Melancholia roams around the margins of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films like the floodwaters of monsoon season after a heavy rainfall. Actually, that’s not so much a metaphor as it is the premise of Mekong Hotel, Weerasethakul’s single-setting, documentary-fiction hybrid that interlaces the interactions of a handful of characters wandering around the confines of the titular abode, which sits just off the Mekong river. Mixing fractured memories with gory folklore, the film features a “Pob ghost” that’s responsible for eating the entrails of small animals around the hotel’s confines. Outside, bulldozers and other construction-related activities persist around the hotel’s periphery. In fact, the title confounds the location’s specificity by confusing its whereabouts. Is this a hotel on the Mekong or of the Mekong? Such existential questions haunt the very essence of Weerasethakul’s biopolitical sensibilities.
Similarly, Cemetery of Splendour addresses the dividing line between self, environment, and machine by having Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas), a woman who volunteers at a local hospital, be troubled by an injured leg, which she hopes can be healed by an alleged psychic, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram). The hospital houses soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness; at night, they’re hooked to machines and undergo a light-therapy treatment that Weerasethakul displays to stunning visual effect.
If Cemetery of Splendour begins as something of a meditative buddy movie, it ends somewhere far more atypical and challenging by casting significant doubt on the easy dividing line between dream and reality and, more importantly, the dubious value of mixing nostalgia with cinema. I spoke with Weerasethakul about the value of personal memory, science fiction, and the process of making his first feature shot entirely on digital.
Both Mekong Hotel and Cemetery of Splendour are connected by at least one element: the ongoing backdrop of construction and bulldozing. Was there a particular significance for you in setting each film against the same actions?
I didn’t realize that. I think it’s just an interest. Maybe it’s a link to to the memory of the place. Originally the plan [for Mekong Hotel] was to shoot a film in that area. But for me, after I went location scouting, I felt that I wanted to feature more of my own memory of the place, and that it would be interesting to be a little out of reality.
I thought immediately of Last Year at Marienbad when watching Mekong Hotel, given the setting and characters in the film, especially when the couple struggles to remember one another’s names. Was that film anywhere in your purview while writing the script?
I didn’t think of it, but I like that film very much, though I didn’t make the link.
I ask because it’s another film that seems out of reality on multiple levels. In Mekong Hotel, there’s a phantasmagoric element with the Pob ghost, but also the opening scene, of guitar practice, which then runs throughout the entire film on the soundtrack. Was the constant guitar track an originating idea or did you find that much later in the film’s making?
That was from the beginning. But you know, I always have this idea of wanting to do a super-long music video. It made sense to use music in this portrait of a hotel. For me, I have a very difficult time working with music in films, so I rarely put a so-called soundtrack into the film other than happy-ending music or someone singing. I thought that if I wanted to a soundtrack it would be covering the whole film. Not quite a music video, but…yeah. [laughs]
Actually, I think it’s a music video in the strictest sense. It plays like one. Was there anything other than the location that influenced you to make a documentary-fiction hybrid with Mekong Hotel?
Well, I really wanted to make a film about the Pob ghost and the relationship of the two women. But the script was too expensive to do. So, I thought at least I could rehearse it. And then it all came together, with the hotel that I like and the music. It functions like a documentary at certain points because you see the guy [Chai Bhatana] playing the guitar, almost as if the film is documenting him. He is my friend and has been for a long time, and at some point the film is just music. During the editing of the film, I was trying different things. It was a revelation for me: the role of music in the film. At some points, the film is music, at others music can be part of the landscape, like a river, like the never-ending water. It can become an organic part of the nature.
It also becomes a personal homage to your friend, mixed with these other elements. On that note, I know you’ve said Cemetery of Splendour is a personal film, because it was shot in your hometown of Khon Kaen, but are there other ways, like with Mekong Hotel, that it’s linked to your own past?
Of course, location was a big part of it. A mixture of familiarity, of the school, the market, and all of these things I have personal memories of. To put an actor with a fictional story in that environment was interesting, because for me it was like creating a new memory. That is the cinema. It is also much like a recurring dream I have about the country. It can be filled with happiness, but also confusion and sadness.
That dream seems to reach into the future as much as the past, so that the film almost starts to approach science-fiction imagery with bodies hooked to machines because of a mysterious sleeping illness.
Yeah, I am really fascinated by science normally. For me, there’s a lot of room to explore in science how we can activate certain things or simulate others. I think there’s a relationship between that and cinema. You know, how movies have been used to take people into a trance or to go into certain dreams. Since the movie is about sleeping and about a journey into a different territory, I like to add this element of science to open up the audience’s imagination. The possibility of characters being hypnotized by some machine works in a parallel way with the audience being hypnotized by movies. I also like the idea of mediation and discovery. So I tried to combine all of these interests of mine into the film.
The shift in some scenes to neon, monochromatic lighting is reminiscent of sci-fi as well. Did you achieve those sequences on set or were they created in post-production?
The hospital lights are live on set, but in the landscape at night, in the town, it was done in post-production. For me, it’s a really perfect film for this idea to show the artificiality of filmmaking. When you do post-production, you can select what kind of tone or color you want, whether it’s cooler or warmer and all of these things that show the process which, like many other things in the film, reminds the audience that they are watching an illusion.
How was the production process changed or altered by having Diego Garcia rather than Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, your regular DP, during the shoot?
It’s hard to say because this was the first time I’ve used digital for an entire film. I’ve used digital before on other projects, but this is the most professional one, with the Alexa. The Alexa is a really flexible camera. I’m used to working on film and Diego…I don’t know, it’s almost like I’ve always been making films with him, because we’re so synchronized in the way [he understood how] I want to use natural light and available light at night. Diego has been a good inspiration with the way that he works.
I’m fascinated by the trailer shown in the movie theater scene of Cemetery of Splendour, which appears to be some kind of exploitation film or violent fantasy. Is that a film you know or was it created specifically for your film?
No, it’s a real movie that hadn’t released in Thailand yet at that time. I was struck by the style, which isn’t really the kind of film being made nowadays. I was shocked and also surprised that people still make these films for theaters. Then I found out it’s made by a very old guy who tried to make a film after a long time, and maybe he lost touch with the contemporary movie style. For me, this is very unique and sad at the same time, and it brought back memories of these kinds of films when I grew up. So I asked for permission to screen the trailer. But it’s quite sad, because he lost a lot of money from this movie.
Yeah, it is true, but in fact nobody watches this kind of film anymore.
I wanted to ask about the film’s mention of “online dating,” which Jenjira says she used to find an American husband. Have you noticed a transformation of social cultures in Thailand from the influence of these online media?
Of course, people are more connected than ever. Everyone has Facebook now. You learn so much about our own history, actually, by the availability of different narratives of the country. I think it’s part of the real reason that I can make this movie, because of the awakening of history and stories. So the movie reflects that, to have Jenjira confused or not sure if she’s dreaming or how the soldier’s life is being dictated by these spirits underneath. That’s another narrative that could be true or not. We don’t know. Or what’s going on with trying to dig up the earth: what they see or whether they’re making fiber optics for communications. So there are these little hints or symbols, maybe. I don’t know. It’s a mixture of old and new.
You’ve previously spoken about the government takeover in Thailand and how several of your friends and artists you know have been jailed as a result. In your eyes, has the political climate changed since making the film?
I think the people are getting less submissive. But there are really two extremes that you realize when a country is under dictatorship. You find people who are very very okay with being submissive and then you find a camp that’s the opposite. I think it’s a good thing, but to live it sometimes is quite difficult, but I think it’s exciting to be alive at this time, to witness it. In general, if you’re in a creative career it can be quite suffocating because sometimes you’re not sure how long you’re going to live in the system and how long you’re going to be able to keep coming up with different people. You maybe try not to speak straightforwardly. It can be hard if you’re not saying the truth, not saying something subversively, but that can be boring too, to do everything subversively.