Editor’s Notes: The following interview is part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. For more information visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
The suggestions of magical realms within our own realities are often dismissed as part of the human imagination. Sometimes superstition and fantasy are ways people use to try to survive insurmountable truths thereby helping them navigate a world that they cannot fully understand. In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, the Thai auteur blurs the fine lines between the fantastical and the real world. There are scenes in the film where the audience must suspend their sense of disbelief to truly experience the layered narratives present to them.
It was my first time watching a Weerasethakul film and if anything, it is a gift for someone who loves film that experiments with the medium in an almost spiritual way. Recently, this great director sat down with me to talk about his unique film. He’s a great conversationalist and I found him to be one of the most mystically minded realists I have ever met.
Jacqueline: As a director, how important are your own dreams to your films?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: This movie is based on dreams in the real sense. When I did research on dreaming, I learned that we have four stage cycles. We go through these cycles every night and each of them is ninety minutes. It made me think that maybe cinema evolves from that time frame. It’s like we go to the movies to dream. We need that. I’ve been really interested in this relationship within the unconscious for a long time.
I wrote down a lot of my dreams in the morning. I tried to find an expression for the logical and illogical. It opens up revelations on how our minds work and it makes you appreciate life in our bodies like robots to see how they work. It intertwines with movie making and self-observation.
Jacqueline: I was very taken by how you presented the goddesses and spirits within the film. I mean, there was a little bit of surprise from the characters, but the film had a sense of the spiritual being a very normal part of the every day. How important is magic to your work?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Very. Living in Thailand it’s sometimes like that. There’s a supernatural aspect that gets into your daily life. People believe in the invisible and sometimes it gets into me as well where I think to myself, “this is too much,” or “this is too complicated,” and I have to reflect on that. It’s interesting to try to explain things like that to yourself from a place of reason.
Jacqueline: Do you think superstition gets into you that way too?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Yes! And I try to get rid of it! More and more I’m interested in science. Superstitions aren’t just constrained to simple every day life, but also how the country is run. It spreads out into internal politics. It prevents people from being more logical. In the movie I like to reflect on the very fine line of fantasy and belief.
Jacqueline: I also found it curious that you had the hospital in such an open-air setting that was incredibly full of nature. The characters as well, although they were doctors, volunteers, and nurses in medicine, used home remedies and spiritual healing.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I grew up in a hospital because my parents are both doctors. We lived in a housing unit in the hospital and that hospital was my playground. At the same time, my parents would take me to the temple to pray. We all believe in karma. There’s clash between all this logical thinking for healing methods with something we cannot explain. When I grew up I would try to explain this tension between belief and science.
Jacqueline: I’d imagine you try to express yourself with that friction or identify it in your work to expand the narratives in the stories.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: It’s more about self-reflection as well. With these past ten years a lot of people in Thailand have gone through a political awareness. They reflect back to our history and what happened before under dictatorship. A huge number of people worship the military dictatorship that is going on now. This is all trying to make a sense of identity with what was going on before with what is going on now. It’s very influential to Cemetery Of Splendour.
Jacqueline: Jen (the protagonist played by Jenjira Ponpas), is an endearing and complex character. Her situations at home and in the hospital were multi-layered.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: It’s so interesting how women in the northeast where I come from, have the highest percentage of mixed marriages with foreigners. It’s almost like a mission for many women to marry a foreigner. So what’s in the film is true, where it’s not about love, really. Sometimes it’s more complicated than that.
I used to have judgment about this aspiration to find a foreign husband, especially poor women. But Jenjira she introduced me to the reality of how it is for a Thai woman and what she goes through, especially her dreams.
Jacqueline: It was very refreshing to see Jenjira portray this older woman who can be seen to some as quite grandmotherly, but she is also a warm-blooded person. She is fully alive with wants and needs. It’s a rare treat to see that of a mature woman in film.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I’ve been working with Jenjira for more than fifteen years. This film is almost like she’s taking over. Before making it we discussed a lot of it and I almost trusted the movie to her. The fact that she remembers so much about the places where the film is set, and I don’t, helped me a lot.
Jacqueline: You work like a poet and sculptor with your films. Do you give yourself constraints when you work on a feature length film like this?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Of course, there are some rules when we make a contract. My producer says we can’t cut the film more than ten minutes of the playtime. And I keep bargaining, “Can I have one fifty?” I mean, time constraints are a conscious way of working, especially with a budget you have to keep in mind. I can’t be super free like when I make short or experimental film. At the same time, it’s also very enjoyable. Under these rules, there is a challenge in how you express these emotions in a larger time frame.
Jacqueline: The extended shots left a lot open to the interpretation of the audience. I didn’t feel like it was so much symbolism, but rather these shots were part of magical within our every day lives. I could be wrong, but I felt you gave the audience the freedom it needs to let the film play out in their heads.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: It’s like working on a different level beyond the narrative and it’s what I also like to achieve as a viewer as well. In this film, I like to focus on the power of suggestion and hypnotism. I tried to eliminate symbolic intrusion and display the mundane to create these open suggestions in the audience’s brain.
Jacqueline: You’re very open to a lot in your films and I’m wondering if after all this time you find your directorial methods changing into other directions.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I work instinctively and organically. My background is in architecture so my early films were very structural, but over time they’ve become more relaxed. There’s less control and it’s more casual.
Jacqueline: Is there something you’d like to work on in the future?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I’m interested in South America.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I went to Peru because of the film festival and before that I was quite familiar with Mexico. I’m interested in the history of brutality and the way people heal and try to connect to different realities through physical modification or drugs. It continues from my interest in Thailand in dreams and dream states. I’d like to show how everything that is magical is actually scientific.
I’ve also been dreaming to write, but it’s difficult.
Jacqueline: You think so? I think directing must be very hard.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: No. Directing is easier because it’s very free and not so concrete.
Jacqueline: But when you direct you have to trust all these people to adhere to vision. While you write, it’s just you and blank page.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: That first sentence is very hard.
Jacqueline: You’re very right and you’re making me think….again! I mean, besides the way you made me already think with your film. Are there other things that keep you experimenting?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I just finished a theatre piece in Korea. It has no actors, just light and smoke. It’s very abstract. I enjoy that. I learned about experimental theatre from people and that opens up a new world. I’m very excited about that.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, also known affectionately as “Joe” to his fans, makes his audiences think about life beyond their own realities. Imagine what he could do with a novel.