Cinematic Transformation: A Talk with Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was awarded the Palme d'Or this year at Cannes—where I wrote about the film—and is probably the best new work I've seen this year. There was palpable excitement from a lot of the viewers on the Croisette after the screening (consternation and confusion too), as the festival had been generally lacking in things to feel passionate about, keeping the Godard, Beauvois, and Ujică out of the conversation for now, but there was also worry—not so much whether the competition jury headed by Tim Burton would find pleasure in the mysteries of this wonderful Thai film, but rather, due to the violent unrest in Thailand at the time (and continuing today), would Apichatpong even be able to attend the premiere of his own film. Myself and others were eventually relieved to hear indeed he would make the trip, and the award seemed fair reward not only for a great film but for this personal act as well. I had a chance to sit down and talk to the filmmaker the afternoon before his film won the Palme. Uncle Boonmee has subsequently played at the Toronto International Film Festival and will play at the New York Film Festival this weekend.
DANIEL KASMAN: I have no doubt you are exhausted in living and talking about this, but what was the situation in Thailand when you left for Cannes?
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL: It as quite complicated—quite confusing, actually. When I left it was the peak of the violence, and there's so many sorts of rumors and we don't know what's happened. Last I heard it has calmed down a bit. Strange to be here.
KASMAN: I bet. Did you want to come here?
APICHATPONG: I did. But at the same time, before I left, it was very tense, you know, and my family is in town, and I was thinking that I'm not sure. But when I'm here I'm happy because it's my job to represent the movie and I want to present the best I can.
KASMAN: Can you talk about the location Uncle Boonmee is set? I know it's located in the north east of Thailand. What's this area like, why set it there?
APICHATPONG: It's the place I grew up with, but in my other movies I never really tackled the landscape of this area.
KASMAN: Your other films weren't shot in the north east?
APICHATPONG: Some of them, but not really in talking about the memory of the northeast. This film stemmed from the art/installation project, the Primitive Project, and at the same time the Boonmee movie had been developed as a feature length movie. I think it's very important to present this area where it's very dry and the weather is harsh, very harsh, and it's quite hard for the agricultural community. Many people move to Bangkok because it is easier to find work; so it has become one of the poorest regions in Thailand and underrepresented in movies. So in this film if you show it to people in Bangkok, for example, many people won't understand it because the characters are talking the northeastern dialect, which has a distinct sound. For me, originally, shooting there was for Boonmee and his memory, but after developing the film I realized I couldn't do just that, I had to have my own personal connection and relationship to whatever I do. Gradually it became more and more myself in the movie, and Boonmee has been pushed to the background. So I used my two regular actors as witnesses to this story.
KASMAN: Are they from the region?
APICHATPONG: Jenjira [Pongpas, who plays Jen] is from the area. The film also became about my own memory of the old media, the film and the television I grew up with. The film became two persons, Boonmee and me, who remember all these things.
KASMAN: So when you talk about memory you are talking about your own memory and about Boonmee's memories from the book. Is there something also about historical memory of the region? Memories of the landscape?
APICHATPONG: In the book, no, it's more about his past lives. And in the film not much either, it's more about myself and my relationship to the area in terms of how to represent the setting. How do you film the jungle, for example, how do you film, using the media they produce maybe in Bangkok but shooting what I remember from home, there. I think it's the most explicit movie about "movies" that I've made. I divided the film into reels, six cans for the film, and each can is a different representation, a different style, a different setting, different lighting, acting style. If you notice, if you catch...for example for reel two, the dinner, the film has changed styles, it becomes like an old film, the lighting is from television of the past, very stiff and conventional, people talk and the lighting is very strong.
KASMAN: Though I doubt Thai television has the long shot and long takes of this scene!
APICHATPONG: [Laughing] No, true, and usually there is music also. But each reel has its own light. Reel three becomes natural again, where they are walking in the sun. Reel four has become another kind of film, the princess story coming from the costume dramas. But the whole thing is linked by the idea of this transformation of a series of humans and animals, the connection between old cinema and new cinema. The old cinema where animals can talk, and things like that. So when we move to reel five, that's the jungle and the cave—it's not the same jungle as in Tropical Malady.
KASMAN: I was shocked by the sudden use of the handheld camera to follow the characters into the cave. I felt like the film had been training me to see things one way and suddenly there was a radical shift in perspective, experience, and immersion.
APICHATPONG: I'm glad!
KASMAN: There was so little camera movement in the film that it came as a surprise, especially after seeing your short A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, which is filled with tracking shots.
APICHATPONG: For this dramatic change I think it's the jungle of old cinema. I shot during the day and used a day for night filter and transported the actors to the old setting of the old cinema.
KASMAN: Are these references that someone who grew up in Thailand would be catching, would these scenes evoke that for them?
APICHATPONG: It's more personal, but I also think it's universal. A Thai movie is influenced by other films, and when they go deeper in the cave, did you notice there's a drawing in the cave, a primitive drawing, someone was there before, it's like going back to your home, your roots, to the place where you draw things where you have your shadow play—it's cinema! You go back to the oldest theater in the world.
KASMAN: I'm curious about a detail—when the aunt steps away from the dinner table and sits on the edge and looks out onto the field and sees these big glowing light bulbs. What are those?
APICHATPONG: Ah! These are one of the things we included in the set because of the installation, but actually those things are real, they are insect traps, they are lights that draw insects in and they fall down into buckets so that people can capture them and eat them. Also Boonmee's house, we built. I took photographs of things I liked from this house and that house and combined them, built a new house for the set.
APICHATPONG: Because I like to combine the elements I like from different kinds of houses from our travels. I like these kinds of rooms, the color of the curtains, its all planned.
KASMAN: I don't want you to spoil the mystery of the ending, but can you talk about it?
APICHATPONG: Hmm, anything I say might be "an explanation," so let me just say it's about time and it's about death.
KASMAN: And the song at the end?
APICHATPONG: Honestly at the ending the song talks about a guy wanting a woman to see him again, but I just like the beat and the feeling.
KASMAN: What's on television in the final sequence? They are watching the news?
APICHATPONG: It's the political news, but even a Thai audience wouldn't make out what it is exactly, because the sound is so low, just a part of the background. But the images of the soldiers in the south and I think the last one is about swine flu.
KASMAN: Speaking of soldiers, can you talk about the interlude of photographs during the film which includes images of soldiers. Were these documentary images? You were also mixing it up with some students and costumes.
APICHATPONG: It came from the installation where I worked in this village, we played around and created fictional stories. For me, in that moment in the film, it is very important, because it is a scene where me and Uncle Boonmee merge, because they are parts of my memory, my diary of the area, and those kids are my friends, people I spent a lot of time with for the installation. The dream is mine. So I was putting these in to remind myself of this. Also, it's a recollection of the region. You also have people in army uniforms, images that move between pleasure and violence, like in Tropical Malady where you talk about and move between happiness and darkness and this kind of conflicting and mixing, about birth and death, the extinction of a certain kind of cinema.
KASMAN: Do you think of the film as an act of preservation or one of intervention? Are you archiving these memories and older forms or are you re-introducing them?
APICHATPONG: It's more of a lamentation, in a way. That's why I said this is the most obsessed movie about movies, for me, because it's really so much about cinema.
KASMAN: And you shot this on 16mm, right? What was that like? It looked beautiful, blown up to 35mm with all the grain evident, wonderful texture.
APICHATPONG: I've always shot on 35mm, except for the Primitive Projects, which is 16mm too. It has a certain quality that I like, because somehow the lighting and the emulsion work very well, let's say in the dinner sequence, it really has the look and texture of old television. But somehow, like in the outdoor scenes, you lose the texture of the leaves, and that's what I don't like.
KASMAN: Was it a budget issue or your choice to shoot on 16mm?
APICHATPONG: Both, actually. If I had money I would shoot on 35mm, because of the clarity and the long shots I like would work better on it. But still 16mm has the benefit I mentioned.
KASMAN: It also makes the film more intimate. Not quite like home movies but in some ways it feels more personal.
APICHATPONG: Yes, so in many ways I'm glad I shot on 16mm.
KASMAN: The myths that go through the film, the folklore, is that organic and natural to Thai folklore?
APICHATPONG: It's a mixture, it's not specific to anything. It's more of the mood of these strange creatures in the jungle. But I should mention the book about this that I remember reading, one about a strange man who mated with animal creatures and he transformed himself and couldn't come back to the village. I pull in from these kinds of things.
KASMAN: How is the film connected to the Primitive Projects?
APICHATPONG: Boonmee is another aspect. They are all about the north east. In the village of Nabua I touched on the pleasure and the pain of repression, but people don't want to talk about the violent past, the violent abuse, while Boonmee wants to talk about it. The difference is between repressed memory and releasing memory, that's what interests me. They are very separate but are two very distinct aspects of the region.
KASMAN: He does seem to want to talk rather than remain silent. I was going to ask about Boonmee's history with Communism, can you talk more about that?
APICHATPONG: In the region, you know, in the 1960s Communism spread from Vietnam to Laos, and this area in the north east is on the border of Laos and got a strong idea of Communism, and a lot of farmers escaped to join the Communist party, they had no choice, when the army in Thailand came to get rid of people. So a whole fraction of villagers were enlisted to kill their friends in the jungle. I wanted to present this conflict in the film.
KASMAN: When you talk about a repression of memory, is it an official repression or is it people simply don't want to talk about it because it's too personally painful? Why is this not an open thing?
APICHATPONG: It's too painful. When Communism came to the villages, this village of Nabua was the first one in which gunfire broke out, historically, between the police and army and the farmers. If a villager said he or she were communist they'd be killed, and if not I don't know what'd happen, perhaps you'd get beaten up. So they had no choice but to escape and join the Communist party. So that part is part of the installation, but in the film it's a very different thing.
KASMAN: The farmers who work on Boonmee's plantation, are they Laotian immigrants from across the border? Are there a lot in the area?
APICHATPONG: We were like family in that region, because we're dived by the Mekong River and people cross back and forth. Actually Jenjira's father is Laotian, he lived in Laos. So it's like one family. But after the divide and after the war, when Laos collapsed, it became separate, but the dialog you hear is mostly Laotian. People in Bangkok look down on these people, like you'd say in the States: "hicks." But in the region we don't look down on one another. I just wanted to bring up they are still a part, and still a bit different.