Apichatpong Weerasethakul was born in Bangkok. His parents were both physicians, and worked in a hospital in Khon Kaen, Thailand. He attended Khon Kaen University and received a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1994. He made his first short film, Bullet, in 1993. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago and received a master's degree in fine arts in filmmaking in 1997.
His feature-length debut, Dokfa nai meuman (Mysterious Object at Noon) blends documentary footage and improvised narrative, and was conceptually based upon the exquisite corpse game invented by surrealists. He formed his own production company, Kick the Machine, in 1999, through which he produces and promotes his own works, and provides support to other independent filmmakers and experimental film works.
Apichatpong's 2002 feature Sud Sanaeha (Blissfully Yours) won the "Un Certain Regard" prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His 2004 Sud Pralad (Tropical Malady) won a Jury Prize from the same festival. Apichatpong also co-directed The Adventure of Iron Pussy with artist Michael Shaowanasai, who starred as the main character, a transvestite secret agent.
In 2006, Apichatpong released a feature film, Syndromes and a Century, which was commissioned by Peter Sellars for the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. It premiered at the 63rd Venice Film Festival and screened at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and many other festivals.
The film's Thai release, originally slated for April 19, 2007, was indefinitely delayed after Thai Censorship Board demanded the removal of four scenes. Apichatpong refused to recut the film and said he would withdraw it from domestic circulation.
Two of the "sensitive" scenes involve doctors engaging in "inappropriate" conduct (kissing and drinking liquor) in a hospital; the others depict a Buddhist monk playing a guitar and two monks playing with a remote-control flying saucer. The censors refused to return the print unless the requested cuts were made.
To oppose the draft law, Apichatpong and other directors formed the Free Thai Cinema Movement.
"We disagree with the right of the state to ban films," Apichatpong was quoted as saying. "There already are other laws that cover potential wrongdoings by filmmakers."
Cinephiles affectionately refer to him as "Joe" (a nickname that he, like many Thai names with similarly long names, has adopted out of convenience).