Film sets can make for nerve-racking environments, but nothing was further from the truth when it came to Love in Khon Kaen, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s next feature. The 31-day production, which began last October in the director’s titular hometown, was so harmonious that you had to wonder if the tranquil tone characteristic of Apichatpong’s films might simply be a record of their shooting conditions.
Love in Khon Kaen (a working title) reflects on the social and political troubles that have afflicted Thailand in recent years and whose roots stretch back centuries. One of Apichatpong’s regulars, Jenjira Pongpas, plays a middle-aged woman who tends to a soldier suffering from an incurable sleeping sickness, played by Banlop Lomnoi reprising his role from Tropical Malady. A tentative romance blossoms that can only be realized through an escape into dreams, but this oneiric idyll is threatened by sinister forces. The political meaning is buried within an outwardly innocuous but deeply melancholic narrative, reflecting the highly symbolic language in which Thai protest is couched due to draconian censorship laws.
While this is Apichatpong’s most character- and story-driven film to date, the script constantly evolved, from the start of pre-production last spring through to the final minute of shooting. Details about the secondary characters as well as much of their dialogue were rewritten after the casting, borrowing ideas freely from the actors’ lives.
Setting up one shot in an abandoned classroom, Apichatpong found the resulting image too gorgeous to simply have Jenjira walk through as originally planned. He started bouncing ideas off his ADs. First he thought of shooting a boy and a girl flirting inside the empty room. Then he considered using it as the setting for furtive lovemaking. Dissatisfied with both options, he asked two actors standing by, a couple in real life, what their plans were for later that day. When he heard that they would be attending a funeral, he told them to talk about it, called “action,” and sat by the monitor, watching their ad-libbed conversation for several minutes until finally he was content. He moved on to the next shot after one take.
The 44-year-old director expects the film to represent a turning point in his oeuvre. “I’m at a stage where I doubt a lot about career and country. This movie is like a farewell. I have to make a movie to get away from old memories and try to build anew, maybe in a different country, maybe in a different form of filmmaking,” he said. “I’m sick of this place and this movie is a manifestation of this thinking.”
Over the years, as many of his crew attest, Apichatpong has assembled a team that—cliché notwithstanding—might more accurately be described as a family. This was wonderfully and comically illustrated during one scene, when, dissatisfied with a shot of an actor’s bare chest, Apichatpong went looking for a surrogate chest among the crew. One after another, every man on set raised his shirt for inspection. Finally, Suchada Sirithanawuddhi, the line producer, uncovered the most eligible stand-in: Apichatpong himself. Steadfastly egalitarian, the Palme d’Or winner removed his shirt and took a seat in front of the camera.
Apichatpong shows an impressive aptitude for turning setbacks into opportunities on the fly. For budgetary reasons, another scene, in which characters leave a cinema, was shot in a multiplex during business hours. When the extras failed to act naturally, Apichatpong shot an actual audience exiting a screening, together with the actors. Even the film’s finale wasn’t written until halfway through production, as was a completely new role for Sakda Kaewbuadee, another Apichatpong alumnus, who was flown in from France to shoot a single scene.
By all accounts, Apichatpong is equally spontaneous during editing, disposed to restructuring the whole film and eliminating major scenes. When asked whether he expected this edit to be a challenge, he mused for a bit on the nature of the film.
“Editing is always a problem, but in this film maybe more so, because it involves these dreams. All these imagined things…”