I first met Apichatpon Weerasthakul when he had an installation at REDCAT in 2007. My friends Eungie and Clara invited me to his opening and I interviewed him for GR the next afternoon. When my wife and I visited Thailand a few months later, he and his crew met us for dinner. What a gentle and sweet human–not to mention brilliant artist and filmmaker.
His latest movie, Cemetery of Splendour, was just released in the U.S. on DVD this week. It involves soldiers falling into mysterious slumber and being sent to a remote clinic. The protagonist, Jenjira, tends to the sleeping bodies. One of her colleagues has psychic powers, an ancient underworld comes into play, goddesses come to life, and there’s a boner scene, but none of these come across as a big deal. The film is as dreamy as it is meticulously constructed, and a great excuse to get back in touch…
This movie is new to me but old to you. Do you mind revisiting your older work?
I need time to forget many elements and behind-the-scenes memories. Still, I prefer not to see them. The best screening is the premiere with the public, always.
Your signature pacing is so patient and cerebral. But sometimes I had the feeling that if you sped up Cemetery of Splendour it would almost play out like a comedy! Is this thought crazy?
Not at all. I heard from some people that this one and my previous film are kind of comedic. To me, there are no laugh-out-loud moments but there is the joy of seeing things, light or dark.
The scene where the awakened soldier grills Jenjira about her American husband was uncomfortable and amazing. How do different international audiences react to it?
I don’t observe the audience but for me the scene happens when they are already in a dream state. His teasing is for her to reflect back to a man whom she has married and adopted, as she has adopted another person. Yet they are strangers.
The sculpture garden, the exercise classes in the park… Are these things you just see around the city and keep in your back pocket for when the right movie comes around?
The group exercise is so common in Thailand. We do it in the park, the parking lot, or wherever space is available. But the kind of dance in the movie was new to me. I saw it while doing location hunting. As for the sculpture garden, it was made up after I was impressed by a temple near the Mekong River that has many wayward sculptures.
You have to tell me about the amoeba scene, which is so arty and enigmatic.
I stole the footage from the film Uncle Boonmee. I shot several protozoa for a scene where Boonmee was born as a single-cell organism in a pond. It reminded me of a time when my mother showed me the cells through her microscope. In Cemetery, at that point, memories are jumbled.
The horror movie within the movie was incredible, too, and I know you enjoy watching cinema that is different than what you make. Do you think you could ever make a movie like that? What if you used a pseudonym?
I don’t think I could make a good one. Not many can. There are vocabularies that I do not excel at. That’s why I am fascinated by them. They also bring back childhood memories.
The soccer scene at the movie’s conclusion is burned into the back of my eyeballs forever. Can you tell me how that came to be?
I think people playing with balls looks beautiful, but at the same time ridiculous and funny. And that can be boring. I cannot sit through any kind of sport, except the movie Zidane, which I think is great. For Cemetary‘s ending, it is as if I forced Jen to watch the game through the dust to question her own sanity, as well as the audience’s. I don’t know if it works, but it does for me.
And can you tell me about the Korean theater project that is associated with Cemetery as well?
It’s called Fever Room. This theatrical experience has quite an impact for me–more than I had anticipated. The roles of 2D, 3D, 4D are played out and extended from Cemetery. It’s hard for me to elaborate, but it is about awareness that in simple projection through space, information disintegrates. It makes me look at light with fresh eyes–actually ancient eyes–because we simply see shadows. I am back to the cave. As a result, I am working on two new projects that are only shadows.
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