Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Interview

By Jeff Walsh

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is leading a new independent cinema in Thailand. His film "Tropical Malady" explores the relationship between two Thai men in a very natural, realistic way. The film is shown in two parts, though. The couple meets and develops their relationship in the first half, and then, in the second half, one of the men becomes a tiger and the other, a soldier, hunts through the jungle trying to find his lost love. It's definitely an experimental movie and, I assumed, telling some cultural myth or somesuch.

Recently, I attended a two-night program on Tropical Malady presented by the Pacifc Film Archive on the UC Berkeley campus. On the first night, an audience watched Tropical Malady on film. On the second night, we watched it on DVD and Apichatpong controlled the remote, stopping to tell stories about the filming, what he was trying to achieve, and any audience member could yell "Stop!" and ask a question.

So, when the movie hit the midway point, I was hoping to get some story of how there is some traditional Thai story of a boy who takes the shape of a tiger, and that would give me some cultural background that would help illuminate the second half. Instead, he only said, "And now, his boyfriend is tiger." So, apparently, I already knew everything I needed to.

But, for as much as my patterns and tastes don't usually go in this direction, there was something oddly hypnotic and engaging about the movie. I don't know that I want to see 10 of this kind of movie, but this one is fine. Actually, his latest movie is playing in San Francisco this weekend only, so I'll probably end up seeing that.

"Tropical Malady" (Sud pralad) won a jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, and it is the second in a series of three features including "Blissfully Yours" (Sud sanaeha), which was censored in Thailand for its (heterosexual) sexual content, and his latest movie "Syndromes and a Century" (Sang sattawat) was supposed to open in Thailand this week, but has been pulled from distribution there because of scenes we actually discussed in our interview.

So, what is the cinema of Thailand like, because the only stuff I've seen has been more of the Beautiful Boxer and Iron Ladies.

Different kinds of entertainment. We have Hollywood copycats, but mostly we focus on comedies. During the past few years, more of a copy of Korean style. You know, very young and beautiful people falling in love, but a certain Korean style in the way they dress. I would say most of the movies are about transvestites and ghosts, little action. It's interesting, when we say gay it applies to a transvestite. It's the same category, but it's quite strange because people totally accept it and it's a family affair to go see a straight man dressed as a woman being chased by a ghost, or just doing something flamboyant, and everyone laughs about that. I don't know if it's insulting or not, but that's the way it is.

I was at the screening of Tropical Malady last night, and it seemed that the sexuality of the two men seemed to be no big deal. The people around them didn't seem to react. It just seemed very casual. Is that your experience with the way sexuality is perceived in Thailand?

That's more the memories. I'm trying to present film as memories. When you look back at your own experience, for me it's always beautiful things, so you repeat certain things with variations. For me, it's like a dream... the first part, the second part. So, it's kind of a utopian point of view. At the same time, it's a statement: This is how I live, and this is how I want my world to be, and this is my memory. When you're in love, you forget the world, so I think this is saying something like that.

I'm in the middle of writing my first novel, which I wrote on a beach in Thailand. Just down in Koh Samui and I had a little cottage 15 feet off the Gulf. That's all I did every day, woke up, wrote, swam...

That sounds very nice.

I thought I was going to see a lot of Thailand, but the writing was going so well, I didn't move much.

That's great.

So, my interaction was the locals you would get used to after a while, they would ask questions about being gay in America and all that kind of stuff. I never really got to see gay life in Thailand, since I was in a tourist area, it was always just guys who wanted to hook up with tourists. So, what is it like to be gay in Thailand, as far as gay culture and everything?

I'm not sure I can say about being gay, because I'm just doing things normal. Because I don't go out that much, I don't know. I don't feel any pressure at all. I live with my boyfriend and we go out and sometimes hold hands, and I don't know, it's okay.

Because you went to school here in Chicago, so here there's the whole thing of 'I have to tell my parents,' 'I have to make this big revelation to everyone in my life...' Is that just an experience that is the same everywhere?

Yes, I think it's universal. I had a difficult time telling family members. I think I'm lucky because it's very accepting. I told my sister and my brother, we were chatting on MSN and my brother was selling computers. So, while we were chatting I ordered a computer, and I had a picture of a girl friend up there, and he said, 'Is that your new girlfriend?' And, I said, 'No, you know I don't like girls.' That's how I came out to him. And he was just kind of silent for a little bit and then, 'OK, let's talk more about computers.' So, it was very casual.