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“Being Silent Sometimes”. Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

March 2, 2011
French Poster of "Oncle boonmee"

French Poster of "Oncle boonmee"

Introduction to an interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul by American film critic and documentary film maker David A. Taylor. More here.

Vanishing tropical forests, the collision of western medicine and traditional lifestyles, and collective storytelling converge in the work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who snagged the 2010 Palme d’Or at Cannes last May for his latest film, Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall his Past Lives. Apichatpong graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago and returned to Thailand in 1997 as the Asian Financial Crisis deepened. So he switched to his true love, filmmaking. Since then he has garnered accolades abroad and occasional censorship at home in Thailand. His early films combined documentary techniques with flights of imagination: Mysterious Object at Noon applied the Surrealist “exquisite corpse” game to storytelling and yielded a wild commentary on Thailand’s social divisions interwoven with extraterrestrials.

Long considered an outsider from the rural Isan region, Apichatpong blends a love of classic films, art house, French New Wave, and B movies. Boonmee, which explores the title character’s life and approaching death from kidney failure, is Thailand’s official entry for the 2011 Oscars, with a U.S. theatre release in March.

Boonmee is part of Primitive, a museum installation project that follows alienated rural teenagers in Nabua near the Cambodian border. For Boonmee, the director drew inspiration from the Thai comic books and jungle adventures of his childhood, and a locally printed booklet of one Buddhist monk’s recollections of his previous lives.

At the film’s U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival last fall, Apichatpong described the film as “a tribute to these things that are dying, like Boonmee.” He aimed to imbue the movie’s portrayal of the rain forest, for example, with many layers of sounds to convey an extreme version of its abundant life, even as Asia’s tropical forests continue to get cut.

The film’s best scenes blend surrealism with deeply personal feelings of awkwardness. A domestic dinner scene in the countryside, for example, brings Boonmee together with his dead wife and his long-lost son, who now resembles a yeti with glowing red eyes. The awkward pauses at the dinner table trump the B-movie costumes to make the characters believable. Or as a nursing assistant in the scene admits as he approaches them, “I feel like the odd one here.”

Apichatpong had a very precise effect in mind. He wanted the campy costumes and glowing eyes to evoke cheesy sci-fi movies of the past, but also have enough emotional authenticity so that they could almost feel real. He wanted that uncertainty, to ensure audiences would feel uncomfortable either accepting or dismissing the film’s most unlikely characters.

I interviewed Apichatpong in New York after the screening. He spoke about being an outsider in the Thai film community, his views on nature, and what his film might say about last year’s political demonstrations in Bangkok. – David A. Taylor


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