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December 10, 2011

Only light and memory:

the permeable cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul




Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (2010)

A modest billboard stands shaded by the mature trees that give Khon Kaen University’s sprawling campus, like much of the town around it, a semi-rural feel. The sign announces the distant triumph of the university’s most outstanding alumnus, a forty-year old, award-winning artist and filmmaker who studied architecture here in what must seem  like a past life, two decades ago. Independent filmmakers are seldom seen on billboards anywhere—even small ones in universities—and especially in Thailand where fame and intellectual achievement seldom coincide.

Khon Kaen is a big, fairly prosperous town in the heart of the northeastern region (Isaan) that accounts for roughly a third of Thailand’s landmass and population.  Its university helps make it a centre for the region, yet seems an unlikely wellspring of avant-garde art. The languor of the place conceals a spirited regional sensibility, long ignored by the country’s elites in Bangkok, but increasingly finding cultural as well as political outlets. Isaan may not be on the cutting edge of global trends, but it is certainly on the cutting edge of the national political tension unleashed March 2010 on the streets of the capital. Yet here in the breezy,  green surrounds of the campus art museum, there’s no sign of the discontent that rocked this industrial city and its  agricultural hinterland just three months before, when redshirt  protestors—their comrades in Bangkok forcing a bloody  showdown with the military-backed establishment—torched  the town hall and the local office of the national broadcaster.

We’ve come to Khon Kaen to conduct a workshop at the local art academy, with a team of artists from Bangkok, a seven-hour bus ride away to the southwest. By chance Khon Kaen’s prodigal son, Apichatpong Weerasethakul —still largely anonymous on most of his hometown’s streets —has returned to premiere his latest offering, the Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past  Lives (2010), at the local multiplex. This happy coincidence offers a chance to reflect on his provincial origins, as well as his ambivalent position in Thailand’s national and political culture.



Born in 1970, Apichatpong spent his formative years here in the northeast, still regarded with condescension by Bangkok elites despite its rich popular cultural traditions and proud record of political resistance. The son of two doctors, he grew up in clinics and hospital compounds, surrounded by ordinary Isaan folk, yet conscious of his family’s bourgeois, professional status. After architectural studies, he ventured to America, landing a place in the filmmaking program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But upon returning to Thailand, his practice quickly became firmly rooted here, both practically and thematically, to a degree that fellow returnees’ practices have not. Why so? His work is decidedly unparochial in its address, and has found no great popular appeal here, lauded more from the outset in Rotterdam and Cannes than in Bangkok. And while his career has anchored him in the cosmopolitan bustle of the Thai capital and, more recently, the low-key, northern arts hub of Chiang Mai, Isaan has furnished constant inspiration. It is also the site of his most recent—and in many ways most challenging—body of work.

Apichatpong seems destined to remain somewhat out of place, between the community he’s inevitably representing, itself schizophrenically national and provincial, and his mostly international audience. This perhaps explains why his many cinephile champions have so far preferred to aestheticise, rather than contextualise, his practice. So what are the crucial contexts for a rich engagement with his work? Any lasso the critic might throw around him quickly unravels; every characterisation comes with a proviso. Yet a local framing—unavailable to most of his international viewers—will shed some light on the many tensions that are channelled, yet somehow balanced, in his work.

Growing up in Khon Kaen has gifted the artist  with an affectionate feel for Thailand’s provincial landscapes,  and for the rhythm of quotidian exchanges that take place in  them. He shows little interest in the traditional—his films are steeped in a modern vernacular, laid down in the 1960s along with American air bases and the roads that linked them.  What was novel then—the furniture, the transistor radio, rectilinear architecture—is dusty now, showing its age, and its ghostly, residual presence forms the material core of much  of his imagery. Roads are gravelly, but sealed; lights are neon.  It is a ‘standard-issue’ aesthetic, provincial, but never quaint or rustic.

Apichatpong’s keen eye, and ear, for the vernacular have tempted some to make regionalist claims, and indeed, those who see him as a critic of nation have plenty of  ammunition: his first feature-length release, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), was an experimental documentary cum road-movie, surveying the country’s economic margins  from north to south. The artist insists that his choice of subjects was exploratory: he was drawn to people whose lives and livelihood were most unusual or foreign to him, and had no pretensions towards political representation. Yet the resulting film bypasses both the urban elite, and Thailand’s substantial middle class. However, like the vast majority of the Isaan population—shortchanged though they may be  by the political class—any regional pride he harbours does  not impede his national identification. Following the bloody showdown last April he was invited to tea with the Prime Minister, and duly obliged; and on the dais at Cannes he underscored the importance of his success for ‘Thai cinema’.

Either way, the national framing is complicated by Apichatpong’s debts to Euro-American experimental traditions. Some key influences—Warhol, Duchamp and  the Surrealists—lead both through and beyond the cinema.[1]  Yet this is a body of work that returns us to that medium’s  most fundamental questions, already articulated within  three decades of the Lumière’s first screenings: What is film’s  relationship to time? What becomes of the film image, once projected beyond its referential base? In one mesmerising sequence in Syndromes and a Century (2006), a faded basketball court becomes a study in illumination, movement, and stillness. The camera captures the light and shadow thrown by neon tubes and spotlights, on a breezy night, in a space taken over by games. Bodies in motion echo the rhythm of the acoustic guitar on the soundtrack, before an abrupt cut to a breathtaking static shot of some nurses in pristine, white uniforms, reclining against the frame of a children’s swing; some sit eerily still, looking directly at the camera, the shot held long enough to bring to mind a still life or portrait photograph. His is a cinematic world that yields immediacy without appealing to documentary conventions, artifice without sacrificing film’s existential bond with physical reality. But Apichatpong’s canonisation as an innovator has had less to do with these metaphysical considerations and more to do with his frequent departures from both the formatting of the blockbuster and the exhausted authorial inscription of art films.

Any avant-garde legacy, via art or film, is further complicated by his enduring fascination with low-brow, local media forms (radio plays, soap operas and comics), whose idioms and stock narratives he frequently borrows.  He is revered as a queer Asian hero for his candid depictions of homosexual romance; yet these resound with the same  touching combination of sensuality and awkwardness as heterosexual encounters, defusing any transgressive charge.  Many admirers have emphasized his Buddhist belief, seemingly as pivotal to Western interpreters as it is invisible to Thai ones. Yet his camera renders monks as ordinary human beings, desacralised and framed by quotidian settings—they chat, they play music, they go to the dentist. This helped trigger the censorship of Syndromes by the Thai cultural authorities, arousing national moral insecurities in the wake of the coup d’état that unseated Prime Minister Thaksin  Shinawatra (and precipitated the most recent bout of political  flux). In Apichatpong’s films, religious authority is subject to the same wry, ambivalent humour as political authority.  At any rate, Buddhism is just one part of the mix—while integral to everyday life in Isaan, it became so against the grain of a deep-seated animism that not only persists, but  has worked its way into mainstream Buddhist practice.  The northeast is a kind of spiritual crucible, its carnivalesque folk traditions counter-balancing the hierarchical and  ceremonious forms of official Siamese culture.



Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (2010)

People in Apichatpong’s films and videos speak easily, and often with a subversive edge, about karmic retribution and reincarnation. In Syndromes an aged monk persuades the doctors in both halves of the film that his arthritis is the consequence of having been cruel to chickens as a child.  In one of the shorts comprising the Primitive installation  (2009), a young man—speaking in the Isaan language looked down upon in Bangkok as ‘not properly Thai’  —tells an elliptical story about his visitation by the spirits  of his previous lives, which transmogrify in a vision of the  future. Such references to ‘unknown forces’—as the title of  one of Apichatpong’s installations would have it—point  in the direction of a folk consciousness with old roots in  Thailand (and most of Southeast Asia), which his formal  experimentation playfully indexes. Despite often being  described as mysterious or baffling, his works are legible  in this sense as cinematic exercises in animism—attuned to  the permeability between the human world and that of the  spirits, with an enchanted conception of time as being filled  with life’s returns and reappearances in altered forms.

Indeed, permeability could serve as a kind of  password for the uninhibited way Apichatpong occupies  various media, various cultures, various stylistic or formal  traditions. The cinema in Southeast Asia, like the mobile  theatrical traditions onto which it was grafted, was always  permeable, tied into provincial, seasonal economies and  —in its architecture, its languages, its very text—porous with  respect to its environment. This porosity was, perhaps first  and foremost, material, indexed by the very translucence of  the screen, which Apichatpong revives through pyrotechnics  (Primitive), superimposed animation (My Mother’s Garden,  Blissfully Yours, Emerald), or a screen set ablaze against the  dark, rural night (Phantoms of Nabua). It is also narrative:  his scripts and characters channel soap operas and folk tales,  in keeping with the cinema’s local prehistory—the original  moving images of the puppet theatre. In the Siamese nang yai  or nang talung, as in the Javanese wayang, the play is not a  fixed text, but varies from one performance to the next, from  place to place, in the hands of different performers. Another  index is architecture—it’s not just about breaking the ‘fourth  wall’, but the other three as well—the ceilings, floors and  windows, in all the vernacular spaces of production. Hence, the open interiors of Primitive, Haunted Houses, and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee; and Apichatpong’s careful suturing of the  ordered interiors of built space with the entropic outside of  the jungle.

Perhaps most permeable of all, though, are the people. It doesn’t feel quite accurate to describe the figures animating these films as ‘characters’. They are multi-channel mediums; whether they have certain traits, or whether they undergo psychological transformation, isn’t important to our experience of Apichatpong’s films. Each production is porous with respect to the next: cast, crew and characters rotate and return, reincarnated from project to project. If this heuristic channeling tends to efface individual identity (not to mention the cinema’s temporal and generic templates), it can have the  opposite effect on collective identity, reviving shared pasts  and hidden relationships.

Apichatpong’s recent Primitive project (from which A Letter to Uncle Boonmee sprang) was made in the remote Isaan village of Nabua. It dwelt upon the village’s traumatic history at the frontlines of civil conflict—the brutal suppression of a communist insurgency during the Cold War. The artist spent many months in the region, getting to know its people and its past intimately. Yet in the end, and in the films, there is no question of historical reconstruction.  Nabua, he writes, “is only light and memory. There are natural illuminations from the sun and from fire. The lights seep through the doors and windows and burn the rice fields.  There are artificial ones like fluorescent tubes and LED lights like dots of recollections. And there are simulated bolts of lightning that destroy the peaceful landscape and unearth the spirits”.[2]

Like most of Thailand’s conflicts, this violence has left little trace on the public record. But in this body of  work, the past is neither dug up, nor reconstituted; rather, it  floats to the surface in storytelling and role-play, through the  cracks and fissures of the everyday rural environment, as the  gestures of the dead are channeled “through their offspring”.[3]

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, like the feature film that followed it, takes as its point of departure a man who can recall all his past lives. Uncle Boonmee is the perfect cinematic monad. In him, the medium confronts its ultimate redundancy: to remember all one’s past lives is to have access to an encyclopaedic wealth of experience, traversing many levels of the cosmological order. What use, then, would cinema be? For the rest of us, it’s a start— not simply mnemonic, an architectural frame to be clad with memories — but a shuttling between times and lives, where individual experience merges with the communal. Only light and memory. A modest offering, it would seem, yet not without a certain défi, a challenge, recalling debts which at some point will have to be settled. Long ago the French film theorist Jean Epstein wrote about the animistic charm of the film image:  beings are both themselves and their double, and objects acquire ‘soulfulness’ when projected on the screen. Cinema’s animistic power over the spectator is usually harnessed to the cult of stars who are themselves even when they’re in character. To channel the sensorial intensity of this charm in the name of an involuntary remembrance—tapping cultural  roots deep below a nation’s fraught political present—is in its  own quiet way, a revolutionary gesture.


MAY ADADOL INGAWANIJ is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media, University of Westminster. She is researching cinema experience and modernity in Cold War Siam and writes on contemporary independent cinema in Southeast Asia.


DAVID TEH works at the National University of Singapore, researching Southeast Asian contemporary art. His recent curatorial projects have included Unreal Asia (Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, 2009) and Itineraries (Valentine Willie Fine Arts, Kuala Lumpur, 2011). His longer essay about Apichatpong's work, 'Itinerant Cinema', was recently published in Third Text (Sept., 2011).

An earlier version of this text was published in Italian as ‘A casa con Apichatpong Weerasethakul’, trans. Davide  Cazzaro, in SegnoCinema, No.166, 2010. The English version was first published in 'Yang Fudong / Apichatpong Weerasethakul', CACSA Projects 2011, exhibition catalogue (Adelaide: Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia).




1. Observers of his gallery practice have noted a resemblance to the ‘relational’ vogue championed by Nicolas Bourriaud, though the kinship is  yet to be explored in any depth. See, e.g., Karen Newman, ‘A man who can recall his past lives’, in James Quandt (ed.), Apichatpong Weerasethakul,  Vienna: Synema/Austrian Film Museum, 2009

2. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, ‘The Memory of Nabua: a note on the  Primitive project’, in Quandt (ed.), op cit., 204

3. This notion of an ancestral channeling came to the fore in his acceptance  speech upon receiving the 2010 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or .

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