Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been generating acclaim on the film festival circuit ever since his 2002 debut "Blissfully Yours," which he followed up with "Tropical Malady" and "Syndromes and a Century." The director’s interplay of mythological reference points, structural trickery and allegorical riffs on Thailand’s complex history had no real precedent. But it wasn’t until 2010’s "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that Apichatpong became a global sensation. A delicate tale of reincarnation and mystical beings, the movie also tapped into national trauma associated with the 1965 military crackdown on communist sympathizers.
Needless to say, the soft-spoken director has never had an easy relationship with his country’s government, and the situation hasn’t improved much. With "Cemetery of Splendour," which arrives at the New York Film Festival this week after strong receptions in Cannes and Toronto, Apichatpong delivers another poetic exploration of alienated characters whose situation speaks to larger concerns.
At its center is Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), a lonely, aging woman tasked with running a relief center housing soldiers stuck in comas all day long. Initially, Jen and some of the other nurses spend their quiet days talking amongst themselves, but eventually they find greater companionship from addressing the sleeping men. Jen's melancholic routine is briefly complicated by the arrival of an American man who she meets online, though he drifts out of the picture almost as quickly as he arrives. No matter what, she's on her own — until one of her comatose patients wakes up. Or does he?
As "Cemetery of Splendour" explores Jen’s experiences, it addresses the natural rift between the country’s provincial society and its domineering, militant government, which has grown more complicated in the wake of the recent military coup. All that means Apichatpong is on edge about the prospects of making movies in the current society. In Toronto earlier this month, the director spoke to Indiewire about his intentions with the new film (which Strand Releasing opens later this year) and why he plans to go somewhere very different for his next project.
So much about this movie is meticulously designed: The rhythmic nature of the scenes, the color schemes and so on. What caught you by surprise about the way it turned out?
The theme is pretty clear, there’s less improvisation compared to other films, but we did improvise during the rehearsals and that changed the movie. But the core of it is there from the beginning. We shot for something in the editing room but still it’s pretty straightforward. When I saw it, I cried because of one cut that moved me. I had never experienced this emotional reaction before. I think it must be because this film is kind of different, it’s pretty centered around this woman and her physical and emotional experience.
Which cut was that?
Maybe previous two cuts before the last. It became very personal, more than I expected. And also political. Foreigners might feel it less, but for me, it’s there.
In terms of the relationship to how the military is portrayed?
Well, yes and no. It’s more about the overall mood of confusion, this sadness, and I pepper it with imagery that may be lost on some audiences. But it doesn’t matter really if you look at the film from different angles.
It was a similar situation with "Uncle Boonmee" — viewers who knew the historical context were seeing a different kind of movie. You don’t think others are missing out?
No problem, no problem. [laughs] For me, you can get many different meanings from a movie, but I make the movie that I want to make and that’s it. And if it has room for interpretation, it’s better.
Your films are so visual. How does that impact your writing process?
Yes, I do storyboards, and yeah, this film was very much written there, but I did outline some scenes. In the scene between the woman and her husband,we had a scene in the house and in the garden at night with the rain, and a lot of scenes of a city at night. But while I was shooting I was thinking that, to serve my emotional need to continue the theme, just to fill the whole town with night throughout the shoot. And also there’s a monster scene we cut out. So what’s left is really ordinary, really simple.
The movie hovers in this dreamlike state. How do you apply that to a world you know well?
Well, it’s my hometown, but I haven’t visited that often, so it’s very obvious what’s changed and what’s not, so I just stick to the place that's not changed. The colors of the school, the hospital — all these sets have personal meaning to me.
How has your relationship evolved in terms of that setting? Could you have made this same film 10 or 20 years ago?
No. I used to be more concerned about the structure of the film and how the emotion derives from the physicality of the film. I was inspired by very experimental thinking — classic American experimental film, actually. But as I get older, I want to be more in tune with the characters, and my own merging with them.
So you’re less interested in abstract ideas than character?
I still do abstract ideas, but the terms of representing them is different. I quote a lot of cinema. Here I still quote, but it’s more of quoting myself. [laughs] And I’m very laidback. Maybe because it’s shot in my hometown, it had this special quality that I can approach more casually, with more innocence. Also, shooting digitally is liberating for me, even though the images aren’t not as graceful as film.
But this wasn’t your first rodeo with digital video.
It was the first time for feature film.
You don’t count "Mekong Hotel"?
No, that was like a short. But to have such a crew and all these people…
It was a bigger production.
That opens up another issue: Your reputation has expanded in recent years and you’re obviously one of the most successful contemporary filmmakers in Thailand. How does that impact the kind of films you can make there?
I’d say I still just strive to make the film I like to make, but it’s getting to the point of self-censorship. I’ll say about a topic, "Hey, you cannot say that because you’ll be in jail," or whatever. So I’ve started to feel suffocated by this limitation after a few years.