'Film is magic': Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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The Palme d'Or winning director talks editing, slowing things down and why he loves 'Re-Animator'

Hushed, docile, reflective, spiritual, wistful, dreamlike, rapturous, exotic, surreal – all regular terms employed by critics to describe the work of iconoclastic Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. At Cannes this year, the 40 year old snatched the Palme d’Or from under the noses of Mike Leigh, Abbas Kiarostami and other cherished auteurs with ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’, his sublime congregation of man, beast and phantom.

Many chalked up Apichatpong’s Cannes victory as confirmation of the festival’s commitment to challenging cinema, not to mention a deserved boost to a director whose previous works (2004’s ‘Tropical Malady’ and 2006’s ‘Syndromes and a Century’) remain cinematic curios despite the fact that they both charted in the top ten of Film Comment magazine’s ‘Films of the decade’. Yet Apichatpong’s newfound celebrity caused an inevitable backlash, with dissenters employing an arsenal of adjectives such as dull, obtuse, remote, hollow and illogical to describe his film. One online wag dubbed it ‘Uncle Boremee’.

Apichatpong was in London last month to host a gala screening at the London Film Festival, and, after watching a lively Q&A session and meeting him for an interview, it’s clear his films are a reflection of his charismatic, probing and gentle manner. To consume one of his films, it’s best to leave logic at the door and adjust your mind to the languid rhythms of his imagination. He is reluctant to deliver simple answers and justifications for his work, but he’s more than willing to discuss his intentions and worldview. ‘I think there is an urgent need to go back to our roots,’ he says. ‘We need to stop moving so quickly. That’s what I try to do with cinema.’

‘I’m fully aware that not everybody can connect to this film,’ he continues in his typically laconic, self-effacing manner. ‘But it makes me happy that people enjoy it. In Thailand, it’s my biggest hit so far.’ ‘Uncle Boonmee’ describes the twilight days of a portly farmer from a rural region of Thailand who is dying from a kidney disorder. He receives visitations from dead relatives and a Chewbacca-like monkey ghost, as well as a vision of his past lives as a water buffalo and a sexually charged catfish. The film is shot, edited and designed in a similar way to Apichatpong’s previous work: the pace is leisurely; the colours bold; the performances discreet; dialogue is whispered; and meanings are open to interpretation.

But his work also draws on a fondness for genre movies and kitsch: a scene in ‘Uncle Boonmee’ where a catfish engages in cunnilingus with a spangled, ageing princess pays wry homage to plush royal costume dramas, while Boonmee’s death, which arrives after he wanders deep into a sparkling cavern, feels like we’re veering into sci-fi territory.

‘When I was a teenager, there was a huge influx of VHS into Thailand, so I saw a lot of John Carpenter movies and B- and C-grade American horror films. I saw other kinds of films, but it was mainly horror. I love “The Thing”. I also love Stuart Gordon, especially “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond”. For me they are some of the best.’

Apichatpong is the son of two doctors, and having inititially gained a degree in architecture in Thailand, he visited Chicago to study fine art. His ferocious creativity combined with a fulsome embrace of digital media has yielded numerous shorts, installations and doodles that can work as stepping stones to direct you to his longer features. He has his own production company, appropriately called Kick the Machine.



Apichatpong describes the making of ‘Uncle Boonmee’ as an organic process and says he relied on his intuition and sensitivity for the landscape. ‘It may not seem like it, but this film is faithful to a script, especially the dialogue. But in terms of images, I go by pure instinct.’ He says his relationship with his regular editor, Lee Chatametikool, is key to the making of his films. ‘He’s the one who taps in to my unconscious. We both agree that film is magic. Film is also like an animal: distant, something that we can never really know or understand and that has no formula for success.’

Since his triumph at Cannes, offers have been rolling in. Will we ever see him behind the camera for, say, a ‘Spider-Man’ sequel? ‘No, but that would be a blast! There’s a French producer who offered me a Thai boxing movie. I said, “Well, it’s a generous amount of money, but I need to make sure we’re talking the same language. I’m okay with action movies – but it has to be my kind of action movie.”

‘Recently, a guy from Hollywood asked if I was interested in working from a Hollywood script. I said yes. But I think me and Hollywood are contradictory. I ended up asking him to throw me the scripts that Hollywood didn’t want.’

Author: David Jenkins



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