Weerasethakul Talks Hospitals, Aerobics, and a Boy From Mars

Johnny Ray Huston April 9, 2007

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is in Berkeley when I call him on the phone. The day before he was in Thailand, which is 14 hours ahead of California on the world clock. And a week or so before then, he was in Geneva. Travel is a way of life for Apichatpong, whose most recent feature “Syndromes and a Century” (playing at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts April 13-15) demonstrates his gift for journeying through time in a manner that can lead one to contemplate past, present, and future anew. A conversation with this serene observer can be as casually revelatory as one of his films. Which makes sense: One of his stated goals as a filmmaker is to simply show people what he likes, and what he likes to see. I guess we like a lot of the same things. (Weerasethakul spoke just before his live appearances at the Pacific Film Archive.)

SF360: Have you ever done an event like this [your shot-by-shot presentation of ‘Tropical Malady’], in which you go through a film you made so rigorously and thoroughly in public before?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Only in doing commentary for DVD, but I think that’s quite different — less spontaneous. In one way, I’m not sure if it’s a good thing to do. I’m curious to see. With ‘Syndromes and a Century,’ I just had a press screening in Bangkok and a Q&A afterward, and even in that case some people were upset. They didn’t want to have a Q&A because they say it kills a movie.

SF360: But they don’t have to attend the Q&A portion [laughs].

Weerasethakul: Yes.

SF360: When I interviewed you while ‘Blissfully Yours’ was part of the 2002 Toronto [International Film] Festival, I remember you mentioning that you knew the SF filmmaker Michael Wallin. Do you have other connections to the Bay Area?

Weerasethakul: I organized an experimental film festival in Bangkok around 2000 or 2001, and we wanted to do a retrospective of Bruce Baillie. Bruce couldn’t come because of his health problems, so we asked for a representative, and Michael [Walln] came to Bangkok.

SF360: I know you admire Baillie’s films, and I was wondering if you could tell me what properties within them you enjoy.

Weerasethakul: I first saw his films when I was a student in Chicago [at the School of the Art Institute] and I was struck by the sense that he’s spontaneous, as in painting or poetry. He’s very comfortable with his camera. It opened up my thinking about film. Last year I had the opportunity to watch [Baillie’s] ‘Quick Billy’ again. It’s like ‘Tropical Malady’ — a lot better than ‘Tropical Malady.’ Very free. Very not-connected, and yet connected in a way. I realized that it has been a hidden inspiration.

SF360: There are scenes in a clinic in ‘Blissfully Yours,’ and you’ve returned to medical settings in ‘Syndromes and a Century.’ Such settings have an autobiographical element for you. But I also wanted to ask about the differences in the medical settings of ‘Syndromes’: in the first half, the clinic is sort of pastoral with open windows, while the second half of the film goes into the bowels of an urban hospital.

Weerasethakul: I just like hospitals and clinics? [laughs] It’s a big chunk of my life. I grew up in hospitals. My mom was working in a hospital and my dad was opening a clinic, so during the day I was at the hospital with my mom, and sometimes at night I went to the clinic. There was a back-and-forth. When my mom quit the hospital, they both worked at the clinic. Now, my mom still works in the green room, the clinic [in ‘Syndromes’].

SF360: The hospital hallways in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ are often quite beautiful. In comparison, a lot of movies make hospital hallways look scary or sterile.

Weerasethakul: For everyone, the hospital is a part of life. I remember that every noon I had to walk through a [hospital] hallway to wait for my mom for lunch. But also I’ve gone with her and my father for their medical check ups the past few years. Everyone has this kind of connection. The hospital is like a church.

SF360: Public aerobics scenes have appeared in two of your films. What has drawn you to those types of sequences?

Weerasethakul: [Laughing] ‘Public aerobics.’ In Thailand in the past few years, people have become very conscious about their health, and it’s suddenly become very popular to [exercise] everywhere – in the park, in the garage. I found it very fascinating. I think my film is very transparent. It’s like a mirror reflecting what I like. Sometimes it doesn’t even have meaning, it’s just what I enjoy watching.

SF360: I’ve read or heard more than one person discuss their experience of watching ‘Syndromes and a Century’ in terms of having a realization about the way they are sitting, or their breathing, while in the theater.

Weerasethakul: That’s what I like about Bruce Baillie’s films. You just watch and it’s like you’re sitting beside a filmmaker. It’s very comfortable.

SF360: A lot of people associate the word ‘experimental’ with punishment or struggle, but it can be quite pleasurable.

Weerasethakul: It’s as simple as the enjoyment of watching space and people. The actor from Tropical Malady [who is also in Syndromes; Sakda Kaewbuadee], for me, is really a special person, very beautiful. So I just watch.

SF360: At the end of last year I asked you for a top 10 of sorts [for the San Francisco Bay Guardian], and one of the things you listed was Philippe Parreno’s installation ‘The Boy From Mars.’ I wanted to mention it to you now because I haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen his collaboration with Douglas Gordon, ‘Zidane: A 21st-Century, Portrait’ and I thought that was extraordinary.

Weerasethakul: For me, ‘The Boy from Mars’ is ten times better [than Zidane]. That should make you more curious about it. I was part of the shooting. He [Parreno] went to Thailand to shoot, in the north, in Chiang Mai. I helped organize the shoot and prepare the equipment and crew. I was learning his process of thinking and I came to admire it. He had ten days and he didn’t have a lot of plans. He watched a lot of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ to get inspiration, and the final film was totally different. But I could sense certain colors [from ‘Full Metal Jacket’].

I wasn’t there all the time, but the final film has little to do with when I was there. It was very abstract and instinctive and casual. For me, ‘The Boy from Mars’ is not only a film, it’s more of a process of thinking. I understand this because I was a part of it. It was a quite special experience. He managed to make something very ordinary become science fiction as well.

SF360: Did that experience have any influence on the installation work and video work for galleries that you do? Also, I wonder if you see a division between what you’re making for cinemas or theaters and what plays in museums — in terms of your process and what you show.

Weerasethakul: Sometimes there is an overlap. Installation [work] is more free. I can focus 100 percent on feelings, whereas in cinema the structure is different. I concentrate more on narrative. With installation I meditate more on pure visuals and pure feeling. But the process of making both can be similar. We can use the same crew and same actors.

SF360: Circles recur in both the dialogue and the imagery of ‘Syndromes and a Century.’ Is there anything you’re willing to share about that?

Weerasethakul: I think it’s [about] trying to assimilate memory. Memory is subjective. We recycle our impressions in life, about people, about certain scenarios. It’s like filmmaking; we recycle the process, or simulate certain things. In this film [Syndromes], you have the recycled script from ‘Tropical Malady,’ or the recycled architecture of the green room.

SF360: The last question I have specific to ‘Syndromes and a Century’ is about the boy who hits a tennis ball against the hospital’s basement walls. Can you tell me anything about that character, or that actor?

Weerasethakul: I just like to have someone playing tennis. It’s my father’s favorite sport. It’s very sketchy — I’m just drafting this person who likes to play tennis everywhere. We started the casting for the second part of the film after I’d already shot the first part, which was an organic way of making the film. I met this boy [who played the character] and I was very fascinated by his acting style and personality.

SF360: What are you enjoying these days, in any realm? Not only art or music or movies, but also daily living.

Weerasethakul: Film is really part of my life and I want to channel more of my life into film. It doesn’t matter if it’s travel or music, I try to find a way to have people feel what I feel, my experience. Basically, I just enjoy living, meeting people, going to places, and falling in love. The beauty of the sun, and of reflecting life.

It’s very ’60s-style, I guess [laughs]. Maybe that’s part of a connection to Bruce [Baillie].