I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Last night, I dreamt of the future,” confides the eponymous character of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film. “I arrived there in a sort of time machine. An authority capable of making anybody disappear ruled the future city. When the authorities found ‘past people,’ they shined a light at them. The light projected images from their past onto a screen until their arrival in the future. Once these images appeared, these ‘past people’ disappeared. I was afraid of being captured by the authorities because I had many friends in this future. I ran away. But wherever I ran, they still found me. They asked me if I knew this road or that road. I told them I didn’t know. And then I disappeared.”
Dying of kidney failure at the edge of a forest in Northern Thailand, Uncle Boonmee confronts his past as a soldier, a father, and a husband as he faces his collective karma. This entails encountering not only his son, who has become a monkey ghost, and his late wife, who returns as a translucent spirit to help him with his dialysis, but his previous lives as a water buffalo and an insecure princess who mates with a catfish. In the production, Apichatpong, his evocative cast, and skilled crew blur the distinction between personal recollections and the political past with humor and elegance. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a moving meditation on the instability of life forms, memory, and history.
Born in Bangkok in 1970, Apichatpong grew up in Khon Kaen, a provincial capital in Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand. Isaan has been a historically obstreperous place. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the Bangkok court sought to exert its power over neighboring polities and cohere them into a nation-state, Isaan was the site of several anti-state rebellions. In the middle of the 20th century, left-wing intellectuals like Kulap Saipradit championed the plight of Isaan’s rural poor and were, in turn, persecuted by the military government. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the Thai and US military sought to repress the specter of Communism in the region by deforesting large tracts of land to deprive guerillas of their bases in the forest. Today, the majority of Bangkok’s working class and working poor hail from this region that retains its distinct political and social character due largely to its historical isolation, poverty, and lack of infrastructure. It was here that Apichatpong received his undergraduate degree in architecture, from Khon Kaen University, and then went on to apply his architectural studies to film. He earned his MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998 and started making short films, videos, and media-based installation work. Returning to Thailand in 1999, he founded the production company Kick the Machine with a group of young Bangkok artists, curators, and filmmakers, to create a network for a new generation of Thai video artists and filmmakers.
His first feature film, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), re-mapped the territory of the nation as an “exquisite corpse” in which the people usually excluded from history narrated a supernatural tale of alien abduction and slavery. He followed this with Blissfully Yours (2002), a love triangle between a Karen refugee, a Thai woman, and her employer; the different but very sharp Adventures of Iron Pussy (2003), with the eponymous heroine played by artist Michael Shaowanasai; the elegant “memoir of love and darkness,” Tropical Malady (2004); and Syndromes and a Century (2006), inspired in part by Apichatpong’s parents, two doctors who left Bangkok to open a clinic in rural Khon Kaen.
I liken watching Apichatpong’s films to the experience of visiting a friend’s house in a Southeast Asian city. One maneuvers from lively, clotted streets through a gate into a quiet, spacious garden and then into a cool, dark house; from terrible light to deep shadow; from one sort of reality to another very different one. The transition is at once startling and sensuous. The films’ intriguing narrative quality is also the accomplishment of Apichatpong’s editor, Lee Chatametikool, as well as his regular cast of ensemble actors. As in all of their collaborations, parallel perspective and simultaneity bend and distort the viewers’ experience of cinematic space and time, hence giving them the feeling of inhabiting multiple moments and places at once.
Influential scholar Benedict Anderson has compared Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Chit Phumisak, the Thai Marxist historian who re-evaluated the historical position of the Thai monarchy and critiqued the intensely hierarchical class society that Thailand had inherited from feudalism. Like Chit, Apichatpong reveals the stories that official history excludes, the voices of the poor that cannot be incorporated into the triumphant narrative of the modern, and the “nonhuman” beings at the margins of capitalism that do not fit squarely within the time and space of the nation-state.
Apichatpong has said that he is interested in depicting the relationship between man and animal while at the same time trying to destroy the line that divides them. He draws out the relationship between history and reincarnation and shows how filmmaking is a kind of time machine that creates new layers of simulated memory for filmmakers and audiences. Drawing on a variety of experimental narrative methodologies that range from vernacular Thai religious texts, to old Thai films, to the canonical work of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Peter Tscherassky, Apichatpong’s work suggests much about the still unexplored relationships between the moving image and the mind.
This interview took place in August 2010, in the coffeeshop of a bookstore in Bangkok, not far from my apartment. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Apichatpong since I was invited to a small test screening of an early edit of his film Blissfully Yours . Joei, as he’s known to acquaintances and friends, was on one of his infrequent visits to the city from his home near Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. Just a short walk away from our meeting place, the burned-out shell of a shopping mall stood as an architectural reminder of the terrible political violence that had seized the capital a few weeks before. It was during this time that Uncle Boonmee had won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival and offered a brief respite from the siege atmosphere in the city. This violence has been based on historic grievances as much as political manipulation and has largely centered on two factions that wear, respectively, yellow and red shirts. If Uncle Boonmee teaches us anything, it is that the historical specters of inequality and injustice permeating our contemporary realities, not just in Thailand, do not simply disappear, but come back to haunt us in unexpected reckonings. My conversation with Apichatpong took place in Thai, a language that is notoriously difficult to translate into English. Any mistakes in translation are solely my responsibility.
Lawrence Chua I wanted to continue the conversation we had after Tropical Malady was released, about the meaning of space in your work. I’ve noticed that you direct films in a way similar to an architect designing a building. Your films have many levels, in terms of narrative structure, perspective, and cinematic time, but also in terms of personal and political memory. But I’ll start by asking you a straightforward question about creative process. How did Uncle Boonmee’s story develop into a film? You found a book in a monastic complex near your home in Khon Kaen, right?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul Yes. A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives was a book written by the abbot of this monastic complex. A man named Boonmee had told the abbot that one day, while sitting in meditation, he had seen his past lives playing behind his closed eyes like a movie. The abbot wasn’t surprised, because many people had approached him with similar experiences. I was interested in the stories in this book for a long time, but I didn’t know how it could be made into a film. Sometimes it’s completely impossible to make things into a two-hour film. In the end, I couldn’t do it. It’s more as if I took out an impression from the book and mixed in more personal elements.
LC Why couldn’t you make it as a literal adaptation?
AW Because I wasn’t clever enough. (laughter) I was thinking of how to present the dimensions of time in the narrative and jump around instead of having chapters that would move quickly from moment to moment as if following the book. This time I tried to adapt the book and present other stories and use the book’s character, Uncle Boonmee, as an inspiration. I jumped around by taking us into other spaces and bringing in stories about my father, family, travel, and other things. So it’s like a sketch about memory. It’s a film that has the characteristics of old ghost movies. Then, it also has elements of a television costume drama. I wanted to make a film that had aspects of memories of previous lives. I wanted to make the film itself a kind of time machine.
LC Was this the first time you made a film from a book?
AW Tropical Malady was inspired by a book; the film wasn’t like the book at all, but it tried to capture the mood of the book. Then there was the Emerald installation, which was a short film portrait of a derelict hotel in Bangkok that came from the book The Pilgrim Kamanita by Karl Gjellerup. So Uncle Boonmee is actually the third.
LC Emerald was the single-channel video installation you made in 2008, the year before the Primitive installation, right? Primitive was conceived of as a multi-platform project to whichUncle Boonmee is related. Both of these projects overlay personal memories onto politically resonant sites. Can you talk about how these installations figure into your narrative film work?
AW Yes. When I came back to Thailand after finishing my studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, I wanted to make films, but in the beginning I made video because I didn’t have money. At that time, Phi Jiab (Gridthiya Gaweewong, now artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Museum, Bangkok) had started Project 304 Gallery in Bangkok and she began to bring in video-installation work. Up until then I hadn’t intended to make installation work in a visual-art context. My work was experimental film, but when Phi Jiab started exhibiting this video work, I became interested in installation. This was ten years ago. We projected Mysterious Object at Noon in the gallery because it fit with Project 304’s curatorial context.
LC Did you do installations when you were at the Art Institute of Chicago?
AW No, no. I made experimental films. However, they had a different audience. They had more to do with Maya Deren or Stan Brakhage, who weren’t gallery artists, but rather experimental filmmakers. But I was also in a period then where my thinking was drawn to the path of gallery artists like Martin Arnold or Peter Tscherassky, who were making a transition between experimental film and video art. Depending on the gallery to survive, as they were, was, in a way, the death of a kind of experimental film.
LC Interesting. Installation art and that kind of filmmaking seem to address two different economies. Do you know Isaac Julien’s work?
LC Isaac started making very progressive experimental films in the ’80s when there was financial support for those films, but then the economy shifted and he started making installation art. However, you can still see that his work is clearly the work of a film director.
AW You’re talking about his signature?
LC Sort of. More than that, I am talking about his interest in narrative, which seems to be present in his installations in ways that it’s not in the work of other installation artists who are more interested in relations with space.
AW I am interested in time because I feel that time in installation and video, and then time in a film, are two different things. There are different rules. Film time is fixed time. It’s linear. This has been said often. Whereas in a gallery, it’s acknowledged that audiences are the ones who control time, even when they go up close to the screen. It isn’t the same linear time. As a result, I am interested in how I can take both kinds of time and put them together, how I can combine the times of both films and installations.
LC Do you see your current installations as a kind of sketch for your films?
AW They’re a part of it, but sometimes they’re not. They are more of a sketch of my mood or an investigation, like the Primitive installation, which examined a village, Nabua, that had been occupied by the Thai army during the anti-Communist campaigns of the 1970s. I ended up working with teens in a village that had a violent political history. We built a spaceship and made up scenarios. We also made a short film, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, in which we scanned the village in order to find a suitable house as a setting for the feature film. For me, the experience in this village was always related to Boonmee’s existence. It is a place where memories are repressed. I want to link it with the guy who remembers everything. With that montage of photo images in the film, my memories and Boonmee’s merge. It’s another method. I don’t have to sit down in a room and write a script from my imagination because I can treat the idea more like a performance that’s taken outside, where we can interact with actors and environments and shoot on video.
LC Do you have more freedom in making installations?
AW Yes, yes. Because installations are free with respect to both the medium and its nature. Video is very free, and it’s intimate, although that doesn’t mean it’s better. At first I was confused about how to make films because they always cost a lot of money, but the installations helped a lot in figuring out ideas for the film.
LC To go back to speaking about levels of meaning and space in your work—I have noticed the word chaat from the title of the film in Thai has several meanings that are made visible in the film. The word chaat in Thai can mean nation as well as life. Just before you wrote the script, your father had passed away from kidney failure. Uncle Boonmee is also dying of kidney problems. I am curious about the role your parents had in your creative development. I believe this film was a bit more sentimental than your previous films.
AW It’s possible. Since making Syndromes and a Century (2006), I was fearful that my mother would die. She is over 70 years old. I tried to record many kinds of memories that would reference the space of my parents. They were in Isaan the whole time. Also, the book that inspired Uncle Boonmee came from a monk whom my father was close with. My parents contributed many things to my creative development. But there’s also the feeling that I make movies to push this out of my mind. Although it’s true that Uncle Boonmee has a lot about my father in it, I hadn’t thought that much about it when I was writing the screenplay.
LC Both your parents were doctors from Bangkok who moved to Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand. Isaan is Thailand’s most underdeveloped region and has been historically a difficult place to integrate within the Thai nation-state. Why did your parents go to Isaan? It seems like quite a courageous move for doctors.
AW I’ve said they were adventurers because there wasn’t anyone who would choose to go to Khon Kaen at that time. Really, they went to see Khon Kaen. At that time there still wasn’t anything, just the forest.
LC I’ve noticed the similarity of interests between my parents and myself as I get older, they’re just expressed in a different way. I wonder if you recognize some of this, especially with your interest in the lives of the people of Isaan.
AW It’s possible. (laughter) However, I never thought of that before. My father went to Isaan, spoke the dialect, listened to local music. I suspect he came because he liked to live with the peasants and help them. When I was growing up, my parents would take me to their clinic. They learned a lot there about the ugliness of the political system during this period. My father became a parliamentary representative with the Democratic Party. He believed that he could help to develop the political system. He told us all the time that it was necessary. When he had a project to bring into the community, a contractor tried to give my father money to build it, but my father didn’t want it. He was a very direct person. Like father, like son. My father said he didn’t want the money, but I questioned him: If you know that it’s dirty, why would you put yourself in the middle of it? Maybe it’s a part of what you were asking. He wanted to put himself into it in the same way that he wanted to know the lifecycle of the peasants, in order to study them.
LC Thinking back on earlier generations of Bangkok people who went to Isaan and were politicized, like the novelist and human rights activist Kulap Saipradit in the ’50s, there is something implicitly heroic in this gesture. I wonder if you see your parents’ decision in this way.
AW No, no. It was more about pleasure or fun. Being a politician is surely a heroic thing, and my father wanted to have honor, but my mother wasn’t like that. My father’s decision in the beginning, I think, wasn’t about that—he didn’t have a political dialogue like Kulap Saipradit; he didn’t have an outlet, like writing, to send to people in Bangkok so that they’d know that he had done this or that. I don’t see him at the same level. However, the issue that can’t be avoided, and it is the same for us, is that we are interested in class. I can’t deny that I am from a different class than my characters. This is more the issue. How to present work that speaks well about a different class but isn’t typically ethnographic: this is something I am still struggling with. I feel like I’m still in the beginning of figuring this out.
LC As mentioned earlier, one meaning of chaat is nation. There are many nations in Uncle Boonmee.
AW When I did the Primitive installation I was greatly influenced by the sense of political history that arose in Isaan in relation to central Thailand’s colonization of the rest of the country. I was interested in the story of making people outsiders and in the story of Communism in that time. Nabua, the village in which the videos were shot, was one of the places the Thai army occupied from the ’60s to the early ’80s in order to curb those who were accused of being Communists. Nabua was the scene of fierce oppression, fighting, and violence. Many people fled into the forest. Those who remained in the district were mainly women and children. This reality echoed an ancient local legend about a widow ghost who abducts any man who enters her empire. Thus, in the legend, the district is devoid of men. Its nickname became “widow town.” I’m interested in exactly that: the way that soldiers and the Thai government treated people in that area. And I feel it’s the same as before in relation to the events of today. It’s a cycle.
LC When you speak of “the events of today,” are you talking about the civil unrest and repression that just happened in Bangkok and across the country?
AW The attempt to … how can I say this well … the attempt by the military to wipe out and dominate and other things that I can’t speak about. The attempt to make people invisible—I interpret it as a repetition, as a reincarnation of events. It’s another way of making people into ghosts, nonexistent. There isn’t anyone who is focusing on the memories of this space, this region. Uncle Boonmee, like me, attempts to reclaim his memories. The most obvious example of this is the scene in the movie that is a collage of different photographs. It’s in this scene that my memories and Boonmee’s merge. The image of the monkey being captured in this sequence is an image of both the past and the future. There’s a time machine there also, a spacecraft, and it makes people disappear. When we edited the film, we thought about whether this sequence was too obvious or not. But the whole movie is like that, very simple. Like when we talk about ghosts, or about old filmmaking in the movie, we enter into the story in a straightforward way. So I feel Uncle Boonmee is like a children’s film in this respect, in its directness.
LC Did the characters, like the princess or the monkey ghost, come from the book?
AW They came from many places. Probably from Thai TV movies.
LC Movies that you remembered?
AW Yes. But they’re not specific. The monkey ghost had a rawness that I wanted to draw from. I didn’t want it to be Hollywood perfect. At the same time, we felt the monkey ghost was a representative of people who don’t fit. He could have been a Communist who then transformed himself or migrated to another place.
LC Can you elaborate a bit more on the scene where the princess is unhappy about her appearance and winds up losing her virginity to a catfish? This scene suggested a lot to me about racialized standards of beauty.
AW It has several points. One of which is attachment and not being content with oneself and wanting to change into something else. She wants to transform like Uncle Boonmee’s son who changed from a photographer into a monkey ghost. The princess’s story is a story about not being content with one’s appearances and having a stigma. The princess wants to be beautiful. I can’t say this—it’s a sensitive topic to speak about the desire to lose something in order to gain something else, like losing one’s virginity to an animal. Another point is about hybrid species or hybridization, because in the following scene, the princess is anxious about the child she’s carrying and whether the child will become a monster or not. [The Thai term for monster is the same as the Thai title of Tropical Malady (Sud Pralad) and implies a beast that is produced by the union of two species.]
There’s a link to old Thai TV movies that were about the kaew naa maa, literally, a lady with a face like a horse. It’s a popular old folk tale. She has to go through so many obstacles to meet the prince and become beautiful. In the past, her skin was black, but when she became a princess, her skin turned white.
LC Since you’ve won the Palme d’Or you’ve become somewhat of a symbol of national reconciliation and hope. How do you feel about this?
AW I feel really good, because there won’t be another opportunity like this for me. (laughter) However, the prize was awarded during an interesting period, when the country was “down” and the news about the prize was “up” and therefore I became “in between.” It made me understand that the people who control the media will be looking at one side, at the things that I criticize. So, winning the prize is an interesting event that makes me understand this country’s political machinery more. I became like a figure in a lakhon soap opera. For instance, my political opinions have become the center of a debate on the Internet and I was attacked a lot. This has taught me how information becomes distorted through the media and how people will believe what they want to believe. People have quoted me as saying the oppositeof what I said at Cannes. I said that Thailand is a violent country. The violent things that are being said on the Internet show that there is a lot of anger in people—no matter what their color is, though it’s mostly yellow. They use profanity a lot too. But at the same time, this debate makes us stronger and I feel that it makes us grow, which is a good thing.
LC I also wondered how you felt about being singled out as a representative of Thai national cinema since winning the prize. It seems a curious place for you to be, given the fact that your work has existed independent of national filmmaking structures since you started making it and that, in many ways, it challenges the official narrative of “Thai-ness.”
AW It’s like … Have you seen Jao Nok Krajok (Mundane History), the film by Anocha Suwichakornpong?
LC Yes. I liked it a lot. It’s a very powerful first film by a young director that captures the class tensions between a wealthy young man and his servant in contemporary Thailand.
AW I interpret it as people coming out into the streets and making revolution—in the sense of breaking laws, but also in the sense of asking whether these laws make sense. Film is the same. There is something that has forbidden us from doing things this way or that way for a long time. Until now. As a result, I think it’s a period of change, even if we think it’s slower than Korea, slower than whatever. It’s the attempt to find an identity that I feel Thai cinema still doesn’t have. Whether my films are Thai or not, I can’t say. I can only say that they are the films of Apichatpong because I’m still not comfortable with the designation. I don’t know enough to speak about Thai-ness, I don’t like the narrative of nationalism of the past five to ten years. Even if they are Thai films, the meaning has changed because the word Thai, like the words yellow or red, have also changed.
Suppose one liked the color yellow as a child. In the last few years, if you have grown up here in Thailand, the meaning of this color has been changed forever. It’s the same with Thai.
—We apologize for an error in the print edition of this interview in Bomb 114. On page 47 the line “no matter what their skin color is” should read “no matter what their color is.” The mistake was rectified in this online version.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee