Mysterious Objects: On the early works of Apichatpong
Feature by: Suparp Rimtheparthip
How did a haircut create an opportunity for a novice filmmaker?
As unbelievable as it may seem, this is a true story for Apichatpong Weerasethakul when he was faced with a dead-end, just as the first amount of funding for the film Mysterious Object at Noon —which in Thai is Dok Faa Nai Mue Marn (Heavenly Flower in Evil’s Hands)—was nearing its end and he was in need of extra support.
It wasn’t easy for Apichatpong since it wasn’t merely a haircut that would provide him with the financial necessities he needed to complete the production of his first film. It was simply the first step towards not being shooed out before presenting his work so that a business organization could see the artistic value in the film he was making—as with all other artistic forms that the business organization had supported.
Fortune was on Apichatpong’s side that time, but it still wasn’t enough to allow him to finish his project!
Sound changes people
Apichatpong’s family settled down in Khon Khaen province, and his interest in film began in his youth within the compounds of Khon Khaen Province Hospital, as with most youths of his own age group who were dependent on Thai films before the awe and wonder of foreign films of directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas could be experienced.
At that time, he was no different from other people—his interest in films was confined within the area of entertainment—until one day Apichatpong walked into the Khon Khaen provincial cinema, as he always did, with the hopes of receiving enjoyment. But something in him began to change.
“I can’t remember which film it was. It was the first film to screen in Khon Khaen with neither dubbing nor subtitles. I have no idea how it got there. It was a very strange film—I was drawn into the “real sound” on film that wasn’t dubbed sound. This made me interested in the fact that film was no longer something I was used [to seeing]. I began to see the art in it.”
It’s not surprising that sound, which was the catalyst to his initial serious interest in film, would be so evident in many of his short films in the time to come.
From this starting point, Apichatpong drew his personal line of interest in becoming a filmmaker, and even though opportunities did not come for him to directly go down that track, studying architecture at Khon Khaen University paved the way to a greater acquaintance with films.
“At that time I organized film screenings at the faculty because I wanted to share the experience of sitting in a dark cinema with my friends. There were all types of films, anything that I considered strange. Peter Greenaway’s films, for instance. We would watch and then have discussions within the group, but unlike myself, the other people weren’t interested enough to make a career out of it.”
“Once I became interested, my thoughts and studies leaned towards films as much as possible—in terms of lighting and time that is used in architecture work. Even my thesis was on film production houses. It was an excuse to study films. At that time I had to go to Bangkok to interview some people for it. It was therefore a beginning that allowed me to experience the local cinema scene. At the same time I knew the foreign systems through reading for my thesis.”
Not only that, at the same time Apichatpong was so determined to make his dreams a reality that he wrote a story and sent it directly to Tai Entertainment with the hopes of getting considered by Visoot Poolvoralaks. The result was emptiness because his story did not have the potential strength to become a film in the business system.
But Apichatpong’s dream chasing had just begun. After finishing his bachelor’s degree with honors—fulfilling his family’s desires—he decided that it was time to set off on a journey to follow his own heart.
The watcher (caretaker) of films
Apichatpong carried his steadfast determination to make films across the globe, hoping to discover clarity in filmmaking. Even though the School of the Art Institute of Chicago opened their doors and welcomed him as a student, his degree in architecture did not immediately allow him into the master’s program in film as he had hoped because he had no previous works to put into consideration. During the first year, Apichatpong had to join the bachelor’s degree program for the time being.
During that first year he devoted himself only to films, books, and courses in the area of films. “I chose to study only films. Every credit was about cinema. Techniques—I got from intense reading, intense film watching. Philosophy and aesthetics from my professors, so that I could create and send in a portfolio.”
“I watched a lot of US experimental films from the 60s and 70s. They had a library; I went in and asked to watch them [the films]. The following year I applied to be part of the library staff as a film technician, so I got to watch even more of these films—especially the ones that classes would return after using them for teaching. I would have to check every tape, so I would watch it from there. I’d get to watch the films and earn money at the same time. The aspect I got the most of was timing. At that time I knew how long the films were and how much time they took to run. I knew their rhythm.”
From learning both inside and outside the classroom that year, Apichatpong produced a piece of work that would pave the way for his studies. “The first film I did was Bullet (1993). I made it with some friends. I listened to the sounds he made and liked it very much so I told him that I’d put in images. The other film was called 0116643225059 (1994). Both were purely experimental films. When they were complete I brought them to him and told him I don’t want to study at the bachelor’s level anymore. It’s a waste of time. Now that I’ve made some films, will they be accepted?”
And the answer that he received allowed Apichatpong to step into the master’s program the very next day.
Experimental films, experimental films, experimental films
After walking the path, Apichatpong never allowed his opportunity for filmmaking that went hand in hand with his studies to stand still. A 16 mm. camera he had borrowed from the school helped him to produce films with ease—particularly the experimental films that shaped him during this learning period.
“Experimental film…is art that moves. I used to view these films as fine art, not entertainment, but when I saw them I felt that they are actually another kind of entertainment that is even more fun because I can use my [faculties of] thinking with them.”
“I didn’t experiment too much with the films at that time. I tried speed film—[focusing on] the nature of the film, aspects of the image frames only, but its connection to the present is structural. The sound in the film is sometimes a part of the images. Sometimes it isn’t. Mostly the basics of film are the image, sound, and time of the film. People who like my films like them because of these aspects rather than the meaning or philosophy. I am not a storyteller, so my intention is to create films in which the viewer will not receive the same feelings as they would receive when reading a book. But it has to be films only.”
“Most of the shorts I made were either personally funded or partially funded by the school. I used the school’s equipment so the production costs weren’t too high, and there were lots of funding opportunities there.”
Kitchen and Bedroom (1994) and Like the Restless Fury of the Pounding Waves (1995) were two of Apichatpong’s works that followed during his 4th year rooted in Chicago. “Before I came back I found (my) view of Thailand entirely changed from before. Perhaps it was because I saw it as a film, and I saw so many beautiful aspects [of Thailand] that could be made into a film, be it the subject, the atmosphere, the sunlight—it was different from before. The fact that I saw everything as changed was probably because the film perspective had come in. Actually it’s a more narrow perspective, but this view made me concentrate more—viewing it as a time period. I began to observe. At that time I liked Taiwanese films as well. I thought to myself ‘Hey, this is just like a Taiwanese film’, but I had never seen it this way with Thai films.”
Features, features, features
As he was industriously making experimental films, the Museum of Art that had given Apichatpong new perspectives became the origin of a feature film project that would take three years to complete.
“I went to the museum and saw Exquisite Corpse, which was a game played by French artists. It involves one person drawing half a picture on a piece of paper, folding it over, and then handing the paper to another person to continue drawing the picture and so on. I liked this idea, and wanted to make it into a film.”
His concept was to take various stories from interviews with Thais from the north to the south [of Thailand] and interweave them like constructing a jigsaw, without being stuck to the traditional structure of storytelling that viewers are used to. Inevitably, this meant that his film would not have a clear plot; it would not have an evident destination, and was considered quite a challenge for most film viewers.
His ideas gained momentum and sprawled into a tangible vision for the film. The Mysterious Object at Noon project was created, with Apichatpong using the borrowed equipment from the school, and more importantly, funding from his family. He views this “as graduating in business and being provided with capital to establish myself so I could learn the tools of the trade. I’ve never felt guilty about taking money from home to create films. This is the Asian style.”
From this funding, he created the first part of the film, as well as hunting for additional financial sponsors using the Internet as a portal to reach various funding agencies.
“I didn’t view it as a commercial film, so I asked for funding from art organizations. One day I came across the Hubert Bals Fund in Rotterdam, so I sent a synopsis, concept brief, my bio, and cut a rather exciting trailer. Then I created a company so that they would be confident that I wouldn’t just take the money to do [random] things. I received funding of around one million [baht].”
With a 16 mm. second-hand camera bought from Chicago, Apichatpong headed to Thailand to take on this project by traveling from north to south with the combined support of a film and acting crew with whom payment wasn’t an issue, as well as villagers who helped to weave the stories together so the film could move forward.
“This project was very independent. I could end it wherever I wanted, unlike projects that have strict guidelines.”
However, this positive factor also became a problem when he couldn’t find a conclusion for the film because it wasn’t edited yet. This resulted in the withering away of the funds, despite the fact that as a film in documentary format, Mysterious Object at Noon did not use a large amount of film for production.
Once again, Apichatpong had to go on a hunt for funding, especially with organizations that sponsored the arts so he could push his dream project through to perfection.
‘”I went (where?) because I felt it was another area of art. At that time I had long hair and I had to cut it short, so they wouldn’t kick me out. I told them that they ought to support films because it is also art. They gave me some [funding], but I had to ask for help in using their editing studio in return for a percentage of the film’s profits.”
After battling it out single-handedly for three years, Mysterious Object at Noon was finally and successfully completed, ready for its premier at the Rotterdam Film Festival 2000.
Heavenly flower in the evil’s hands
In his homeland, the only opportunity that Mysterious Object at Noon or Dok Faa Nai Mue Marn (Heavenly Flower in Evil’s Hands) got to screen publicly created a certain level of excitement amongst cinephiles to the extent of having to push and squeeze their way in to view it. Despite this [success], Apichatpong would not change his mind when he was invited to screen it in the commercial cinemas because of the main obstacles of the film—not only being a documentary, but also because of the experimental film quality that pervades the entire film.
“It’s not a movie that people will enjoy or will pay to watch, so I didn’t want to screen it because I thought it was a risk to my image, or if it was screened and the feedback was very negative that it would affect my applications for funding for future films. It’s also a very personal film.”
Without a doubt, its documentary format and level of being personal would pose major problems were Dok Faa Nai Mue Marn to be released in the local [Thailand] business system. In Japan, however, at the Yamagata International Documentary film Festival at the end of 2001, Apichatpong and his film revealed themselves. Not only did being in the right place at the right time gain Dok Faa Nai Mue Marn serious interest from the audience, but the burden of carrying the Runner-up Award and Netpac’s Special Award was also placed in Apichatpong’s hands after screening his first feature film in various film festivals in the following two years.
“It was quite an accident that I made a film and screened it at a film festival. It was like another world. There were many viewers. I had never cared about viewer’s feedback until I began to hear it. I didn’t think I would be like that. [Or] when one of the critics that I liked a lot such as Jonathan Rosenbaum (from Chicago Reader) told me that he liked my film very much, it [the feedback] immediately became something valuable, even though I never thought of it to be valuable before. It made me feel it [the film] was worth everything I had done and it was strength that supported me to continue working. It’s almost similar to addictive drugs.”
These addictions greatly affected Apichatpong. When he began creating his next work entitled Sud Sanaeha or Blissfully Yours “it made me consider my audience even more. It became a conflict between personal ideas and ideas in response to the market because in this film I was no longer using funding from foundations. It was commercial, so it made me very tense. In this film I was not looking through my own perspective—I was playing the role of a member of the audience. Sometimes the parts that were exasperatingly long were also cut.”
Apichatpong’s journey to turn a dream into reality was not successful only through his ideas. He stands by a very simple last sentence: “Ultimately, what I do with the films means that I have to be contented too.”
Article first appeared in the Thai-language film magazine Bioscope (Issue 8, March 2002).
It has been translated from Thai to English by Vipavinee Artpradid for Criticine