Thai filmmaker Alongkot shot his mockumentary Bite The Beast (2005) in rage over the one-week-Bangkok-only limited theatrical release of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's prestigious Cannes winner Tropical Malady (Sud pralad, 2004). Regarded as a highly refined, supremely artistic piece of work by film critics, celebrities and scholars, Tropical Malady was inevitably doomed as being "inaccessible" for the rural audiences who are, in fact, the heart of its story. The insightful if slightly naive reactions to the film by rural workers, who were invited to attend a special screening of Topical Malady, however prove quite the opposite...
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film Mekong Hotel (2012) may be best described as an hour-long docu-fiction hybrid set in a deserted riverside hotel in north-eastern Thailand. Commissioned by French television and co-produced in the UK, the film forms part of Weerasethakul’s envisaged Mekong Project, which is supposed to include at least one other film. Although it would seem that the international success he attained with films such as Tropical Malady and, most recently, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat, 2010), would eventually lead to less financial strains for the restless artist and filmmaker, Weerasethakul sees himself confronted with the same problems as before when working outside the strict confines of the Thai film studio system, a system that hasn’t changed much for over a decade since he made his first feature film Mysterious Object At Noon (Dokfa nai meuman) in 2000.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I grew up by the river you see in the film and I thought a lot about my relationship to it, but also about the relationship I have with my actors. I had no script, we just went there, trying to rehearse for a movie that I wrote a long time ago. In a way Mekong Hotel is like a diary, a personal portrait, about relationships, about love... like the relationship between the mother and daughter vampire in the film. I'd written a 20 page treatment for this film I was originally trying to make, about this ghost woman who kills her daughter. Then the daughter becomes a spirit and, at the same time, she becomes the eye of the camera – the camera that observes as she travels to many countries following her man through different re-births. But that film is actually set in a different time, in the future, which means it would be a very expensive production and don't have that much money, so I thought, OK, this is an expression of a really strong attachment to love, so for now, let's just rehearse that.
PJ: Given the success you had internationally with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, don't you think you would now be able to get the financial backing for the film you were rehearsing for in Mekong Hotel?
AW: No, but it's kind of a relief. It's OK because I did Mekong Hotel, so I did something. The film I was planning to make would be too expensive. I know my limit of how much money I can pull.
PJ: You are a Golden Palm winner, Uncle Boonmee has had magnificent reviews everywhere, within six months it was sold for distribution all over the world...
AW: It's very hard to finance and distribute this kind of personal filmmaking though, so my producers and I, we usually manage to pull the funding from the art field. Like with Uncle Boonmee, a big chunk of the money for it came from museums. I think it's a model we have to pursue. Sometimes it's even in exchange; they invest money in a project in exchange for an edition of an artwork for example. It's interesting that making art is more profitable for me than making movies. In Thailand, if you work in movies, even if you're a director or assistant director, you cannot get a credit card because it is not considered a financially stable job, because it's always freelance. So, I'm trying to pursue another profession now, which is farming... I'm trying to build an avocado farm in the north of Thailand. And this has nothing to do with art, it's a real farm.
PJ: Mekong Hotel was co-produced by a British company [Illuminations Films] and commissioned for the ARTE France programming strand La Lucerne. Do you think it would be easier for you to make films abroad, in Europe for example?
AW: I don't think so, because I have to have a personal experience. I've never shot a car crash or something crazy, because I've never experienced it, so it wouldn't feel honest if I'd do it. Maybe if I'd lived somewhere else it would be different, or if it was a movie about travelling.
PJ: How do you try to balance your film work and your work as an artist? Do you go through certain periods where you do either one or the other? Or, do you work on both at the same time?
AW: I try not to differentiate them, but practically it's impossible because of the nature of the funding. For example, I wanted to do a portrait of this hotel but at the same time, I also had the desire to do many other things. And then, right at that moment, this ARTE commission came in and it was perfect for this project, so I proposed it. But there're other projects like Ecstasy Garden, the movie I have to shelve because it's too expensive. So it's always down to funding.
AW: Yeah, it's just like an extension of Mekong Hotel in a way; I kept the guitar, it's the same music, but they talk differently about the existence of us. Rousseau asked the question whether we really owned this land that we live in and then that led to the revolution, the French Revolution, but in Thailand it's also really relevant because we have some kind of law that makes us question whether we are really free. So I used this as a background to talk about Rousseau.
PJ: You always invite ghosts and spirits to enter your films just like any other character and it's sometimes difficult to distinguish whether your characters are alive or dead. You seem to have a special relationship with them that goes beyond the fact that ghosts are deeply rooted in Thai culture.
AW: I think there is a connection between ghosts and making movies in that we are creating these illusions; with ghosts or spirits it's the same in the way that they exist between these two realms of being real or being unreal. Like when we were young, we believed in certain things: angels, ghosts, or whatever. Back then they were real for us, but now they've become fiction. I'm really interested in this shift from these "realities” to becoming "memories” as we grow older; although it was all real when we were little – it was!
PJ: Do you mean that our memories are like small movies running in the back of our minds?
AW: Exactly, because when we think about our past we always fictionalise it in some way, because we grew up in a cinema or moving image generation. So when we think about certain things, or it's the case for me at least, that I think in close-ups and with shifts of time. We do that in our minds.
PJ: The scenes where the spirits are eating flesh. Isn't there a big contradiction between the spiritual world and the cannibalism?
AW: It works on many levels for me, because, again, it's something that existed when I was young. Or, even now, in villages there's always someone accused of being a Pop [Phi Pop – female Thai cannibal spirit], someone who is eating other people... and somehow I think it's a way of the village outcast to be in control and gain a certain power, because people are afraid of them. This Pop was quite popular in the Northeast of Thailand, where I come from, and has been made into a movie Baan Phi Pop (1989) with many sequels and that has inspired many spooky TV series where you always have this hungry ghost eating blood and scaring the villagers to death.
PJ: Do you still feel connected to this place, to the river?
AW: Yeah, very much so. I feel very melancholic about it, maybe too melancholic. When my father died in 2003 we put his ashes in to the river, like many other people do as a ceremony, but lately there's this crazy situation where dams have been built upstream in China, in Laos, and people protest because it affects the biodiversity of the fish, but at the same time, the big buyer of electricity, Thailand, benefits from the hydro-electric dams. So there's this conflict between our needs and the living beings there. It's affecting everything; the water recedes, sometimes it's very dry, sometimes it floods a lot, because of this dam building. And when the water is very dry you can see the machines that move the sand for construction and you think, hey, that's my father there! The bones and remains of our loved ones are turned into buildings. In a way I like this transformation that is still there, but it's changed.
PJ: The only time you can actually get a feeling for the size of the river is the last scene, where you film some jet skis from a distance, but you can hardly tell what they are.
AW: Ah, yes, I particularly liked that scene because it's the end of the day, but at the same time, they're like spirits playing with the sunset. In a way it's like a farewell to the day... the day ends and so does the movie.
PJ: Do you have a preference for making feature films, or working on art projects?
AW: I like both, but somehow, I don't know... you write, right? Sometimes I think that books or the written word is very powerful, but you only need a computer or pen, so in a way the medium is the same, it's very simple. When you work with film, or moving image, you have digital, analogue, many different things, so it's really become an illusion. It's only a tool. The most important thing is the feeling. So, I try to have a balance; but it comes naturally I think, because making a feature film takes about two to four years and that process is so long that I sometimes get a flash and think, I need to make shorter pieces, but then it's the same when I make shorter films, I think, ah, I need to make a feature film again! So it's like ping-pong, back and forth, the important thing is to keep moving. Always!