Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The year of Apichatpong comes to Bangkok

The heavy topics of human rights and artistic freedom took center stage on Monday night at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, where Thai independent filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul came for a screening of Stories on Human Rights. A lively, free-ranging question-and-answer session followed.

Apichatpong's short, Mobile Men, was the third of the 22-film omnibus, which was put together by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Union in celebration of last year's 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

The shorts were grouped under the six themes of the Declaration: Culture, Development, Dignity and Justice, Environment, Gender and Participation.

It was the first time the filmmaker had seen the complete omnibus, and the first time the whole thing had been screened anywhere in Asia. A resident of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand for the past couple of years, Apichatpong came to Bangkok especially for the screening.

Mobile Men features the filmmaker operating the camera himself, riding in the back of a pickup truck as it speeds down the highway with two other men. One of the men is a taciturn soul, a Thai-Yai man, who points to his Converse canvas shoes and other articles of clothing. Then another man grabs the lens of the camera, and he steals the show -- a guy from Surin in Northeast Thailand who becomes increasingly bold about showing off his tattoos, finally whipping off his shirt, and putting the microphone that had been taped to his chest on his elaborately inked left shoulder while he screams to illustrate how painful getting the tattoo was. But all you can hear is the wind whipping past.

"It was intended for Dignity and Justice," said Apichatpong, who also goes by the nickname Joe. But Mobile Men was seemingly arbitrarily shuffled under the theme of Culture, even if it fits there too.

Apichatpong said he intended to show the beauty, dignity and confidence of migrant workers in Thailand who are subject to repression. Among the issues that Apichatpong said inspired him was a government order that migrant workers from Thailand's neighboring countries are under a curfew, limited from holding gatherings and barred from owning mobile phones.

The notion of making the film in a truck came from Apichatpong's belief that a car is like a moving, autonomous island with no boundaries.

Culture is heavy on Apichatpong's conscience, as he's still smarting from butting heads with censors over his recent feature film Syndromes and a Century. After it played at festivals and in general release in countries around the world, and was cited as one of the best films of 2007 by many critics, in Thailand the film was heavily scrutinized by censors. It was submitted in 2007 and then resubmitted last year, and ultimately the censors ordered that six scenes be removed. For a limited Thailand theatrical release, Apichatpong replaced the six scenes with lengths of scratched black film leader so there would be no mistaking that something's missing.

His battle with the censors highlights the many contradictions in Thai society, which in Apichatpong's case is symbolized by the Culture Ministry's conservative branch -- the cultural watchdogs heavily censoring him and saying his work lacks artistic merit -- and the more freedom-oriented, artistic-minded branch -- the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, honoring him with a Silpathorn Award for living contemporary artists and providing him with funds to make his films.

The conservatives in the Culture Ministry "don't see culture as something that can grow ... they don't want to accept different ideas ... people with different identities and sexualities have been pushed to the margin."

For Apichatpong, filmmaking is an intensely personal process, but he's edging toward more political commentary.

"I was a yellow shirt," Apichatpong admitted, saying he supported the early political protests that led to a military coup that ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Apichatpong says he's seen things since that have made him change his mind about supporting any of the political protest movements. "Everyone has become a puppet," he said.

"It's time for filmmakers to weigh in," he says. "You cannot avoid the politics."

A new law that covers the handling of film by the government was passed by the military-installed legislative assembly at the end of 2006. Filmmakers had hoped a new law would be a progressive step up from the old censorship regime that had been in place since 1930. But the new law, while it includes Thailand's first-ever motion-picture ratings system -- a positive measure -- it also contains provisions for cutting and banning films. Apichatpong organized protests against the law, but the filmmakers' pleas were ignored.

"Now I am starting to work at the bottom level," he said, "with film students."

But making films with social commentary these days is "very difficult" for Thai filmmakers. Independent filmmakers have to struggle for funding, and often have to make compromises depending on where their financial support comes from.

"You can't make a film critical of the system," he said.

He also addressed yet another contradiction, when one journalist in the audience stood up cited the example of a commercial Thai comedy films that place Buddhist monks in demeaning positions, while Apichatpong's depictions of a monk playing a guitar and monks playing with a flying saucer in Syndromes and a Century were censored.

"It's because I'm an independent filmmaker. Without studio backing, it's a different story," he said, pointing to a bias against indie films and perhaps collusion between the censorship board and the film industry. "I don't know if there's money under the table, but I speculate that's the cause."

"I understand more about why Thai films are so shitty," he quipped.

Apichatpong's latest work, Primitive, has been noted as his most ambitious and most political yet.

The massive multi-platform work includes a video-art installation, short films and a feature. The project stems from Apichatpong's stay in the village of Nabua in northeastern Thailand, a place that was at the epicenter of a brutal purge of communists by the Bangkok government in the 1960s. Apichatpong worked with the youths in the village, trying to help them discover their village's violent past. "We built a spaceship together." One of the short films that's part of the project is Phantoms of Nabua, featuring young men kicking a burning soccer ball around at night in a grass field. A feature film segment is Uncle Boonmee: A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is about a man and his hundreds of years of memories.

He makes films the way he wants to "because I can", given that he's lucky enough to have found backing in Europe. Primitive, for example, is commissioned by the Munich art museum Haus der Kunst, Liverpool's Foundation for Art and Creative Technology and London-based Animate Projects, and produced by Illuminations Films in London and Apichatpong's own Kick the Machine.

The Primitive installation will be in Munich until May 17 and then at FACT in Liverpool from September 25 to November 29.

The exhibitions are part of what producer Keith Griffiths has hailed as "the year of Apichatpong".

It's such a big project, that Apichatpong says he doubts any art gallery in Thailand can afford to mount it. But Bangkokians will not be totally left out of the "Year of Apichatpong" celebration -- he says a mini-Primitive exhibition is being planned for the Soulflower gallery on Silom Road in late August or early September.

Other upcoming projects will firmly root Apichatpong's place in the international art world.

Fans of Japanese cinema will be interested to know that Apichatpong's next project will be a portrait of writer and Japanologist Donald Richie.

And there's a new book out, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, edited by James Quandt and published in English by Filmmuseum Synema Publikationen. It includes a breakdown of Apichatpong's work by Quandt and essays by Benedict Anderson, Mark Cousins, art curator Karen Newman, critics Tony Rayns and Kong Rithdee, actress Tilda Swinton and Apichatpong himself. Reviews are already starting to come in, from the Museum of the Moving Image and film scholar and critic David Bordwell.

It's with the talented actress and cinephile Swinton that Apichatpong is collaborating on yet another project. "We're e-mailing each other," he said, noting that whatever becomes of the collaboration is going to be beautiful and weird.


  1. Actually, the guy who points out the shoes in the beginning is a "Thai-Yai",not Burmese.

    And the other guy who grabs the camera and yells out in the end is a Thai guy from Surin.

  2. Apologies for the confusion. Thanks for commenting.


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