Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who goes by “Joe” in the states, is small and a bit quiet, yet extremely friendly when it comes to discussing his movies. He has been considered one of the most prominent film directors of the last decade, and his last two films, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, appeared on numerous best-of-the-decade lists. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives, his Palm D’or winning film, cannot be described as a genre, even though if anything, it might be considered a supernatural film. But during the interview at Film Society below, Joe talks about the different aspects of his latest odyssey.
Not that many of us Americans know much about Thailand. But tell us about this part of Thailand. In other movies we’ve seen Bangkok and a little bit of the South, but this part seems quite different in many ways.
It’s the Northeast part, which is where I grew up, and it’s quite harsh. Many go to work in Bangkok or Phouket, so it’s also poor, and there’s a lot of tension.
Is it a place that’s especially known for spirits, and think more about mystical things.
It’s all over the country. It’s all over Thailand. The thing for an audience and Boonmee are the animals really, and it’s more serious.
One of the things in the credits is that you see British companies, German money, French companies, and many different international co-producers. I’m wondering how that aspect and reality in contemporary cinema are really being produced by a variety of international funders.
It hasn’t changed much for my way of working because the people who help have passion for what I do. I feel protected in a way. In the ending scene, there was a different scene. There were four flashes, and people said this is impossible to show because of people with epilepsy.
You used the Uncle Boonmee character before; will you use him again?
Yea…But this project, which was part of an art project, let me know more about the region and very interested in learning more about this region.
The beginning you talk about the border and the two differences between Thai and Laos immigrants.
In the North region there are very many Laos and Cambodia…there is a lot more immigrants, especially in the 60s when Laos fell apart, and people came into the country…its important for my work, and in this one in particular, because you talk about life and death, and the nature in the region is very important.
In one scene, Boonmee talks about killing communists. Is there a political background we’re missing here?
This area was prone to communist manipulation, starting in the 50s, and very recently and had a widespread of communism and the villagers were really intrigued by this ideology. So with the support of an American company, there was a lot of crackdown, from Vietnam to Laos and to Thailand. People can read about this and its quite brutal but people had no choice but when you were asked “Are you a communist?” and if they said yes they’d be shot on the spot, and if you said no they’d still beat you up. So many decided to escape into the jungle like the monkey ghosts. There was a monk during this time, in the 1970s that was during the student uprisings in Bangkok, and this famous monk came out and said killing communists is not a sin, so this sentiment in the region until on has spread on.
In the West we are told to go toward the light till when we die, but here we go toward the darkness, and the ghost sister says “Heaven isn’t so great,” and there is a lot about reincarnation. What is the Thai sensibility about death?
We believe that death is not the end, and things go on, but for me I would say that I believe that’s a possibility and to wait for it. And when we die we decompose and become parts of the Earth and the grass and we pass on. In the Buddhist system you go through a cycle.
Could you talk about the princess sequence?
In the film there are several tributes…This is like a style of filmmaking that is dying so this princess scene is one of the styles I want to include, which is often on television—these costume dramas on television always involve a princess and often an animal.
Where do you get your actors?
Two of them are my regulars…but Uncle Boonmee is a fictional character, I wanted a non-actor who doesn’t work on other films. He’s a construction worker.
The film ends with dual realities, could you talk about that?
I wanted to suggest more time and more universes, and the world is multi-verse, and so Tong could become a monk. This movie could happen before Syndromes and a Century, which also showed that, so this is a comment and play on time in the movie itself.
Could you talk about the symbolism in the scene in which the princess sexually surrenders herself to that catfish, and what actually goes on there?
I like that, “sexually surrendered.” Remember, it’s a tribute, but she didn’t feel content where she was and she wants to change and transform, again like the monkeys, which is why she surrenders her physical object in the hope to escape. In fact we had that the scene that you have to buy the DVD for where she is pregnant and is worried that its going to be a monster, where its going to be half-fish half-human, and they talk about human, man, nature, and animals.
Are physical relations between man and animals in Thai legends and stories? In Tropical Malady there’s of course the tiger and the young man.
I think its not just contained to Thailand because here or in other cultures as well. In fact, in Tropical Malady, I quote from a Japanese tale in the beginning.
How did the book it’s based on inspire you?
That book was published in a Buddhist temple, and I got it before Tropical Malady, and Uncle Boonmee is mentioned in that film, but I didn’t know how to do it, because of the time jumping, and I was trying to make it like a biography. But I was inspired by the idea of remembrance and that he is always reborn in that region, which was part of the art installation, which was more focused on political situations in one village. In that village people try to forget, but Uncle Boonmee remembers so much.
How did you get the look of the red eyes?
We used just regular lights, and put it through the make up. Just computer controlled LED lights.
Would you say the monkey ghosts are symbolic of rebels or communists?
It can be, but it’s very open for me. It also can be the idea of people when for parents that your kid has to go away, and I think its kind of the projection that Uncle Boonmee is about to die.
Are you inspired by the ideas of science, such as quantum mechanics, that talk about reincarnation?
Yes but I don’t understand it. I’m more inspired by the mystical portion of it. In fact the idea of reincarnation and the idea of time. And I read somewhere that Einstein talked about this and wrote about this.
Could you talk about the dynamic lighting quality, which seems to have a thin gauze or haze over the screen?
Each of my films has a different look, so we shot in different styles. You can see in the dinner scene that it has my usual style and has a certain type of lighting, but the jungle is a really old tribute to old jungle films. It’s a very different look from Tropical Malady because we used a technique called “Day for Night” to achieve this artificiality.
What were you shooting on?
Have you ever thought about shooting in either other countries or more urban regions?
In fact, yes, I’m planning a portrait of Donna Gucci in Japan.
In the end of the film, Tong has an ambivalent relationship to monkhood. Was that a sly comment on the difficulties you had with Syndromes and a Century and the censor board’s issues with the portrayal of monks?
I cannot deny, there is a little bit about trying to push them, but more importantly, it’s about that time, and about that relationship between what comes first and Syndromes and a Century. Also when my father died in China, I became a monk for a while, and then stopped. H
Who are the filmmakers that inspire you today?
There are so many, but Bruce Baillie, who is an American experimental filmmaker, and Manuel de Oliviera, and the fact that he’s so old, and he still kicks ass.