Thai Dreams & Global Visions: The Cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul

In 2015, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul decided not to pursue a domestic release of his latest film Cemetery of Splendour due to fears for his personal safety. The film, which depicts a surreal scenario in which a group of Thai soldiers are bedridden with a sleeping sickness, is emblematic of Apichatpong’s position as a filmmaker – one whose subconscious visions are distinctly Thai, but whose work seems to exist exclusively in the consciousness of those outside his native land.

In a rather melancholy passage on Cemetery of Splendour (2015), the latest film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, film critic Kong Rithdee reflects, “Apichatpong is often accused by local dinosaurs of making difficult films to please foreigners, films that Thai people neither care about nor understand. The irony is painful, because Thais should get his films’ deepest nuances… Rubbing salt in the wound, it’s not clear if Cemetery of Splendour will be shown in Thailand at all” (Rithdee, n.d., para 6). Rithdee’s fears would ultimately become reality as the director eventually chose to withhold the project from state censors, as he feared backlash from the new military regime.

In fact, despite Apichatpong’s growing presence and acclaim at major international film festivals, the director remains an underappreciated figure in Thailand. As such, it seems convenient to “take ownership” of Apichatpong as a director baptized in the culture of Western arthouse cinema. However, to downplay the influence of Thai culture, the landscape of the nation, as well as its folklore and collective memory would be to completely ignore the essence of his unique cinematic voice. Hence, it poses an interesting dilemma. Is it possible to reconcile the apparent conflict between viewing Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a Thai filmmaker working largely outside the cultural confines of his native film industry, or as a global filmmaker depicting memories inherently linked to his experiences as a Thai (fig. 1)?

Fig 1: Despite international acclaim, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is far from a celebrity figure in Thailand.

National Cinema

Inevitably, this leads us to a discussion of the conversation surrounding the fluid definitions of national and transnational cinemas. Starting with the concept of the national, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) is a landmark piece of literature on the subject. Investigating the roots of nationalism in nation states, Anderson’s writing is primarily concerned with how nations manufacture a national identity through the use of state media. As arguably the preeminent artform in modern society, it goes without saying that cinema has a significant influence in forming a national identity. Often, we see this expressed in the Hollywood/Other dichotomy, where national cinema is seen as a response to the cultural colonization American cinema has enacted throughout the world. Nevertheless, an overemphasis on national cinema as a response to Hollywood dominance may also be limiting in itself in that it “reduces the ideology of national cinema to a set of binaries” (Hayward, 2001, p. 84). Hence, what needs to be considered is not only what distinguishes a national cinema from Hollywood, but also what makes it different to other national cinemas (fig. 2).

Fig 2: The Thai rainforest is a prominent feature across Apichatpong’s filmography.

Transnational Cinema

In the framing of transnational cinema, the conflicts between these binaries remain a central point of discussion. This is particularly true in the case of European co-productions, which are often categorized as Europe’s response to the cultural and economic dominance of America, as well as a form of transnational cinema. Citing the work of Tim Berfelder, Petar Mitric states that “a European co-production financed by sources from different countries or representing any form of what Tim Berfelder calls the “cultural hybridization process” will easily qualify as a transnational film” (Mitric, 2018, p. 18). However, as Mitric goes on to say, “it is not enough to situate policy-driven European co-productions solely within the transnational cinema” (Mitric, 2018, p. 19). What needs to be considered, it seems, would be both an evaluation of how the content of a film, or rather what appears on screen, plays into discussions of national & transnational cinema, as well as the way these concepts play out in the production and exhibition of a film. Applying these ideas to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Cemetery of Splendour will perhaps shine some light on how to go about discussing the filmmaker’s identity as a creator of cultural cinema.

Analysis: Cemetery of Splendour

Content

Shot in Apichatpong’s hometown of Khon Kaen, Cemetery of Splendour sees the director channel the memories of his childhood into the fabric of the film’s storyworld. The film takes place in a school-turned-hospital, which alludes to the time Apichatpong spent around such spaces as a child while his parents worked as doctors. Apichatpong has often spoken of the personal being a key driving force in the creation of his films, all of which up until Cemetery of Splendour have been shot in Thailand – the environmental fabric of his memories (Wong, 2016). In making the film, Apichatpong sought to capture the unique atmosphere and texture of the town, going so far as to rewrite the script into the local Isan dialect which would require subtitles for a general Thai audience. He also cast mostly unprofessional, local actors to heighten the naturalism of the film’s setting. A constant feature throughout the director’s oeuvre, namely the Thai landscape, is featured prominently in the striking visuals of the film, and aid in providing Cemetery of Splendour a distinctly Thai texture. For instance, stunning tableaux capture “slices of life that express what it’s like to be in Thailand,” featuring settings such as remnants of the Southeastasian rainforest that surrounds the hospital, a park where locals gather to do outdoor aerobics, Asian street food markets, as well as a lake with touristy pedal-boats (Lucca, 2016, para 4) (fig. 3). Even the recurring close-ups on mechanical fans, furiously proppeling cool air into the hot tropical rooms, seek to envelop the audience in the film’s Thai setting almost through a form of hypnosis. It’s as if we are invited into the hospital beds of the soldiers, and to share in the dreams of Apichatpong’s rendering of Thailand, as imagined and remembered. As the director muses, “I think that my movie is about remembering the gist of the place that I grew up in” (Ganjavie, 2015, para 10).

Fig 3: A mysterious creature emerges from the water, spell-binding the observers of the Thai landscape.

A Buddhist Influence

As with much of Apichatpong’s work, Cemetery of Splendour revels in themes of spirituality and the afterlife. Although he admits that he doesn’t personally hold these views, Apichatpong has stated that the spiritual beliefs embedded in Thai culture serve as inspiration for his filmmaking. Most prominently, the strong connection to the afterlife is rooted in Buddhism (95% of the Thai population practice the religion), while the belief in ghosts is widespread and popular in Thai folklore (fig. 4). This is a common thread between Apichatpong’s work and traditional Thai cinema. However, Apichatpong often takes a different approach. As Natalie Boehler writes in reference to Apichatpong’s 2007 film Syndromes and a Century, “(the film) is not a ghost or horror film, either in any of the classical Western understandings of these genres, or in the sense of the Thai Nang Phii genre” (Boehler, 2016, p. 227). While the traditional approach prominent in the classic age of Thai cinema “combines ghost tales, horror shock effects, humor, moral teachings, and elements of melodrama,” Apichatpong’s work is far more experimental and narratively-loose, firmly positioning itself outside of traditional Thai film culture even when it engages with similar thematic elements (Boehler, 2016, p. 227).

Fig 4: A ghost appears at the dinner table in Apichatpong’s Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

In Cemetery of Splendour, such themes of the supernatural are firmly present in various aspects of the storyworld. With a telepathic ability to directly enter the dreams of others, the character of the medium in Cemetery of Splendour serves as a link between the real world and the spiritual world (fig. 5). Not only can she translate the soldiers’ dreams, but she also demonstrates an ability to interact with the spirits of the past, as we see when she gives the protagonist Jenjira a tour of the forest around the hospital grounds where she describes in vivid detail the rooms of a royal palace that used to exist there in the distant past. Furthermore, one scene sees Jenjira engage in casual conversation with the spirits of Thai godesses who appear in regular human form (earlier in the film she had prayed to figurines of these same women). And while such metaphysical renderings may not be exclusive to Thai culture, the unique social and geographic context makes them unmistakably Thai.

Fig 5: A medium reads the dreams of a bedridden Thai soldier in Cemetery of Splendour.

East & West As Separate Worlds

The brief, but important arrival of Jenjira’s American husband also serves to further emphasize the film’s Thai point of view. Throughout the film, the husband character acts as a separator between the Eastern and Western world, as he constantly seems to be on the outside of the few scenes he’s featured in (fig. 6). We see him, for example, following Jenjira along as a spectator to her prayer, or being the sole white participant in the outdoor exercise group – almost taking on the role of an “extra.” When asked about a scene in which Jenjira is grilled by one of the soldiers regarding her husband, Apichatpong explains that “(the soldier’s) teasing is for her to reflect back to a man whom she has married and adopted…yet they are strangers” (Wong, 2016, para 5). Thus, Apichatpong seems to indicate a difference between the two worlds that Jenjira finds herself to be a part of: namely, her local Thai community and the Westernized life with her husband.

Fig 6: Jenjira’s American husband frequently exists on the outskirts of his scenes in the film – never quite fitting in.

Political Awakening

Narratively, a major point of discussion surrounding Cemetery of Splendour is its political themes. The premise surrounds a mysterious sleeping illness that has been inflicted upon a group of soldiers. They spend their days plastered to their hospital beds, and their few waking moments often end abruptly (one scene sees a soldier collapse face-first into his bowl of food as he once again succumbs to sleep). In the hall lined with hospital beds, lamps of neon-light cycle through an array of colors in a method a character explains was used by the US military to calm the dreams of PTSD-riddled soldiers. Although rife with symbolism, Apichatpong has hinted towards the sleeping soldiers acting as a metaphor for the people of Thailand – a population Apichatpong has referred to as lacking a political awakening. “Since we are powerless, we are like sleeping puppets,” Apichatpong explains (Lachambreverte, 2018). It is asserted by the medium character in the film that the soldiers’ energy is being siphoned by dead ancient rulers and used to fight their ongoing wars in the afterlife, perhaps relating to the cyclical nature of political powers-shifts in Thailand (of which there have been many in its recent history), with the same political powers continuing a power struggle that involves manipulating the Thai public.

Production

As with all of Apichatpong’s recent films, Cemetery of Splendour is an international co-production with the director’s independent production company Kick the Machine collaborating with producers across borders, with virtually all major producers being European. In order to finance the film, Apichatpong and his producers took advantage of several European funds, such as The World Cinema Fund and L’Aide aux Cinéma du Monde, which are “designed to support production from countries that are rarely seen on the festival circuit or in the international market” (Leon, 2018, p. 343).

There are several reasons why a collaboration with Europe benefits Apichatpong’s films. Unlike many Western European nations, the Thai film industry does not support experimental films. In fact, the market for arthouse films in Thailand is almost nonexistent. In Thailand, exhibition is largely run by a few major chains who have a monopoly on what kind of film gets shown across local theaters, and given the audience preferences this limits the film selection to mostly mainstream releases (Anderson, 2016). However, there is a more subtle, underlying factor to this status quo of the Thai cinematic landscape. Namely, this drives at a method of curbing the development of an intellectual elite.

The Political Arthouse

As arthouse films generally encourage more complex critical readings from their audiences, they open themselves up to large critical discourse. Oftentimes, this involves topics relating to cultural aspects like societal structures and politics. In a nation that exercises tight control over the freedom of thought of its people, breeding this kind of discussion is undesirable (fig. 7). This has manifested itself in a double standard regarding the way in which censorship is applied to Thai releases. For instance, “Independent Thai films shown abroad are less likely to be censored by authorities in advance of distribution than if they are to be released locally” (Unaldi, 2011, p. 63). This ties into another key motivator for international development of films: political reasons. In a country with strict censorship practices, filmmakers seeking to make potentially controversial work often have to look outside the confines of their home country to realize their projects. Here, it helps to have international support. Thus, knowing the limited initiatives available for this type of film as well as the low market potential within Thailand, it is clear why Apichatpong would have chosen to collaborate with European producers. As a producer for the UK-Zambian co-production I Am Not a Witch (2017) relates in a similar example, “It is an African film, but not destined exclusively for the African market. We were targeting the European market” (Leon, 2018, p. 344).

Fig 7: A Buddhist monk checks his cellphone in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Apichatpong previously came under attack by Thai censors for his “deviant” depiction of monks in Syndromes and a Century.

Co-Productions

Once again, it is relevant to bring up transnational motivators for this collaboration from the perspective of European financiers. After all, it is not without reason that many European funds support films by filmmakers outside of the region. Petar Mitric traces the first European co-production treaties back to post-WWII where an economically-shaken industry attempted to “reduce the US domination” through “introducing various protective policy measures” to combat Hollywood (Mitric, 2018, p. 66). Hence, the first co-production treaties were born. Fast forward seventy years and Hollywood continues to dominate the commercial market, while co-production treaties have expanded to become increasingly inclusive and foster a mode of filmmaking that operates almost in opposition to Hollywood objectives.

Thus, one can view European interest in supporting Apichatpong’s films with European taxpayer money in multiple ways. From a cynical perspective, it can be chalked up to Europe’s fight against Hollywood by almost “colonizing” filmmakers abroad to produce content that is in line with the European film model. After all, Ana Vinuela describes the launch of FSC (Fonds Sud Cinema) in 1984 as having “the dual objective of intensifying France’s influence and building a front against American cultural domination” (Vinuela, 2018, p. 226). On the other hand, one can view the support for foreign directors as a way of boosting the visibility of filmmaking voices who have become marginalized by their national industries, and creating cultural capital.

Nevertheless, it is important to note the key role that Thai film professionals played in the production of Cemetery of Splendour. Notably, the only non-Thai crewmembers aside from the producers came from the post-production sound team (this was done in France to meet the requirements of a Cinema du Monde grant), and the film’s Mexican cinematographer Diego Garcia (who also brought along a non-Thai 1st AC) (fig. 8). Hence, despite much of the production relying on European collaborators, Thai talents were still the major creative forces in production.

Fig 8: Apichatpong’s regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom was unavailable to shoot Cemetery of Splendour, as he had been stolen away by Portugal’s Miguel Gomes (pictured here) to shoot his three-part epic, Arabian Nights.

Exhibition

Cemetery of Splendour premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015 in the Un Certain Regard section. For films in the arthouse genre, there is no greater platform than Cannes for promotion to its likely audience, as well as distributors.

Taking a look back towards Thailand, Apichatpong decided not to pursue a national release for Cemetery of Splendour. Here, the reasoning was purely political and boiled down to two major factors. Firstly, the director was concerned over his “personal safety”, as the Thai government had been known to threaten prominent opposing voices (Lucca, 2016, para 8). Particularly, the new military regime (who overthrew the government in a coup d’etat during production of the film) had created a more volatile political situation. Secondly, Apichatpong was reluctant to make any cuts to his film, suggesting this would obfuscate his film’s meaning (the scars from Apichatpong’s experience being forced to cut scenes in Syndromes and a Century for the Thai release still linger). Ultimately, the sad irony of the situation became that a film expressing the disillusionment with the political situation in Thailand was unable to be viewed by the population who perhaps would get the most out of the film.

Trouble at Home

However, Apichatpong’s films tend to be ignored by Thai audiences. Tropical Malady provides an interesting example of the complicated relationship between the Thai public and the director. Despite becoming the first Thai film ever to play at Cannes in 2004 (where it also won the Jury Prize), Tropical Malady only screened in three theaters across Thailand. As mentioned earlier, this is likely down to the general struggle of arthouse cinema across the country. As Benedict Anderson, also a huge admirer of the director, explains, “Since the deeper concern is political, there is bound to be some hostility, open or concealed, towards the opening up of anything ‘truly Thai’ to the fluid operations of ‘multiple readings’” (Anderson, 2016, para 23). Consequently, the adoption of Apichatpong by Thailand as a national filmmaker and an ambassador for its culture remains problematic. As Natalie Boehler notes, “It seems that Apichatpong’s status as Thai is most clear and unquestioned when declared in foreign surroundings and by foreign voices; in his homeland, this categorization seems to be more slippery and politically fraught” (Boehler, 2016, p. 227). Therefore, while Apichatpong can readily be embraced as a genius filmmaker by international audiences, there remains a complicated cultural and political barrier to his acceptance among the Thai mainstream.

Conclusion

While Cemetery of Splendour is rooted in Thai memories and displays a culture foreign to those outside of Thailand, the film is simultaneously a transnational work aesthetically and politically, firmly positioning itself outside of the national film industry.

Ultimately, we can view Apichatpong as a filmmaker whose work functions as a response to his national film industry, rather than as a contributor. Essentially, Apichatpong is more concerned with his expression as an artist than as an ambassador for Thailand, and thus has sought international collaboration with like-minded artists in order to realize his personal visions.

With Apichatpong claiming to be done with making films in Thailand due to his increasing disillusionment with the barriers towards his freedom of expression, it begs the question of how the Thai identity will manifest itself in his future films, or if perhaps he will come to fully embody the identity of a transnational filmmaker, essentially working in exile. After all, his upcoming film Memoria (scheduled for 2020), starring Tilda Swinton and shot in South America, seems to have little to do with the spirit of his home country. As such, Cemetery of Splendour may well mark the end of Apichatpong’s cinematic ties to Thailand, as the director seems to lament (fig. 9). Perhaps the deeply personal nature of the film was specifically designed to squeeze out the last of what he felt he wanted to communicate from the memories of being part of his national community. In his own words, “The best place to say goodbye was my hometown” (Ganjavie, 2015, para 9).

Fig 9: Jenjira sits by the soldier’s side in Cemetery of Splendour – possibly Apichatpong’s last film in Thailand.

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Facts

Litterature

  • Anderson, B. (2016, June 13). The Strange Story of a Strange Beast: Receptions in Thailand of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady. Retrieved June 01, 2020, from www.versobooks.com/blogs/2701-the-strange-story-of-a-strange-beast-receptions-in-thailand-of-apichatpong-weerasethakul-s-tropical-malady
  • Boehler, N. (2016). Globalized Haunting: The Transnational Spectral in Apichatpong’s Syndromes and a Century and its Reception. In P. Bräunlein, & A. Lauser (Eds.), Ghost Movies in Southeast Asia and Beyond: Narratives, Cultural Contexts, Audiences (Vol. 306, pp. 221–236).
  • Ganjavie, A. (2015, December 15). A Homeland Swansong: Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Cemetery of Splendor. Retrieved June 01, 2020, from sensesofcinema.com/2015/feature-articles/apichatpong-weerasethakul-interview
  • Hayward, S. (2001). FRAMING NATIONAL CINEMAS. In M. Hjort, & S. Mackenzie (Eds.), Cinema and Nation (pp. 95–108).
  • Lachambreverte. (2018, April 5). Cemetery of Splendour (2015) behind the scenes [Video]. YouTube.
  • Leon, K. (2018). ‘Unofficially European: Case Study of BAFTA-Winning I am not a Witch’ – an interview with Juliette Grandmont. In J. Hammett-Jamart, P. Mitric, & E. N. Redvall (Eds.),  European film and television co-production: Policy and practice (pp. 341-350). Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Lucca, V. (2016, April). Dream State: Cemetery of Splendor: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Retrieved June 01, 2020, from www.filmcomment.com/article/apichatpong-weerasethakul-cemetery-of-splendor
  • Mitric, Petar, “The European Co-productions Treaties: A Short History and a Possible Typology” in European Film and Television Co-production: Policy and Practice, eds. Julia Hammett-Jamart, Petar Mitric, Eva N. Redvall (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2018)
  • Rithdee, K. (n.d.). Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, UK/France/Germany/Malaysia/Thailand). Retrieved June 01, 2020, from cinema-scope.com/spotlight/cemetery-of-splendour-apichatpong-weerasethakul-ukfrancegermanymalaysiathailand
  • Ünaldi, S. (2011). Back in the Spotlight: The Cinematic Regime of Representation of and Gay Men in Thailand. In Queer Bangkok.
  • Vinuela, A. (2018). Exporting the French Co-production Model. In J. Hammett-Jamart, P. Mitric, & E. N. Redvall (Eds.), European film and television co-production: Policy and practice (pp. 223-239). Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Wong, M. (2016, June 30). Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Cemetery of Splendour. Retrieved June 01, 2020, from bymartinwong.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/apichatpong-weerasethakul-on-cemetery-of-splendour

Rasmus Helms is a filmmaker and student at the University of Copenhagen, currently completing his Master’s degree in Film and Media studies. He holds a BFA in Film Production from Chapman University, where his directorial thesis screened at several festivals and online platforms, including Oaxaca FilmFest and Ekko Shortlist.

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