In mid-September, 2017, the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul flew to Chicago to see how a world that he’d made had been remade: the School of the Art Institute of Chicago had installed the first large-scale retrospective of his non-feature-film work: short films, videos, photographs, and ephemera. The show, “The Serenity of Madness,” which was organized by the curator and scholar Gridthiya Gaweewong, and occupied the institute’s cavernous Sullivan Galleries, had begun a seven-city tour in Chiang Mai in 2016. Now it was making its first American stop.
An admirer of Weerasethakul’s films, I had also flown to Chicago to immerse myself in his world. Entering the gallery, I meandered through an eerie, darkened space with something approaching fear. Images of boys and landscapes and fire jumped out at me, like figures in a haunted house. And although what I saw in those still photographs and on video screens, large and small, was unlike Weerasethakul’s movie work—they were fragments and meant to be seen as such—I couldn’t fail to recognize his deep commitment to visualizing the uncanny. I was especially taken with a video of Weerasethakul’s then partner, Teem, a beautiful young man, sleeping, and with “Fireworks,” a video made in the dead of night at a spectral temple in Thailand, in which shots of stone skeletons lit by flares, ghostlike human forms, and mythological animals are followed by images of Thai politicians and activists. Time passing, time passed, the distance and the unknowability of the love object, the myth and the reality of politics—it was all there in “The Serenity of Madness,” as it is in Weerasethakul’s landmark feature films.
I had arranged to meet Weerasethakul outside the exhibition, and when he saw me he clapped his hands, saying excitedly, “You came!” We sat in a lounge area near the gallery, and he opened his shoulder bag and pulled out a package of freeze-dried shrimp paste. “For you,” he said. In Thailand, it’s considered polite to bring a gift to someone’s home. America was my home, and he was a guest here.
Weerasethakul, whose ninth feature, “Memoria,” starring Tilda Swinton, opened in New York on December 26th, is about as tall as the tallest boy in grade school—around five feet six—and thin but sturdy, with large, beautiful hands. His dark eyes, which don’t register delight in the way that his slow smile does, rarely stray from his interlocutor. Like a number of sensitive people whose first language isn’t English, he has a way of listening that makes you struggle to hear yourself. Although Weerasethakul was happy to be back in Chicago—he earned an M.F.A. in film from the School of the Art Institute in 1998—he was disappointed, he said, with the acoustics of the space where the show had been installed. “I know the potential of this work,” he told me in a soft voice tinged with pique. “This place had a lot of bleeding. You have the sound of the air-conditioner and the heater. The sound is so beautiful in its proper space. We show it in Thailand, and it’s supernice. It’s like walking through a dream. Here it’s O.K.”
Of course Weerasethakul, who takes great care with sound and framing in his movies, would pick up on any fissures in his work which he didn’t put there himself. At fifty-one, he is contemporary cinema’s preëminent poet of place and of dislocation. Like that other poet-filmmaker before him Jean Cocteau, Weerasethakul, who goes by the nickname Joe, produces a cinema in which dreams and politics converge. But, where Cocteau’s work is driven by Western ideas about structure, sound, and acting, Weerasethakul’s draws on Buddhist tradition and Thai folklore to create stories that—like life—often change direction, stop abruptly, or become something else altogether.
For Weerasethakul, movies are the perfect medium through which to convey life’s continuums and interruptions. His mid-career masterpiece, “Tropical Malady” (2004), for instance, opens with soldiers in a field of tall grass, posing with a corpse. Posing and laughing: even in the presence of death, Weerasethakul seems to be saying, we pretend for the camera, for our friends, the better to feel included—but in what? The brutality of living? The action shifts to Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a soldier in a rural community in northeastern Thailand. Keng meets Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a sweet, younger man, a civilian, and the two begin a relationship against a backdrop of big Thai sky and dark, breathing jungle. Weerasethakul develops a new choreography for the dance of love, the malady of love. There are no sweeping violins or roiling surf. The depth of the men’s intimacy is shown in the way their knees play a game as they sit in a movie theatre, in the way they caress and lick each other’s hands.
About an hour into this splendor, the screen goes dark. For a beat. Then another beat. Then another. When the screen is illuminated again, we’re in an entirely different story. Maybe we’re in the same jungle, maybe not. Now we see another soldier (Huai Dessom). He’s tracking a tiger; the villagers have complained about missing livestock. On the hunt, the soldier grows weary; perhaps Weerasethakul needs him to be tired in order to make him more susceptible to what he sees: a naked man in a clearing who behaves like a tiger, rubbing his body against a tree. Is he a man or a tiger who has taken on human form? What makes a body? Flesh and blood? History? The spirit world, which collapses time and place? Eventually, the soldier is attacked by the man who may be a tiger. Later, the creature wanders the lush landscape, sobbing—for lost love or lost companionship, or for his lost Eden, which is now soiled with blood. To live in Weerasethakul’s world, you have to surrender to the dream, whatever it may be and wherever it may take you.
Since the première of his extraordinary first feature, the black-and-white documentary “Mysterious Object at Noon,” in 2000, Weerasethakul has produced a string of culturally significant movies marked by a multitude of meanings, nuanced camerawork, and long stretches in which the protagonists say little or nothing at all. “Mysterious Object at Noon”—which is, in essence, a game of exquisite corpse, played and sometimes acted out in rural and urban locales across Thailand—is Weerasethakul’s noisiest film; to watch it alongside his later works, such as “Tropical Malady” or “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2010), which won Cannes’s Jury Prize and Palme d’Or, respectively, is like trying to compare Broadway’s “Hamilton” to Vespers performed in a remote village: there is no useful comparison. But the essential elements of “Mysterious Object at Noon”—long shots depicting space and time, an acute ear for the intricacies of Thai speech, and an interest in community and how it is maintained or sometimes vanishes altogether—reappear in various forms throughout Weerasethakul’s body of work. He is a proponent of “slow cinema,” which is to say, movies that inspire reflection because they are unhurried but fluid, clear but framed by mystery. Still, despite their surface-level solemnity, his films are very often about the cinema as a place of play.
When “Mysterious Object at Noon” hit the festival circuit, many seasoned programmers didn’t know that there was even such a thing as a Thai art movie, let alone one as idiosyncratic and artful as Weerasethakul’s. This may be due partly to the fact that most Thai films before then had been shot on 16-mm. color-reversal stock, with no original negative to print from. (If you can’t make a print, you can’t get your movie to the West, which remains the superpower when it comes to distribution.) With “Mysterious Object,” Weerasethakul opened our eyes to a new wave in film and rebooted the idea of world cinema. In his movies, he doesn’t treat Thailand as an exotic, untroubled**,** monarch-ruled outpost—the better to sell it, and, by extension, himself, to a Western audience. Instead, he captures a Thailand that is as complicated and familiar as home, because it is home—Weerasethakul’s. “The work speaks to us because it reveals the layered complexity of our everyday lives,” the filmmaker Daniel Eisenberg, one of Weerasethakul’s former instructors, said in a 2017 talk. It’s the remarkable nature of the characters living those everyday lives—“spirits that enter and leave the room as naturally as family members, animals that speak, and shamans who ultimately inhabit human and animal form,” in Eisenberg’s words—that convinces us that life is more than what we allow ourselves to see.
Dennis Lim, the director of programming for Film at Lincoln Center, and an early supporter of Weerasethakul’s work, said that although the films are “steeped in local culture, local folklore, local politics,” what captivates him is “the openness, their open-endedness.” “There’s not necessarily one way to interpret them,” he said. In “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” for instance, the titular hero is a widower (beautifully played by Thanapat Saisaymar) who has kidney failure and is preparing for death in the wooded mountain valley where he lives. The oppressive natural world is all around, with its insect sounds and its thick nights. Boonmee is not alone. There to help him get his affairs in order are his sister-in-law, his nephew, and his primary caregiver, who is from Laos. The group is joined, at dinner, by Boonmee’s beloved late wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), who simply appears, as does their long-lost son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who materializes as a man-size monkey with glowing red eyes. The film can be seen as a kind of ghost story, in which the dead return to share a meal with their living relatives and a beast with a heartbreaking light in its eyes lurks in the tall grass at night. At the same time, the dead are eating and the beast is lurking in a real place, with a sociopolitical background that is as important to Weerasethakul as the fantastical products of his imagination.
“Uncle Boonmee,” like all of Weerasethakul’s films before “Memoria,” was shot in rural Isaan, in northeastern Thailand, the director’s childhood home. Although he was born in Bangkok, in 1970, he grew up in the provincial northern city of Khon Kaen, where his parents, Aroon and Suwat, both ethnically Chinese, worked as doctors. The area, as the scholar Lawrence Chua observes, is “a historically obstreperous place . . . the site of several anti-state rebellions,” which is still rebellious “due largely to its historical isolation, poverty, and lack of infrastructure.”
“I am from this region that is very looked down on from the center,” Weerasethakul told me. “So there is this feeling of—how do you call it?—that you’re like a second-class citizen or something.” As the child of doctors, though, he enjoyed relative privilege, including annual family vacations to other parts of the world. The economic disparity between his family and their neighbors was clear. The youngest of three children, Weerasethakul says that his parents raised him and his siblings “very free and very openly—partly because they’re so busy in that hospital with not many doctors. I remember, like, three o’clock in the morning, there’s someone knocking at the door to call my mom to go.”