A Train Ride with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, winner of the 2010 Palme D'or

The experience of being able to hear Cannes Best Picture Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul share about Thai films and filmmaking one-to-one, was undoubtedly humbling. There was a strange duality of feeling like you are talking to star who's won his accolade on the other end of the globe while also feeling the closeness of hearing something from a neighbour who shares a common Southeast Asian experience and mentality. But here I was, taking the escalator, crossing the roads and squeezing with the MRT crowd with a person whose name I have grown accustomed to only on my precious DVDs of his films. Though soft-spoken, he speaks with a sureness about what he believes in and wants.

Jeremy (J): What is the most significant issue facing filmmakers in Thailand and perhaps yourself at the moment?

Apichatpong (A): (pauses to think) I think about funding often. However, this is a very common problem to filmmakers worldwide, independent and even Hollywood ones.

J: Is there government funding available for Thai films? for instance, in Singapore, the government gives out some money for short films and selected feature films.

A: We had it last year, and it created quite a controversy because the distribution of funding was quite , how do you put it…. not transparent, at least for me, or that the knowledge of the committee or the people who drafted this funding scheme, was not adequate. It shows they do not have enough knowledge of international funding schemes….how to make it equal and fair for filmmakers. And I don’t think we are likely to have it this year. So I don’t always feel we can (pause)… trust our government in terms of funding because it is always unreliable. In fact, I have more trust in the public sector.

J: Private investors?

A; Ya, because it is stronger than the government.

J: Who are these people? Are they businessmen or…

A: They are people who are interested in the arts and particularly movies. But because of their job, they do not have the time to be involved. And another issue is censorship. Because in Thailand, you cannot make anything that is disruptive to society. So, anything can be applied under that.

J: I guess it’s very loose.

A: Yes. For, example you cannot portray the policemen in a bad way. (pause) The censorship board has become like a moral police. If they do not think it is right, they can ban it. I think the system is quite fascist. The last movie that was banned was a movie that dealt with transsexuals. The government said ‘oh, it’s not a good image for the Thai young people.' Even though they have a rating system, they don’t really trust their own rating system. It may be because even with the ratings, people can still sneak in. (pause) There is another film that has high school students kissing, in fact, not even kissing, they were only about to kiss and the censors stepped in.

J: Really?!

A: This is really a ridiculous time we live but I am sure it will be gone in the future.

J: Is this strictness just at the current moment or…. I am wondering if it really is a reflection of the Thai society or not, because I have watched several Thai films and having been to Thailand, it definitely feels more tolerant than Singapore. I feel Singapore is a conservative society. So am I right to say that Thais are generally quite open but it’s just the authorities…

A: Yes, it’s the authorities and it’s a flippant society too. What is deemed right and deemed wrong changes very quickly. But certain in this current climate when there is political chaos, the government tries its best to unify the country, behaving like a big brother. As a result, they eliminate some voice and pretend to be THE voice of freedom.

The way I maximise the use of my gadgets... that familiar phone

J: You were saying that they in your case they could not do much because your winning brought good news in a time of uncertainty.

A: They do not want to create controversy. (pause) You know this film about the transsexual… the filmmaker made repeated appeals and was turned down so now, they are campaigning against the government. I feel that is a good thing because people, especially filmmakers have become more aware of their freedom.

J: When you started making films, you were outside this strict studio system in Thailand (I read this somewhere), in what ways was it strict?

A: The Thai film industry is not big and they only have a few studios. These studios operate like families. The boss dictates most of everything and it does not give much freedom to filmmakers. The filmmakers are like puppets.

J: So here is not much freedom on the stories they want to tell…

A: But you know this is normal for studio movies, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it is.

J: Who do you consider pioneered Thai arthouse cinema? Were you one of them and how was it starting out this cinematic genre?

A: It would be quite embarrassing to call myself a pioneer of Thai arthouse cinema. The circle is very small. We do not have something of a movement like the French new wave or the Japanese new wave. That you can tell because it is such big movement. In Thailand it is just individuals doing their own things so it is not really a movement.

J: The first Thai arthouse film I watched was Last Life In The Universe, was that one of the first Thai arthouse films?

A: No, there was a film before that that was banned and it called My Teacher eats Biscuits. I haven’t seen it. But it was made in the 90s.

J: Do you know who it is by?

A: Ing-K. I-N-G and K.

J: I will go check it out. (pause) Obviously you make personal films… was it difficult to do so knowing it may not find an audience in Thailand at that point of time?

A: I make films for myself and I don’t compromise for others. It’s not an issue for me. It’s very hard to say what will make money. Even many studio films flop. So I end up making my personal films.

J: So your first feature was Mysterious Object at Noon. How much did you spend making it? Obviously, you did not spend too much but I loved it a lot.

A: I never count but it probably cost 3 million baht or something.

J: I will do the conversion. (pause) And that was private funding?

A: Yes, and grants from the Hubert Bals Fund from in the Netherlands, and Fuji and other companies as well.

J: How many short films have you already made before that film.

A: Maybe 4-5?

We cross the MRT barrier at Douby Ghaut station still maintaining the conversation.

J: What’s your feel about the social climate in Singapore?

A: I can’t really tell but I can imagine it can be tough in terms of freedom of expression.

J: Well the government controls and censors a lot. But actually the worst thing is actually not the government censorship but self-censorship. I feel because of the education system, the people have grown up to be mini-governments themselves.

A: With the internet now, do you think there is more resistance from the young?

J: I guess though we are still largely controlled by the baby-boomers (our parents). And they listen to the government more.

Our train arrives.

J: Are there a lot of young independent filmmakers now in Thailand?

A: Yes. It’s got to do with the affordable technology.

J: How do they cope with the money?

A: It’s their personal money and friends helping friends… but generally, it is cheaper to make films now. So actually, the money is not biggest issue. The more worrying issue is censorship or self-censorship under the Thai education system.

J: You were educated overseas right?

A: No, I was educated in Thailand in a very conservative school and society at that time.

J: What are some of your favourite Thai films of all time?

A: There is an old film called Son of the Northeast. Not because I am fond of the Northeast but because of the style of the film. It’s very mature.

J: When was it made? In the 60s, 70s?

A: No, 80s.

J: What other films?

A: I like many films made in the 80s when I grew up. If I look at them now, I may not like them. But as a good memory and for the nostalgia, I still like them. They did not imitate Hollywood and used dubbing.

J: How about some of the more recent films?

A: (pondering) I like Killer Tattoo by Yuthlert Sippapak.

A rare shot of filmmaker Apichatpong in an MRT train - rare for several reasons, one's got to do with the filmmaker and the other SMRT of course!

Poster of Thai film 'Son of the Northeast'

Poster of 'Killer Tattoo'

We face some barrier problems at the exit point of the Chinatown MRT station.

A: Sometimes, he made very good films, sometimes, not so good.

J: Commercial film?

A: Yes.

J: I will have lots of homework to do after this (laughs).

A: But I don’t know if you will like it. It is very kitschy, like Japanese comics.

J: I find the current set of Thai directors so diverse in their styles.

A: That’s what I mean, all very different. We each have our own calling. Like Singapore?

J: Well, let me give you a mini history of Singapore films. We had a long period when we did not make films until the 90s when Eric Khoo drew attention to the arthouse genre by putting a Singapore film on the world map. However, I feel this (and how the media wrote about this) sometimes sends a signal to the younger generation that to gain some recognition from making films, you need to make these types of very serious and depressing films. So there are many filmmakers who want to go the arthouse route and not enough enterprising people who dare to make the commercial or funny movies.

A: That’s the same as Thailand. There are not enough good commercial movies. We should really be trying to build an stronger industry with good scripts and good acting.

J: Talking about acting… you work with non-actors right?

A: Yes.

J: How do you manage to get them to work with you? I mean they have their own jobs right?

A: I pay them. (laughs) Well, I pay them to work with me for a period.

J: Can you tell a bit more about how you work with them and create the kind of effect we see in your films?

A: We do a lot of workshops, really important to break their.......

The madness of the Chinatown crowd slowly unfolds itself as we emerge at the top of the escalator. There was a pregnant pause as we beheld the huge crowd.

A: To break their consciousness about the camera. To have a camera on them all the time. Also, to get to know them. You know professional actors do not have time for that.

J: You know you have some actors who have acted in several of your films. I vividly remember the older lady in Uncle Boonmee, was she also the same lady in Blissfully Yours?

A: She was also in Iron Pussy and Syndromes and A Century.

J: And how do you get your actors to do such brave acts? Like the sex scene in Blissfully Yours?

A: Ahhhh, it was very difficult. I tried very hard to convince her. I had to explain to her that it was about human condition, not really about sex. It’s about desire.

J: Final question: What’s the most common question you’ve been asked since you win the award?

A: How did the award change my life?

J: Okay. I will not ask that. I will leave you to move on with what you need to do.

A: (laughs) Okay sure.

J: Thank you so much for the interview! All the best for your future.

He disappears into the sea of people in Chinatown.

All photos were shot by Thomas Tan

'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' by Apichatpong Weerasethakul opens at the PictureHouse from 27 Jan. This film won the Palme D'or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
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