We leapt aboard a yacht to chat to the Thai director about ghosts, reincarnation and his new film, 'Mekong Hotel'
After winning the Palm d’Or in 2010 for the beautifully meditative 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives', Thai artist and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is back in Cannes this year with two new projects. Shot on Lomokino’s hand-wound analogue camera, 'Ashes' is a haunting short documentary for Mubi that observes the free speech protests in Thailand. His new feature, 'Mekong Hotel', showcases his more familiar style. With bone-dry wit and gentle pace, a Pob ghost stalks a hotel chewing on entrails of animals as a young man courts a lady and a guitarist tries to remember a piece of music he composed.
It’s very interesting for me to explore this issue of reality in cinema, it’s something that is real before but transforms to fiction as we grow up. When you are young you believe in ghosts and monsters and then it changes and it suddenly becomes fiction
Dazed Digital: What’s a Pob ghost?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Pob is a ghost of a man or woman, normally an elderly one in a village that becomes very hungry at night and goes out to eat other people’s live stock. So the villagers have to find the ghost doctor to find the bad spirit. Where I grew up we went to see these ceremonies.
DD: Did the river in 'Mekong Hotel' have a personal significance?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I grew up in the area so there is a strong memory to my heart when my dad passed away in 2003 and we had to put his ashes in the river. Lately there’s a slipping water level because of the construction of a dam by China in Laos, so this becomes political because of biodiversity problems that affect Thailand and Cambodia. There’s a conflict: we need electricity in Thailand, but at the same time we destroy a lot of other lives. When it’s dry we get diggers and I think about my dad and also other people’s bones in that sand, it was recycled from bone to building.
DD: Why do you keep revisiting themes of reincarnation in your films?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: That’s the thing that stuck with anyone who grew up in Thailand, it’s stuck inside. Now you think it’s nonsense, but it’s very old. For example, if I put my feet on the table and point at you, I will feel very guilty as feet are very dirty for Thai people. Or if you touch someone’s head, it’s considered very rude, even though it’s nonsense if you think about it, but you cannot help feeling guilty. The same thing about ghosts and reincarnation, it’s there.
DD: The creatures seem more earthly; less like mystical beings.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Yes, it’s very interesting for me to explore this issue of reality in cinema, it’s something that is real before but transforms to fiction as we grow up. When you are young you believe in ghosts and monsters and then it changes and it suddenly becomes fiction. Also in Thai culture we believe in invisible beings, every tree has a different spirit.
DD: In your short film 'Ashes', is that your voice saying you want to quit cinema and go into painting?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Oh, that’s my voice, my actual dream. Sometimes I record what I dream the night before to my partner. Venturing into the artwork, and the photography the sculpture, it’s very fascinating compared to movie as movie takes 2-4 years to manage one but these you can do many in one year. Also financially it’s much more comfortable. So this dream may be my hidden desire. Ashes is talking about the pleasure and the pain of living in Thailand, this is a way of escape from desire, from the profession.
DD: How did you approach music in Meykong Hotel?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: It’s very organic feeling. I worked with a friend of mine I haven’t seen for 20 years, I knew him from high school. So we were catching up through working together and his music. I sent him a treatment and asked if could express it and his music for me. It’s like the river, it’s like water.