Saturday afternoon in Cannes, and myself and a few colleagues from the international film press have been granted the opportunity to spend some time with Thai directer Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the man who just over 24 hours later would be receiving the 2010 Palme d'Or from Charlotte Gainsbourg for his reincarnation fable, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
“I think it's gonna be the same questions,” jokes the filmmaker as our group settles down around him on the sun deck of the Unifrance pod in the Cannes International Village, just a few hundred yards away from the Grand Théâtre Lumière where he would be garlanded in such noteworthy fashion the following evening. Despite the wry aside, stemming from the fact this is the 39-year-old's nth interview of the day, he looks the epitome of relaxation in black striped shirt and superfly Ray Ban aviators. And this outward coolness subsequently proves to extend beneath the surface as he answers all our questions with a polite thoughtfulness. An eclectic range of topics are tackled during our half hour – ranging from the director's own thoughts on reincarnation, to the clashes between military and anti-government protesters in Bangkok which dominated news headlines over the previous week; and even touching upon his visionary plan to put Brigitte Bardot on the Starship Enterprise.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is an original, surprising account of a dying man's spiritual, often fantastical experiences as he nears the end of his (current) life. It is a very calm movie in many ways, with death being afforded a tranquil, reflective treatment that it rarely gets in western culture. The film also buzzes with myriad offbeat ideas, such as the son who transforms into a 'monkey ghost', and a sequence involving a talking catfish getting amorous with a princess who stumbles upon its enchanted pool.
Apichatpong is questioned about the central concept of Uncle Boonmee – which, as the title suggests, is reincarnation – and his approach to expressing that concept in cinematic terms. “My idea is to represent the belief of transmigration of the soul,” explains the director, “in the cycle of exchanging between humans, animals and plants. Originally the script has all voice-over explaining everything, we have talking throughout the film. Then we changed it, we say we need more abstraction, because we need to respect the audience's imagination.”
Ah yes, the audience. Let's make no mistake about it, as rich and intelligent a movie as Uncle Boonmee is, it is certainly not Pulp Fiction or Barton Fink in terms of easily-accessible Palme d'Or-winners, and the whole thing may prove too obscure for some. Does Apichatpong have any suggestions for how viewers might be advised to approach his film? “Relax!” he smiles. “Open your mind up and just let the images flow.” He is a director very much open to fresh, outside takes on his own work too, noting that, “Every film [that I make] I encounter a different, interesting interpretation, and I'm looking forward to it.” Though he admits, “People are different, you cannot force them, and there's gonna be people who shut off and there's gonna be people who share the sentiment. And for me too, sometimes when I watch a commercial movie, I don't understand.”
Not that he is wholly adverse to working within genre film-making himself. When asked if there are any particular genres he would like to work in, he enthusiastically replies, “Science fiction”. He continues: “I drew up one project called Utopia, and it's about this snow landscape, it's in a nondescript time and it involved the Starship Enterprise, the Star Trek ship, that gets abandoned in the snow. And I want to use the old generation female science fiction actresses to experience this landscape.” While Apichatpong cites Brigitte Bardot as one such actress, I struggle to think of any notable sci-fi that the French screen siren has ever appeared in – though she did trill the groovily cosmic, Serge Gainsbourg-penned tune Contact in the '60s.
Science fiction and science fact seem delightfully porous areas to the Thai filmmaker, and he remains very much open-minded as to whether the kind of multiple lives experienced by Uncle Boonmee are an accurate reflection of real-world existence. “It's a possibility,” he remarks, “but I cannot say 100% until there's another layer of scientific proof.” He proceeds, “I think we don't know much about the workings of the mind at the moment. I believe in the power of meditation and I think that meditation is science. There is a progress of science – Einstein's [theories of relativity], and the next one is gonna be, I think, anti-gravity – the graviton. I think after the graviton will be the mind, I hope.” When pressed on the matter of meditation, Apichatpong laughs and suggests that renowned Transcendental Meditation advocate David Lynch might be better equipped to handle all detailed queries.
Speaking of other filmmakers, is he able to offer the names of any who he derives inspiration from? He smiles. “A lot. I answer differently every time. People like Andy Warhol – Empire, you know this movie?” Everyone nods in vaguely non-committal fashion, being aware of the notorious eight-hour film of the Empire State Building's exterior, without ever having felt any burning desire to actually seek out and sit through the damn thing. Apichatpong also name-checks Pedro Almodóvar, as well as a fellow Cannes 2010 competitor, Abbas Kiarostami, director of Certified Copy. And what about actors he might like to collaborate with in the future? “I'd like to work with Tilda Swinton. We have been emailing a little bit about trying to make a movie together.”
The conversation shifts to the Uncle Boonmee shoot and how smoothly it all went. Admits the director, “The hardship was working with the actors, non-professional actors [neither Thanapat Saisaymar, who plays Uncle Boonmee, or Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, who appears as Boonmee's ghost wife, are actors by trade], trying to explain to them what I want. And not only actors – the crew members. Because, if you notice in this film, it's pretty smooth in a way but it divides into six reels. And each reel has a different tone, has a different style of lighting, different acting style, different camera style. So to explain that and to achieve that it is quite complicated. To tell the actors, 'Okay, be natural, but not natural'.”
The majority of the performers in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives hail from the north-east of Thailand, where the movie is also set. It is a rural area depicted as possessing a certain natural serenity, which is linked to the dense forests and rugged mountains which give the region such a striking appearance. Says Apichatpong: “I grew up there and it's a place that is pretty harsh for people. For the agricultural community, the soil and the weather is not so good, so many people migrate to Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket to work as labour force. So people tend to look down on the poor people because in Thailand there is a big class [divide] and that contributes to the unrest that's going on now. The area is under-represented in a way, so this movie is quite unique.”
And what is his own assessment of that unrest, on which the world's eyes had been fixed in the days immediately preceding this interview, and which in the winners' press conference on Sunday night Apichatpong would confess had almost prevented him from travelling to Cannes? “It's a class war, and it's very complicated because it's not only about underprivileged people voicing their concern but, with the red shirts [the supporters of deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra], there are also tycoons and politicians involved. It's not as easy as the poor and the rich, it's more about power. It's very hard for me to fathom now because it shows how we've been manipulated by the media since we were young and this situation forced us to rethink our belief, our judgement and our morals, and how do we stand.”
And with matters of morality on the table, it seems only reasonable to mention that arresting scene of the princess getting up close and personal with the catfish, with the question being posed as to whether he envisages it running into trouble with the Thai censors. “I don't think so,” replies Apichatpong, “Maybe the monk scene, but not the catfish.” Feel free to insert your own monkfish jokes here...