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Arts

Acclaimed Thai film director revels in historical parallels

With his new film, Apichatpong delves into Colombian jungles and primeval memories

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His latest work, "Memoria," is one of the most anticipated films of 2021. It is his first film shot entirely outside Thailand. © Kick the Machine

BANGKOK -- Best known for his contemplative films set in northeast Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand's most acclaimed director, has plunged into the jungles of Latin America with his latest cinematic expedition. But he is still dealing with episodes of painful historical memories as shown in his earlier films.

"The new film was inspired by the 'bang' that happened in my head," Apichatpong said of "Memoria" during his current sojourn in France. "Making this film is like a journey around its echo. This movie is about looking, listening, like a meditation."

To serious cinemagoers worldwide, Apichatpong's latest work is one of the most anticipated films of 2021. An international coproduction financed by a dozen international producers and grant bodies, "Memoria" stars Tilda Swinton as Jessica, an expat owner of an orchid farm in Bogota who awakes one morning startled by a mysterious bang. The specter of that crashing sound results in an implacable insomnia, so Jessica sets out from the city to a rural landscape from whose depth wild monkeys howl and the slow-flowing streams murmur an endless lullaby. It is also a landscape, the film seems to suggest, of prehistoric memories that connect Jessica to everyone and everything around her.

Memoria is Apichatpong's seventh feature film and the first to be shot entirely outside Thailand. The film will feature in the main competition of the 74th Cannes Film Festival, the world's leading cinema event, which began on July 6.

After its cancellation last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cannes event crackles with heightened anticipation this year. As he strolls down the red carpet on July 15, Apichatpong will be returning to the familiar showground that helped launch his career almost 20 years ago. In 2002, his breakthrough feature film, "Blissfully Yours," stunned Cannes critics and won the Un Certain Regard prize, establishing the then-unknown Thai filmmaker as a genuine talent of cinematic formalism who gently cracked open new possibilities of the art form.

A still from "Memoria." Tilda Swindon plays an expat owner of an orchid farm in Bogota who awakes one morning startled by a mysterious bang. (Sandro Kopp © Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF-Arte and Piano, 2021)

In 2004, he graduated to the festival's main competition with "Tropical Malady," a small-town love story that morphs into a hypnotic jungle tale that won the Jury Prize from a panel chaired by Quentin Tarantino. Then in 2010, Apichatpong made history by becoming the first filmmaker from Southeast Asia to win the Palme d'Or, the festival's top prize, for "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," a tale of the communist past in northeast Thailand.

This once-unthinkable achievement confirmed Apichatpong Weerasethakul's status as a new master of world cinema despite the running joke about his polysyllabic, pronunciation-challenged name. Cinephiles often refer to him simply as "Joe," an English version of his Thai nickname Joei.

In between making feature films, Apichatpong has been active in visual art, exhibiting his photography and video works in leading galleries and museums around the world, including the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou and Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. Books and academic papers have been devoted to studying his oeuvre, a fertile repertoire steeped in such disparate influences as animism, folklore, Thai pulp horror, science fiction, transcendental arcana, and the concept of reincarnation and spiritual transmigration, all of it subtly underpinned by his interest in Thailand's political history.

A still from "Memoria." With his latest film, Apichatpong said he wanted to challenge himself with new working conditions, and to take a break from working in Thailand, a place where “it’s not always possible to speak the truth directly, especially in the past few years.” (© Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF/Arte and Piano, 2021)

A son of doctors who grew up in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, Apichatpong's deepest wellspring of inspiration seems to be his home region, known as Isaan. This was most apparent in his quietly subversive "Syndromes and a Century" (2007), which is set in a hospital, and the Cold War-themed "Uncle Boonmee," in which a red-eyed monkey ghost returns to visit his ailing father after spending years in the forest with communist guerrillas. The latter film is spoken in the Isaan dialect and even Bangkok viewers were forced to read the English subtitles to understand the dialogue. His several short and medium-length films that branch out from "Uncle Boonmee" are also steeped in the turbulent history of Thailand's northeast.

In his 2015 film "Cemetery of Splendor," which premiered at the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, a group of soldiers lying comatose in a Khon Kaen hospital becomes a powerful metaphor about Thailand's political and historical obliviousness. The film, which Apichatpong did not release in Thailand, alludes to the dictatorial rule of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in the 1960s, and it can be read as a thinly veiled critique of the May 2014 military coup that toppled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and replaced her with Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha.

"I think that more and more in Thailand we will see something like Eastern European movies in the 1960s and 1970s, which have a lot of symbolism, not directly attacking the establishment," Apichatpong said. "I'm happy to witness and to be part of that."

A still from "Memoria." The film was shot in the summer of 2019, with a Colombian crew supported by Thai cinematographer Sayumbhu Mukdeeprom and assistant director Sompot Chidkasornpongse. (© Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF/Arte and Piano, 2021)

Though rooted in local beliefs, his films are always immersed in universal consciousness. Apichatpong's rise on the international art circuit over the past two decades has earned him a loyal and robust following across the world, from Buenos Aires to Tokyo. But in Thailand, the filmmaker was initially given the cold shoulder by local audiences who found his movies too elusive. He also ran into problems with conservative censors early in his career, especially with his playful portrayals of monks and doctors in "Syndromes and a Century." The order for him to cut four scenes from that film led to a vociferous anti-censorship protest by Thai film professionals, and eventually to the introduction of a flawed rating system.

But after "Uncle Boonmee" won the Palme d'Or, the reception grew warmer. As a new generation of Thai filmgoers came of age during the past decade with a new, globally minded aesthetic sensitivity, Apichatpong has become an icon of artistic endeavor and steadfastness, a visionary who speaks his strong, sometimes radical messages with the gentlest of voice and the most beautiful of images.

With "Memoria," the director said he wanted to challenge himself with new working conditions, and to take a break from working in Thailand, a place where "it's not always possible to speak the truth directly, especially in the past few years." The film, which is in Spanish and English, is also an opportunity to expand his range and explore the way stories and memories could be shared by different people around the world.

A still from "Memoria." The Tilda Swinton-Apichatpong combo is a heavyweight duo that has excited arthouse fans since the project was announced several years ago. (© Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF/Arte and Piano, 2021)

"Memoria" is a product of Apichatpong's curiosity in South American culture and its parallel to that of Thailand, from its history of conflict to the primeval pull of the wild. A long gestation period started when he wrote the first draft of the script after film "Cemetery of Splendor" involved taking Spanish lessons. He then spent months traveling around Colombia to experience its climate. The shooting took place in the summer of 2019, with a Colombian crew supported by Thai cinematographer Sayumbhu Mukdeeprom and assistant director Sompot Chidkasornpongse.

The Tilda Swinton-Apichatpong combo is a heavyweight duo that has excited art-house fans since the project was announced several years ago, and "Memoria" was originally scheduled to open at the Cannes Film Festival last year. When the pandemic hit and the festival was canceled, Apichatpong and his postproduction team had time to fine-tune the details before its belated opening at Cannes.

"The hardest part was my imagining having to work in an unfamiliar environment," he said of the shoot in Colombia. "The easiest part was the actual shooting. I spent no time worrying and embraced the experience.

"I enjoyed working in a language I can't properly speak. It became music," he added. "I depended fully on my crew, especially the language coaches. They were sensitive to what I was after [in the dialogue]. They studied my past films to get the rhythm. Then in each sentence, I focus on the pauses, rather than the spoken words."

A still from "Memoria." Strife, conflict, and wounds inflicted by history and festering over time are what both Thailand and Colombia seem to share, and the memory of these pains vibrates throughout the film. (© Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF/Arte and Piano, 2021)

Besides Memoria, Apichatpong also has another film showing in Cannes: a short film as part of an anthology, "The Year of the Everlasting Storm," in which seven filmmakers from seven countries are asked to make a film about the pandemic. In an interview with the Thai Film Archive last year, Apichatpong mentioned that he spent his lockdown exploring the hills and fields around his house on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, the northern mountainous Thai city, and how the prolonged disruption of everyday activity seemed to slow down time for him.

"The two films [at Cannes] are both about an attempt to synchronize," he said. "Jessica in 'Memoria' is in the process of fine-tuning her existence, activated by the memories of others. In the short film, I was trying to capture the rhythm of the insects at home, luring them into my bed during quarantine. Both films also end with rain."

Though Thailand's Isaan and the Colombian wilderness are far apart, "Memoria" is at once a departure from the familiar and a homecoming of a metaphorical kind. Strife, conflict, and wounds inflicted by history and festering over time are what both Thailand and Colombia seem to share, and the memory of these pains vibrates throughout the film.

"The earth is not that massive, but rich, like a person holding memories in her head," Apichatpong said. "We are bound by a global current that is still in its primitive form. Thailand and Colombia suffer a kind of authoritarian rule which doesn't bother to disguise itself. Personally, I feel I share similar anxieties and dreams with many Colombians."

Kong Rithdee is a film critic, literary translator and deputy director of the Thai Film Archive.

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