Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a soft-spoken 48-year-old from rural Thailand, may not leap out as a household name. But he is the figurehead of Thai cinema and a respected filmmaker in the global art-house circuit, vaunted for his non-linear storytelling, dreamy shooting style and strong – if often subtle – political messaging. However, tired of the creative constrictions of junta-run Thailand, the Palme d’Or-winning director is making his next feature in Colombia- with Tilda Swinton.
With his home country under military rule since 2014, it has suffocated artistic expression in Thailand, but with elections slated for early next year, a creative kickback is emerging. However, the filmmaker says he decided not to film in Thailand, where political discussion is stifled and films can be shut down on the whim of the generals.
To make a movie without addressing the urgent issue of the kingdom’s politics would be to undermine his role as a filmmaker, Apichatpong says.
“I want to talk about politics, our reality, our lives,” he said.
Apichatpong catapulted to recognition with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the 2010 Palme d’Or at Cannes. His elegiac films sweep through mysterious forests, mystical creatures, hallucinations and bruised national histories.
In December he is due to release a short film, his contribution to the anthology Ten Years Thailand, a bold project to document the country’s political and social travails.
But his next feature, Memoria, which is currently being scripted, will be filmed in Colombia – a country that shares some parallels with his politically fragmented homeland.
Set between 1970 and 1980, a period marked by the bitter fight between the left-wing Farc guerrillas and radical paramilitary groups of the right, the film features Swinton playing an expat “adventurer” of sorts. She experiences auditory hallucinations and tries to “find the sources of these sounds happening to her only”, the Thai director explains.
The research took in two months-long trips to Colombia and interviews with psychiatrists about drug use, he says, typical of his immersive approach to filmmaking.
Apichatpong had quietly been working on a script for years for his long-time friend Swinton. The pair eventually agreed to frame the story outside Thailand, where they were “both strangers … both foreigners”.
“The story is about discovery. [Swinton] is very adventurous. She has different lives in the cinema world, she has more mainstream movies … but also experimental movies.”
French actress Jeanne Balibar, who met the Thai director when they were jury members at Cannes in 2008, will also star in the film as an archaeologist.
The story draws on a motif that runs through all his films: ghosts.
There was logic in the leap to Colombia – firstly from a financing perspective for an international film, but also to satisfy his curiosity.
“I was very interested in Latin American culture, I was very interested in the Amazon. But when I was there I was more attracted to the people, to their memories,” he says. “They also really believe in ghosts.”