Thai Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul Preps First Feature Since Winning Palme d’Or

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

The noted Thai auteur was in Locarno to head the international jury, which earned praise for some of its out-of-the-box prize selections. In addition to Brisseau’s The Girl From Nowhere, the jury honored a couple of unexpected actors - China’s An Nai for her understated role as a killer’s mother in Wo hai you hua yao shuo (When Night Falls) and Austrian actor Walter Saabel in just his second major acting role in Der Glanz des Tages.

"Cemetery of Kings," will be the director’s followup to "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," for which he won the top Cannes honor in 2010.

For a director said to be on hiatus, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been keeping rather busy.

“I’m not sure you could call it a break, really -- even though that’s what some people have been saying,” the 42-year-old Cannes Palme D’or winner told The Hollywood Reporter at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

“I’ve made short films, curated a film festival, judged a film festival, did some installations and have been busy raising two dogs – which is actually a lot of work,” he added, laughing.

STORY: Locarno Taps Thai Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Head Main Jury

Fans of the director's dreamy, surrealistic style won't have to wait much longer for the genuine article, though. Apichatpong recently arrived at Hong Kong’s screen industry confab, Filmart, touting a new feature-length project -- his first since winning the Cannes top honor in 2010 with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recount His Past Lives.

Titled Cemetery of Kings, the project was an official entry at the Asia Film Financing Forum at Filmart, seeking investment from Asian sales banners. Its story is said to take place in a small town on the Mekong River in northern Thailand, where 27 soldiers come down with a strange sleeping sickness. Frequent Apichatpong collaborator Jenjira Widner will reprise her role – from Uncle Boonmee and Syndromes and Century -- as a nurse tasked with caring for the soldiers. Strange dreams, phantoms, a mysterious river creature and tangled romances all play a part in the evocative narrative, according to early promotional materials. 

Apichatpong tells THR he is completing the script and expects to begin shooting by year-end. The film’s budget is pegged to $1 million – about the same as his previous features.

Apichatpong acknowledges that his elevated international profile means he could probably secure larger financing, but he says he’s deliberately keeping the budget modest for Cemetery.

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“With a higher budget, you’re never as flexible,” he says. “I find flexibility is a very happy way of working. And it also depends on the project – the next film after this one is more ambitious in terms of financing.”

Following Cemetery, Apichatpong revealed he plans to direct his first film outside of Thailand, an as yet untitled meditation on the landscape of Bangladesh.

“For the past six months I have been working at the Sharjah Biennial (the United Arab Emirate’s leading art event, where he was awarded the Sharjah Biennial Prize). My boyfriend and I created an installation about a guy from Bangladesh and got to know him, and now I’m very intrigued about it. The landscape, monsoons and the people – it’s a very active and powerful setting.”

By the end the Asia Film Financing Forum, Apichatpong’s producer, Simon Field of the U.K.’s Illuminations Films, told THR that about half of Cemetery's budget has been secured. Illumination Films is co-producing the film with Germany’s The Match Factory.

Apichatpong also confided that he’s a little concerned about his chosen title.

“It’s quite sensitive – I may have to change it,” he said. 

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In Thailand, home of the world’s longest sitting monarch, any perceived disparagement of King Bhumibol Adulyadej is punishable by imprisonment under the country’s strict lese magiste laws. King Bhumibol is now 85 years old and has been in ill health for years -- the combination of "King" and "Cemetery" in the work of one of Thailand's most prominent artists is certain to raise eyebrows at home. The role of the monarchy, which is closely allied with the country's military, has often been at issue in the political disputes that have recurrently led to armed coups and public violence in Bangkok in recent years.

Apichatpong said his new project will indeed touch upon Thailand’s wildly complex political predicament, but from the safe distance of the director’s characteristically oblique and dreamy style.

He said the idea for the new film first came to him when he recently visited a cemetery for past kings in Austria. “It was interesting to see how they’ve treated the kings over the centuries -- the tombstones get progressively less elaborate over the generations. Since Thailand is also a monarchy, you can only imagine the future. You do have to be careful in Thailand -- but I’ll find my own way of expressing myself.”