from Khon Kaen, and people would laugh. But that would never happen now. It has changed quite a lot, in a good way. There are still some bits of resentment, but less than before.
For many people too, like Jenjira Pongpas, my regular actress, while she was living in Bangkok, she worked for a woman who supplied extras for TV and movies –supporting casts. And one of Jenjira’s jobs was to help them get rid of their Isaan accents. She taught them how to properly speak central Thai.
IR: Why is your newest film set in your hometown Khon Kaen?
A: Partly because I haven’t really been back too often. My mother and my brother live in Khon Kaen, so it was almost an excuse to spend a longer period of time with them.
I feel like Khon Kaen has changed quite a lot. Every time I’ve been back, there is always this memory, the old things layered under what is now. It is almost a bit of a farewell film because honestly, I feel like I should take up the challenge to work somewhere other than Thailand. So, maybe it’s good to have a last film set in my hometown.
Originally, I meant to set the film in Nong Khai, because Jenjira is from there. She has been inspiring me a lot, especially through her memories of Isaan. Also, I really love the Mekong River and there is of course this fascination with borders, the Thai-Lao border. In fact, I think Khon Kaen is not that photogenic compared to Nong Khai, and this felt like a challenge to me too.
IR: How do your childhood memories of Khon Kaen feature in your film?
A: I based it on the hospital that I spent so much time in as a child, and also my school. Because my world back then as a child was really only that: the hospital, the school, and also the local cinemas. So this film is a combination of the three.
I think the film looks at the city with the eyes of sadness.
And we used a school that is maybe 15 minutes from Khon Kaen University, which in terms of architecture is a mixture of wood and concrete. Actually, this is almost a mixture of my school and my old wooden house at the hospital complex.
When I grew up more than thirty years ago, there were mainly dirt roads in the town. And there were not as many buildings as there are today. And because of my architectural background, Khon Kaen sometimes feels like a failure of city planning to me. The traffic is getting quite bad now and there are not that many trees around anymore.
I feel sorry to say that Khon Kaen is becoming very similar to other cities around the country that have no identity anymore. The best that city planners can come up with is placing dinosaurs around the city. We also feature that in the film. I think the film looks at the city with the eyes of sadness.
IR: Is your new film more based in an urban setting than, for example, Uncle Boonmee or Hotel Mekong?
A: It is a combination of neutral places. In the beginning you see something that looks more like a rural school and then the viewer is taken to the city. But not really like a sprawling city, it’s more like shots of the night market in Khon Kaen. And then also the lake, Bueng Kaen Nakhon. So these are more of these neutral grounds which I chose because they have mostly remained the same from when I was young until now.
IR: You talked about your fascination with borders and the act of crossing borders. Do you feel like your films also often cross some sort of border between the Northeast and Bangkok?
Yes, that’s for sure. It’s not only the Northeast, but also the North and the South. These regions are separated spiritually from the center which also translates into a political dimension.
But in my films there are many borders, for example the one between the dead and the living. And also the border between the everyday life and dreams. And I believe that for the Northeast, it is pretty obvious that there is this layer of the two worlds on top of people’s imagination. When you look at Isaan folk tales, they are full of fantastical imaginary or animistic beliefs. So it seems that people and myself included live not only in this one singular dimension, but in various different realities and in their dreams. These can be dreams of the supernatural, the spiritual world, but also dreams of a better future.
IR: How would you describe Thailand’s current political situation and how does it impact your filmmaking?
For me, living in this country represents powerlessness, but at the same time this negative force really drives me to work.
A: Well, I would say, the situation is almost boring. It’s almost like this is one of the Thai seasons, a short winter, a rainy season, a hot season and then the coup season. It’s a never-ending cycle and this is terrible of course. And I feel tired of it.
That is why this film and previous ones look at the country in quite a sad way, full of sorrows. For me, living in this country represents powerlessness, but at the same time this negative force really drives me to work. I don’t know if I were to live somewhere else that I would be as productive.
IR: Previous films of yours have been censored in Thailand. Do you expect to run into censorship problems with your newest film?
A: In fact there’s only Syndromes and a Century that ran into problems with the censors. That film, to me, was so pure and innocent. So you never know what will happen in this country.
IR: Have you ever felt scared or threatened because of the work that you do?
A: Of course. As a filmmaker and artist, it is about expression, so it is a promise that you are being true to yourself. But can you do that in this climate? Often times I cannot call myself a true artist.
It is like being on a sinking ship, but it is a quite comfortable ship. There is music, there is good food, but it is sinking, and we don’t realize it.
IR: What do you think is in store for the future Thailand and how is this related to your work?
A: It is a cycle of power balance, but the problem is that the majority of the people are not part of this power. So right now it is about the recalibration of this power out there, between different institutions. What can I say, I am just amazed that we have survived this far.
For me it is like being on a sinking ship, but it is a quite comfortable ship. There is music, there is good food, but it is sinking, and we don’t realize it.
IR: Is the recurring theme of sleeping and dreaming in your films a political commentary? Are the sleeping soldiers a reference to the Thai military?
A: It could be interpreted like that. Because here you can’t do anything about it, you just sleep and this is a form of escape into the world of dreams. I have featured this theme since Blissfully Yours and also in my Primitive project in Nakhon Panom, in which all the teens are sleeping.
It’s like the intrusion of a fantasy which I sometimes feel like when watching the news. There is the sheer force of craziness. In previous projects I was always interested in the act of sleeping as a form of escape. I did some research about sleeping sicknesses and I discovered cases of people suffering from this kind of sickness during the WWII era. We still don’t know much about these cases.
I am also quite fascinated by uniforms; sexually and also in terms of power in society. So in Cemetery of Splendour, I sort of combine these two fascinations and interests.
IR: What is the significance of the communist past of the Northeast in your films?
A: In a way, this is just me trying to understand what happened during that time. While working with Jenjira, I learned that her father was part of the Internal Security Operations Command during the communist period. He was in a special unit that went out to the villages to suppress communism by screening propaganda films at Buddhist temples. So there is this link to films.
And then I travelled along the Mekong River and stayed at a village in Nakhon Phanom Province. I learned more about that time, which was not totally new to me, but it still impacted me and brought me to listen to people who were traumatized in different ways.
I wondered how come I had so little knowledge about this.
And it’s quite astonishing that this all happened during my lifetime. I wondered how come I had so little knowledge about this. And I believe that these events from then are a very important factor for where Thailand is today.
When I was little, more than once there were 24 hours of cartoons on TV. And that was often exactly the time when the coups, the killings in the villages happened. So this happened while I was enjoying watching my cartoons.
Also the presence of American troops in the Northeast, I remember a US Army base in Khon Kaen as well. And I think they showed 16mm black-and-white movies, like King Kong, and I remember really enjoying watching those movies. I mean this is where part of my love for cinema and American culture comes from, while at the same time it spread fear of communism.
IR: In Uncle Boonmee there is a scene at the table when the spirit of the sister appears and they talk about her foreign husband, Hans. In your newest film there is also a foreign husband. What’s the significance of this for you?
A: All my movies are personal and they always feature people that I love. And Jenjira is one of them. Over the years she really had this mission to find a husband [laughs]. A good husband. We are all looking for a good person for ourselves. She was married to foreigner before who was quite abusive. So they separated and she landed a couple more foreigner partners until she found her current husband who is a really great guy from New Mexico. They have been married for four years and live in Nong Khai. And the foreigner in Cemetery is a reference to him.
In the future Isaan will be very different from what it is now—it might become the center of the country.
I also have this interest in Isaan’s phenomenon of women marrying foreigners. I believe this will have an impact on the region. In the future Isaan will be very different from what it is now—it might become the center of the country. You have all these mixed kids who are financially well-off and of course many also go to better schools. So the landscape of the Northeast will change.
IR: How was the shooting and editing process of Cemetery of Splendor?
A: Shooting in Khon Kaen was a very smooth experience and there was a lot of support from Khon Kaen City, from the police, and from people. It was my first time doing most of everything in Khon Kaen, so that was very new to me.
Usually, I rely so much on the resources in Bangkok. When we casted Isaan people we would find them in Bangkok. But this time, we did casting in Khon Kaen and the process of meeting people there was amazing. Now, I have a long list of talented actors—all of them non-professionals. They have other jobs, but they are really good.
For this film, the shooting was quite straight forward, we followed the script. In fact, I didn’t improvise that much. We really stressed the importance of timing for the shooting; we had to follow the sun. And even though there wasn’t much room for improvisation, it turned out very good for me.
The editing has changed quite a bit for this film. We cut off about 30% of the film. We put the focus more on Jenjira. Before there were other supporting characters but now the movie is her.
IR: In Khon Kaen, is there a community or support structure for filmmakers?
A: Not much, but there are groups of young filmmakers, and a lot of talent. There are agents for modelling, for advertising, and for events, but not much.
From what I know there is only one guy who is really established. Uten Sririwi who made Poo Bao Tai Baan–this guy has a company there. One funny thing is that he has a son, and he named him Apichatpong. So that’s very flattering.
There just isn’t a big audience anywhere for this kind of film. It would be a minority film for every country.
IR: Do you have a release date for Cemetery of Splendour?
A: Only for France, in September. That’s something that boxes me in–people always say I don’t make films for Thai people and it makes it even worse when I don’t show my films here. But it is totally not true because there just isn’t a big audience anywhere for this kind of film. It is a minority film for every country.
IR: But internationally you have quite a crowd of followers.
A: Yeah, it is just that we have different kinds of movie cultures, and hopefully that will also change some day. For example, in Korea or Taiwan, there is a big support from the government, so that not only does domestic movie-making flourish, but also the people’s point of view about the world’s cinema changes; they start to appreciate it. But for Thailand, we can only access such films online and often illegally, so there is not really an official way. This is a real pity.
It would be better if there were state support for this kind of art because I believe that it really changes people. It kind of expands one’s awareness about the world and about different views.
Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen) will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18.