A young man searches the jungle for his erstwhile lover, who may or may not have become a tiger. A man on his deathbed converses with the ghosts of his wife and son. A caretaker for soldiers who rest in inexplicable comas befriends a pair of goddesses. A woman is plagued by a sound that only she can hear. In the films of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the fantastical comes across as utterly natural. His characters live comfortably in dreamlike states where no line exists between reality and unreality, and hence the everyday can feel strangely miraculous. His oeuvre includes feature films as well as a voluminous catalogue of short films, installations, performance pieces, and, more recently, even virtual reality pieces.
Film at Lincoln Center has arranged a complete career retrospective of the filmmaker, from his debut feature Mysterious Object at Noon to Cemetery of Splendour to the recent Memoria (Hyperallergic’s #1 film of 2021), along with most of his shorts. The World of Apichatpong Weerasethakul also includes a program of films that have influenced Apichatpong, including works by Nagisa Ōshima, Chantal Akerman, and Abbas Kiarostami. Of particular note is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1993 masterpiece The Puppetmaster, which is extraordinarily difficult to see and should not be missed.
Ahead of the series, Hyperallergic sat down with the filmmaker over Google Meet to discuss his work, durational cinema, VR and video games, and more. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Hyperallergic: You create a singular atmosphere in your films. It’s very calming and peaceful.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I think it’s very open, how you can approach them. And some people maybe have the opposite effect of [experiencing] nervousness or anxiety, even confusion, and give up.
H: Do you think people might have differing reactions to the conventions of the long takes? Do you think some people get uncomfortable?
AW: Some people, yes. I think it depends. How do you synchronize with another person the way you look at the world? What’s the definition of cinema? I think when you’re confronted with something out of convention, it shows your character, whether you’re willing to join that.
H: Your cinema calls for a lot more engagement just by letting things run long and demanding people’s attention.
AW: I think it’s about freedom, no? When you see this open frame, you have the freedom to not only look at the characters, but also the trees and the actions. You realize the dynamics of things around in life, and for me [the shots are] not that long. It’s about being present and going along with the film without having so much noise or a voice in your head. When you’re looking at films in general, you’re thinking ahead about what the story is going to be, and you really empathize with the characters. But for me, it’s more about not only the characters, but also empathizing with all humanity, with animals, with trees, with everything.
H: When you plan your films, how much of the story do you shape in the scripting stage versus when you shoot?
AW: Most of the time, the script is based on actual events that I observed or heard about. And because we have always a low budget, the shooting is quite strict in following that order. So during rehearsal with the actors, with the camera person, with everything, that’s the time to change from the script. It’s a lot to do with the actors. In Memoria, there are many times when there’s no dialogue, so when I wrote it, I had one thing in mind, but when Tilda [Swinton] tried things out, it was always changing in different takes. And I also cut many scenes out from the script.
H: A lot of your films (Memoria, Cemetery of Splendour, Uncle Boonmee) are about people suffering from illnesses, or include characters seeing doctors at some point. What informs this concern with illness, sickness, and healing or not healing from it?
AW: It’s a pretext for the story, but it’s more about suffering, the suffering we all share, but also the joy of living. There are no good guys or bad guys; there are just conditions. I think people are striving to find happiness, as simple as that. For me, my films are not complex at all. It’s just all about people try to reach that. And in the end, maybe it’s just left hanging. It’s just an observation of this cycle, of a goal that is never fulfilled — which I think, when you’re aware of that cycle, that’s really liberating.
H: In Memoria, it turns out that the main character’s condition is part of a connection to the past via a supernatural phenomenon. Do you think suffering can be a way for people to connect to something beyond the normal world?
AW: Not beyond, but inside us. It’s something we sometimes overlook, this connection. I always treat film as an illusion. It’s not real. It’s fiction. Tilda’s character is not real. I’m calling attention to the filmmaking itself, that it’s just a tool. It’s just a two-dimensional thing. Sometimes you’re immersed in the sound and everything, but sometimes, when you are confronted with duration, you realize you’re sitting in a theater waiting for something to happen. It’s this push and pull of reality, sometimes being part of it and sometimes not, that’s a key challenge for me, seeing if film can deliver this idea.
H: You’ve worked in other media as well. Do you approach art, VR, installations, or short films the same way?
AW: Yes, I think so. Many of them are also moving images, but the interaction with the audience is different. When you create something while knowing the audience can move around or can go in at any point, it’s different. It’s more abstract and demands a lot more active participation from the audience. When I started working with VR, I thought it would take cinema somewhere else, that it’s going to propel the future of cinema. But in fact, it’s another language. It really showed me how in cinema you create something linear and controlled. We have close-ups, panning, all kinds of camera movements to guide the audience’s emotions. But in VR, you’re very open, there’s no frame. In my work, the audience can walk anywhere without the wire. I think it’s more theatrical, more like a performance, where you design the environment. So all these media are very different. But I always play or experiment with time, and with this awareness of your body in space.
H: I think of VR as the intersection between cinema, theater, and video games. Have you played games at all?
AW: I used to a lot, up until the time of the Nintendo DS. But then suddenly I started getting motion sickness. So I cannot play anymore. It’s a pity. It gives me a headache now just playing something on an iPad, for example. But before that, I played quite a lot of games.
H: When you played games, which ones were your favorites? You said you played Nintendo. Did you play Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda and all that?
AW: Not really. What was that one game that is about original life and evolution …
AW: Yes! And before that, what did I play? … I was playing as early as the Atari. Even though people hate it, I like E.T., the game.
AW: It’s a terrible game to most people, but for me, I was fascinated by it. Just walking around the neighborhood and doing nothing. He’s digging, trying to find something …
H: Parts for a phone, so he can call home.
AW: Yeah, yeah. Pretty nice.
H: A lot of those early video games were inspired by the creators’ love of exploration. I know you’ve talked about having a fascination with the jungle when you were growing up, in the stories you read. Do you think that’s a similar interest?
AW: Yeah. I was totally into space travel, science fiction, Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, the classic generation. Along with ghost stories, it’s another kind of exploration. I think all these books reflect our fear of the unknown. And they ask these questions about what is God? or what is being human?
H: FLC is doing this full retrospective. Did looking back on your career cause any new revelations for you, or any thoughts about what you’ve worked on up till now, or clarify what you want to do in the future?
AW: Yes. With the features and shorts together, I feel that there is already a lot I’ve done. I think if I die today or tomorrow, I’m okay. It’s this sense of … I don’t know the word in English. Resignation? Resignation. And at the same time, it really pushes me to work more outside my comfort zone, and so to travel and [to think] of the process of filmmaking as living. It’s not about the product; it’s about meeting people and finding great problems and solutions.
The World of Apichatpong Weerasethakul runs at Film at Lincoln Center (144 and 165 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) from May 4 to 14.