My initial reaction on seeing Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or-winning “Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” a film highly respected by critics and beloved by audiences around the world, was “So what?”
This was partly a result of the high expectations that reviews had set up, and partly because the film’s charm relies so heavily on riffing with local and traditional folklore, and being whimsical about the supernatural. As Weerasethakul’s rhetoric about the ubiquity of superstition in his home country of Thailand is less than complimentary — “It’s a country of lies and fabrication” — this seemed like having your cake, eating it and then posting photos of it on social media.
However, in my book, anyone who gained the respect and friendship of the late Benedict Anderson, author of the immensely important critique of nationalism “Imagined Communities,” is entitled to as much cake as they want. The creative invention and emotional candor of Weerasethakul’s exhibition “Ghosts in the Darkness” at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum sucker-punched me after my earlier underestimation of “Uncle Boonmee”; it hits a sweet spot between seeming effortless, and the result of careful contemplation.
In an interview at the museum, Weerasethakul was fairly equanimous about the powerful emotive potential of the show: “I felt a little bit like a stranger to see the pieces together, as they are from different times, and I felt like they had created a new dialogue among themselves,” he tells me. “Also I was surprised to see that there were certain things that I didn’t imagine — like sadness.”
Was this sadness not something that you particularly wanted to express?
I think that was more Hiroko (Tasaka), the curator, who set up the theme of politics, and it branched out from there to include different kinds of politics.
For me it was social politics, like communism, or whatever, but then working with Hiroko it also became about sexual politics, personal politics, the politics of having a voice.
Thailand seems quite tough on censorship.
It’s a pleasant country to live in, but it’s tough to create there. Because I work with images. … But it’s everyone, not only me; if you use Facebook, you know what you can’t write and sometimes you just have to conform.
But I don’t want to (over-) dramatize my country. I’ve been in Japan several times this year, and I think in Japan it’s also very hard to live. It’s pleasant, but there is pressure in a different way. For Thailand, the pressure is about information and history — we cannot talk about religion, politics or the military in the media. We can talk about it in our everyday lives, but it has to be in a certain way, not in too much detail.
And yet you can still make work there. You’re not threatened.
Yes. Because I don’t do really in-your-face kind of artworks.
But when you talk about your work, the resistance and political agency come out.
I’m very critical about the army. I can write about it, and the most they can do to me is what they call “attitude adjustment” — you get taken to a camp, questioned and holed up for a few days. I haven’t been through it, but it happened to a friend of mine. Because I have some international status, I can get away with certain things that other people can’t.
Do you hope that Thailand will become a more “liberal” democratic country?
Yes, but I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime. But I have conflicting feelings. I really love the landscape and the people, and it’s so pleasant, so I don’t want to move.
There’s a tension between the emotive and mystical aspects of your work and criticism of tradition and superstition that comes across when you talk about the context in which it’s created.
It depends what you mean by “criticism.” For me, I live in Thailand, there’s the belief in the past, and then you see how people— your family, you when you were younger — operate. In a feature film it can be something you can make fun of. Seriously.
So it’s a kind of loving, affectionate look at these practices.
Right, but at the same time you know the consequences of blind belief.
Are you a nostalgic person?
But there’s a critical distance with that nostalgia.
Childhood is fixed, but it’s not fixed. You re-learn things. Your activities or environment may stay the same, but you start to know what’s around you — why (for example) there is this presence of Americans in your childhood.
My parents took me to see films at the United States Information Service in my home town of Khon Kaen, they showed “King Kong” in black and white. You didn’t know why when you were young, but now …”
What is something positive that you take from mainstream cinema?
It’s part of memory. Also, if you look at the evolution of cinema tricks, you can’t find a better example than science fiction. I’m not a mainstream cinema junkie, but I like special effects.
“Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Ghosts in the Darkness” at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum runs until Jan. 29; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu., Fri. until 8 p.m.), ¥600. Closed Mon. (except Jan. 9) and Jan. 10. bit.ly/topapichatpong