Recalling Past Lives – Apichatpong Weerasethakul At The IFI

As mentioned in my previous post, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul was at the Irish Film Institute today, in conversation with Dr Maeve Connolly of the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design.  The interview focussed on a number of Apichatpong’s films; specifically Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century; and featured extracts from them as well as the short films, Third World and Letter To Uncle Boonmee.

It appears that Mr Weerasetthakul’s films have found great favour with Irish audiences, which is pretty remarkable given that his films are usually regarded as difficult and impenetrable. Dr Connolly explored the main themes of Apichatpong’s films: the dichotomy of city and countryside, the role of education and health, and his subtle but ever-present references to Cinema. The director filled us in on his background in Thailand, and spoke of his time in Chicago studying Experimental Film. He was an amiable, intelligent and humourous interviewee; when asked if his films contained “a message”, he laughed saying this lack of any overt meaning was one of the problems he himself has with his films, and which also caused problems when he went looking for funding.  He spoke about his belief in the “shared authorship” of his films – seeing the process of filmmaking as collaborative and open, though admitting that he is something of a “dictator” when it comes to putting the final film together.

The interview also covered Apichatpong’s love of music and popular culture (national and international), and his approach to finding the stories of his films, often developed with his actors as he is actually filming. He likes to mix professional and non-professional performers, and often finds actors in unlikely places – one cast member of Blissfully Yours was a casting agent who was supplying Apichatpong’s film company with potential actors, and kept slipping her own photo in amongst the others. She was eventually cast in one of the leading roles. Not the kind of thing I imagine happens very often in Hollywood.

One thing that strikes me about his films generally is the lack of any cynicism or criticism. He seems to be genuinely in thrall to national character and idiosyncrasies, while finding surreality in certain mundane aspects of Thai culture; his interest in Thai folk music for example. His films usually feature old Thai folk songs, sometimes performed in Karaoke settings within the film story or played on the soundtrack. In conversation, he talked about his love of this kind of music and routinely shows his characters finding solace or escape through song, sometimes in unconventional ways (see the singing dentist of Syndromes and a Century). He also talked about the importance of the spiritual element of his films, his interest in buddhism and reincarnation; and registered his surprise that some buddhist friends found that his films had an ability to help them achieve a kind of meditative state!

Apichatpong hinted at a possible change in direction for his film style, which may be signalled by his upcoming installation at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, “For Tomorrow, For Tonight“, which opens on July 27.  The exhibition mixes film, photography and installation art and should be a must-see for any admirers of his films. The IFI is currently running a retrospective of the director’s films, which I believe will run into August, to coincide with the IMMA exhibition, and with more of his short films scheduled.

Watch the trailer for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives here


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