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Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul On 'Uncle Boonme,' Steven Spielberg, 'Inception' & More

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist March 4, 2011 at 9:26AM

Exclusive: Despite this writer’s undying love for the man and his films (actually, to be completely melodramatic and corny, “Syndromes and a Century” was a life changer), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is not intended for mass audiences, and some of his pictures even leave the hardest cinephiles scratching their heads at the praise. That’s just how it is, not everyone's down for a 2+ hour experimental-narrative film from Thailand and there shouldn’t be any bitterness about it.
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Exclusive: Despite this writer’s undying love for the man and his films (actually, to be completely melodramatic and corny, “Syndromes and a Century” was a life changer), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is not intended for mass audiences, and some of his pictures even leave the hardest cinephiles scratching their heads at the praise. That’s just how it is, not everyone's down for a 2+ hour experimental-narrative film from Thailand and there shouldn’t be any bitterness about it.

Those who are (or who are willing to take the plunge for curiosity’s sake) will be happy to know that the Palme d'Or-winning “Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives” is the auteur’s strongest work to date, a deeply moving experience unlike any other. With 'Uncle Boonme' hitting theaters this weekend, we pulled out our interview with the director from the New York Film Festival in 2010 and had an extensive conversation concerning his art, his interest in film, what he’s up to next (aside from the Tilda Swinton-related project "Mekong Hotel," which he speaks a bit of below), and the inevitable “Avatar” question.

The Playlist: The opening of 'Boonme' starts with a bull getting away from people, and then you see a glimpse of the monkey spirit. Why was this important to be the first thing to see?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Maybe it’s about.. the introduction of the nature first, and the animal world and also the presence of the monkey being an invitation. If you look at “Tropical Malady” it’s the same, in the beginning scene the soldier looks at you and then the credits come up, it’s the same operation when the monkey looks at you.

Boonme is particularly spiritual, with his wife returning as a ghost and his son returning as a different being. What made you delve into this otherworldly nature?
How do I describe it? (laughs) For me the film represents the idea of this co-existence of human and spirit, something physical and something invisible that is deep within the beliefs that I grew up with. I cannot say that I believe in reincarnation or ghosts, but these feelings I cannot shake off.

The co-existence of the humans and the spirits, the princess/jungle tribute... how did you string them all together and what made you decide to put them in this film, exactly?
I knew that it was gonna be some kind of trip, or dream, that the audience will come out of the theater and wonder what was that? Like when you just wake up, there's so many things in your dream, there's a distance or a closeness, and our very jumpy. Maybe that's the answer, how to evoke this feeling, and I think it's what I've been doing in my past films as well.

The princess section is a tribute to an old TV show genre. What caused you to make your own homage?
Simply because I watched them a lot when I was young. And it's disappearing really, it's changing, we still have the serial costume drama on TV, but it's changed. There's digital effects, they're very serious about themselves… that animals can talk, the link with the literature of the past, that's all gone. For me, the whole film is like a farewell, even to this kind of film. It reunites my actors, they reincarnate, the young ladies came from the other films to join everyone, it seemed like a closure to a certain step in my filmmaking career. So maybe my next film will be a totally different one.

Boonme’s wife notes that heaven is boring. Does this perception of heaven reflect your personal thoughts on religion or afterlife?
Not necessarily! (laughs) It has two approaches, first off the place that is too perfect, you know… it's going to be boring when you have everything. When I studied in Chicago, there was a good park, a good theater, good food, but it's too perfect. In that sense Thailand is more inspiring, because it has violence and shitty things that happen so it bugs you and pushes you. For me I was drawn into that. Another approach is about the idea of Buddhism, to be born as a human is the most precious moment, to become a human is to be able to be aware of oneself. Animals cannot do this. And to be aware that you can improve yourself through meditation or however many ways, and to know about your existence and all the natural rules… in heaven you cannot do that, you don't have a body, so that's the belief.

The last sequence with the monk and the woman in the hotel, he sees them watching television, but he sees himself, and it kind seems like he's seeing two realities at once. Is there a reason why the monk sees that and not anyone else?
He's himself, he's the one who almost represents me in a way as a witness. For me it's more about the treatment of time there, to make the audience aware that they are watching an illusion, and to question what is reality, like the karaoke bar or the bedroom, which is the line we are following? The whole film can have other layers, the princess scene can go on in different times. It's these kinds of feelings that I want to evoke.

The final scene has credit music that starts not at the immediate end, but almost in the beginning, with the scene playing out to a song that doesn’t seem to belong. It harkens back to “Blissfully Yours,” where in the middle of the movie, the opening credits start. Something about it seems wrong, but once the shock is over we realize that it works fine, maybe better.
For me it's quite natural, I know it's not conventional but it's really sensitive when you apply these things in movies and you need to make sure that it feels right and not forced. In the same way, do you put them for the sake of experimentation or a shocking element? Most of the time the movie will tell you when you edit, if you meditate with it, saying ‘No this is not the right way for you to go.’ Afterwards I realize it made sense to have the credits there. In the script it's the beginning, but the first two or three reels are the introduction of the character, and the story really starts after that. The same in “Tropical Malady,” the black in the middle is something we didn't plan for, we planned for two parts but didn't plan the black. So it's this kind of thing that is very natural, the same way when you talk about time in my movie or any movie, like why is your shot is too long? I say no, it's not long for me, it's just that my time is different from your time. Maybe after awhile we can get along and you can get to know about my time.

In the end with the monk changing and it’s not a big deal, is that a statement?
In a way, yes, because for me too when my father died I became a monk for a little bit. It’s very common in Thailand, I want to say that even in one lifetime we have multiple lives. We change our appearance, we change our clothes, we almost become someone else especially when you become a monk. You have certain rules. That’s why when he’s hungry or something, he takes off his shell.

What made you want to become a filmmaker?
All the films I grew up with and the Hollywood movies in the '80s, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas... “E.T.” came out when I was 12, and Spielberg was the one who really tapped into the filmmaking style of the past, the way he used the tracking dolly shot, it was really special during that time. I fell in love with the movie, and I wanted to be part of the world. I didn’t know how. Eventually I saw some European films, all this diversity, but [my education in Chicago was the] turning point.

Do you still follow those two now?
Yeah, they don’t do much now, what did they do recently?

The new 'Indiana Jones.'
Oh... that’s a very bad one. (laughs)

There’s a movie called “Faith” that's you're developing, sci-fi space film. Will we ever see this?
Maybe at a show. It’s supposed to be in an open space for the audience, it’s two synchronized screens. It’s about my relationship with the two guys, and how it is also different from all sci-fi movies.

Auteurs doing space pictures is exciting, it doesn’t happen often. Do you want to go back to that setting?
Yes. I drafted a movie like that, but... it’s too expensive. (laughs)

Are you ever worried about audience reaction?
Not worried, but I won’t say that I don’t care... I make this kind of movie, so of course I have to know that it’s not for everyone, and you cannot expect everyone to like it. That would be a problem. I’m very involved in what I do, for casting I go out on the street and look, so I feel very personal with it and protective of the movie, but at the same time you cannot be too protective because it needs to be shown, so it’s finding a balance. Going to a festival is helpful, you see many people walk out and also people connect with the movie.

You write your own films, but have an editor -- do you have similar taste? Do you collaborate or tell him what to do?
He helps me very much because I have too much of a relationship with my footage, and he always analyzes things in it, which I don’t. He edits and if he stumbles, I help. We send each other the project back and forth. I think you need someone who is open-minded, my editor also did the movie called “Shutter,” it’s a ghost story and he also edited some action film, even though he is not good at it. (laughs) So he’s quite diverse, and he’s also making his own movie which is very different from mine but he understands how I operate.

What’s his movie?
I’m producing it, it’s about the economy crash in Thailand during the '90s, half Thai and American so some things in New York. It’s called “Past Love,” boring title... we want to change it.

As a producer, what are your responsibilities?
Well I’m doing two titles now, for “Past Love” I’m trying to find money and the other one is called “Are We There Yet?” which is also a terrible title. (laughs) That’s more experimental, it’s four hours, and that I’m more involved with. I give a lot of comments, etc.

Do you have an idea of what your next film would be?
I’m making two short films and writing one about the Mekong River, the one in the Northeast, the same region that runs from China, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Recently the water level has been going crazy, sometimes there are floodings and sometimes droughts. Fingers are being pointed to new dams in China, because that’s where the head of the river is. But China never accepted that, I don’t know, maybe that’s not the cause but lately it’s affected a lot of people and I want to make a story on that, but it’s also about diseases with animals in the area, a contagious disease.

Are you ever worried at all that someone might interpret something in an unfavorable way?
No, it’s what I prefer, actually, to make a very open movie for people to take what they want. So far, people who e-mail me have very beautiful interpretations or approaches to the film.

Have you seen any good, contemporary movies recently?
When I make films I stop seeing things, because I don’t want to be influenced. So afterwards I saw these big Hollywood films, “Avatar” and “Inception.” “Avatar” I like the special effects, of course, and all the prospects, but I wish that James Cameron had invested more in the script and story the same way he did with the computer graphics. The concept is beautiful, the idea of this parallel consciousness, but it’s not pushed enough. “Inception” is tricky. I like it, it made me feel that I was watching a movie, and at one point it was very magical, but somehow it is too logical. I don’t know what to think.

Right. Many people have said that there’s too much dialogue, that explains a lot when it doesn’t have to. But... there’s also people who couldn’t follow it at all.
Come on! (laughs) That’s the tricky part with Hollywood films, you have to explain, you have to make it clear for the universal world. To the aliens, also, when they see the movie. (laughs) So it has to be super clear.

This article is related to: Foreign Films, Interview, Foreign Directors, Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul


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