Digital Ghost: Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul Recalls Uncle Boonmee

Alternately spare, contemplative and luscious, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the the Palm D’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Last September, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was fortunate to speak with the film’s celebrated director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who has also brought us such recent art house triumphs as Tropical Malady, and Syndromes and a Century). I asked him to reflect on his micro-budgeted indie film’s high profile success at the famous French festival last year: “It was like a dream. It was like I’d been to Mars and now I’m back. It seemed that way because it seemed not true. I wonder ‘who was that guy who won?’ (laughing) With the Palm, for me, I was thinking I was too young. I haven’t made that many films. When I came back from Mars, I was still struggling to find financing for a new film. In retrospect, it was like a brief flash.”

A trip to Mars might be the most apt analogy for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, his newest film, which graciously, meditatively examines the fluidity of memory in the past, present and future. Striking a strong balance of moving comedic and dramatic themes, Weerasethakul (“Thai Joe” as he is affectionately referred to by most Western cinephiles who can’t pronounce his name) follows the title character, who is suffering from kidney failure, on a mystical trek through the countryside as he is surrounded by those he has loved the most in his life, whether alive or dead, including the ghosts of his wife and son, one of whom takes on a translucent spectral form, while the other looks more like a formless monster with glowing red eyes. Past lives, future lives, the transmigration of souls to other bodies, whether animal, human or vegetable, and the intermingling of spirits throughout time and space add a palpable air of spirituality and emotion that imbue the film with an unpredictable, fresh energy.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film that defies description, and must simply be experienced, rather than talked about. Drawing from an array of radical avant garde inspirations, from Maya Deren and Chris Marker to Andy Warhol, to the pop culture-referencing of childhood favorite comic books and popular Thai cinema of the ‘80s, Weerasethakul conceived this film as a part of the Primitive project and as an homage to his home in the Isan province in the North-east of Thailand. The director calls the end result a “time machine” that richly explores tradition, destruction and deconstruction of cultures. “The past ten years have proven [for me] that when you are very honest with yourself, there’s someone who can find [the work]. Its a dream to continue doing this as a diary, with my actors. We grow together. The film reflects my interests, my life at a certain age. It is great with Uncle Boonmee, its been distributed in so many countries, which is a first for me. Its amazing.”

This autobiographical strain, and the quietly revolutionary spirit of the film’s director, combined with an assured technical and stylistic grip on the imagery – including the use of still photography, the mixing of film stocks, and a striking use of light and dark to punctuate the film’s story – mark the daring, original Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as a singular, complex object of visual art rather than just another art house flavor of the week. In casting aside slavish devotion to any particular genre or submode, or adherence to a particular form of cinema, Weerasethakul has created a piece that is more akin to an installation or fine work of art that is personal, political and daring without feeling outre or impenetrable. That such a gentle, unique film rises to the occasion to arouse the viewers’ senses in such a tantalizing way is inspiring. Weerasethakul’s filmic tone poem is at once unconventional, independent, and experimental in every sense, and not beholden to the traditional rules of filmmaking whatsoever, which is a refreshing change of pace on the festival circuit where everything seems geared towards awards begging. The heart, grace, and formidable technological prowess of the director beautifully take center stage.

Watching the film, I was so curious about how you were able to work within the budget constraints. The film looked so beautiful, yet I hear you made it for very little money. Can you talk a bit about how you approached the funding of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives?

It was my producers, Simon Field and Keith Griffiths, and many more who contributed. We depend on public funding from various institutions, from the museums, even, to have it as part of the art project that is called Primitive, so we have installations, we have a book, we have a short film online, and then this movie is the wrap up of the whole project. So the funding has to be pooled from many worlds, from art and from movies.

I was so struck by the color palette of the film, with the jungle greens, and black phantoms with red, piercing eyes. I wondered where your inspiration for the color palette comes from?

For this film, I was determined to have it as a tribute to various kinds of media like comic books and TV that I grew up with, so each of those has a different color, a different style. We shot on super 16, to get a certain look, because in the old days – not so old – in the 1970s, and 1980s, we still shot on 16mm in the [Thai] television industry. We did the grading later to have certain artificiality, not too real in some reels.

And what was your inspiration for the still photography?

The film is about the cinema, about my own history of movies. Movies like horror films, and adventure films, and then it stops – the image no longer moves. Its like going back before the image can move, the still, the photograph, and that is during the dream sequence of Uncle Boonmee, and in this dream he talks about time, about the future. But then we see the archaic form of inspiration, which is the still image, so there is some kind of conflict going on and his future seems like the past. So, this kind of idea, I cannot put down concretely, but this idea of play between times, and references to the history of cinema, but also to someone like Chris Marker or [Michelangelo] Antonioni as well. I mean, I’m inspired by many (laughs). Generally, a lot of experimental filmmakers have been inspirations, mostly Americans. Bruce Baillie, Andy Warhol and Maya Deren.

I’m really interested in the ghosts, the monsters. What can we learn from these supernatural creatures?

For this film, it reflects the old system between spirits, you know, those invisible beings and humans. Humans believe, in Thai society, that even trees have spirits, different trees have different spirits. So, I tend to exaggerate this notion, of what existed before, but no longer exists. Sometimes the dead come back and even live with humans. Sometimes the wife comes back and she cooks for her husband or even has sex with him, so there’s no line between life and death and I think that’s the notion of our wish, it is everyone’s dream to connect with our loved ones who have passed away. In the movie, it could be Uncle Boonmee’s projection and curiosity about what was there after death.

In modern Thai culture, is this still a prevalent belief or is there a kind of cynicism towards supernatural matters?

I think it is common belief that sometimes you don’t really believe that you cannot shake this idea off, when you grow up, when you’ve been raised this way that there are certain things you need to respect, like I mentioned, the trees. The way that representation is, it is not contemporary. When we showed the movie in Thailand, people laughed. For me, I intended it to be a melancholy comedy too. At the same time, with the whole movie, I want the audience to feel a kind of uncertainty, whether you want to laugh or feel sad. Its a mixture of these feelings.

My favorite scene in the film was of the princess being carried by the footmen. What were the technical challenges of filming this sequence?

In fact, we shot a lot of that carriage, and they went into the village, and there were a lot of extras. We spent a lot of time shooting the princess, to build her world. In the end, it was on the cutting room floor. There’s always a joke, because I always like to throw away these elaborate scenes. My art director [Akekarat Homlaor], said during the shoot, ‘Is this even going to be in the film?’ (laughing) It was a really difficult part to shoot for a small budget film, and for that scene we used tracks, and some different kinds of rigging.

There’s been such a prominent space for queer filmmakers not only on the festival circuit, but also historically throughout cinema. I wanted to know what you think about the relationship between queer filmmakers and the cinema. What is it that translates so well?

I think it’s in the genes! (laughing) No, I think, I don’t know, maybe we are wired that way, for the sensitivity. Like the idea of ghosts and reincarnation, perhaps homosexuality contributes to this kind of emotional sensitivity.

What responsibility, if any, do you feel in joining the battles for queer rights or equal marriage?

For me, I don’t really. In Thailand, there’s social acceptance towards homosexuality, on a certain level, even though the media is not depicting us in such a good light. They’re not bashing, but more putting us in comic roles or not treating us as serious, especially when there is a mix of someone gay or homosexual with transvestism. To put that into a comic light, with comic roles then played by straight men, and directed by gay people…so that’s kind of strange for me. But I think it will change…so there’s a social acceptance as more people come out, but legally, no, it is still no accepted. I think that in a socially conservative country like Thailand, its going to be, I don’t know, almost impossible in my lifetime. But in terms of rights, I don’t feel active because in Thailand, if you’re married, its not like here, where you can have some benefits. Its not the same. I have my boyfriend, and even if its legal, I’m not going to marry him anyway. We’d just rather stay this way and be independent.

I know that the depiction of Asian culture by Western filmmakers is something that interests you, so I wondered what you thought were some of the biggest mistakes made by filmmakers when they are portraying Eastern cultures for the screen?

Its the same way Asian filmmakers are depicting the West! (laughing) Movies are still a white world, a white person’s world. Its because of the effectiveness that we have to accept that Hollywood has been built, has been accumulating expertise for a long time, in storytelling and it is so effective that is has colonized all of the world. Its always the white man as ‘hero’. You see this American sentiment even in Thai film when they are depicting foreigners. They depict Asians the same, as unsophisticated or something. But, again, its changing…

How do you approach the script-writing of your films?

I have my little notebook and I always put my ideas there, like many people. Just trying to find mostly, not stories, but feelings and words that I am attached to and I try to build the whole movie on those texts. It takes some time to build a movie and then I go meditate. I meditate for a week and I just put these things together very quickly. Probably in a week or two, I finish the script, with the dialog. Meditation, for me, is like a very good way to clear the mind. You come out very clear and you see the connection in this work with the world. There’s a temple near my house and I just went every day…I think when writers want to work, it depends on each person, some people just walk and walk and walk…

I’d love to hear more about how you work with your troupe of mainly unknown actors – also, could you see yourself working with movie stars?

I feel like both – I just want now to mix them, I view it as a challenge, and at the same it is part of the learning process. For non-professionals, it is very good for me to get to know them as a person, to see how their personalities and experiences can enrich my movie and my life. I often change the script to fit their personality. Most of the people I picked, have experience in life that I don’t have. For example, the regular guy I worked with [who played] Tong [Sakda Kaewbuadee], he worked in a 7-11 kind of convenience store, then he was selling stuff on the street, he worked in a bar…many, many experiences that I had never had. So it seems like, for me, that making movies is really like absorbing other people into my own experiences. Do you act?

Oh my goodness, no. But its funny, when I interviewed Robert Duvall, he mentioned that he sees the interplay between subjects and interviewees as basically the same thing as acting and that made a lot of sense to me…

(laughing) Yes, like semi-fiction!

Who do you make films for?

Me. Myself. (Laughing) And I’m very critical of my audience. So, that’s the first step. Then of course, my producers and my friends who I can depend on. Because its very personal. With an art installation, I don’t care, but with a movie, it is something that I have to make sure will touch at least one person out of ten, let’s say.

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul has a variety of projects in the works — including a four hour-long film and more independent art installations – but he says his next feature film will not shoot until sometime in 2012, with a projected 2013 release date. Until then, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives will begin to screen March 2 in New York, giving audiences plenty to meditate on.