With the latest season of Cannes coming close to an end, what better time than look back at last year's Golden Palm winner?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul took home the top prize with his latest experimental narrative, "Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall Past Lives," an incredibly dense feature that delved into traditional Thai spirituality, contemporary regional politics, lost media, and multiple realities including the film medium itself. It may sound pretentious, and it damn-well could've been if it was any other director. However it's actually a stunning experience, one ripe with love and humor, without a stiff moment to be found. Apichatpong (nicknamed Joe by his college mates) takes a very emotional, organic approach to his ideas and uses the camera to its fullest, eschewing heavy plot in favor of tender moments of human relationships and mother nature. No, it's not for everyone, but those willing to give it a chance and not look at it through the standard act1-act2-act3 movie goggles may find themselves very moved.
Considering his approach to the art, it makes sense that Joe also dabbles in museum pieces, be it photography or more short form video installations. "Primitive" is his latest completion, a brother of 'Boonme' seeing as they were conceived around the same time and center on the same Northeast area of Thailand. During the filmmaker's search for the real Boonme's relatives, he came upon the village of Nabua and found himself inexplicably drawn to the people and its history. In the 1960s, the farming town was caught in a clash between the military and land-owners, a conflict which escalated to such a point that the farmers retreated to the jungle and left their families behind. Joe returned to the site, creating many short films with the youth and photographing the community excessively, all culminating in the "Primitive" exhibit, an expansive portrait of a rural community.
Starting May 19, New York's New Museum will showcase the project for its American debut and give the filmmaker a month-long residency to host various programs and lectures. The Playlist was able to sit down with the artist once again, chatting about his relationship with sound, his "Mekong River" project, Tilda Swinton, David Fincher, and bizarre commercial commissions.
For the uninitiated, what is the "Primitive" project? What are its intents and purposes?
It's the first project where I used film and visual art in the same unit. The process was the same as when I draft a script for a film: I travel to develop it, along the way I was doing the "Primitive" project which involves several art installations. Even though the outcome of both were so different, they root in the same idea of documenting the memory of the Northeast. "Primitive" is focusing on one village, and 'Boonme' focuses on my memory of the media. So for me, they're in the same sphere. It also shows how the world is changing; the concepts of film and art are kind of merging.
The final event is with filmmaker Bruce Baillie. Is he a mentor of yours?
Yes, he's a filmmaker that I think I was unconsciously inspired by. I watched "Quick Billy" in 2007 and then I found it to be very much like my film "Tropical Malady"… of course I knew his work from school, but only when I saw 'Billy' did I started to realize an influence of his. "Castro Street" and others had such a profound impact in the way I look at film. And also music, because his films are kind of like music, like the structure, they're so free. I tossed the idea that I wanted him here, and it happened.
Speaking of music, the sound design of your films tend to be incredibly important and integrated into your films. Whether it be rock songs (end of 'Boonme') or dance sequences (end of "Syndromes and a Century", middle of "Tropical Malady").
Well, normally I don't like music. I'd rather incorporate the rhythm of life, the rain, the natural sounds where you don't really need actual music. But for 'Tropical' and 'Syndromes,' that's this Arabic dance that you can find everywhere in Thailand, people do it in their garage or in the park and do it as an exercise. I was fascinated more by the way people move their bodies rather than the music. As for actual songs, I don't really listen to music, those that appear are ones that are given to me by musician friends or a team member who keeps playing the song. The latter moment happened in "Blissfully Yours," one of them kept playing a song on the way to the set and it became part of the experience. It just made sense to include it.
Contemporary political films tend to be very heavy-handed or corny these days. Your films always have something political behind them, how do you keep things subtle?
That's my challenge, because I have a lot to say politically but it's hard to film it. It's easier to write or talk about it than having something on screen without it being irrelevant. You can read the same thing in a book and realize that it's already better or more clear. So it's always indirect. Sometimes I just have a political motive in mind and I stop developing it. The more I develop it the more literal it becomes and it just becomes text. For the "Mekong River" project, I was working with the actors and we talked about it a lot, but then we stopped and just played games and stuff. We'll have this intention, but then we forget about it and it'll still be unconsciously present in whatever we do.
Now you've won the top prize at Cannes and you (somewhat) regularly get commissions, but as a certain type of filmmaker, what was your early career like?
It was quite difficult times because, even before "Blissfully Yours," I was in doubt what I should do for living. Eventually a friend put my work in a gallery and I realized that that might be the way because it gave a lot of freedom. So I started to do residencies in Japan, in France, etc., places that I hoped could bring out my visual arts interests and ability out. Visual arts continue, mostly during that time I was doing short films and also edited films for others. Back then it was not so popular to do video work and Final Cut wasn't there, so I used a PC and Premiere to edit for others, that's how I lived. We have very good community support there, and I lived with my sister, so it was very manageable.
How is the "Mekong Hotel" film coming along? Tilda Swinton is constantly cited next to it, what is her role in the film?
That will be shot in October, but it is a short film, 17 minutes with a low-budget from France. It's not a big movie, so I can't afford a big team, it'll be only me and a sound person. The "Mekong River" project is building towards a feature film, hopefully next year we'll do it, right now I'm developing the script. Of course Tilda and I always want to work together, but now I think I should leave her out of this discussion because it's not happening really soon so it's useless to mention her (laughs). It's something that's in development.
Similar to Tilda, are there any other actors you'd like to work with?
I really like Hidetoshi Nishijima, he's in Takeshi Kitano's "Dolls"… but he's also in a lot of crap. (laughs) But at the same time he's in some good movies. I like this two girls a lot, one is Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Catherine Denueve, and the other is an American actress who was in the 'Bourne' movies… she plays an FBI agent, Joan Allen. I like her a lot.
In our previous interview you mentioned wanting to do a film about Donald Richie, film scholar and author. Has that been progressing?
No, because me and Image Forum in Japan want to wait and see about his condition. For me, I want a certain kind of collaboration with him, not only from his footage, and a few hours of talking every day is not enough. Unfortunately his condition does not allow anything more at the moment. It won't be a documentary, because he's a filmmaker I actually want him to make a new film with me. Image Forum is not so keen on that idea because it might be too taxing on him, but that's what we imagined. We're not there yet, we have to pass this point of his health first and then we'll decide.
What interests you about Donald Richie?
He's like my Uncle Boonme. I think that he embodies a lot of memories about cinema, and if I work with him I almost have an excuse to research and get to know the generation of Kurosawa and Miziguchi, etc. He also lived through that time and saw the change of Japan, and I'd like to know that because it's such a fascinating country with great literature and cinema. I've only worked in Thailand, so if there's a country I want to step out and "know," it's Japan.
One of your short films was commissioned by Louis Vuitton, did you ever get any other bizarre offers like that?
Yes, it's funny, I also got a commission from Dior… (laughs) all these luxury brands. But they're very open they give almost 100% freedom. I didn't go through them, I went through a curator they hired and most curators are very open. When I made a piece for Dior I had a chance to talk with a designer and go see the jewelry pieces… this is the beauty, that you have these experiences.
What about Hollywood offers? Or genre pictures?
After Cannes there were offers such as a boxing movie in Thailand. I thought it was interesting, but the guy was like "Okay, you have a lot of freedom, but you need this and this in this shot and…" Which is not freedom at all! (laughs) So I referred him to another director. But there are other offers… the deal is they send me a script, and I'll see if I can work with the screenwriter. I haven't gotten any because I've been busy doing the Mekong project, but I heard that there's a kind-of Hollywood rule that you don't get the final cut and that makes me a little uncomfortable. Still, Hollywood has produced many good films by people like David Fincher, Gus Van Sant, David Lynch… if they can do it, I told them that I would be interested in those kind of projects.
You're a Fincher fan. Did you see 'Social Network'? Did you like it?
Honestly, no, I did not like it. For me it feels like a TV movie, somehow. I miss David Fincher's old work, like "Fight Club," I love it a lot. 'Social Network' I think is about writing, it's not about directing.