Writer, director and producer Apichatpong Weerasethakul talks about his latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (out now on DVD and blu-ray) which he describes as story shows the relationship between man and animal and at the same time destroys the line dividing them.
What is so special about the
north-east of Thailand to you? And what inspired you to make the film?
few years ago, when I was living in the north-east, I came across Uncle
Boonmee. An abbot at a monastery near my house told me that there was an old
man who had arrived at the temple to help out with the temple’s activities and
to learn meditation. One day this man, Boonmee, came to an abbot and told him
that while he was deep in meditation, he could see his past lives playing
behind his closed eyes like a movie. He saw and felt himself to be a buffalo, a
cow, even a body-less spirit that roamed around the north-eastern plains. The
abbot was impressed but not surprised, because Boonmee was not the first person
to tell him about such experiences. From near and far, he had collected stories
from villagers who shared their past lives with him. Later, he published a
little book. On its cover one could read: A Man Who Can Recall His Past
Lives. Unfortunately, by the time I got a
hold of the book, Boonmee had passed away several years earlier.
All your films have
incorporated strongly autobiographical elements. That seems to be much less the
case with Uncle Boonmee…?
to that original Boonmee book, this film has a lot of me in it. The process of
making this film made me realise that I am incapable of being faithful to any
original source! Besides altering the past lives, I pushed Boonmee into the
background and foregrounded my regular actors, Jenjira and Tong, who act as
witnesses to this anonymous guy’s passing. The film is not about Boonmee, but
about my take on the idea of reincarnation. It naturally developed into an
homage to the cinema I grew up with. A cinema that’s also dying or dead. And
once again, my father slipped into the film. He succumbed to kidney failure.
All those pieces of equipment in Boonmee’s bedroom are a simulation of those in
Once again you have
chosen to work with your regular actors and then with two primarily amateur
performers (Uncle Boonmee and Huay). How did you cast the film? Are they all
from the north-east?
Tong is not. So he’s the only one who’s not speaking north-eastern dialect. To
me, Boonmee is anonymous. So I could not use professional actors who have many
public identities. I think the amateurishness is precious when you are aiming
for early cinema’s acting style. So I cast people from all walks of life. We
ended up having a roof welder and a singer to play Boonmee and Huay.
Although the title of
the film refers to Uncle Boonmee’s past lives, he never explains them or
describes what they are.
the script was more explicit in explaining which were the past lives, which
were not. But in the film, I decided to respect the audience’s imagination. Of
course, after watching it, you can tell that he could be a buffalo or a
princess. But for me, he could be every living thing in the film, the bugs, the
bees, the soldier, the catfish and so on. He could even be his Monkey Ghost son
and his ghost wife. In this way, the film reinforces a special association
between cinema and reincarnation. Cinema is man’s way to create alternate
universes, other lives.
You have spoken of
the film being an homage to a certain kind of cinema, the cinema of your youth.
What sort of cinema did you have in mind? Thai cinema?
was old enough to catch the television shows that used to be shot on 16 mm
film. They were done in studios with strong, direct lighting. The lines were
whispered to the actors, who mechanically repeated them. The monsters were
always in the dark in order to hide the cheaply made costumes. Their eyes were
red lights so that the audience could spot them. I only got the chance to see
old horror films later, when I was already making films. I also think that the
Thai comic books influenced me. The plots were not complicated – the ghosts
were always part of the landscape. It’s still like that today.
The film has
distinctive shifts of tone and style, sometimes it is almost comic and ironic,
at other times very serious and moving.
love my movies to operate like a stream of consciousness, drifting from one
remembrance to another. I think it is important to accentuate this drifting
when the root of the film is about reincarnation, about wandering spirits.
You have spoken of
your interest in the ‘transmigration of souls’. This comes to mind particularly
in the closing scenes of the film. Is that what is taking place to Jen and
The scene (gently)
attacks the movie’s time and reference points. I hope that in the end, the
audiences are the ones who are transported.
Ghosts and fantastic
beings have appeared in your earlier films like Tropical Malady. But in Uncle Boonmee… they have taken centre stage. Could you comment on
film focuses on the beliefs in other-worldly elements that are actually parts
of our lives. I am captivated by the fact that as we age, our childhood has
become more vivid. I think the curiosity (and perhaps the fear) of ghosts and
of other worlds arises when we are young and when we are dying.
Your recent work
seems to have taken on a more political direction. The still photo sequence
would seem to highlight this. That sequence is so different from everything
else in the film.
wanted to introduce my memory of making this project into the film as well. The
film is part of the Primitive Project in
which I tried to capture some memories of the north-east. I ended up working
with the 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 for the feature. 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 photo scene in the film, Boonmee’s and my