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Blissfully Gazing: An Encounter with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

An essential collaborator with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Luca Guadagnino, and Miguel Gomes, the Thai cinematographer discusses his work.
Lukasz Mankowski
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria is showing exclusively on MUBI in many countries starting August 5, 2022, in the series Luminaries.
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
“It’s all about feeling,” Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom told me several times whenever I tried to frame the nuances of his methodology with conceptual notions. His words, however filled with ambiguity and elusiveness, might in fact seem to be the key to describe the general premise of the films he has worked on as a cameraman—it is, indeed, all about the feelings, participation, and intuition. After all, the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Luca Guadagnino, Miguel Gomes, whose films Sayombhu has shot, revolve around a certain reciprocity—the images link with the tactile, offering a space for the audience to immerse themselves in the images: just as real as imagined. A meditative gaze floats with Sayombhu’s camera in carefully designed master shots, following the characters in a tender rhythm, accompanying them from a safe distance, inviting participation. This can be said particularly about Apichatpong’s films, with whom Sayombhu worked on a majority of his projects, sharing the creative process for a universe of shape-shifting narratives, starting from Blissfully Yours (2002)—although some sources invalidly suggest that their first collaboration was a docu-fiction Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), which was debunked by Sayombhu himself during our talk—and framing it with Colombia-set Memoria (2021).
Recently awarded with the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Robby Müller Award for outstanding achievements in cinematography, Sayombhu has helped create the layered visual worlds of Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017) and Suspiria (2018), as well as Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy (2015). From Apichatpong’s envisioning of Thailand, to Guadagnino’s Italy and Gomes’ Portugal, Sayombhu finds himself well in different environments—that includes different types of projects, from arthouse and expanded cinema to impressionistic shorts and commercial features. The latter, in particular, made him reflect on the agency of independent filmmakers in Thailand and the general lack of funds, which resulted in establishing a post-production studio in Bangkok called White Light (founded with the editor and fellow collaborator, Lee Chatametikool), which focuses on supporting upcoming indie projects from the region of Southeast Asia.
Sayombhu’s work is known for his preference for film over digital, spontaneity over hard-planning, and medium and wide shots through which the Thai cinematographer enacts an observational stance that becomes an inherent component of Apichatpong’s narratives. Sayombhu’s sense of visual style derives from the willingness to interact with the environment on set; there’s always a margin so that the things may go with their natural flow. This finds its salient translation in a choice of lighting—mostly coming from natural sources, oftentimes hiding the characters behind the shadows, in glimpses, in worlds in which there exists something dim and unexpressed. There’s an act of performance in it, as well—to cherish the desired angle of the light might as well mean the inevitable: to wait for the sun to come up.
Sayombhu offers his audiences cinematic images filled with simplicity and comfort. His slow-paced and rhythmic shots maintain a steady flow—filming from a dolly is another of Sayombhu’s landmarks—thus becoming a canvas for the haptic particles to be immersed. The image connects with the sound, the sound with the memory, and so it goes; the results are blissful poetry, but then again, it also achieves a snapshot of a realist rawness. About all these components that build into a refined body of work, I got to talk with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom over a Zoom call. Connecting from Boston, where he was preparing for the next Guadagnino project, he started our sessions by speaking about Boston’s light, admitting with a sense of disappointment that there isn’t a lot of it there.

NOTEBOOK: There’s this lovely picture in the Fireflies book about Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria where you are sleeping on the shooting set.
SAYOMBHU MUKDEEPROM: Oh, the famous picture—let me tell you about this. It was taken by my assistant. The thing is when we were shooting Memoria in Colombia, the set was quite relaxed. We had to wait for the sun to arrive and it was around lunchtime. I didn’t feel hungry at all, so I said to my team to go and have a bite and I would wait at the set and stay with the camera. We were in the middle of the city, so we just couldn’t leave the equipment there. And I wanted to be there, that’s it; I wanted to be near my cameras. And when they came back after several minutes, they saw me there, but resting in a state of half-sleep.
NOTEBOOK: You said on some other occasion that when you don’t shoot the film, you sleep a lot. And since Apichatpong’s films deal with the notions of sleeping and dreaming a lot, I was wondering if you dream about your work? Do the images come to you in your sleep?
SAYOMBHU: These are not dreams, but a constant circle of images that keep running through my head. But I don’t perceive it as a good thing. I talked with a doctor once who told me that most cinematographers suffer from high blood pressure. The work is stressful, you know, and it makes the images run in my head. When I’m asleep, the process is still ongoing, it keeps spinning around with the images. Sometimes even if I wake up, I have to gather all the ideas—it’s like reaching out for the lost snapshots of the last night. But some of the ideas are good. They come to me in my sleep, so they derive from somewhere organic, natural. It’s somewhat similar to the state of meditation. There’s no scientific theory behind that, but for me, it’s a part of my working process.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of meditation—does it help you organize the space in your head before the shooting?
SAYOMBHU: I think it helped me a lot in general because overall it helps to deal with the stressful parts of work. To me, it’s just a tool to keep myself calm. It also helps me realize what is stressful, what stays inside. In a way, you have to protect all of that and deal with it later. And if you keep on working and working, then there’s never time to go through it. You just keep on going.
NOTEBOOK: You started with Apichatpong but you also worked with other arthouse filmmakers from Europe, Luca Guadagnino and Miguel Gomes. How did these collaborations start?
SAYOMBHU: It was very simple. I just got contacted by them and that’s it. Nothing special. They reached out to me and I talked with them and I liked them. That’s how it started. Very simple. With Gomes, it was that he had some problem with his cameraman and he was looking for a new one. And because someone recommended me to him, he called me and that’s it. It’s normal for the film society—we intertwine.
NOTEBOOK: During Rotterdam’s masterclass, many people you’ve worked with over the years congratulated your award, oftentimes saying you’re like a part of the family. There’s this evident feeling of togetherness that comes out of those words, appreciating the fact of mutual trust and collective effort. How does the aspect of closeness determine your perspective on the sets?
SAYOMBHU: My point of view is that making films is demanding. That makes people the important key in the process of making them. If you are comfortable with someone, then the work will stop being just the thing that you have to do. It will become a pleasure. It’s like with touch—if you’re comfortable with someone touching you in a friendly way, then it’s an entirely different level of comfort you have there. That said, I always intend to work with people whom I trust because there’s a lot of thinking about other people’s thinking. And you don’t want that, you’d rather rely on your trust. Trust is part of being family. Apichatpong is family. If he calls me, and if I’m available, I don’t ask him about what he’s about to do. I know that whatever that is, I want to be there for him. I trust him and I feel him. And if I don’t know someone, then we talk, get to know each other’s feelings. That’s vital.
NOTEBOOK: The beginning of your career started in Thailand but then you moved to different countries: Italy, Portugal, the United States. Do the language and environment influence the way you work?
SAYOMBHU: Actually, no. And I’m lucky to say this because the visual is a universal language. The same can be said about the technical parts of it. Same camera, same gauge, same lenses. Typical things. I communicate in English to talk with my team about our work. And truth to be told, I don’t need to understand the words as the image speaks for itself.
NOTEBOOK: Your work consists of mostly fiction feature films but the Arabian Nights trilogy by Miguel Gomes is a project that leans towards a documentary lens. What is the difference for you in terms of navigating between fiction and documentary?
SAYOMBHU: Documentaries are more fluid. This is crucial for everybody to understand that. With fiction there is a responsibility to carry out the work; as a cinematographer, I need to deliver something that is required of me. That’s the basic difference. When I work on a documentary project, we can rely on everything that is given to us by natural circumstances—the sun, the noise, anything organic—and that’s perfectly fine. But with fiction films, especially big projects, my job is to cover things up, deal with the obstacles, and create the image on top of it.
NOTEBOOK: I was wondering if you could talk about the process of finding the locations. That’s the part of the cinematographer’s work that is a bit behind the scenes and it seems it’s a very important aspect of the methodological approach for you and Apichatpong.
SAYOMBHU: I think it’s just how Apichatpong wants to work. Most of the time he gives me a call to go with him and check the spot. But if he doesn’t want me there, he will go all by himself or with other people. But he always contacts me first about it. And when we’re there—it’s all about the feeling; it’s me sensing his thoughts and feelings about the film. I go with Apichatpong to absorb the environment and the locations. And it’s often the case that we do it without the script even written. This is when we start talking about the concepts and ideas he has in his mind. It’s often that it starts with the location, it connects with some idea. Then we come back with the script and start thinking about the place in frames. Since Blissfully Yours, there were two Apichatpong’s films that I couldn’t shoot because of my other projects: Tropical Malady (2004) and Cemetery of Splendor (2015). But even then, I was prepared to go with Apichatpong for location scouting. He sent me the script and we would still go together to get the feeling of these places.
NOTEBOOK: One of those peculiar locations that reappear in Apichatpong’s films are institutions, mostly hospitals. It’s a very difficult place to shoot the film in. A hostile environment that attacks with difficult lighting; one that overwhelms with sterility and whiteness. But at the same time, as in the case of Syndromes and a Century, the whole film is set in a hospital and it’s rendered in an amazing way. How do you approach the visual (in)capability of the hospitals?
SAYOMBHU: I don’t see myself as someone who approaches shooting at the hospitals in a different way than any other cameraman. I think it’s always about having control over lighting. It’s like you have to set a mindset of thinking in terms of lighting range. When there are scenes to be shot in a hospital, you might want to shoot them during the afternoon because light cools down a bit. This way you can control the whiteness of the interiors and turn off the fluorescent lighting which is organically bad for the camera. So it becomes a process of finding the right tone; you change the lighting back and forth until you find the right contrast. I see this as an art of dealing with your location; it’s all about making it more interesting, more appealing, and more fitting to the demands of the bigger picture.
NOTEBOOK: The hospitals are way different than in most of the films. The setting has this peculiar energy, somewhat of magic in it.
SAYOMBHU: I’d say it’s because Thailand is in a tropical climate, so that’s not magic. [Laughs.] I mean, I grew up in a hospital, similarly to Apichatpong, perhaps even more because my father was a rural doctor changing from one place to another, usually from a small facility to even a smaller one. Apichatpong’s father worked for a big hospital. And I guess this energy might come from the fact that we don’t perceive hospitals as sad places. Yes, people come and go, and a lot of them die there, but this is the first and fundamental thinking of Buddhism. We are born. We get old. We die. It’s a circular motion. It’s our understanding of the reality we live in. Another thing is my memories. As I said, I grew up in the hospitals, so the snapshots of the hospitals from our films are heavily influenced by either mine or Apichatpong’s images from the past. For instance, that recurring sequence in Syndromes and a Century, where they go through that bridge-like pathway connecting two branches of the hospital—that’s precisely taken straight from my memory. It’s all there for you to see!
NOTEBOOK: The amount of research done for Memoria, available in Fireflies book devoted to the film, is outstanding. The interdisciplinary nature of it, the details—you’re emphasizing the improvisational side of working with Apichatpong, but there was so much prep work done beforehand. How much indeed is there space for feelings and going with the flow?
SAYOMBHU: It’s all mixed. For me it’s all about looking into the eyes: Apichatpong looking into mine, asking in his head, “You like it or not?” Simple as that. Sometimes I would just say, “Oh, Apichatpong, that’s impossible!” But then we talk. There’s a lot of going back and forth in our work—we’re always giving ourselves this margin to try things out. And we talk a lot—with each other and the rest of the crew. There’s always room for a “yes,” even if something seems distant and impossible. The whole process seems to me like cooking. If you’re good enough, you won’t need the recipe at some point. You’ll just cook and admit it’s pretty damn good. Or too salty. Or it will make you want to throw it away.
NOTEBOOK: Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, a sound designer for Apichatpong’s films, also told me that he considers himself a cook. Coming back to the places—in Colombia, you shot mostly in Bogota and Pijao. Particularly the latter seems to be a place with very distinctive energy—very slow-paced, with lots of green integrated with the urban fabric and many older people inhabiting the city. Did you have any specific approach to how you wanted to convey the city landscape?
SAYOMBHU: It always starts from the script. We have the story that we have to tell. Then from that, there’s the process of constant searching. I think when I was there, I never stopped thinking of the city. I kept looking and exploring for something that might be good for the frame we wanted to capture. Again, it was based on hit-or-miss. We would find some place only to let it go in the end. There were also many moments when we could trust our feeling. Sometimes the scene might turn out to be perfectly synchronized with a certain place. Who knows?
NOTEBOOK: How do you get to know the place?
SAYOMBHU: I think it’s important to get to know its rhythm in the first place.
NOTEBOOK: Do you limit yourself to observing or do you talk with people as well?
SAYOMBHU: Mostly observe, because I think my part is not about people. It’s about the nature of the environment. And this is something I love to do; it’s my favorite part of preparation work, the most exciting one.
NOTEBOOK: Do you take photos of the places you explore?
SAYOMBHU: Very rarely. I do take photos, but mostly in my head. It’s because I’m preoccupied with thinking about the technique. Once I touch the camera, I can’t think of anything but the technicalities, so I have to put it away to think clearly about the potential of a place.
NOTEBOOK: Since you shot many scenes in the natural environment, I was wondering how much you had to adjust the shooting schedule to Colombia’s unpredictable weather?
SAYOMBHU: In general, this is about the capability of a cameraman. The light is your resource and you have to know how to rely on that. To operate around your camera you have to know how it works, right? The same goes for the sun. It’s like possessing the technical knowledge of the sun, like getting a manual on it that is explained through patience. You have to prepare for it. If not, then you can always resort to creating everything artificially. But it always depends on the project itself or the kind of set you work on. Memoria demanded we get that knowledge. And when you don’t have the light, you have to create it and deal with the artificial one. When I first read the script for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) I noticed that in the scene when they enter the cave for the first time, Apichatpong wrote something like, “The cave is so dark so we see nothing.” I thought, “Oh, good, fine! I can easily do just that!” [Laughs.] But even with that, we had to do something about it; we had to make the audience see that darkness.
NOTEBOOK: Uncle Boonmee’s night scenes look beautiful—there’s this uncanny grainy touch to it. You’re known for opting for film over digital. Why’s that?
SAYOMBHU: For me, it’s actually all about the camera. It’s connected with the rawness of the image I want to look at because when you’re looking at the image through the optical viewfinder, it becomes so different from the picture appearing on the tiny video monitor in the loop. My biggest concern is to look right into the optical, as there’s nothing that filters your reality there. Through the lens and optical path, the image makes all this way to your eye. With cameras, there are lots of processes that happen all at once before the image arrives at you. They make tricks to your senses, too. So when I look through the optical, I get that sort of feeling that strengthens my interaction with actors. Because of the photogénique aspect, actors trick the gaze of the camera as well. They use different angles, adjust their movements, pause, and change the way they look or disappear. And it’s up to you what you do with your camera, how you frame them. You can go dancing with the image, play with it a bit.
NOTEBOOK: Do you recognize lots of mistakes from the past when you look back at your old work?
SAYOMBHU: Of course, every day! I’m always thinking that I could do this or that. This is because I learn every day. But it’s come and go. I think of it as a part of Buddhism, like a circle of things.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think that Buddhism had any influence on your sense of aesthetics?
SAYOMBHU: Yes, I think so. A lot and on many layers. It’s mainly because my craft is to deal with the present time. Not the past, not the future. I’m right here, right now. You do have to prepare for the scene, but what’s more important is when you capture the moment. It’s all in the moment! When you’re filming you cannot stick to the past. You have to let go of everything you had preconceived in your head and focus on the present. Here and now.
NOTEBOOK: Is there any peculiar and distinctive image of Thailand for you? When I asked Akritchalerm about the sound of Thailand, he responded with “crickets and car traffic.”
SAYOMBHU: Oh yes, the sound is definitely correct. As for the image—I think it would be mid-noon sunlight. That’s exactly what I love about Thailand’s light. There’s no such lighting elsewhere than in Thailand. Like in Blissfully Yours, you have that particular angle of the sunlight that casts a shadow on the characters’ faces. Nobody likes that, but for me—I love it! It’s so difficult to get that angle in Europe. Almost impossible, because the sun’s angle is way lower than in Thailand.
NOTEBOOK: Your first project was Blissfully Yours which initiated your long collaborative relationship with Apichatpong. What has changed for you during all these years?
SAYOMBHU: There are of course lots of things that have changed. First of all, I changed as a person, I think. I’m getting older, right? I perceive the world in different categories because of my experience. The same goes with Apichatpong and our films. But in terms of the spirit of making the films with him—I don’t think anything has changed. I feel that we just keep a young spirit, you know, we’re still exploring, experimenting.


InterviewsLong ReadsSayombhu MukdeepromApichatpong WeerasethakulLuca GuadagninoMiguel GomesCinematography
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