Apichatpong Weerasethakul: ‘Exploding Head Syndrome is a really peculiar thing’

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul, director of ‘Memoria’ and ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’  (Getty/Doha Film Institute)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, director of ‘Memoria’ and ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ (Getty/Doha Film Institute)

Let me close the… for the sound,” mutters Apichatpong Weerasethakul, as he heads towards the open window of his hotel room, shutting it tight to block out the street noise that’s floating up from below. It’s no surprise that this unique Thai soul prefers the sound of silence, and not simply because his work – films such as Tropical Malady and the Cannes-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives – is often so quietly contemplative. These past years, Weerasethakul has struggled with a noise-related medical condition: Exploding Head Syndrome.

This disorientating psychological issue has found its way into his beguiling new film Memoria. “It’s a really peculiar thing – you can google it,” he says, as if I don’t believe him. After the 2021 Cannes premiere of the film, where it won the Jury Prize, the 51-year-old was scrolling through Twitter, looking at comments reacting to the glowing reviews. “Some people said, ‘I had the same thing,’ so there are some people who have it,” he adds, sounding relieved that he’s not alone in enduring this very solitary aural anxiety.

Taking the form of either an intense bang or flashes of light, Exploding Head Syndrome – which is said to be stress-related – often comes first thing in the morning, as those who experience it wake up. “It’s not really suffering,” he says, calmly, “but it is something that you want to tell, you want to share, but you cannot explain what it feels like, what it sounds like.” Would he hear multiple sounds, one after the other? “One sound,” he replies, “and then after, it comes back... and at a certain point you can control it. It is very strange.”

It began in 2016 and lasted, he estimates, for a couple of years. “I never counted because it’s not really painful. At some point I realised: ‘Oh, it’s no longer there.’” He reiterates that Exploding Head Syndrome isn’t as dramatic as the name suggests, but there’s a deep-seated frustration that comes with it. “Trying to explain what this sound is like in my head… it’s impossible,” he cries. “It’s almost like trying to communicate something that is uncommunicable because it’s not a sound, it’s something in my head.”

This very idea of exploring the unexplainable could sum up Weerasethakul’s work, which often treads the line between the rational and the spiritual. Uncle Boonmee, which won Cannes’ Palme d’Or in 2010, deals with reincarnation, as a terminally ill man communes with the spirit of his late wife. Similarly, Memoria embraces the supernatural. The Hollywood Reporter called it “a lyrical enigma”, crystallising the very fabric of Weerasethakul’s first English (and Spanish) language movie – and the first he’s filmed outside Thailand.

It’s also his first experience of working with a bona fide movie star, Tilda Swinton, who with typical soulfulness plays Jessica, a British expat living in Colombia. While on a trip visiting her sister in a Bogotá hospital, Jessica is awoken from her slumber one night by a mysterious sonic boom. A disquieting moment that sends her on a journey of introspection, it won’t be the first time she hears the noise (Variety’s critic counted “no fewer than 55” times it will rumble through the movie).

Is she having a breakdown? Is it something more sinister? The film offers no easy answers, though that doesn’t stop Jessica seeking them. At one point, she visits a recording studio, asking a student to replicate the sound with his equipment. “For me it’s such a beautiful reflection of how we try to explain ourselves which is an impossible task,” Weerasethakul says. “So for me I look at Jessica as ‘cinema’. I told my producer she’s a cinema, but nobody understood! She’s like a microphone or camera that absorbs sound [and] records.”

As intriguing as this analogy is, it isn’t likely to shed too much light on Memoria, which is more a film to be experienced than explained. But for Weerasethakul, it was cathartic. Aside from Exploding Head Syndrome, he was enduring prolonged bouts of insomnia leading up to the shoot in Colombia. “I think it’s psychological,” he reasons. “Because I tried to make myself tired by jogging but it was still there.” Yet when he arrived in South America to begin the shoot, he instantly started sleeping again.

He speaks about “worries that have been taken away” the moment he stepped on set, “because the crew in Colombia was so beautiful”. In Thailand, it’s different. He knows the language, how to communicate and how to control every aspect of a shoot. “But in Colombia I don’t know… I said, ‘Oh, I give up. I cannot [control anything].’ So it’s about letting [other] people do it. And I focused on Jessica. Maybe that’s why it made me sleep. Just to release all those responsibilities.”

Tilda Swinton in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ‘Memoria’ (Neon)
Tilda Swinton in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ‘Memoria’ (Neon)

Sleep has been a feature of his work before. In 2015’s Cemetery of Splendour, soldiers are plagued by a strange sleeping sickness epidemic that takes the form of vivid hallucinations. At the time, Weerasethakul refused to show the film in Thailand for fear of reprisals. The country has been under military dictatorship since May 2014, when a junta led by unelected prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha took power, and the arts – particularly film – are under heavy censorship.

As he later told the BBC, “I am sad to see that I don’t have any power or rights to speak, because I know if I speak, harm will come to me.” It wasn’t his first brush with the authorities, either. His earlier film, 2006’s Syndromes and a Century – a two-part drama inspired on some level by his parents, who were both physicians – alerted the censorship board. Scenes of doctors kissing, and drinking, were considered inappropriate; another, of a Buddhist monk playing a guitar, was also cited. Weerasethakul refused to cut the film and withdrew it from its domestic release.

To know that people [there] know ‘Uncle Boonmee’ because of the Palme… to make something universal... I’m so moved by discovering fans

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

His earlier years were not without western influence – Seventies disaster classics such as The Towering Inferno and Earthquake all part of his movie education. He was raised in the provincial northern city of Khon Kaen, where he studied architecture at the local university before his attention turned to cinema. He applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he graduated with an MFA in film in 1998. It was here where he perfected his English and even adopted the moniker “Joe”, helpfully aiding those who struggle with the pronunciation of his name.

Two years later, he made his first feature-length project back in Thailand, the black-and-white folklore-influenced documentary Mysterious Object of Noon. Yet there would be an eventual triumphant return to Chicago in 2017, where the School of the Art Institute staged the first large-scale retrospective of his work outside of feature films. This collection of short films, photographs and video installations was called The Serenity of Madness – another title that neatly encapsulates his work.

That year felt like a tipping point for Weerasethakul, who also attended the Cartagena Film Festival, which was honouring his career. That so many people from the region knew his work was utterly surprising. “Latin America is something like a dream, like a childhood dream,” he says. Of course, winning in Cannes helps. “To know that people [there] know Uncle Boonmee because of the Palme… to make something universal... I’m so moved by discovering fans,” he says, almost unable to find his words.

Immediately, after his time at the festival, he felt Colombia was the perfect setting for Memoria, where he could be a stranger amid its dramatic, mountainous landscapes and volatile weather systems. “You carry an umbrella outside for the sun, but then after a few hours, the rain come and then the wind,” he says. “It’s like emotion. I feel like it’s communicating. You are dealing with active climate and landscape.”

Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his 2010 film ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ (Kick the Machine)
Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his 2010 film ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ (Kick the Machine)

At this point I want to tell him he should come to Britain to make a film, where he’ll doubtless be delighted by our unpredictable climes. Indeed, Swinton has been doing her best to lure him here: “One day there will be an Apichatpong Scottish film, I hope,” she tells me. They’ve known each other now for almost two decades; the actress was on the jury in Cannes that gave his 2004 sophomore movie Tropical Malady – the first Thai film to play in competition at the festival – the Jury Prize.

“I remember that someone told me that she wrote a letter about Tropical Malady to her son because she discovered it in Cannes and then someone got us in touch,” says Weerasethakul. While she was set to play a role in Cemetery of Splendour, he backed away from the idea, thinking it would be wrong to include a non-Thai person in the cast. But he remains a huge fan. “I was starstruck because her work with Derek Jarman I loved... such fierce filmmaking,” he says.

While he also recently completed a short film for The Year of the Everlasting Storm, an anthology movie inspired by the pandemic, the whole Memoria experience has been so rejuvenating, he feels like he’s entering a new phase in his life. “I feel it’s about learning [about] myself, and also how to get rid of myself,” he says. “And again, to accept that we don’t know.” He holds onto that thought – the pleasure in the unknowable – for just a second. “I don’t know many things... but that’s OK.”

‘Memoria’ is out in UK cinemas now