Shooting the rapids
'Mekong Hotel' marks a change in direction for filmmaker Apichatpong WeerasethakulWidely regarded as Thailand's most-talented filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been recognised for his achievements with a number of awards, including the prestigious Palme d'Or from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for his movie "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives".
His latest feature "Mekong Hotel" premiered at Cannes this year and has been making its way around the festival circuit. It opened the 10th World Film Festival of Bangkok, marking its debut in the capital.
"It's good to be the opening film and I can't wait to see the reaction of the Thai audience to my film. There are always words we can't translate into English," Apichatpong said before the screening of his movie last Friday.
Shot in a small hotel in Nong Khai, the story loosely reflects Apichatpong's experiences while shooting "Ecstasy Garden" ("Baan Phee Pob"). There's action both on and off camera, allowing the audience to see the actors in "Ecstasy Garden" chatting about their lives and last year's flooding of central Thailand, which occurred while filming was going on.
"I like the atmosphere that we fell into between the real story and the fictional story so I added the script of "Ecstasy Garden" into the film," Apichatpong says.
He was deeply disappointed when the film was screened in a special presentation at Cannes, where it was shown in a multi-purpose theatre with poor acoustics.
"The music score in this film needs good acoustics. It's a little like a music video in a way," he says.
He describes "Mekong", his first feature since "Uncle Boonmee", as "a light, experimental work".
"The film is like a diary with music humming throughout its one-hour duration."
The idea for "Mekong Hotel" was conceived when he went to Nong Khai to visit Jenjira Jansuda, the actress who has worked with him since 2002's "Sud Saneha" ("Blissfully Yours"). Jenjira moved back to her hometown following a car accident and subsequent surgery.
The director always stays at the same hotel and on this occasion spent several hours listening to Jenjira talk about her childhood memories of communists, the Thai-Lao border conflict and the Laotians refugees who poured into Thailand in the 1970s and '80s in the hope of being resettled in a third country.
Apichatpong applied for funding to Arte, a Franco-German TV network that promotes programming in the areas of culture and the arts. Arte usually prefers to support documentaries, though after discussion, they granted the financing and "Mekong Hotel" was born.
The 42-year-old director says that winning the Palme d'Or hasn't put any pressures on his filmmaking career.
"I feel more relaxed," he says, adding that it has, however, helped him to expand his interests in the world of art.
This year alone he was invited to exhibit his installation at the 13th Documenta in Kassel, Germany and is also participating in the 11th Sharjah Biennial next March in the Middle East, where he is a curator for a movie project. He recently premiered an online short, "Cactus River", commissioned by the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It expands on themes explored in "Mekong Hotel".
"Working in art is fun and it's very good timing too, as I was getting bored spending three to four years making a film. In the past, when we finished a film project, I was quick to search for funding for the next one. With art, it's more relaxed and you get to travel a lot more," he says.
While he loves shooting a movie in film format, he uses digital format for his media art. "Mekong" too was shot in digital format and Apichatpong has no problems accepting that the outcome is closer to video art than film.
"Film and digital cameras are different species, so after holding a digital camera, I automatically express the work as art rather than a movie. The digital camera is very freeform and gives you plenty of choices to improvise. I'm questioning the direction I should take, since it's now hard to find film for shooting a movie. I have to find the balance within myself if it becomes inevitable that movies must be shot in digital format," he says.
Apichatpong made his cinematic debut with "Dok Fah Nai Mue Man" ("Mysterious Object At Noon") in 2000 but it wasn't until "Uncle Boonmee" that he managed to get a share of the profits. "The money has just arrived and I haven't yet deposited it in my account," he says.
"But it's an affirmation of my career choice. When I was making 'Mysterious Object', I wasn't sure I could be a director. But now I know I can live as a freelance film director, though I can't say with any confidence to film students 'you can make a living by being a movie director alone'."
Apichatpong has also moved into production, backing his long-time assistant Sompot Chidgasornpongse on "Are We There Yet?" and editor and frequent collaborator Lee Chatametheekul's feature debut "Concrete Clouds".
His dream, though, remains the same: opening and operating a small cinemateque.
"Like I have always said, I would like to have a cinemateque with about 30 seats to serve as a place for film lovers to share opinions and hang out. Chiang Mai would be perfect for that, as it has local film lovers, expats and long-staying tourists from around the world," he says.
He is also interested in making a film that relates to Thailand's current socio-political conflicts but says he first needs to learn more about the political issues.
"I would like to see more Thai films focusing on social issues and politics. Sadly we seem to prefer ghost or katoey films. There's nothing wrong with them but surely it would be better to reflect your point of view through the cinema. I am not interested in judging any political colours because I feel it is important to respect different opinions without feelings of hatred, no matter which 'colour' group you belong to."