Seriousness and innocence: A chat with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

It’s easy to understand why Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s latest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, was chosen as the opening movie for the latest Tokyo Filmex. It was the Palme D’or winner at Cannes in May, which shouldn’t have been as surprising as many people made it out to be. Given Thailand’s reputation as one of the most dynamic movie-producing countries in Asia, a Thai film was going to triumph sooner or later at a major Western festival, and Weerasethakul’s have already attracted a great deal of attention in Europe. Moreover, the 40-year-old director belongs to that club whose films always get shown at Filmex, which this year he was attending as a member of the competition jury.

As Weerasethakul is the first to admit, his films are an acquired taste. “I’m so grateful that so many people came today,” he said during his remarks prior to the screening at Tokyo International Forum. “I’m just afraid that when the movie opens here commercially in March, there won’t be anyone left who wants to see it.” Boonmee will in fact be his first feature ever distributed in Japan, owing undoubtedly to the Cannes win, but as he implied wryly it’s not necessarily more accessible than his previous films. Like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhangke, Weerasethakul has his a unique narrative style. Uncle Boonmee is ostensibly about a middle aged man dying from a kidney ailment who makes peace with his fate. Along the way he has conversations with his dead wife and a son who went missing years ago and has returned as a kind of hairy beast. Weerasethakul also inserts seemingly unconnected sequences that may or may not represent Uncle Boonmee’s past lives as a princess and a water buffalo, and there are other digressions that have even less to do with the protagonist. As the director also said during his opening remarks, it’s better if the audience simply allows the film to “flow through you.” It’s an immersive experience, both visually and aurally.

I talked to Weerasethakul in the tiny offices of Cinema Rise, the Shibuya movie theater company that specializes in hip indie cinema. Though he was as subdued and gracious as his films, he was also impish. He understood the irony of a filmmaker like him winning at Cannes and he was not going to not take advantage of it.

Interview after the jump.

-Had you seen any of the Filmex competition movies before?

No.

-What was your opinion of the Malaysian film, Year Without a Summer?

I think it was the best film in the section.

-I thought you’d like it.

It was like a dream. The filmmaker didn’t place any restrictions on herself. She didn’t follow any normal rules or conventions. She created her own sense of time and made the audience feel that, which is something very difficult. I actually slept during the film. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. I’ve often slept during my own films. So I thought it was very special. Very strong.

-When I saw it at the Pusan International Film Festival many people thought it was similar in style to your films.

Really? I don’t think so.

-It did have that divided structure, like in Tropical Malady.

But in the beginning we saw the main character hunting the wild boar in the jungle, and then again in the end. For me that indicated an unbroken stream of consciousness. My work is totally different. But, in any case, we gave the award to someone else. (The Japanese film Love Addiction)

-Before the screening at Filmex you encouraged the audience to just let the sights and the sounds of the movie flow through them. Is that something that audiences need to be told to do?

Maybe. It’s easier to do for some people but still hard. I think in order to appreciate certain kinds of films, my films included, you have to be very open-minded. You can’t limit yourself to expectations. You have to be attentive so that you can pick up the references, but for me the best way is for the audience to just take it easy. It’s like traveling to another country and you don’t have the time to turn back. All these colors and images should just be received as they are. Of course, I have my own references and they mean something to me but I can’t explain them for the sake of explaining them. Still, I think most of the things in my films are universal enough for people to bring away something meaningful, at least for themselves.

-To get that you probably need to immerse yourself in the movie. While watching it I realized that I wasn’t sitting close enough.

Where was your seat?

-It was in the back of the auditorium.

Yes, that’s too far away. It’s meant to be an enveloping experience.

-Do you think about the audience while you’re making a movie?

No. Of course, I realize that people may not react positively to some things, but my first concern is that the movie conveys certain feelings. It has a lot to do with the editing, which is the stage in the process when I might think more about the reaction. But I’m always the first audience, and I’m very critical. There are many films that I’ve wanted to make but they haven’t been made because they’re too personal. The producers say, “no.” But this kind of film is all right.

-So producers turn down some of your ideas as being too personal?

Yes, there are other projects of mine that haven’t gotten off the ground for that reason.

-But this movie seems quite personal to me since it had to do with memories of when you were growing up. Or is it simply a matter of nostalgia?

For me it is. It’s also a comedy, and the humor is nostalgic.

-That element might be difficult for someone who’s never been to Thailand.

Yes, I think so. Most of the nostalgic elements have to do with the representation in many scenes, the kind of lighting and the storyline and pacing, and the acting, especially. It’s all very old-fashioned. Each reel has a specific reference, but it doesn’t really matter. When I planned the movie I destroyed and then recreated certain boundaries for the audience. I wanted it to be open. I’ve had experiences where people say to me that they saw the movie once and then after I’ve explained things to them they’ve seen the movie again–I heard this a lot at Cannes–and they later told me, “You destroyed the movie for me.” (laughs)

-Things can be over-explained.

Right.

-Nostalgia has to do with memory. Do you think you have a reliable memory?

My memory is very fuzzy. I don’t really think we can convey through writing or especially film the truth of a situation that happened. It can only be relative. Like when you remember your first date, let’s say. You and the other person might have been having a drink together and your memory can be very cinematic, meaning that it’s selective. You direct your own memory, so you might just focus on the other person’s eyes for a really long time. But that isn’t what probably really happened. So I just throw away the facts altogether. It’s the effect I want, not the truth so much.

-Your previous movie, Syndromes and a Century, was about your parents before you were even born.

Right. All I did was put this man I know, this dentist, into a daily routine I was familiar with.

-Following a story your parents told you?

Well, it’s my own story. As far as my parents’ involvement, I interviewed my mother about her love of orchids and the time my father interviewed my mother, and I worked that all into the film.

-There are some really touching relationships in that movie. Not touching in the usual sense of the word, but affecting. The characters really seem to know one another.

They didn’t know each other before we started filming. But we had quite a period of rehearsal, or workshops. While we filmed we lived together. It wasn’t filmed in Bangkok. With professional actors that would be impossible–at the end of a scene they go back to their trailers. But we ate together, and since we didn’t have money we all stayed in a big boarding house and tried to stay away from people who snore. It’s like a camp on location.

-Do you write your movies as you go along?

Usually. For Syndromes I had funding for two parts, but then I changed my mind about the second part and took a break for one month. Fortunately, I have a really good producer, and our films are always low budget, so he understands. Uncle Boonmee, however, stuck pretty close to the original script.

-You said your main references for Uncle Boonmee were TV shows from you childhood. Can you give me a better idea what those old shows were like?

What I was trying to capture was the style, in TV shows and in comic books, when a ghost and a human interact or coexist. Like in the scene where Uncle Boonmee’s wife comes back. It’s no surprise. It’s more like a lamentation. Those old shows took their time. They showed people cooking or making beds and even making love. The line between real life and screen life was blurry. They shot on 16 millimeter in a studio with very bad lighting, very harsh; and the rhythm and the special effects weren’t very good from a current perspective. But I missed that, because nowadays everything is the same. You hear the same music, they use the same lighting. What I did in this film is not new. It’s a reconstruction. And when we showed the film in Thailand people loved it. They appreciate the slower pacing.

-So people in Thailand immediately understand what you’re trying to recreate.

At least my generation or older. For example, that “princess” scene? We have this royal costume drama which is still going on on the television. But it’s done differently now, with lots of special effects. In the past it was done in a simpler way–just cut to express something disappearing. Camera tricks. It was very innocent.

-How do your films do in Thailand? I assume your reputation has grown.

Yes, mainly because of the Cannes award.

-That would go without saying.

Not really. Many people in Thailand had never heard of Cannes, didn’t know what it was. The festival took place during a very crucial time in Thailand, politically.

-I read that you actually had trouble leaving the country for France.

Right. It was chaos. And so when my movie won, it was a nice piece of international news for Thailand. I think that’s one of the reasons people embraced it. When we decided to show the film, earlier, I figured we’d only need one print. It’s not for everyone. But if I knew it was going to win, I would have ordered more prints, because we had to send the negative to Germany before we released it. At that time I decided only one print was necessary, because that’s all the money we had. And then the movie did so well. It was in the theater for six weeks and every screening was packed.

-In Thailand.

In Thailand. It opened there first, before anywhere else in the world. Then it went to other cities. It broke records in terms of attendance per screening. Keep in mind that’s only one print. So many people went to see it and some people liked and some people didn’t like it. But what I appreciated was how it could generate a lot of discussion, and how the theater chains were suddenly open to independent films. Now, one cineplex dedicates a theater to video works. They even show student films.

-The only other Thai film I’ve seen recently is Red Eagle, which seems big budget.

Oh, yes. Wisit‘s film. Do you know his previous films?

-I know Tears of the Black Tiger, which I liked, and Nang Nak, which I liked a bit less. I didn’t know how to process Red Eagle, though. It was quite violent. First, I thought it might be a parody. Isn’t it based on an old comic book?

It’s based on an old movie series.

-I guess it’s going to be a series, too, because it ended with a “to be continued” message.

Right. I was shocked when I saw that. But the director himself said that he had lots of problems making it. Actually, he said that this will be his last film. I thought, “You don’t really need to say that.” It’s a shame, because he’s a very good director.

-The program notes when I saw it in Pusan said it had some political meaning.

(Makes a face indicating he doesn’t agree)

-Going back to the “princess” sequence in Uncle Boonmee, is that from some kind of folk tale or did you make it up?

I made it up, but it’s in the style and the mood I referred to of old TV series, those old royal costume dramas. They were always about royal people and had animals that could talk. But I didn’t base it on any specific source.

-Do these old dramas have a lot of magic in them?

Yes, but in a very innocent way. Serious and innocent. (laughs) Some of those old shows were based on traditional tales that everybody knew because we’d been taught them. And there are still series, soap operas like that, which remain. Recently there was one about a woman who turns into a fish, and her sister is a wicked human who tries to kill her. But it’s done differently. It’s not in that old style.

-I heard about a project you’re working on called Utopia. Will that be your first film made outside of Thailand?

Yes, but one of the reasons it’s called Utopia is that it will be very expensive, so I don’t really think I’ll be able to do it. Maybe if I change the title it will happen. (laughs)

-What’s it about?

Well, I’ve been working a lot in the jungle, which is all green. Now I want to make a white movie. It takes place in this time after civilization ends, a nondescript time. And it’s a journey of one kind of prehistoric man. He’s the experiment of a group of scientists who are now very old, and they are all women. In fact, they are all women from old science fiction movies.

-Real science fiction movies?

Yes, I want to use real Hollywood actresses to follow this prehistoric man, to track him down and record his activities. Of course, they eventually stumble on to a film set that’s falling apart. It’s the film set of the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek. So you can imagine how expensive the film will be. The whole film talks about the dying out of the science fiction genre as we know it–Ray Bradbury, Asimov, the kind of science fiction I really love.

-You grew up reading those authors?

Yes. So this film is really special, “utopia.” I want to record the history of cinema and the aging of these particular women and how they…it’s a mix of fantasy and nostalgia. But in the end it’s proved to be too difficult. I even went to see Ray Bradbury to ask if he would collaborate with me. But he’s still very busy, still active. When we went to visit him he had just won some sort of prize.

-So if you did get a chance to make Utopia, it would be the first time for you to use professional actors.

Yes, if I could do it I would even use Jane Fonda. Just because she was once in Barbarella.

-How about Sigourney Weaver?

She’s not that old, is she?

-You want to use even older actresses?

Yes…well, I cannot say “old,” because they might be very upset. (laughs) Certainly I would want to use someone who is comfortable with their age. I met one person who, again, is not that old but she played a doctor on Star Trek.

-The original TV series?

Yes. I even talked to her about it.

-Since that isn’t going to happen soon, are you working on other films right now?

Yes, I am producing two films by young Thai filmmakers. And I’m making a short film for television. And I’m gathering ideas for a new feature movie.

-Are more young Thai filmmakers taking you as an example?

I think so. But I don’t want people to copy me. I don’t want them to make a movie like mine simply because I won at Cannes. I try to think positively, that the award will just motivate people to grab a camera.

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