Eight years ago, the world’s most famous Thai director told IndieWire that he was done making movies in Thailand. After the release of his haunting Graveyard of Magnificence, Apichatpong Weerasethakul said the threat of censorship had become too much for him. “I’ll say on one subject, ‘Hey, you can’t say that because you’re going to be in jail,'” he said. “I began to feel suffocated by this restriction.”
Weerasethakul – he goes by “Joe”, perhaps as an act of mercy to Westerners who struggle to pronounce his name – has only just begun the international phase of his career. “Memoria,” his first film made outside of Thailand, became the country’s official entry for the Oscars in 2021. He is already planning another in Sri Lanka.
Yet Thailand remains the one place where he feels most comfortable, even though his work takes him elsewhere. He was calling from the northeastern region of the country while visiting his mother. Thirty years into a career of dreamy cinematic creations and installation art, the 52-year-old director travels constantly but always finds his way back home.
“Thailand has not been easy to live in for a long time, but there are many reasons to love being here,” he said. “It’s not just about my career. We move a lot for different things, mainly for love. I think if I find love for a place, person or people, that might be part of the reason I move, but not yet.”
The director’s latest journey finds him on a cross-country road trip across the United States as he works to recover much of his work from the past 30 years. Last month, he attended retrospectives of his films at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis before a final stop at New York’s Film at Lincoln Center for a retrospective that includes rare prints of his earlier films and other works that has inspired (the series includes everything from Frederic Wiseman’s monkey portrait “Primate” to Russ Meyers’ “Faster, Pussico! Kill! Kill!” and John Cassavetes’ “Opening Night,” a range that encapsulates the way Weirasethakul’s work combines documentary observations with the otherworldly).
Weersethakul’s films immerse the viewer in mysterious and meditative soundscapes that stand in striking contrast to the clutter of today’s home viewing standards. From the ethereal movement of his ghostly hospital drama Syndromes and a Century to the spiritual beings that inhabit the forest of the Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives, Weerasethakul’s films demand an attentive audience in order to lost in their mysteries. Good luck with that at home.
“I don’t consider them my films when they’re shown on a smaller screen,” he said. “I was very resistant to streaming.” When Neon, the U.S. distributor of “Memoria,” decided to release the film exclusively in theaters in one city for an indefinite period, he embraced the decision. “With all these art houses and independent cinemas struggling in this time of change, it was really important,” he said. He did not enjoy the same luxuries at home. “I think we’ll be working with Netflix in Thailand,” he said with a sheepish smile. “We don’t have small theaters here anymore.”
Although Weerasethakul graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago more than 25 years ago, the US still has a foreign quality to him. “America feels like it’s changing every time I visit,” he said. “There is a question of race that I do not understand. There’s a sense of looking back and trying to approach it that way. I’m not sure I understand this complexity. It would be hard to break into that if I worked here.
Coming from another director, this statement can be considered naive. Yet Weerasethakul, who led a film retreat in the Amazon last year that began each day with meditation, doesn’t relate to the world in terms of race, ethnicity or other conventional boundaries of human identity. His films have a transcendent power that often gives the impression that another dimension is creeping into it. “My films have a shared sense of being, this awareness of suffering and joy,” he said. “I hope it’s something very universal.”
This is perhaps why he is one of the few major filmmakers who shows no fear of artificial intelligence intruding into his process. Last year, he created the virtual reality project Talking to the Sun and also wrote a companion book that he co-wrote with GPT-3, well before OpenAI’s chatbot became a mainstream media device. The VR component mixes footage from his personal archive with AI-rendered images of famous artists. “VR is a separate language,” he said. “It will not endanger the cinema.”
He was skeptical of arguments against the implementation of AI in the arts community. “Personally, I am happy to witness its progress and impact,” he said. “People have to manage AI because of the fear of powerlessness, of losing authority, safety, etc. … This idea of an uncertain reality has always been in humanity.” In contrast, he was happy with the process of collaborating with a machine. “Our relationship with knowledge has always been changing,” he said. “Before, knowledge was exclusive. Now it’s common, shared, cheap. Likewise, artistic skills are no longer exceptional. Al is part of that change. Does it create more psychological pollution? The human mind has always been contaminated or programmed.
As an itinerant artist who is averse to commercial endeavors—he survives on grants and government subsidies—Weerasethakul has little connection to Hollywood beyond armchair observations. But he is not interested in the art form. “I love technology and trying new things,” he said. “But I think cinema has its roots. It will continue on its way.”
The World of Apichatpong Weerasethakul runs at the Film at Lincoln Center from May 4-16.