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Eleven years after winning the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Thai arthouse favorite Apichatpong Weerasethakul is back in the Cannes main competition with Memoria. The film marks some significant firsts for Apichatpong. It’s his ninth feature, but his first shoot outside his native Thailand, and his first with an internationally recognizable star in the lead.
Set in Colombia and told mostly in Spanish, the film stars Tilda Swinton as a foreign woman on the move through the country while suffering from a mysterious sensory syndrome. Other details of the story have been kept under wraps. Apichatpong has said the film, which he spent months in Colombia researching and which he also wrote, is the fruit of a long obsession with South America. The cast includes Jeanne Balibar, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Juan Pablo Urrego and Elkin Diaz.
Neon nabbed North American rights to Memoria way back in 2019, shortly after the label’s historic success distributing Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, another Palme d’Or winner. Apichatpong’s Kick the Machine produced Memoria, along with Burning and Illuminations Films.
Neon also produced and financed a second feature showing in Cannes that features new work by Apitchatpong — The Year Of The Everlasting Storm, a portmanteau project that has been described as “a love letter to cinema and its storytellers.” The project is comprised of seven personal shorts shot by international arthouse directors during the pandemic. Apichatpong’s segment is joined by contributions from Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor and David Lowery.
Apichatpong is a longtime Cannes regular. His second feature, Blissfully Yours, won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard program in 2002; and his next film, Tropical Malady, elevated him to the main competition in 2004, where he won the jury prize. Syndromes and a Century attracted critical acclaim in Venice in 2006, but his big breakthrough came in 2010, when a Cannes jury led by Tim Burton selected Uncle Boonmee as Thailand’s first winner of the festival world’s most prestigious honor.
Apichatpong is also a noted visual artist and had his video installations exhibited in museums around the world throughout the 2010s. But he didn’t shoot another full feature-length feature until Cemetery of Splendour in 2015. The film slipped from Cannes’ main competition into the Un Certain Regard section, a demotion that dismayed the director. The surreal film was nonetheless cheered by critics.
Apichatpong, 50, connected with The Hollywood Reporter via Zoom ahead of the festival to discuss his longstanding creative bond with his star, Swinton, the lessons he learned from his dogs during the pandemic, and his most simultaneously embarrassing and triumphant Cannes moment.
Not too much is known about Memoria yet. Could you share a little bit about the film’s premise and inspiration?
It started a long time ago, because I wanted to work with Tilda. I actually even thought about having her in my previous film Cemetery of Splendor. But it didn’t feel right. That project was too local and too close to my home of Thailand. I felt that I needed to find a place that was foreign to both of us — somewhere that wouldn’t feel totally safe and familiar, meaning that we would open ourselves up to the senses. So I had to find a third country.
Then in 2017, I was in Colombia for the Cartagena Film Festival and I was in love. I’ve always loved Latin American culture, and I have this connection with the myths of the Amazon, because I would read these jungle adventure novels in Thai as a kid. I suppose these were stories written by colonizers who fantasized about the place and romanticized the jungle there. But many of these stories were translated into Thai and I’ve always had a strong attraction to the mysteries of the Amazon.
So I decided to start traveling in Colombia. And during that time, before going there for a few months, I developed the symptoms of Exploding Head Syndrome. It’s a medical condition where you just hear a loud noise — in the morning mostly, when you’re waking up. So that accompanied me during the trip.
It does sort of sound like something from one of your films. Can you describe the experience of it a little more?
That’s the thing — it’s really hard to describe, because it’s not actually a sound. It’s internal. I put this in the film. For me, it was like a snapping of something. The snapping of rubber and metal, and then it echoed. But again, it’s not audio. It’s something you feel. It came to me almost every morning, at the moment between sleeping and waking. Perhaps it’s psychological. I’m not sure. I was mostly fascinated by it. And then it just went away.
So you had your star (Tilda), the setting (Colombia), and a mysterious syndrome…
So it became a story of this woman who is kind of drifting between places, and we don’t know much about her background, and I really don’t care about that. If you know my films, it’s more about the moment. So, she’s just drifting in Colombia with this sound in her head. I think that’s all I can say about the film. Along the way she encounters individuals. In retrospect, I think the whole film is about healing, and it’s about finding yourself. Or just finding a connection to a place and its people, all of the different layers there — and how you have to go through the process of simulation, and internal transformation. I hope the movie translates as that. Sorry, I cannot really explain. I think even after seeing the movie, you don’t really know what it is about. It’s just feelings.
How did you and Tilda first connect?
Well, I was originally surprised that she even knew my work, but a friend told me that [Tilda] saw Tropical Malady as far back as 2004, because she had written about seeing it in a text that she published [in a film journal] as a letter to her son. Later on, we got in touch, but it wasn’t until we both attended the London Film Festival that we finally met. Then, in 2012, we collaborated on a film festival in Thailand — a really crazy festival.
I remember seeing photos of that. It looked like possibly the coolest film festival ever. The images that went around were of a giant screen floating in the sea, surrounded by pristine Thai beaches and cliffs. What was that like?
Yeah, it was a splurge. We had a very generous sponsor, so it was like, “Let’s just dream and do something.” It was kind of about sharing the love for particular kinds of movies. Not necessarily art films, but other things too, maybe an animation or something else that we loved and wanted to share — and invite nature to be part of it. For one night, we had a floating cinema, in the middle of the sea surrounded by the mountains. The day before it was a screening on the beach, and the day after it was in middle of a rice paddy. Looking back, I’m like, “How did we do that?” My problem with it was that it was too exclusive. But to do something like that, it sort of needed to be small. Anyways, Tilda and I became closer during that experience. And then every time we spoke, it was, “When are we going to make a film together?” Finally, the time was right. I’m really pleased and honored that Memoria will be one of the first films in this new period of filmmaking that she’s entering.
This is the first time you’ve worked with an internationally well-known actor or actress, right? What was the texture of your creative relationship like once you finally began?
Well, in terms of scripting process, she pretty much left me alone, because I was in Colombia writing. And then I sent her developments and she started to learn Spanish. She also let her hair grow long, because we started to have some ideas about her character’s looks. That part was really challenging, because Tilda is so unique — and so white as well. How to make her integrate into the Colombian landscape and people? It’s really almost an impossible task. So we focused first on the hairstyle and she was really into that. She kept sending me pictures, like, “Look, it’s grown this long now.” I was flattered by her dedication, because she had other jobs at the time.
Once she arrived in Colombia, the creative process really started, because it’s about an immersive experience. She could then really use the language, see the space and interact with other actors. So we started with detailed script readings, and many changes came from her suggestions. The [Spanish] language coach was somehow really affecting the movement of things as well. [Tilda’s] character, her name is Jessica, she speaks Spanish as a second language. The way you speak a second language is really subtle. Tilda put so much energy into that process of learning and getting it right. Because the way you speak Spanish if you’ve lived there for two or three years is very different than if you’ve stayed 10 years. Together we put so much energy into trying to understand this Jessica, and how she connects to the culture through her grasp of the language is very important. But it’s difficult for us to feel, so we relied on the language coach a lot. It was really vapor, and then gradually it all became more solid.
Tilda is really hands on — meaning that she looks at each take on the monitor. Many actors don’t want to look at the monitor because they don’t want to break that illusion or whatever. But for her, she needs to study the frame.
And she would just say, “Oh, this is not right. This is not… Is it what Jessica is like?” And slowly, I think in a few days, she really transformed the way she walks, the way she moves. It’s really amazing to watch. And then after the cut, she just becomes herself again. I feel that’s so beautiful — to see someone switch their whole way of being like that.
Your films always have such an incredible sense of place, obviously. The natural environment of Thailand almost feels like it’s a character to an extent, and the stories you tell are so deeply rooted in what it feels like to have a really intimate, felt understanding of a place — the environment, the culture and subtle behaviors of the people. In Cemetery of Splendour, Thai politics also figures in a symbolic but very important way. So what was it like for you to leave that context that you understand so intimately to go work in a foreign one?
Well, that was the point of this project — to leave what you’re familiar with and to explore and to remind yourself that, “Hey, you are basically a tourist in this space.” I just imagine someone from abroad coming to Thailand for a few months and shooting a movie — it would be impossible to dig deep into politics and grasp everything. So I was just like, “Okay, I will have my distance, but I still feel texture, and I can feel the color of the story that I know — about talking to people along the road, about trauma, and processing new experiences with memories of my own experiences in Thailand. Just looking and listening is important. That’s how I tried to be when I was in Colombia. And I tried to translate through Tilda as a medium. My past films also are really about internal character. Sometimes you don’t even know what they’re thinking. It’s about this spirit that’s floating and experiencing light and shadow and all sorts of things.
Of course, there are also some similarities between Colombia and Thailand. I think we have a way of belief and conviction. We share the common belief in ghosts, for example. And there are some things that we keep inside, I think, because both countries are not that stable politically. We have some violence and conflict going. So, that’s something, that unspoken thing, that I also tried to translate.
Questions of the exotic occasionally come up when considering the international reception of your Thai films. But with this new work, it seems like it’s kind of the opposite: Now you’re the one who’s having an “exotic” sensuous experience through the depiction of an unfamiliar place and culture. Did you see risks in that?
Definitely. I think the issue of exoticism is lurking in the back of my mind every time I make movies. But, over the years, I’ve tried not to care about it in my own country. It’s never about a lifestyle that is idealized or something. For me, usually it’s just memory that I want to express; and I just do it all very naturally in Thailand.
But the issue of exoticism really came up in Colombia because I really don’t have the same feel and knowledge to rely on. So I depended a lot on my costume designer and set designer, and everyone on the crew. But it’s such a beautiful, challenging experience to dive into this issue, when you frame. I remember examples with color, especially. When we went to a small village, we were looking at this old cafe that had such amazing colorful walls, and the way people dress… Suddenly, I said, “Wait a minute, is this turning into a commercial? Is this like advertising?”
While we were working, the crew would answer me by saying, “No, this is how we live — don’t worry!” So I just focus on the framing. I think my DOP and I have certain preferences in framing wherever we are on earth.
So, I still cannot elaborate about exoticism. How do we define or decide when it’s appropriate to shoot this or that? I don’t know. But it’s an important question.
You’ve written or co-written all of your films, right? What’s your writing process like?
When events happen, or little snippets of experience, I jot them down in my notebook. And as you mentioned before, about location, that’s really important. I write about the particular mood I felt in such and such place. People’s gestures. All kinds of things. Traveling in Colombia really contributed to this accumulation of moments. There’s actually a book called Memoria being published by Fireflies Press, which is full of my research. It will come out sometime after Cannes.
For me, filmmaking and art is all about the reduction process — and how you find the core of the film. The process of making the film is a big part of its value to me personally. I really care maybe 50 percent about a finished film when it’s done. The other 50 percent is all about the process of making that finished thing, and the memories of what happened along the way.
Prior to Memoria, it had been six years since you made a feature, which I believe is your longest gap. Was there any reason for the hiatus?
Well, I was making a lot of artwork. There’s this one performance called Fever Room, which I travel with a team to different cities showing. So that took time. And I don’t know, I just feel particularly tired of Thailand. Because when we were making Cemetery of Splendor, the military actually just took over the country. So I just feel somehow limited, because there’s certain things that I really need to speak about. It’s impossible not to make a political film in Thailand in this period. It’s about how we live. But then I cannot talk about the monarchy, I cannot talk about the military. So I think it’s part of the reason I was like, “Okay, let’s get out.”
So although it’s been six years, now you’re back in Cannes with two titles. We haven’t talked about your contribution to The Year of the Everlasting Storm, the omnibus project. Could you share a little bit about the brief, or remit, you were given and how you approached it?
It was started by this company called Neon in the U.S. at a very early period of the quarantine. I think everyone felt this suffocation in different facets, both financial and psychologically. And so they wanted to support filmmakers by just allowing us to make a film. So they contacted a group of us and very generously gave us the freedom to do anything we like. They just said you have to use whatever you have, whatever your situation during the lockdown. The idea was that we wouldn’t be able to work with assistants and much crew — we’d be in our homes, probably. So it was kind of an experiment to see what images we could share. But by the time the contracts were done, many countries were actually already out of lockdown — so many of us actually probably had more flexibility if we wanted it.
But still, I tried to keep the spirit of that quarantine time, by just shooting in a bedroom, in just one space. My short is called Night Colonies. It’s all about observation of little insects that appear at night, to these lights that I set up all over the bed. During this quarantine time at home, I developed the practice of really looking — at the trees out the window, or whatever. But I realized I often stopped as soon as it got dark. So I wanted to find out what the animals and insects are doing at night. So I set up these lights, and they came right out — it was such a nice feeling, the whole process of making this. I had just two people helping me, and we’d look at this bug, and then that bug, and figure out what to shoot. It was wonderful really.
What was the rest of the lockdown experience like for you, as a creative person?
Like everybody, I just stayed home. And for better or for worse, I don’t have a partner now. So I’ve just been staying home with my three dogs. In a way, they really became my teacher. Because while I was thinking of this and that — what I’m going to do, how the schedule of everything keeps shifting — the dogs were just happy in their own existence. They’re happy, just taking one thing at a time. And so I started observing my dogs a lot. And I’m not pretending; at one point, it really clicked, where I thought, “Hey, why don’t we just be like dogs? Just be content with now.” So, I have to say, it was quite a good quarantine for me. I can really tell the shift of the sun angle through the hours. And it’s so nice to get to know your home better, and to try to eat healthier food and to stop traveling — to stop projecting. I think many people have had this experience. I really realized how lucky I am to have this kind of work, not depending on an office job. Getting in touch with a lost friend; reading more. I really became less interested in movies actually.
Well, I don’t like the small screen. So no Netflix or anything like that for me much. In the beginning, yes; but then, no. I read a lot of books that I wanted to read before, and that’s been so pleasant. But now it feels like things are starting again and I have to travel and relearn how to be in public. I really don’t like to be with lots of people, in social functions. So I have to figure out how to reconnect with the feeling of that again. Making movies is the ultimate thing that I love, and this is part of the job, so I will do it.
You’re a regular at this festival — part of the Cannes family, as Thierry Frémaux would say. Do you have any special memories or anecdotes set here?
Well, there’s something embarrassing, maybe I shouldn’t share it.
Oh no, that sounds great.
[Laughs] So I always have this problem with shoes. I don’t know if it’s the way I walk, or what, but I always destroy shoes. So the night before the ceremony for Uncle Boonmee, the awards thing, I somehow broke one of my shoes. I was just walking somewhere and then suddenly I was just like, “Oh!” And my shoe totally came apart. So then I didn’t really know what to do. It was my only pair. All the shops were closed, so it was too late to buy a new pair or try to get it fixed. And I remember we were really short on time and we have to attend all these gatherings and then the awards ceremony. So I just started contacting everyone I knew, like, “Hey, umm, what size shoe do you wear?” I called a lot of people, and then finally, this nice guy from the Austrian Film Museum, he had my size and agreed to let me borrow his shoes. I don’t know if he had two pairs, or he sacrificed his night for me. But then I won [the Palme d’Or], so I guess his shoes brought me luck.
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