Apichatpong Weerasethakul invites the world to dream of a better future for Thailand.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an artist who speaks plainly about both the political and the personal. The Thai filmmaker has received international accolades for his work and is in high demand. Despite winning the coveted Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has often admitted his surprise at the film’s success. While the work was a very personal piece for the filmmaker, in the wider cinematic world it spoke to something much greater, revealing for one of the first times on the big screen what it means to be Thai. In the wake of Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong Weerasethakul seemed to fall off the radar, but now he’s in the middle of a resurgence and the art world is watching.
Characters dream in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
Based primarily in his native Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul produces a cross-pollination of works, switching seamlessly between cinematic pieces and art installations. His films mirror his artwork so closely that they’re almost inextricable, and in his stop-start narratives a message runs deep. Over the years, the artist has focused on ideas such as human instinct, the dream state and shared subconscious experience in his native land. In some cases, his characters’ experiences are so sweeping and universal that their story lines interweave and bleed, forming a larger collective narrative.
In his oeuvre of highly personal work, a political message can be found. His new film, Cemetery of Splendour, oscillates between personal experience and a wider, national sense of guilt. Set in a military hospital, the film focuses on patients as they move in and out of an unconscious state, musing on issues such as death, ghosts and nature. The sense of guilt echoes the Thai sensibility, at least through Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s eyes, and by focusing on a military set outside of the war zone, the artist can pinpoint the psychological issues that might be haunting the nation.
Despite this, however, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is often censored in his native land. His voice has become increasingly political, albeit subtly. Despite the psychological and meditative tone of his most recent feature, the filmmaker has banned the release of his own work in his native land due to fear of the ruling military junta. To have his voice heard, Apichatpong Weerasethakul must look beyond his national boundaries.
Outside his home, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work takes on a whole new meaning. Where once it might have been whimsical and meditative, now it reveals the suppression of those qualities inside his national borders. Taking his experience as his truth, the filmmaker presents to the world a version of his country that we will never know and frames the country in a way that it will never see. No one understands what is really happening in Thailand, and perhaps that’s the point; Apichatpong Weerasethakul is the man with the answers and he’s keeping the key for himself.
Dealing with the dream state: Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour
Rendered through the eyes of the artist, Thailand becomes something entirely removed from how we might see it in the cultural imagination, and our sweeping mythologizing of the culture is clear. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s country appears absurd and mundane, linear and avant-garde, in equal parts. There is so much doubling in the imagery, narrative and character play that it would be foolish to think each film represents only one thing. The only constant in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is the geography; though disparate, the individuals in his films are all drawn together by their sense of place.
In Thailand, at least through the artist’s eyes, politics and place are irrevocably linked.
In Thailand, at least through the artist’s eyes, politics and place are irrevocably linked. To connect to one, you end up somehow becoming embroiled in the other. A belief in Thailand’s magic and mystery would enable inhabitants to be more easily manipulated by the ruling militia; the more they believe in their homeland, the more willing they might be to submit themselves to it. The wounds of the past inflicted upon the nation are seen through the inhabitants’ unconscious state in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s dreamy scenes, and the characters act out the things that continue to haunt them today. Dealing with trauma is quiet, meditative and undeniably confused in the artist’s films, and that seems to be the point. Void of an active way to voice their pain, the Thai people are burdened with the acts of their nation. Unable to safely oppose the government, it seems the safest thing for the people to do might simply be to dream.