Watching a film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul is sort of like wandering through a new city. Things are always happening, but it’s not typically eventful. Yet afterward you know that you’ve learned something. Maybe the experience has even changed you a little. Weerasethakul is undoubtedly the most prolific filmmaker in the history of Thai cinema. Coming from a country whose film output has only met international renown in the last few decades, Weerasethakul has quickly become a film festival darling and a household (albeit difficult to pronounce) name in cinephile circles.
Weerasethakul was born and largely educated in Thailand, though he did travel to Chicago for his education in filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His early works were short films, an area of interest which he has maintained even through his development into an internationally recognized artist. He has largely spent his career representing Thai culture on the world stage even while simultaneously doing constant battle with Thai censors who have restricted his ability to express his ideas. Still, perhaps he has the censors to thank in part for his career as these restrictions have allowed him to create some of the most original and innovative pieces of social and political commentary ever filmed.
Weerasethakul’s first feature was Mysterious Object at Noon, an experimental film which toured some of the less publicized international film festivals in 2000. Though the movie didn’t have wide audience appeal, Weerasethakul’s style quickly caught the eyes of critics. The plot is simple. It consists of a series of interviews with different people across Thailand who subsequently add sections to a story. The story is simultaneously reenacted on screen. Weerasethakul’s experience making short films meant that his first feature was not the amateurish student-film-esque effort with which many filmmakers begin their careers. Mysterious Object at Noon is an interesting movie where Weerasethakul tests out many the flourishes that would go on to make up his unique style.
Blissfully Yours was his next feature film and one in which Weerasethakul firmly sunk into the slow pacing that would define his career. Plot-wise it’s probably his most accessible story, essentially following a pair of young lovers for one day. It does shirk norms in a jarring moment when the opening credits loudly begin about 45 minutes into the film and some seemingly anachronistic narration throughout maintains a bit of the surrealism that would go on to mark the rest of Weerasethakul’s films, but for the most part it is a sunny and tender romance that resembles something like staring at a Monet painting. Perhaps it was the methodical pacing or the forest setting, but Blissfully Yours felt reminiscent of Old Joy, an early effort by one of the American masters of slow cinema: Kelly Reichardt. The movie is simple, but touching, and really hones in on the way that romantic love can evolve as time goes on. Fans of plot heavy films will find it difficult to engage with as its style is more observational.
After Blissfully Yours, Weerasethakul collaborated with Michael Shaowanasai on musical-comedy The Adventure of Iron Pussy, a film which is unfortunately inaccessible in the US. His next solo effort was the surreal romance Tropical Malady. It tells the story of Keng (Banlop Lomoi), a soldier, becomes enamored with Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a local boy who seems interested but not quite emotionally mature enough to appropriately respond to Keng’s advances. The film exhibits another of Weerasethakul’s favorite stylistic trends in that it takes a sharp turn at its midpoint. The second half of the film follows a soldier, still played by Lomoi, who is searching for a lost villager in the woods, played by Kaewbuadee. As the soldier wanders, encountering the naked and seemingly rabid Kaewbuadee, a narrator describes a shape-shifting shaman who occupies the woods, most commonly taking the form of a tiger. This latter section of Tropical Malady is a purely visceral experience which is meant to be felt and not explained. It seems to drive toward the core of Keng’s emotions and the confusion, frustration, and even grief that can be felt while pursuing a love interest. Much of the symbolism employed here will remain an enigma, but the technique with which Weerasethakul deploys this surreal tale is emotionally riveting and frankly stunning.
Weerasethakul’s next film, Syndromes and a Century, is perhaps his most puzzling. It feels almost like a dream or an attempt to vaguely recall a lost memory. The pieces are tied together with foggy connections and seem to shift with no regard for story or any characters. The film again consists of two thematically connected but largely fractured halves which, this time, mirror each other. The opening sequence of each half consists of nearly identical script queues, but shot from opposite angles and with a few key elements changed. The hospital portrayed in this sequence in the second half of the film feels modern, cold, and devoid of any of the spirituality that made the first half feel hopeful. Supposedly Syndromes and a Century is based on Weerasethakul’s memory of his parents, but it is not a biographical tale. It is a finely layered abstraction which no viewer will decipher with ease.
Almost certainly Weerasethakul’s most famous film came next. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives explores a number of the themes to which Weerasethakul has returned throughout his career: most notably love, both romantic and familial, and Buddhism. The thematic relevance of Buddhism is apparent in the title with the mention of past lives, but it also conveys a sense of worldly connectedness. The characters are implicitly tied to their natural environment and are relatively unshaken by the occurrence of supernatural events which might frighten anyone of a Western belief system. In the opening scene of the film, during a normal family dinner, Boonmee’s late wife suddenly materializes at the table. Moments later his long lost son walks in having transformed into one of the ghost monkey spirits who watch over the nearby forests. These twists are met by the characters with slight surprise, but certainly not shock or horror. Weerasethakul meditates on these ideas while crafting a powerful film of family and loss that carries one of his stronger narrative throughlines and some visual moments which elicit a strong emotional response.
His most recent effort, Cemetery of Splendour, follows Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) who volunteers at a makeshift hospital to help care for a group of soldiers who have been struck with a mysterious illness that causes them to sleep for days at a time. She befriends one of the soldiers, Itt (Lomoi) as well as a psychic named Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) whose mystical abilities allow the conscious caretakers to communicate with the sleeping soldiers. Weerasethakul uses this enchanting and dreamlike film as a platform to again explore Buddhist principles as well as to engage in some loose discussions of Thai history. There also seems to be a political message baked in here. The characters theorize that the soldiers souls are being used by dead kings to fight otherworldly battles. The pacifist political implication is apparent, though I wouldn’t say the film is particularly focused on an activist message.
From Cemetery of Splendour, Weerasethakul moved on to Ten Years Thailand, an anthology project with five Thai directors each taking the helm on a separate section of the film. It was presented at Cannes with only four segments but a fifth was later added. As the film just premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, I can’t yet speak to the quality or how much Weerasethakul’s voice stands out among the crowd, but it’s great to see him continuing to platform Thai art on the international stage. The next project he will take on is Memoria which has already signed Tilda Swinton as its star and will be shot in Colombia. It will be Weerasethakul’s first film shot outside of Thailand, but I have no doubt that his magical style will still shine through.
To do justice to the filmography of Apichatpong Weerasethakul would take vastly more than the small amount I’ve written here. This brief retrospective serves more as an appreciation of his stunning filmography than any sort of serious analysis. Truthfully, with a filmmaker like Weerasethakul whose films are so much more deeply felt than understood, words on a page could not possibly serve to replace the impact of his art. After only one or two viewings each, I can’t even confidently assert a full understanding of any of these films. Weerasethakul is one of world cinema’s greatest voices and his mode of expression is impossible to put into words. I look forward to what he will do next, but also to a lifetime of reappraisal of these films during which I am certain that I will learn more about the films and even about myself.