The waking dreams of Apichatpong Weerasethakul
In his beautiful, contemplative films, Apichatpong Weerasethakul explores the predicaments of the human condition. Numéro spoke to the director about his new opus Cemetery of Splendour.
Over the past 20 years, in seven films and countless contemporary-art installations, Thai film maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has captivated the public with his graceful, atmospheric and sensual world. After winning the 2010 Palme d’Or at Cannes with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the 40-something was back at the 2015 festival with Cemetery of Splendour, a film in which ghosts smile at the living, princesses lick the wounds of cripples and the night is bewitched…
Numéro: Your films are like a soothing balm for the eyes. Cemetery of Splendour takes place in a hospital where a woman comforts soldiers who are suffering from a strange sleeping sickness…
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: In my films I look for a cure to confusion and madness. But I’m not sure if I have a positive solution to offer. It’s hard to distinguish between our dreams and our desires, to understand what reality is. Sometimes we really want to wake up but we can’t. That’s what’s going in Cemetery of Splendour, with all those sleeping soldiers… I don’t think we should get rid of our desires, but we could come round to the fact that fulfilling them is very difficult. The film is also about this disappointment. We hope for things that never happen. The main character, the older woman, tries to fight that. She wants to maintain the dream state into which she’s been plunged by spending so much time with the sleepers...
What makes this film so personal?
Firstly I filmed it in my home town. Second, I talk about my frustration living in Thailand today. I wanted it to be the last film I made there, I want to work abroad now. That’s why Cemetery of Splendour is so important. You can feel the anger, but it’s first and foremost directed at me. I’m annoyed with the way I exist as an artist. There are so many things you can’t talk about in Thailand. For the time being I make do showing a sort of suffocation, like in this film. I feel so sad. The political climate affects our freedom of expression, and it’s just been getting worse. The army took control in 2014 and now we live under a dictatorship. So many themes are forbidden. It makes you laugh and drives you crazy.
Your films are political, but not in the way we’re used to in Europe.
Politics don’t have to be in your face. This film is joyously suffocating – that’s what it’s like to live in Thailand. With Cemetery of Splendour, I’ve made a farewell film which explains that we can’t control reality. Sleeping is a form of escapism. But there’s nothing passive about it. For me, waking, sleeping and dreaming are all states of consciousness… And you could say that waking, dreaming and cinema are three worlds I want to unite. Sleep has always interested me, as much as a cinematic motif as a form of escapism.
Why are you so interested in sleep?
For me sleeping has always had a link with the cinema. When we dream, we go to the movies in a way… According to scientists, there are four stages of sleep, which form a complete cycle. Each cycle lasts around 90 minutes – in other words the length of a film. So I said to myself that the cinematic form comes from biological needs linked to our sleeping patterns. Cinema is really and truly a derivative of dreaming.
Your films are often described as hypnotic. Is that a word you like?
Absolutely, yes. But to start with perhaps not in the way you imagine. I make a link between hypnosis and Thailand, a country where propaganda is very important. I had a very particular education, I was made to believe certain things. In that sense I was hypnotized, notably in terms of my country’s history. So that’s something negative… Except you’re right, because hypnosis is also a form of cinema. Maybe cinema avenges bad hypnosis…
What’s next for you?
When I develop a film, certain ideas end up becoming installations. But art is a very different beast to cinema. With film the spectator is passive, whereas with art you move around and are rarely attentive for more than two minutes. For the time being I’m still moving towards a film… These last few years I’ve travelled a lot to Peru, Brazil and Mexico. The Mayans, the Incas… all of that took me back to my childhood, when I used to read about it. In some ways my hunger for films was dictated by what I’d read, which opened up a whole fantastical world. I’m going to spend some time in Yucatán and write an artistic project which will allow me to develop a film. Well at least I hope it will.
Cemetery of Splendour, by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, out on 2 September.
Interview by Olivier Joyard