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Amongst the safest proclamations to make about the way cinema works is that it has a safety zone. There’s a home base where most movies exist. Not so different from filmed theater, these films feature people talking and doing things; they’re in focus, lit conventionally, acted with just the right amount of dramatics, and shot according to the stipulations of traditional film grammar. The further a filmmaker strays from this home base, the more that will be expected of him, and the tougher it will be for him to keep the audience suspending their disbelief. That’s why some of the most wildly fantastic cinema—like Mulholland Drive, or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—is also some of the greatest: if it’s executed properly, it requires an absolute confidence in the directing. Likewise, some of the most wildly fantastic cinema—The Fountain, Southland Tales—is some of the weakest: it’s so easy for such films to falter.
This critic has seen few films that journey as far outside of cinema’s comfort zone as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the 2010 Cannes Palme D’Or winner and latest from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Few films journey as far, and few films are directed with such stunning confidence and gracefulness. There has been talk in some circles that with this film, Weerasethakul, whose Tropical Malady is considered to be one of the best films of the 2000s, has taken (from Hou Hsiao-Hsien? Michael Haneke? Abbas Kiarostami?) the mantle of greatest filmmaker in his prime today. If nothing else, it’s certainly arguable: how many filmmakers could manage to pull off a scene of a catfish performing cunnilingus on an ancient facially-disfigured princess and make it both poignant and erotic?
But that’s tangential. Boonmee centers on the titular uncle, who is dying of kidney failure; in his last days, his sister and nephew come to take care of him at his home in the jungle, and so do the ghost of his deceased wife and his long-lost son, who has been reincarnated as a pseudo-gorilla. Despite all this, Boonmee is filled with tranquility and beauty, never stepping for a moment into an even remotely absurdist realm. Chalk it up to the talents of the phenomenal Weerasethakul, with whom I recently had the pleasure of speaking.
Tribeca: The film deftly navigates between the very quotidian, and the very fantastic—ghosts, reincarnation. When you were conceptualizing the film, how did you figure out how you would merge these severely disparate elements?
Tribeca: So what are some examples of how things changed for you during the shoot?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: It’s not that they changed as much as it is that I had revelations. Like the dinner scene. When we set it up, I said that I wanted it to look like an old television show that I grew up with, [that] the DP grew up with. We’re shooting, and the lighting really brought me back, it was like we went back in time, due to the setup. The dinner scene was almost like a stage, a play. That wasn’t something I planned.
Also, the jungle—the scene where they walk through—I didn’t plan that out in advance, but when we were there I realized we needed a handheld camera in certain scenes, certain lighting. These sorts of things become more concrete on the set.
Tribeca: You mention the handheld photography in the jungle, and the cave. So much of the picture is done with static wide shots—did you ever wonder about a tonal discrepancy between those two aesthetics?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I did worry, because during the shoot I tried to shoot chronologically, but somehow the film had this jumbled quality. It felt segmented. On the third day of shooting I was already confused: is this going to be coherent? I was on the edge until later, when I started to stop worrying and see that there was something.
Tribeca: You use very little coverage in the film—many scenes are shown primarily in a master shot. That kind of long-take style is sort of the lingua franca of art cinema today, but you employ it in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. What is it about long takes and wide shots that appeals to you?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: For this film, I didn’t think the shots were that long! I thought it was a conventional style. For example, the dinner scene—you have some closer shots, reaction shots. So it was, for me, it wasn’t my style—I think my comfortable style is what you just described, to just observe the whole thing, and just take the master shot, but for this film I thought it was different. It had many cuts. I cut it up a lot, I thought.
Tribeca: Interesting. It’s true that there are some scenes with reaction shots and close-ups, but there are also some scenes—I’m thinking of Boonmee and his sister lying out in the field in that long take, the wide—when you compose shots like that, how do you try to guide the audience’s eyes to different parts of the frame? Are you thinking about where in the frame they’re looking when you let a wide shot run for that long? Do you want them to study one or two things, or do you want them to look all over the frame?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: It depends. For me, I’m the audience, so I just look for my comfortable angle and framing, which is mostly wide shots, as I said, because I like freedom. You can look at whatever element you want. Also, I like a straightforward angle, not so much from the side. That’s the way I look at people, at places—I hate angles. But that’s the scene in the farm. Other scenes, like the dinner or forest scenes, it changes. It’s not my usual style. I forced myself to respect the pattern of the past.
Tribeca: Those wide shots create a kind of subtlety in the scenes. You feel like there are these meaningful sentiments passing back and forth between the characters, and yet you also get the sense that these personally important items are rather irrelevant in the grand scheme of existence. Also, the way you shot the dinner scene, the ghost appears so subtly, so slowly—it took me a long time to realize the ghost was even there—
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: [Laughs]
Tribeca: And when I did realize, it was kind of this sublime moment. Do you think about keeping the drama at a low, subtle tenor?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Hmm. Yes. I want to create the feelings of—not a specific feeling. That’s how I feel about the cinema of the past. When I watch old movies, sometimes I feel like crying, but sometimes, because of the innocence, and the dialogue, I find them funny. So it’s a mixture of a joke and a serious tone that I was looking for. In the scenes, I tried to capture these feelings. People told me afterwards that they feel really sad about a certain scene, and then someone else will say that they found the same scene very funny.
Tribeca: You’ve mentioned the cinema of the past a few times. Dennis Lim wrote that perhaps you view Boonmee’s death and reincarnation as a metaphor for a reincarnation of cinema itself. Do you care to comment on that?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I think about the transformation, like the characters in the film, always transforming into something, or escaping. I think cinema is the same, my work is the same, always changing. For me, it’s really hard to stick to what I feel comfortable with. I feel that it has become like a trap, to repeat yourself, to start to get comfortable with what you might call a signature. I view cinema in that way. I want it to evolve, my cinema, and other cinema as well.
Tribeca: That’s interesting, that you don’t want to fall into a safety zone. As you attempt to push yourself out of your comfort zone, do you feel certain stylistic elements persisting regardless? And if so, what are they?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: The element of time. The looking, the observation of time. I feel that sometimes it is very challenging, because it is a basic truth of cinema. You look at something for a certain period of time, and the meaning changes. It’s very addictive, to do that. This is something that I’m stuck with.
Tribeca: You think about the work of Chris Marker or Alain Resnais, and they’ve both made the point that something that makes cinema unique as an artform is that you can deal with time and duration in a way that you can’t in any other artform.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Right, right. So I think that might be my formula, to play with time.
Tribeca: I’ve read that you don’t believe in reincarnation. Leaving the cinema metaphor aside, what else about the idea of reincarnation interested you when you began working on the film?
Tribeca: The moment where Boonmee talks about having killed too many communists is a poignant moment.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Yeah. It’s about trying to forget, in one’s lifetime. That happened in real life, especially in Thai political situations.
Tribeca: Back to the fantastical elements of the film—despite some of the more extreme moments in the film, like the sex scene with the catfish, I never felt like anything was out of place in the movie. What sort of a barometer do you have for determining whether or not a certain scene or element is of a piece with the rest of the work?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Oh, oh. I can’t answer that! I know that’s an easy answer, or boring, but I don’t know. It has a lot to do with working with the editor. It’s really like creating a world, a world that has a certain logic. But I can’t really explain that.
Watch the trailer: