A strange Siamese creature has made history by winning the top prize at Cannes Film Festival. The Palme d'Or winner talks to Real.Time about the present and past lives of movies and menThe film is about a dying uncle, Boonmee. It's also about a lovelorn princess and her encounter with an erotic catfish. Then it's about a lost buffalo, monkey ghosts, a swarm of bees and their sweet honeycombs, dead communism, photography, immigrants of the land and of the soul, and of course, it's about the possibility of past and future lives. With your eyes wide open it's also a dream alchemy that fuses into the memory of a place where time and space fold into each other like the soft petals of an eccentric flower, or like proof of quantum physics, or _ why not? _ both.
A scene from Loong Boonmee Raluek Chat. The movie was inspired by an obscure sermon book written by a monk who records the story of the old man who claims to have recalled his previous incarnations.
We've heard adulation and perhaps scepticism, and we'll keep hearing more when the man returns next week. But it's a heart-quickening fact that Apichatpong Weerasethakul has made history against all odds by becoming the first Thai to win the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, the world's most prestigious film award, with his subtly comical, deeply meditative Loong Boonmee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives).
It has been hinted at before, but now the latest film _ and the award _ has etched the reputation of the Siamese auteur into the pantheon of modern masters. Amid the atmosphere of witch-hunting, let's for once play cheerleader: Apichatpong is without a doubt one of the most original filmmakers at work in the world today.
It would be inconsiderate of me to spell out the details of the film before it is screened to Thai audiences (hopefully it will be). But my conversation with Apichatpong in Cannes on the morning before the award was announced should help put the whole brouhaha into perspective, especially about the strange, gentle beast of Uncle Boonmee, as well as the director's thought processes.
To recap, Uncle Boonmee is part of a multi-platform project called Primitive, which includes installation, video, short films and now a full-length feature. The conceptual essence, Apichatpong says, is to record his memory of the Northeast, the region where he grew up and with which he feels a soulful bond.
As part of Primitive, Apichatpong shot two short films, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, a wistful diary about soldiers and a spaceship in the square of an Isan village; and Phantom, a phantasmagorical video in which a group of Isan teenagers kick a fireball around and eventually burn down a movie screen.
But the genesis of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives came from a book written by a monk who records the story of the old man who claims to have recalled his previous incarnations.
''Primitive is more a memory of the region, what I felt when I travelled and found this village [Nabua in Nakhon Phanom],'' said Apichatpong. ''Uncle Boonmee is another component. Originally the film would be a biography of this guy who recalls his past lives. But I realised I couldn't do it. I need to have a personal connection in whatever I work with, so Boonmee became myself. Our voices merge. Instead of adapting the book, it became just an inspiration.''
Uncle Boonmee swirls in my head because it touches on many levels at once; you can approach it philosophically, politically, even scientifically, or you can just watch it as a child's fantasy, a rural tale about strange creatures and sentimental ghosts. In its genome, the movie is a meta-thesis on cinema and its power to create illusion; and how the idea of reincarnation doesn't apply only to humans, but also to the art form that thrives on deja vu and paralleled dimensions of past and present. Apichatpong understands that after more than a century and so much technological advance, cinema has arrived at a critical moment: it has to reflect upon itself and go inward in order to go outward and find its own rebirth after a long, unquantifiable death.
''When you watch a film, it's something that's already happened. It already has a past life,'' he said. ''Uncle Boonmee is really about cinema to me. [I was inspired] by old television shows that were shot on 16mm camera, as well as by one-baht Thai graphic novels that show a different landscape of ghosts. I'm fascinated by that and try to put it in the movie.
''Uncle Boonmee has six reels [that are combined to become a 115-minute movie]. Each reel has a different acting style, lighting and reference on cinema. When you make a film about recollection and death, you realise that cinema is also facing death. Uncle Boonmee is one of the last pictures shot on film _ now everybody shoots digital. It's my own little lamentation, this thing about dividing the six reels into six styles. In the first reel, it's my kind of film when you see long takes of animals and people driving. The second reel is like old cinema with stiff acting and classical staging, then it's a documentary style in the third reel. The fourth reel is a costume drama... [and so on].''
The intimation of past and future lives has been integral in Apichatpong's films, though largely in the structural composition that teases with the textual nature of cinema and the physical quality of film _ as when Tropical Malady is violently bifurcated at mid-point. Apichatpong's talent is in how he treats the subject. Without sensationalising or exoticising, he achieves a form of gentle folk tale that's nevertheless rich with mindful deliberation. Uncle Boonmee is a film about sickness and death, but it's bubbling with life, even in the darkest cave or loneliest jungle. You could even say the treatment of life in the film has a science-fiction quality, in a vernacular, unadorned fashion.
''I don't read science fiction, but I love science-fiction elements,'' he said. ''Uncle Boonmee is a film about transformation, about objects and people that transform or hybridise. You can explain with scientific belief that nothing exists, nothing is really solid and everything is just a moving particle.
''I believe in reincarnation, but the more I think of it in movie terms, I just want more proof,'' added the director. ''Scientifically, I think that in the future we'll be able to prove reincarnation. Science has its own steps of evolution; I think it's about anti-gravity matter now, and after that it'll be about how to read the mind. In science you have an apparatus to measure things, in the Buddhist way the body is the apparatus. It's up to each individual what to measure, and that's why we meditate. Perhaps I'll find proof through meditation.''
What's more, if parallel dimensions and the recurring phenomena of life and history are what he's after, the symbolism that's going to be hotly debated when the film is screened in Bangkok is its political interpretation. The film, as well as the short films that came before, allude to the communist fighting in the Northeast as part of a bitter memory _ the past lives that nobody wants to recall in full voice.
In one of the key scenes, Boonmee talks about his dream in which he travels with a time machine to the future where the authority has the power to make people disappear, and the film transforms itself, however briefly, into a political commentary in its own elliptical, hypnotic, and deadpan way.
Apichatpong doesn't elaborate on this, but he believes that the political context of the moment will drive people to link what's happening with the film. ''It does comment [on politics]. If people want to interpret it that way, it's part of my intention,'' he said.
That is, if the film is eventually shown to a Thai audience _ the audience that the filmmaker believes possesses the cultural DNA required to fully understand his films, but which, ironically, sometimes complains that his films are impenetrable.
''Thai people should understand it because most of us believe in reincarnation, right?'' said Apichatpong. ''Thai people have a different level of understanding that we cannot translate [to the non-Thai audience]. They laugh at the point where foreign audience doesn't _ because the joke is a Thai thing.
''But again, I think for many people in the West will try to understand something [which they don't initially] and are more open because there's a deep root of cinema culture. They think more, even though they don't understand everything. For them there's no right or wrong. Meanwhile in Thailand, we tend to have a fixed idea of what a movie is.''
When the recently-wrapped Cannes Film Festival began, nobody dared believe that a small Thai film would prevail over 18 other competitors, including some heavyweights in arthouse cinema. Now that it has, perhaps we should not hold on to our fixed idea of what cinema is, but to what cinema can be. If reincarnation is real, then Uncle Boonmee is suggesting that it starts now.