Spotlight | Ghost in the Machine: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Letter to Cinema

By Mark Peranson and Kong Rithdee

UncleBoonmee-Photo4CINEMA SCOPE: Let’s begin by contextualizing Uncle Boonmee within the multi-platform Primitive project. The project seemed to be moving you in a more explicitly political direction. Even if in Uncle Boonmee, one can—and I do—argue that the politics is always there in the background, that the communists are always in the jungle, so to speak, on the primary level you’re retreating to deal with themes such as reincarnation and death. Why did the film take this shape?

APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL: I’d never made a film in the northeast before, which is what the Primitive project is all about the on the one hand—the remembrance and the memory of the landscape I grew up with and the films I remember, and also the political landscape. Primitive is more of a memory of the region, Nabua, where I shot the installation films, and about how this area deals with the burden of memory. I travelled, and went to many cities in the region, and ended up in this village where I shot Uncle Boonmee. In Uncle Boonmee I wanted to present another angle on the region to give a more whole portrait.

The idea for the film began when I got a little book from a monk from my hometown, about this guy who could remember his many past lives; he died a while ago and I never got the chance to meet him. I got the book before I made Tropical Malady, and always wanted to make a film from it but I didn’t know how. I really need to have a personal connection to whatever I make, so eventually Boonmee became myself also. I put a lot of references to my own life in, so instead of an adaptation, it became something “inspired by.”

SCOPE: The character of Boonmee clearly echoes your father, who died of kidney failure and underwent dialysis, and you’ve said that certain scenes, such as the dining room and the bedroom scenes, are simulations of your father’s environment as he was dying. But what specifically about Boonmee is you?

APICHATPONG: It’s mostly a memory of when I grew up, and my childhood—not the region itself, but home, home in a more general sense. Mostly old TV in the ‘70s, shot on 16mm, and one-baht comic books that have a different landscape—the landscape of ghosts that coexist very well with the living. I was fascinated by that and tried to put some of that in. More than my other films, Uncle Boonmee is very much about cinema, that’s also why it’s personal. If you care to look, each reel of the film has a different style—acting style, lighting style, or cinematic references—but most of them reflect movies. I think that when you make a film about recollection and death, you have to consider that cinema is also dying—at least this kind of old cinema that nobody makes anymore.

SCOPE: Are you talking about Thai cinema or cinema in general?

APICHATPONG: Thai cinema, yes, but I think Uncle Boonmee will be one of the last films that will be shot on film, as everything is moving to the Red or Sony or whatever, so it’s a tribute, and a lamentation, in a way, for celluloid. The first reel is really like my way of filming: you see the animal in the forest, a long take with the kidney dialysis, and the driving scene. And the second reel is very much like old cinema with stiff acting, no camera movement, and a very classical stage, like Thai TV drama, with monsters and ghosts. The third reel becomes like a documentary, shot in the exteriors on the tamarind farm—and also French, in a way, this kind of relaxing film. The fourth reel, with the princess and the catfish, is a costume drama, a Thai cinema of the past. So even though there is a continuity, the time reference always shifts…The fifth reel is the jungle, but it’s not the same jungle as Tropical Malady because it’s a cinema jungle—a day-for-night drama that we shot with a blue filter, like very old films. You put this old actor into a cinema jungle, and the cave refers to those old adventure novels or comic books. (In the scene with the ghost we also used a mirror, another allusion to the cinema of the past.) And the sixth reel, in the hotel, the time is slowed down, the time has become seemingly documentary. Again it’s like my films, with the long takes, but at the same time in the end when it splits, when you see the doubles of the two characters, Jen and Tong, I wanted to suggest the idea of time disruption, that the movie isn’t dealing with one reality, there are multiple planes…

SCOPE: You mean you don’t know what time it is that you’ve been experiencing all along…

APICHATPONG: Yes, and you don’t know if the reality is in the karaoke bar or in the hotel room. And it suggests other multiple realities that you could be watching, and what you’ve seen before, the reels before could be a dream…So Jen comments that when you die you have a book at the funeral, and where is the book, it’s missing—well, there’s no book, we have a movie! Roong, the girl from Blissfully Yours who shows up in the last reel, says just make something up about this guy. It’s like me, I just make something up!

SCOPE: So six reels are the six reincarnations of cinema in a way?

APICHATPONG: Maybe, yeah. And the girl reunites with the monk and implies that even in one life you have another life, you change your identity…Also, when you look at old cinema the actors never grow old, but in reality they are dead, so cinema is a preservation in spirit of these people who have since passed.

SCOPE: The last reel returns again to your kind of cinema, with the reappearance of characters from Blissfully Yours and Syndromes, perhaps, the kind of cinema that as you say is seen in the first reel, so it closes the circle, and makes it more of a whole than your other films. But to return to politics, a subject which is perhaps inescapable in the current context, people have been trying to interpret Uncle Boonmee politically—what do the monkeys represent, for example. How much is intended to symbolize something, or relate the film to the current situation?

APICHATPONG: If people want to interpret that politically, well, that’s there. That’s one of my intentions. When I see the film I think about my experience over the past two years, and especially the installation—in the original script, for example, there was no photo montage of soldiers from Nabua, but that came in the editing, in post, though that dialogue about the future and people who disappear, that was already there as a voiceover.

SCOPE: Exactly the same voiceover appears in the dual-screen video in the Primitive installation, doesn’t it? When it appeared in Uncle Boonmee suddenly the entirety of the installation flashed before my eyes; it was reborn on the spot. The scene with LED lights in the field worked in somewhat the same way.

APICHATPONG: Yes, exactly. But I’m not lying: this was my real dream. I remember I woke up and wrote about this dream, about going to this future and having this time machine that people can use to see into their past, that their bodies can be a projector. And I put the photo montage in because I wanted to make my voice and Boonmee’s merge. I always say that film is like a diary, and I want to remember this village, and to have some part of the region that I experienced—playing with these kids, making fiction together—in this diary. The conflict that happened in Nabua [that began in 1965 and lasted two decades] echoes and resonates up to the moment, to the problems we’re having now in Thailand. And it also links with the reincarnation and influence of other cinema on me, especially Chris Marker and Antonioni. At first we thought it might be too obvious or too shallow to include the photos, but what the hell, it’s something I love and want to remember.

SCOPE: When you were starting to edit the film I asked you if it was political and you said, “No, not at all…”

APICHATPONG: Maybe the context, the current situation, makes it look this way, but you can link it if you want. Originally half of the script was voiceover, with people talking and commenting on the image—making fun of the image—but then we scrapped that and wanted to introduce more abstraction, maybe to mimic the inner workings of the mind.

SCOPE: All of your films in a way are incomplete, because it seems that you leave plenty of space for viewers to bring their own selves to the film, and also to put the pieces of the film together. Is this structure important to you? This incompleteness? And it’s interesting here because you actually have something that exists apart from the feature that completes it, namely, the Primitive project.

APICHATPONG: Right, right, like another life for the film…I think I agree about leaving it open, but also it’s the same way that much literature leaves things open, and you can say it has a life of its own…I believe that cinema has its own life. So especially when you are editing you have to let the film tell you what to do. You have to be open and not keep things just for the sake of the script, but for the freedom of the audience.

SCOPE: How is the finished film different from the script?

APICHATPONG: Aside from the voiceover, it’s almost the same. We shot more of the princess—scenes where the princess was going to deliver her baby—because I wanted to talk about this idea of the future of hybridization between humans and animals, which I do with the monkey ghost who mates and then he cannot come back to the regular world. So in these scenes the princess is anxious about her baby, whether it will have the scales of the catfish or whether it will be human.

SCOPE:  At the press conference it was surprising for me to hear you refer to Thailand as “a violent country…one that is ruled by mafias.” Are you conscious of the fact that you exist as a kind of national filmmaker? Is this something that you want to be, or is it something that has been thrust upon you?

APICHATPONG: I don’t mind it! For me it’s not a burden, for me…it’s my film, I don’t know what to say. And without Thailand…I live there, the country propels my movie-making, my expression. Even though it’s shitty, it has something…People tell me, it sounds terrible, you cannot talk about certain things, maybe so. But for me Thailand also has many beautiful things. You can also survive in this shitty land in your own way. I think that more and more in Thailand we will see something like Eastern European movies in the ‘60s and ‘70s with a lot of symbolism, not directly attacking the establishment. I’m happy to witness and to be part of that.

SCOPE: And I heard that you don’t care about showing this film in Thailand.

APICHATPONG: This film I don’t.

SCOPE: Why not?

APICHATPONG: I want to show it to people who like my films and can identify with them, but the process of getting a theatre, and advertising a full release, is so tiring…Maybe we’ll show it on one or two screens.

SCOPE: Then there is the monk scene in Uncle Boonmee, and already people from Thailand have been talking about why you included a monk again. In terms of narrative maybe it’s a necessity, but did you do it out of spite, in reaction to the problems you experienced with the authorities regarding Syndromes?

APICHATPONG: I wanted him to present the idea about having more than one identity in the same life. I cannot lie, including it is partly due to the reaction to Syndromes, but it’s also about the reincarnation of the previous character from the film. But you see so much extreme behaviour from the monks. And I just want to say that a monk is a human being. In Thailand people think that a monk or a doctor is another thing entirely, but they aren’t.

SCOPE: When reading the Austrian Filmmuseum book on your work, it struck me that there are very different ways of writing about your films, the Western way versus the more Eastern way, say. What are your thoughts about those articles that interpret your films as part of a European or international art film scene, as opposed to in relation to Thai film?

APICHATPONG: I appreciate that, I really do. I really like it and enjoy the interpretations. My film life really started in Chicago, so you cannot really divide my filmmaking into east or west—there are many references. It helps me and it’s interesting to see, as it confirms the idea that cinema has its own life. I think it’s a success when people have many angles to approach what you do in one work. Of course I’ve read things that don’t make sense, and that’s fascinating too, but I shouldn’t say what they are! Maybe from you? It’s also interesting that when I show my films in Thailand, Thais have a different level of understanding that we cannot translate. So in certain scenes in Thailand people laugh…At the same time some people don’t get what I’m trying to say, both Thais and foreigners. But many people in the West honestly try to understand, and are more open, as there is a deep root of cinema culture, especially here in France. So I am not sure if in Thailand it is more accessible…In Thailand, maybe they are more narrow-minded, and have a fixed idea of what cinema is.

SCOPE: I heard that over the course of researching the film you stopped believing in reincarnation.

APICHATPONG: I haven’t stopped believing, but I would say I have doubts. Researching and making the film, I found many people who claimed that they could remember their past lives, and there is no reason for them to lie. When I went back to my hometown I saw lots of changes. The culture is disappearing and I want to capture that, but at the same time there is something that we cannot change, which is our beliefs, that are rooted in the Cambodian Khmer, which is animist—we believe in the transmigration of the soul, in the circle of life, animal, human, and plant migration, swapping bodies. Thais are like chameleons, we adapt to many things, but the belief in spirits and gods cannot be changed easily. But the more I think about it after making the movie, the more I want proof. When you really tackle it and make a film you ask yourself questions. So that’s why I say reincarnation is possible, but science isn’t at the point where it can be proved.

SCOPE: Wait, can you even prove reincarnation scientifically?

APICHATPONG: Yes. I believe in the future we will be able to. To prove that it’s the working of the mind or it exists in reality, I don’t know. But science will have another step of revolution, you know, and I heard that the next one will be about anti-gravity matter, and after that I think we will know more about the mind…

SCOPE: Maybe you can rephrase it another way—you say reincarnation but maybe you are also talking about parallel universes, like in quantum physics…

APICHATPONG: Right, right…Buddhism and the idea of reincarnation is interesting—because Buddha said he has a past life, but he doesn’t ask us to believe in it ourselves. Usually in science you have an apparatus to measure things, but in the Buddhist way the body is the apparatus, the machine to do that, and it’s up to the individual to measure. And that’s one of the ways to meditate I think. So I think I need to meditate more to get proof, like David Lynch!

SCOPE: In all of your films there are references to Buddhism. But to me your films also have this scientific quality. You like the word “object,” from the first title, Mysterious Object at Noon. In Tropical Malady when the monk is telling the story he uses the word “object.” The gorilla in Uncle Boonmee is not Thai at all, either, it’s a primate, the origin of the species, of mankind. How do you reconcile this with your Buddhism, or how much is your intention in bringing in this scientific element?

APICHATPONG: Maybe science is the wrong word. Maybe it’s the idea of transformation. In the movie, with this six-reel idea of transforming time. Or maybe you can refer to a scientific nature, because science is everywhere and we don’t see it—there are moving particles in this table, nothing is solid.

SCOPE: Both here and in Tropical Malady you’re also dealing with nature, and man’s place in the world, and how we need to reconcile our relationship with nature.

APICHATPONG: Nature for me is an addiction—I like the image, the green, the sound…But it’s a very delicate balance of how not to repeat what you’ve done before, so I try not to use the jungle too much and present it in a different way. The jungle in the film is something foreign, with the heavy sound design, but it used to be our home. Which is why when we go back to the jungle or the cave, it’s like the characters and the audience going back to their roots. That’s why at one point in the cave there’s a shot where you see the drawings on the wall. Some people were there, in the past…you’re going back to origins, when you drew on the walls, and did a shadow play, a primitive form of cinema.

SCOPE: And also, not to be too obvious, Plato’s cave.

APICHATPONG: Yeah, but the more I explain, the more the movie loses its mystery so I think I should stop!

SCOPE: Is there a mystery behind the film that they watch on TV on the farm? And the song at the end? Can you talk about those?

APICHATPONG: It’s called The Last Moment (2008). I’m close to the director, Yuthlert Sippapak, which is the first reason I chose it. I tried to find a movie that I could get free of copyright, honestly. In that film there’s one moment that’s a direct parallel to the action in Uncle Boonmee: the main character can’t sleep so someone tells him to take a sleeping pill. But we ended up using another scene, where the main character escapes to an island because she’s dying, and prefers to die in a beautiful house there. There’s something that I like in that scene. And also to take a soundtrack from one movie and put it on top of my film gives the movie another life. The song [“Acrophobia” by Penguin Villa] is something I cannot explain. I like the beat, but I don’t care about the meaning. It’s some kind of love song where the girl is high up and he asks her to come down…But it’s the mood and the feeling that matters to me.

SCOPE: Can you talk about the film’s sound design?

APICHATPONG: I really pay attention to the details of the sound. I’m some kind of a fanatic. This is my first film to have very heavy dialogue, very dramatic, so I was quite confused how to mix it, how to make the dialogue present like in a conventional film. And we did mix the conventional way and then we screened it…but the last day of the mixing I changed the whole thing, and brought the ambience up. And Rit (Akritchalerm Kayalanamitr), the sound guy, was going crazy, because it changed everything. You know, I have to screen my films to know what’s missing, and what was missing from the film was nature. So we boosted up the ambient sounds. When you talk about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls between animal, plant, and human, you need to have the audience aware of the other lives in this universe, such as insects or birds. It’s not so much changing the sound itself but the levels…and we changed them in every reel.

SCOPE: The sound design really makes you conscious of these other spirits. For example, I thought that in the dinner scenes the mosquitoes were the souls of the dead communists coming back to pester Boonmee.


SCOPE: It’s never made clear what Boonmee’s past lives are. Or whether they are past lives or dreams, or even the future…

APICHATPONG: Yeah, he could be anyone. Because the last time we hear him he talks about the dream of the future, other things could be dreams too.

SCOPE: In one way the film is about how death and life are everywhere, coexisting. That’s why I mentioned the cave because there is the shot of this small pool in the cave with small fish swimming—even in this completely dark and desolate place there’s life.

APICHATPONG: Yes, it’s a place where you don’t imagine there is life, but there is.

SCOPE: Do you think about death a lot? Are you conscious of your own mortality?

APICHATPONG: Not really. I think about death in a more conceptual way, about the idea, and reincarnation, but not about mine. You?

SCOPE: I think it’s an issue that you think about the older and older you get. I asked because there’s sickness in your movies everywhere.

APICHATPONG: Maybe it has to do with growing up in a hospital. I like the idea of having a physical sickness and needing to have it cured, because it’s the same idea of having darkness and lightness, or silence and noise at the same time. When you experience a sickness you become aware of life, and of well-being.

SCOPE: You mentioned that you meditate. But are you religious in the sense of going to the temple?


SCOPE: Is it just in terms of religion as personal belief, with you trying to make contact to the spiritual realm…

APICHATPONG: I think it means more to me in a psychological or scientific way. Thai people, sometimes we pray before we go to bed. For me the praying is to help me sleep, so this kind of thing is more of a chemical balance to adjust your body. I don’t go to temple—I think of praying as fun, a rest for the mind. I just read a book about this. I forget the author, but he said that we take a bath every day to clean our bodies, but we never shower our minds. Meditation is one of the ways to clean our mind as well.

SCOPE: Where’s the UFO from A Letter to Uncle Boonmee? Why is it not in the movie?

APICHATPONG: It’s still in the village. It’s so big we can’t move it! We decided that it would be too obvious to put it in the movie. Because you know the film is about imagination, so if I put this UFO in you might think, “What kind of machine is Boonmee travelling in?”

SCOPE: Do you see the feature and the short as related in any specific way? It’s interesting that the short is all camera movement, while the feature is static.

APICHATPONG: No, they are different. The short was made long before and is more of a sketch for the feature. The two aren’t really related, it’s more about me trying to think about Boonmee when I was in that village, but we shot the feature in a different place, in Khon Khen, and then in Bangkok for the hotel and temple. The installation is very different because it’s shot on video, and spontaneous. Shooting in this way you can go to many locations, but for a feature you have to plan things.

SCOPE: When you’re working for a gallery or cinema do you feel that you’re a different artist, or working for different audiences? How does it impact on what you’re making and how you make it?

APICHATPONG: In a way, yes. But the working process sometimes overlaps, as sometimes I have the same crew and use the same equipment. But I’m aware of the different ways that people will see it. I always have thought that when you see an installation it’s like two animals sizing each other up—you walk in the space, the work is more active, you are judging it like another animal. In the cinema the audience is super-passive, like a zombie. As a director you hypnotize the audience. So that becomes conscious to me when I am making a movie. But that also means that cinema is inferior in a way, in terms of activeness of self, but it also has a strength. When you are a zombie your mind works harder, instead of walking in a space where you exert yourself physically. The power of cinema is extreme, and for this film I try to bring this power to the audience as much as I can. I will keep making both films and installations because they echo each other, and this project, it has many forms, and for me it fits very well with the theme of reincarnation of multiple lives—Uncle Boonmee is another life form.