Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Apichatpong-a-rama: Uncle Boonmee and the past lives of Thai films

And I'm still formulating my thoughts about the Cannes Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึก ชาติ, Lung Boonmee Raleuk Chat).

Meanwhile, there are other people writing about Apichatpong Weerasethakul's acclaimed film.

Filmsick pointed me to a Cinema Scope interview with Apichatpong, done in Cannes by Mark Peranson and Kong Rithdee. Kong wrote an earlier story in the Bangkok Post that was based on this same interview, in which Apichatpong talks about the episodic nature of his film. Here, he talks more about that, and the death of old-time movie-making.

Are you talking about Thai cinema or cinema in general?

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 …

Okay, even having all that explained, it doesn't really help me process the film in my own head.

However, it's clear that things are changing for Apichatpong and the Thai film industry. He's talked before that Uncle Boonmee will likely be the last film he can make in the manner he's been accustomed to.

He alluded to that "dying kind of cinema" in an interview with Agence France-Presse, which quoted earlier. It's available in various places on the Web but all the versions I've come across somehow got garbled. Here's a clean version of a key passage:

"Fear is the key word," he added, likening Thailand's current situation to Eastern Europe in the 1960s and 70s, when filmmakers resorted to "a symbolic kind of movie" rather than an overtly political one.

This seems true of his two-hour tale about Uncle Boonmee.

While the plot takes the dying man on a trek through the jungle with his dead wife and his son in monkey form, Apichatpong said it is a parable on a dying kind of cinema from his youth, and he links this closely to censorship.

"People try to – especially from the government – they try to tell you what is the right thing to wear, the right thing to do or what is the proper national language and stuff like that," he explained.

Set in the Thai northeast where Apichatpong grew up, the film is also a tribute to the rural region, which has its own distinct culture and dialect.

Winning Cannes, as Apichatpong told me, means he has more enemies, as well as people who want to work with him.

His Cannes win is even being parodied.

Interviewed on the Woody Kerd Ma Kui TV talk show on Sunday night, Joei revealed more about that. The Nation's Soopsip gossip columnist was watching the show (and not the World Cup?), and here's a snip from today's column:

After Joei won the top prize at Cannes, a French producer offered him 200 million baht [US$6.2 million] to make an action film. The money was tempting, he said, but the answer was no.

“I could make an action film, but only in my own style. With that much money, it’s doubtful I’d stay independent!”

Joei also revealed that his cinematic childhood was filled with the same "Hollywood junk [as] the rest of us", citing Steven Spielberg and George Lucas among his favorite directors. He'd also like to work with Thai leading ladies Pissamai Wilaisak, the now-blind 1960s and '70s screen siren Petchara Chaowarat and still-active veteran stage and screen actress Sinjai Plengpanich.

Here's more from the Soopsip report:

Joei was asked about the common belief that all of his films are difficult to understand. It’s okay, he says: “My parents don’t understand my films either.”

Does Joei understand his own films? He smiled, but it wasn’t a trick question, as it turned out. He watches them many times, “and I always find a new dimension, something I missed before.”

So yeah, there's some good advice. Trouble is, I have to somehow write a review of Uncle Boonmee before it opens in a limited release on Friday at Bangkok's SFX the Emporium cinema, where showtimes are at 7.20 nightly with 2.45 matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.

It did remind me, oddly, of Star Wars. And, I've found, I wasn't the only one.

Maybe it was the Monkey Ghost, who reminded me of Chewbacca? But, Apichatpong says that's maybe more from old Thai comic books, "or maybe Planet of the Apes.

(Nation photo by Pramote Putthaisong)

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