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A Perceiver of Sense - Apichatpong Weerasethakul


by Anchalee Chaiworaporn

  All rights reserved.

(This article was first published in the catalog of the 11th Hong Kong Independent Short Film & Video Awards, held in April 2006. Thaicinema.org would like to thank Teresa Kwang for the re-print permission and Joe - Apichatpong for all of the stills used here).



Joe or Joei (his nickname in Thai ) on the set of his latest movie, Syndromes and A Century


Fans of Apichatpong Weerasethakul often seem strangely gloomy after watching his movies. His fragments of images and sound, anti-narrative structure, and experimentation with exotic elements intrigue film buffs across the continents, but what, they wonder, does it all mean? How many of them can honestly say that they truly understand his work? In fact, theres no need to worry. Whether viewed as sensory hyperbole or containing serious messages, this kind of interpretation of his work is beside the point.

Forget all of those idiosyncratic interpretations. Leave behind the cliched hypotheses of revolutionary acts that are often attributed to alternative filmmakers. For Apichatpong, his works are all interpretations of sensory perception: they originated simply from his senses, and they head directly for your heart. If only there were any words to explain these senses verbally, instead of visually, I would rush to use them. But instead I can only express myself through a kind of utopian conceptual art which functions for me like a type of meditation.

For a perceiver of sense like Apichatpong, perception comes first in his process of artistic meditation, before anything else, before the first images of setting or location. Story comes last is the philosophy of this independent icon.

And in understanding his perceptions, one need only relax, surrender to the brains natural instincts, and simply experience his work. One does not need to dig out the weighty meanings and social references, nor try to interpret the reasons for his experimental techniques. For a perceiver of sense like Apichatpong, his are at root impressionist works.


The Multi Impressionist

Digital Video, Japan version Swans Blood 12 minutes, Japan (2001)
Golden Ship, video installation, Memling Museum, Belgium (2002)

Apichatpongs name was registered in the annals of world cinema through his feature-length films. In 2004, he became the first filmmaker from Thailand to win an award at Cannes, the Special Jury Prize, for his fourth feature, Tropical Malady. But feature filmmaking is only a career to him. As an artist he has experimented with several kinds of visual art and expanded his canvas beyond one single screen, conceiving projects ranging from audio installations to visual presentations utilizing 45 simultaneous projections. In his Haunted House project, an explanation of the soap-opera addiction of Thai television viewers and radio listeners, he used different forms of media depending on the country in which the work was being exhibited: digital video only in the original Thai version; collaborative digital video production with a Japanese artist for the Japan showing; an audio installation for a later exhibition in Thailand; and a double-projection presentation in Belgium.

I was Sketching (2001)


Video is the medium he has most often selected. His presentations are always fluid, denying permanence. I was Sketching is his reconstructed documentary re-sampling images of his previous sampling works to experiment with narrative surfaces. Sometimes audiences are discreetly invited to fill out the narrative. Secret Love Affair (for Tirana) uses images of a man and woman glancing and smiling at each other from two screens positioned on the floor, suggesting a most intimate manner. Yet the posture of the audience, standing silently in line with their heads bowed while watching the video, suggests the manner of people attending a funeral.

I did not study only film, but visual arts in general, Apichatpong explains when asked to account for his various interests. When I first came back to Thailand, I found I could re-adapt myself better through visual arts than films. And that you can see from the Bangkok Arts Festival, which later became the Experimental Film Festival. Filmmaking came by chance by accident because short filmmaking or video-making lack any support. We did not have any galleries or funding at that time.

Apichatpongs background of different media benefits him in choosing to convey his perceptions. Sketch and video are the most useful media when I want to experiment or reflect a mood which can not be delivered through features. Video has something beyond film. Film is like a presentation, but video-making is like a moment spent chatting with friends, it has a personal touch. Film tends to be restricted by several factors: budget, management, organisation. At first we thought that the lack of budget restricted our freedom of expression if we have bigger budgets, we can work better. In reality, high budgets also limit us a lot, says the director. Not surprisingly, then, video arts are often the best media for him. Video arts are like a record of my moods, my perceptions, my senses. Filmmaking is more like a career. Thus it is no surprise that, although he is recognized all over the world from his features, he still keeps on making shorts and other kinds of representations. While he was, at the time of this interview, on the road to a location for a new feature, Intimacy and Turbulence (later changed to Syndromes and A Century) , one of six films sponsored by the Austrian government as part of the ongoing celebrations of Mozarts 250th anniversary in December, he also has two more short projects lined up this year. I see video-making as like a craft, like my therapy.

But, like the common theme in his movies the Utopia land the young director is still in search of a Utopian conceptual medium. Video or digital video might be the best tool to reflect my instincts, but it does not always perfectly reflect what I want to share, what I feel, what I perceive. In the same way, despite the limiting factors of the traditional filmmaking process, Apichatpong still has a belief in the filmic medium. Nothing can compare to film if we want to communicate to an audience. We can hypnotize an audience, root them to their seats, in a darkened room. Video gives me more freedom but lacks the power of film. I still have faith in film, he says, though not in filmic reality. Cinema is not real, it is just another element that runs parallel to our lives.


On Experimentation and Otherness

Apichatpongs persistently experimental filmmaking has drawn a large crowd of fans to his work. But why is he drawn to this type of work? Apichatpong, personally, is a very modest person, very much the opposite of his bold filmmaking style. He explains: I only think of synthesizing the elements of filmmaking rather than wanting to challenge anything. I just want to experiment. I am not trying to discover anything; I only want to collaborate with others. Mine are all collaborative works helping me learn to work with others.

Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000)


In fact, collaboration is one of the most important, but least recognized, characteristics in almost every one of Apichatpongs projects. In Malee and the Boy, he worked with a 10-year-old boy who is in charge of the microphone, being guided through several locations. In Mysterious Object at Noon, he collaborated with travelers from north to south, east to west. I want to expand my interests. I want to know what other people think on the same subjects. We divide each film, each project, into pieces and then allow a different person to handle each piece. Its good to listen to others.

It seems that you had to improvise a lot in each work? Sometimes. But first we have to choose the right kind of person, someone we can work with. Otherwise it will turn into a difficult situation.

In this way, most of his works have been credited as being conceived by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, rather than directed by him. Yes, because each movie has its own life. They are all about collaborative art.

I used the term conceived by because they all originated from me. I devised them. But during the realisation process, several factors are involved. It is like having a child. You conceive him and then he grows up, being changed and influenced by many factors around him. A director is like a commander who points his hands this way and that. Directing is different from conceiving.


A Recorder of Everyday Life

Apichatpong creates works by constructing and playing with them in response to different impulses and aspects of life. Sometimes they form part of his learning process; learning about the medium, or learning to work with others. At other times they reflect transitional feelings, perceptions or various other thoughts. But one common purpose emerges from them: the reflection of ordinary lives at a given moment, on a certain day, or perhaps simply once in a lifetime.



In 0116643225059, he links the two faraway worlds of his apartment in Chicago and his family home in Khon Kaen province through a telephone conversation. The two spaces are reflected through a childhood picture of his mother and an image of his roommate. It is a record of his own memory of his mother and of his more recent living space in Chicago. The images show two dimensions between Chicago and Khon Kaen: my memory towards my mother, towards good things at home, and the everyday life I lived in Chicago. The telephone call cuts the distance between the two spaces and the two periods of time, he explains.

Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves (1995)


During his studies in Chicago, Apichatpong returned home briefly for his brothers wedding. While there he shot a documentary about a hot day in a small town where the sounds of a mystic radio filled the air. He returned to the US with the footage, photographs and the soundtrack of a radio play. They were all mixed and edited into a broken-narrative documentary entitled Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves (1995). It is another style of filmmaking, says Apichatpong. I went back home intending to make a film about my impressions of home. But it was a strange feeling. I looked at the landscape of Khon Kaen with changing eyes. The shooting was finished in Thailand and I took it back to Chicago. It is like a diary of an experience.

Apichatpongs interest in making films of everyday-life stems from his curiosity over the lack of films about ordinary lives in the history of Thailand. The majority of our historical documents mainly portray royal lifestyle, rarely the commoners. If we are to be able to look back to the past, there should have been historical films about ordinary people, he said. I think its a matter of politics.


Malee and the Boy


In Malee and the Boy, Apichatpong collaborated with a 10-year-old boy to create a diary of a day out in Bangkok. The boy, his continuity assistants younger brother, roams around Bangkok gathering sounds and is filmed at various locations. The use of text taken from a Thai comic book has no special meaning; it was simply available at the place of filming. It is like a record or a diary of a short trip around Bangkok. We had no plan, no schedule. It is an impression of everyday life, locations, the media. We only wanted to focus on feeling.

Happiness is another theme often found in his work. In Third World, it is reflected via an impression of time spent shooting at one of the locations he used for Mysterious Object at Noon. It was early morning. No foreigners were standing around there at that time. We used the sounds from the northern parts of Mysterious Object at Noon and the images from the southern parts. We wanted to represent a moment of happiness and communicate a real-time mood.

Worldly Desires


Shooting Worldly Desires was a grand excuse to go to the countryside, Apichatpong confesses. In fact we just wanted to stroll around the jungle. In that short film, a group of filmmakers go into the jungle to shoot a movie. But they didnt know that we were not going to use their film. We had three other cameramen with digital videocameras to shoot them, and that is the real footage we wanted to use.

Many people may feel that Apichatpong has a clear style of filmmaking. But asked to define himself, he says he is still on a journey. Its a journey on which we are never fixed in one place, in one style. Perhaps we are like a landscape. We dont see the style we are really in. We check up all the time. Sometimes we are interested in a film like Iron Pussy; at other times it might be Worldly Desires. These things are never fixed.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has made varieties of works, from video, mini-dv, installation to films which can not be included here all. Please see his website http://www.kickthemachine.com



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