Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes festival, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film has the magic of a fairy tale and the simplicity of a folk tale. Wonderfully immersive, slow and dreamy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives centres loosely around a sick man in rural Thailand and his relatives, alive and dead. His journey towards death is interspersed with episodes that involve a water buffalo, a princess, a talking fish and a monkey ghost. Part of the director’s larger Primitive project, which depicts the north-eastern region of Thailand through a mixture of film and installation, Uncle Boonmee blends spiritual meditation, political references, a ghost story and moments of intense beauty into a mesmerising reverie.
Virginie Sélavy had the pleasure of interviewing Apitchatpong Weerasethakul during the London Film Festival. The director discussed the mix of tones in the film, the references to old Thai cinema and the reasons for his stronger concern with politics in the Primitive project.
VS: Uncle Boonmee seems to be concerned with the crossing of various boundaries, whether between life and death, humans and animals, nature and the human world.
AW: Yes, in fact that’s also true of my other films. They’re about all these borders, life and death, light and darkness, all these things that co-exist.
Why are you interested in that?
I think because I live in Thailand – it’s a place that is so full of contrasts. It’s a very beautiful country but there are many ugly things, like violence. It’s a mixture of progress, because it’s a developing country, and animist and Hindu beliefs within Buddhism, which propels the country in such a strange way. You have people who have all the gadgets, but at the same time they use them in a very primitive way. During the recent protests in Thailand, you had people screaming for their rights and for democracy, but at the same time they used these backwards practices: they asked for the blood of all the protesters, threw it in a bucket, asked for a Brahmin to come and chant and then threw the blood in front of the Prime Minister’s house. And it doesn’t feel strange, it mixes very well! So my film also reflects this co-existence.
Uncle Boonmee seems more openly political than your other films. Why is that?
This film is part of the Primitive project, which is a survey of the north-eastern area where I grew up, and it’s a very politically charged background. In my previous films I focused on my direct experience, something that I know, like love, my parents, my friends. But this film is a portrait of the place, so I felt the need to present this aspect of what happened to the land. The weather is very harsh and people are poor and have to work in other regions. The education system is not well developed, so the people are prone to political manipulation. So this Primitive project has many elements. One of them is an art installation and that’s more focused on politics. Also, the north-east has a big influence on, and is a big factor, in the current political turmoil. But I chose to reflect on the past, which is not so different because the key institutions play the same role now.
There’s a scene in which Uncle Boonmee says that his disease is due to his karma, because he killed too many communists. What does that refer to specifically?
It refers to the time from the 50s to the early 80s when the communists spread into the country from Vietnam to Laos. Laos is a neighbouring country that borders that region and it used to be full of friends and family, but Laos fell apart and many people migrated to Thailand. The idea of communism appealed to poor people and the Thai government’s method of getting rid of this ideology was backed by the Americans. It was very repressive and brutal, so people had to escape into the jungle. You were either on the government’s side or you were with the communist party, and Uncle Boonmee was on the government’s side.
As Boonmee is approaching death he says he can see the future, and this is followed by a series of still images that is very different in style from the rest of the film, and seems more closely concerned with contemporary society and politics. Could you explain the idea behind this sequence and its place in the film?
For me, it’s the place where Uncle Boonmee and I merge, because what he’s talking about is my dream. But my dream is more complicated, so I simplified it. I think it’s a very interesting dream, it’s about the future, but at the same time it has connotations of the present. In a way, we live in a totalitarian regime in Thailand, so I wanted to refer to this moment where the maker and the character merge. And when Uncle Boonmee goes back to the womb in the cave I wanted to take the movie back to its origins, before the image moved, before it became the moving image. At the same time it refers to New Wave filmmakers like Chris Marker and Antonioni. There is a reference to the future, which is what Chris Marker talks about, but it’s the future of the past. It’s the representation of the future but from the past perspective. I’m very interested in these kinds of time shifts.
You’ve said that your film is about the transmigration of souls, and you express your ideas about life and death entirely visually. Was that important to you, that it should be visual rather than verbal?
With this film yes, because you’re supposed to feel this relationship between man and nature, all these things that sometimes you cannot really put into words. The idea was to visualise this, to illuminate it and to open your mind, and for me to respect the audience’s imagination. Uncle Boonmee could be anything, he could be the sunlight… For me, it’s true that when we die we become dust and we integrate into nature. You will die, I will die, but we tend to forget that! But we transform, we don’t disappear, we just transform into another kind of matter.
The film can be very subtle in the way it represents invisible things like beliefs, ghosts and emotions, but it can also be very literal, as in the case of the monkey ghost in the monkey costume. Why this mix of styles?
It is a tribute to the old Thai filmmaking style, and this particular scene was in reference to old television, which was shot in 16mm in the studio, with cheap costumes and a certain kind of lighting. And the larger theme is how this guy, who doesn’t feel like he belongs, has to transform himself and escape the area, maybe like the communists.
Did you invent the monkey ghost or is that something that exists in Thai folklore or mythology?
I invented it, but it’s inspired by folk tales. And also, when I was in elementary school, a friend told me that he saw a big black man with glowing red eyes floating above his bed at night, and he could have been dreaming or he could have lied to me, but the image stuck with me and that’s what I sketched for the designer.
The jungle plays a very important role, much like in your other films, Tropical Malady in particular. Why is that?
It’s because the jungle is home. We tend to forget. Now when I go to the jungle, I get scared because of the sounds, things I don’t know. But it’s our home, our ancestors’ home. And I really believe that in the past people could talk to animals and could know what particular bird sounds meant. But we’ve lost that ability. So I like to take my characters back home. Another thing that is visually or conceptually different from Tropical Malady is that this jungle is artificial, it’s a cinematic jungle. We used the day for night technique, so there’s a fake quality to it, a green and blue tint. I threw my actors into this cinematic jungle that refers to past films.
The sound of the jungle is heard throughout the film, even when it’s not seen on screen, and it feels like the jungle is constantly present. Why did you use that device?
You have to feel the presence of life, the abundance of life, you have to know there’s a bird, there’s an insect that you can’t see, but you know are there. I don’t think my movies work on DVD, so I always say to people, if you’re going to watch them on DVD, at least invest in a surround system! The soundtrack is really part of the design.
The film combines many different tones and styles, and serious spiritual and political concerns are juxtaposed with humorous moments. Was humour an important aspect for you?
Yes, definitely. In all my work, I look for a certain type of humour, uncomfortable humour, awkward humour, where you’re not sure whether you should laugh or feel sad, or maybe you should feel both. It refers to old-style acting that was very popular in the past, the way the actors deliver the lines, which has a certain logic and innocence. But at the same time, from a contemporary perspective, it’s very funny, it’s out of time, and when you’re aware it’s from the past, and it’s gone, it can generate a certain melancholy.
The past seems very important to you.
Yes, especially with this film. It seems like a summary of what I do. The last scene reunites the characters from my first fiction film together. It’s a tribute to the land and to cinema in general.
Were there any specific films from old Thai cinema that influenced you?
No. I could have gone back to the film archive, but with my DOP we decided to work from our memories. We were inspired by a lot of horror films, which were shown on television after 7pm in the 70s and were always filmed in the studio, with that very rigid lighting.
So there’s a tradition of TV horror in Thailand?
Yes, there was horror and also love stories, but as a kid I was attracted to the horror films.
Do you think Uncle Boonmee is a horror film?
Yes, I think it can fit into many genres. In Spain it played in the Sitges Fantastic Film Festival, and it got a prize! When it was put in that context, it made sense. The reaction from people is so diverse. That’s why I think in a way it can be called an open cinema.
Have you been surprised by the reaction from audiences?
Yes and no. Yes in the way that people interpret the film in different ways, and how deeply some people get into it. For example, there’s a guy from Paris who sent me a very beautiful picture of a teenage boy on the beach and he said, ‘this is my son and he died in January’. And when he saw Uncle Boonmee he said he felt at ease, he felt peace. This is better than the Palme d’Or, to realise that your film can do this. At the same time, there are people on the internet who say the film is rubbish, and it’s fascinating for me how you can divide the audience, how one person can be touched deeply and another feel very offended.
Although it has divided opinion, it is probably your most accessible and successful film to date. Why do you think that is?
I think it talks about things that we share, such as our last moments and how we want to connect with our loved ones. The dead wife and son could be a projection of Boonmee, maybe they don’t exist. I think that’s what the audience can feel. And even though there are references to old Thai cinema, we share the river of cinematic history, and old Thai films are influenced by the West. It’s universal but in the past.
Can you tell me more about the book that you adapted for the film?
The book was written by a monk in 1983. It’s a very thin book that was distributed to villagers, you can’t find it in shops. The monk met this guy who came to the temple and who told him this story that he claimed he could remember. There are several cases of people who say they can remember their past lives in Thailand, but it’s not a common thing. I travelled to the area and encountered two more cases, one dead, but his wife told me about it, and one who is still alive. It was really amazing.
The different strands in the film could be interpreted as past lives, but they can also be seen as fairy tales or legends, for instance the story of the princess and the fish. Where did that come from?
It refers to the royal costume drama that used to be on television at the weekend. They still have this sort of thing, but in a different production style, with digital effects. In the old days, it was slower and more innocent. It’s always about the hardships of princes and princesses in relation to a natural landscape, with animals that can talk. But they don’t end up having intercourse!
The film has so many different layers.
Yes, layers like our own mind works, drifting randomly.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m producing two films by other filmmakers and I’m making an art installation and developing a new feature film on the Mekong River. It’s near the same area as Uncle Boonmee. There’s been a recent outbreak of pig disease in the farms in the area and it’s about how people are dealing with it, and how man relates to water.
Place seems very important to you. Does it always start with a place?
Not always, but often. That’s why it’s hard for me to work in the West. I need to feel I have a direct experience of a place.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy