Mercury News: Townsend Center is hosting one of the most distinctive filmmakers you’ll ever see

Apichatpong Weerasethakul
March 29, 2023

You don’t hurriedly approach an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film, or watch one thinking you’ll catch up on text messages and voicemails.

To truly appreciate what’s unfolding, you need to slow down and surrender to the sensory, dream-like experience that the unique, award-winning filmmaker forms with such care. Tune out the mad dash of everydayness and commit yourself to Weerasethakul’s static scenes and long, telling takes in which the sights and sounds of nature and even city life sometimes provide more context than the dialogue.

So what a treat it is for Bay Area movie lovers that a curated sampling of films and shorts from the heralded Thai independent director has been made available by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. You also have a chance to hear him elaborate on how he approaches his unique and evocative craft.

The 52-year-old filmmaker journeys to the East Bay for a series of conversations and workshops April 6-11. It’s part of BAMPFA’s months-long Weerasethakul retrospective, a collaboration with the Townsend Center for Humanities in Berkeley. The film series continues through May 12.

Weerasethakul will appear at the three screenings of his feature-length classics — 2021’s “Memoria” with Tilda Swinton, his parents-inspired 2006 film “Syndromes and a Century,” the erotically charged 2002 effort “Blissfully Yours” — along with two other special programs and conversations, including one that includes the showing of his visual exhibit piece “Morakot” that’s currently on view at BAMPFA.

Just don’t expect to have all your questions answered.

During a Zoom interview, Weerasethakul says how much he enjoys hearing from audiences and answering questions, but he likes his films to remain open to interpretation.

“Sometimes I cannot answer the questions,” he said. “But it’s a joy to really know that the film is so flexible, so open. And sometimes I have my reasons for particular scenes but sometimes I don’t tell people because I don’t want to shut down that openness to imagine. I think that’s the respect for the audience — you’ve allowed that to happen.”

Weerasethakul’s films touch on a diverse range of subjects and themes — the ghostly remnants of history and oppression, sexuality, nature, Buddhism, the pliability of memory, and more.

They are filled with silence and natural wonders and tropical locales where the spirits of what came before are embedded in the landscape.

His canon goes counter to the style and pacing of many American features. But –Weerasethakul has a love for Steven Spielberg’s films — especially “E.T.,” which inspired him — and has a soft spot for sci-fi novels. “Memoria” can attest to that.

“Science is so linked with nature,” he said.” You look at nature with a very open mind and be aware that everything changes and the theory can shift.”

He likes sharing a heightened awareness with his films.

“With very conventional cinema you don’t have that luxury of listening and looking because your brain is working so hard to follow the narrative,” he said. “But for me I prefer to just be a little more silent in yourself and to allow that awareness again to happen because if you look at anything — you look at the rock or you look at the tree long enough you will discover something.”

Most of his films prior to the Colombia-set ad Cannes Jury Prize winner “Memoria” were shot in the countryside of Isaan in northeastern Thailand, including “Syndromes and a Century,” which he describes as an “innocent film” that originated from his parents’ reflections about being doctors in Khon Kaen; his second feature “Blissfully Yours” and 2004’s shape-shifting gay romance “Tropical Malady.” Isaan is where he grew up after being born in Bangkok.

Weerasethakul received an M.F.A in film from Chicago’s School of the Art Institute after previously having studied architecture at Khon Kaen University. He founded Kick the Machine Films and shot and released his first feature, 2000’s black-and-white “Mysterious Object at Noon.” Audiences and critics took immediate notice of his unique vision and approach.

In most of his films, there’s a sense that a rural life can be more freeing and enchanting, even when the geographic location is near or on the focal point of past tumultuous events.

The first part of “Blissfully Yours” is set in the city; it begins with a doctor’s visit and then goes on to show the routines of city life, including lunch preparation. The title sequence doesn’t even show up until 45 minutes in as a young couple heads out of the city, perhaps indicating how fulfillment  and happiness only happen once you escape an urban setting.

Weerasethakul admits he’s not a fan of Bangkok, and part of that is due to the city’s insistence at censoring his film. In 2008, Thailand’s Censorship Board demanded five edits be made to “Syndrome,” including scenes depicting a doctor drinking and a monk playing an instrument. Weerasethakul refused and has stayed resolute. Other films in his canon encountered resistance as well.

For Weerasethakul, who is gay and describes himself as shy, the matter brings up sentiments from his youth.

“Growing up in a small town you just feel inferior,” he said. “People look down on you. So I don’t like Bangkok as a symbol of authority, and to be censored by this group of people in Bangkok really brings back all these feelings that they don’t view humans the same way and they don’t value freedom. So before (that time) I was always avoiding Bangkok, avoiding confrontation. But with the censorship, OK, I’m going to fight. Because it’s the thing that I love.”

He became part of the Free Thai Cinema Movement and did get to see censorships laws change but said it’s “still bureaucratic and still primitive.”

“I feel like being in Bangkok and working on that censorship issue for a long time, I start to understand why Thai film is not progressing,” he said. “And why many other facets in our society were really repressed and society allowed the authority to press down on us. So with that episode, it really inspired me to shift into a more political view in many of my artwork, in my short films and installations.”

For tickets and a full schedule of screenings and events, go to

Mercury News