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Weerasethakul on his hypnotic Cemetery Of Splendour

The acclaimed Thai filmmaker talks the importance of dreams and how even winning Cannes doesn’t keep him safe from his country’s military dictatorship

The lucid dreamer of world cinema, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul – commonly known as ‘Joe’ to his friends and relieved bad spellers – has refined his style of playfully languorous storytelling across some of the most acclaimed films of the 21st century. Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century (2006) and his Cannes Palme D’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) are at once mystical and matter-of-fact, hinting at spiritual worlds beyond our material one that happily co-habit and overlap for those attuned to his distinct, off-key rhythms and gentle, low-key narratives.

His new film, Cemetery of Splendour, continues in this vein, observing an epidemic of hospitalised soldiers in the northern Thai province of Khon Kaen, afflicted with a sleeping sickness. Local volunteer Jen (Joe’s frequent leading lady Jenjira Pongpas) gradually learns that the soldiers’ condition may be linked to the mythic burial ground on which the hospital lies, that, as one ghostly visitor tells her, might be “the spirits of the dead kings siphon(ing) the soldiers’ energy”. As typically lush and visually striking as his best work, there’s also a melancholy metaphor at play here with Weerasethakul lamenting his country’s current dictatorship: an issue that could have serious consequences for anyone voicing dissent, even when rendered so lyrically by a globally renowned artist…

The film again features your method of blending dream and reality. What’s your obsession with this idea?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: “Obsession”? No, I think this film is more personal. I’m working on less of an intellectual level but more of an emotional (one). I shot the whole film in my hometown and it had changed so quickly with the whole political situation and the military taking control of the country. I feel that sometimes you are really confused about the future. So you really need to escape and one way is to dream, to sleep; to find a different reality.

Why shoot this movie in your hometown?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: It’s about remembering the place where I grew up, my family used to live in the hospital. It’s pretty rare for a Thai movie to shoot out of Bangkok and normally it’s expensive for us but, for me, I could find many of the crew in town. Also, I feel more and more restriction of what I can say, so I want to make it as the last film that I shoot in Thailand, so the best place is hometown, to say goodbye.

What kind of restrictions?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: In Thailand you cannot talk about many things – nation, religion, monarchy, sex – so what else can you say?

Despite returning to these themes, it does feel like a different approach to the way you use dreams and reality here.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I think it became more subtle in this film because I started to observe how I dream, and I think that my dreams are mostly pretty narrative! Not like Hollywood dreams that have a lot of special effects or whatever, but more subtle, more like life. Don’t you think dreams are not so much like Salvador Dali paintings? It’s more gentle than typical dreams in movies. 

Dream and reality the same idea as mind and body – there are no borders?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I think so, yes.

“Many times I ask myself if I can call myself an artist because you cannot say what you want to say” – Apichatpong Weerasethakul 

You always seem so comfortable to include supernatural elements as part of the everyday.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: In Thailand we’re really influenced by animism and Hinduism, so we are ready to believe and to see the invisible. Just a few weeks ago in the village, there was a concrete path that cracked because the weather was so hot and the shape changed, and people went to pray and put candles. People look for lottery numbers in the trees, so it’s our reality and it has layers…

What’s it like to be an artist in a repressive country? 

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: It’s suffocating. Many times I ask myself if I can call myself an artist because you cannot say what you want to say because of the military dictatorship. Many of my friends have been questioned. They call it ‘Attitude Adjustment Sessions’ – they can lock you up for many days, or until you sign that you’re not going to do a political movement, otherwise you’ll be persecuted and your bank account will be frozen. So people sign. It operates really classically like fear. And of course, I’m scared. 

Are you considering living somewhere else?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Yes, but (Thailand)’s home and I feel that that’s why I want to try and make movies in other places and see how it will affect me. Last year I was teaching in Sarajevo with Bela Tarr – Bela moved from Hungary, right? – and he told me, ‘Don’t move. Don’t make movies out of Thailand…’ I think he was trying to tell me that he did lose something of himself.

As a Palme D’Or winner, don’t you get more freedom compared to your contemporaries?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: In Thailand, the value of film is different. It’s entertainment so it’s not that important. Let’s say in comparison to sport and you won a big match, you get a house, car, a lot of money, all of that. It’s different for movies.

So they weren’t impressed by international awards and acclaim? 

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Oh yes, the government has a big party! But let’s say I can still imagine that they can put me in jail. After Cannes I went back and there were of course interviews and a lot of very violent attacks online and death threats. And then when you look at some of the Facebook of people who threatened to kill me, and you look at other poses of them, they go to the temple, they pray… It’s fascinating but it’s crazy.

But if you stay in Thailand, doesn’t that eventually lead to a moral or creative crisis, if you’re not able to speak out directly against the regime?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: No, because I read a lot and I think there’s a lot of beautiful writing already about the political situation. I believe that film, for me, is something different.

I don’t feel that I make films as a political activist. It’s more to express my own feelings. 

Cemetery of Splendour opens in UK cinemas on June 17th.