Revelations With Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Lee Chatametikool

Each year at the Cannes Film Festival, we remember when Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee. We look back at an interview with Apichatpong and his long-time editor, filmmaker Lee Chatametikool, about their ongoing collaboration.

May 26, 2017
On a sunny afternoon in Chiang Mai in 2011, Apichatpong Weerasethakul sat down with his long-time editor and fellow filmmaker Lee Chatametikool to discuss the concept of “home” in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. But what resulted was a whole lot more. . .

Lee: Maybe you can talk about your idea of home and your journey home…. Was Uncle Boonmee a part of this journey?

Apichatpong: It has been a real journey, a long one back to Isan. It was also life-changing for me as it was the first time I really fully immersed myself in something and created new experiences from it. My other films have been about people I know, things familiar to me, be it my own life, my family, loved ones like in Syndromes and a Century, or situations that stemmed from current political affairs like Blissfully Yours. Uncle Boonmee on the other hand is about a physical place – Isaan.

The journey started from my house in Khon Kaen, and we went along the Mekong so it became a project that is not just from me, but from my family, not my real family as in Syndromes but my extended movie family who traveled with me. It was as if I grew up from my personal family into my professional family. Uncle Boonmee was in a way like finding the best way to go forward, live and build experiences together.

Lee: Strangely, I felt the same way with Uncle Boonmee. It was like going back to your first film, Mysterious Object at Noon in terms of the process. Taking disparate pieces and weaving them together into a story that we didn’t know where it would end.

Apichatpong: Yes. Mysterious Object at Noon was like learning how to make a movie. But now, we are all filmmakers, we already know how to make films, so this is the next step almost; Uncle Boonmee is like a sequel to Mysterious Object. I don’t know how you felt editing it… maybe lost sometimes?

Lee: Well, your films with a plot were much easier to cut but on the ones without I found it hard to find a storyline.

Apichatpong: To be honest, I was lost too… I wanted you to edit the art project. It’s different you know, with film, where you organize my thoughts for me. This is different. It was footage shot over three or four months that I passed on. In the end it made me see that there is something more organic in art, down to the editing. Then when it came to editing Uncle Boonmee, you did not ask questions because you were already familiar with the footage.

Lee: It was interesting because I was already familiar with the social and political aspects from Primitive [a multi-platform art project by Apichatpong]. They served as a backdrop while editing Uncle Boonmee. So when he talks about killing communists, you’re aware the film is not just about past lives and karma but links back to Primitive.

Apichatpong: It was always difficult for me to explain to people how Uncle Boonmee and Primitive relate. It was a certain experience, at a certain time, and a portrait of Isaan.

Lee: In Primitive, you talk about trying to find Uncle Boonmee’s house; it’s a combination of references, structures, and your imagination. Was the house you used in Uncle Boonmee a real house then?

Apichatpong: Well, not exactly. The structure was there and Eak from the art department redesigned the walls and ceiling. He mixed it up with memories from our journey together with my childhood memories of Khon Kaen living in a wooden house. It recalled relics and elements of my childhood and growing up, TV shows, comics, and tales.

I had no idea how the movie would come out as there were so many choices. There was so much footage. Remember when we tried to use an orchestral score? You see, the movie is a hybrid; it’s a mixed child; I did not want it to be like Tears of the Black Tiger [by Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000], which is retro.

Lee: Yeah, we cut a lot out from the film. You did not want it to be an homage?

Apichatpong: Well, no, I wanted the audience to know that it was made in 2010, that it is contemporary, that it is a hybrid.

Lee: I think the final picture had the intended effect of nostalgia and softness – that film effect – so that the viewer, when they see it, has a visceral reaction to the images and sounds. They might not understand why they feel this way, but it’s something deeper, almost subconscious.

Apichatpong: It was kind of amazing in a way; I don’t know if I told you, but Cannes was a complete surprise for me – I was expecting to get booed. You cannot get to know the film so well as a viewer when you have lived with it for so long. I did not know how people would feel when they approached it freshly.

Lee: So what now? You have been traveling a lot because of Uncle Boonmee…

Apichatpong: People wonder what I’ve done all year long; traveling here and there, taking breaks… but actually it has been a time for me to collect my thoughts. The Mekong Project [Apichatpong’s latest, still untitled film on the environmental concerns facing the Mekong River] is something that I researched extensively when I was traveling. When you really see what they go through, especially the flooding, how important water is to people. This is my new project.

So much tension lies with Thailand, China and Laos in terms of environmental effects as well as economic interest. Laos building dams to supply electricity to Thailand – kind of like what we did in the past – just destroys the eco balance. My challenge with this movie is to not make an environmental movie or documentary. Though maybe in the end, none of this will make an appearance and will all be hidden.

Lee: When you speak of this project I think people expect a political film critical of China but in the end it probably won’t be…

Apichatpong: It will be a long process so in the meantime I want to try something different. That’s why I was interested in producing your film, Concrete Clouds.

Lee: My first feature film! [It’s leading characters, Ananda and Jane] It started from my research on the idea of luk krueng [people of mixed Asian and Western ethnicity], the seeds of this love affair between Thailand and America and hybrid culture. Hybrid and culture are also biological terms and I found the intersection between science and society – the concept of genetic engineering – fascinating. Then I found this breed of rice called Jasmine-85, which is a hybrid of Jasmine-105 (Thailand’s jasmine rice) and IRRI-262. It is a luk krueng rice: the epitome of this idea and also the original name for Concrete Clouds.

The other concept was about the division between the virtual and the real, this transition in Thailand from a real agricultural economy to a virtual bubble economy. This big shift started in 1985 but its roots are in the late seventies with the end of the gold standard, and finishes in 1997 with the [Thai financial] crash. After the bubble popped in 1997, it was the start of a new society and cultural developments whereas before Thailand was very Third World. It used to take a long time for Western pop culture to filter to Thailand. After 1997, the internet sped up the process, but it was still a hybridized and localized version, still a bit exotic and strange but more modern.

Apichatpong: You seem to be really drawn to that period. What is it about that time?

Lee: There were so many changes in my life then. I moved back to Thailand in 2000 as the economy started to recover and then my father passed away in 2001. I was 25. It was a real turning point. I felt I was freed from certain social burdens but at the same time it brought more responsibility. I also had to adapt to working in Thailand, to talking to adults in an official way. I had never done this and I had to really learn and adapt and change.
Apichatpong: I think you do it better than I do these days!

Lee: It was a hard time for me, so I was open to many things. I came back without any expectations. I knew I would be the boom man on Blissfully Yours and after that, well, it was a completely open book. I left everything in New York, quit my job, left all my furniture and came back with just a suitcase and some clothes.

Apichatpong: Wow. You know it has taken some time now, ten years from that first point when you came back.

Lee: Yes, with lots of editing in between.

Apichatpong: Yes, that was my fault.

Lee: It’s good though. If I had made the film back then it would probably be with a studio and I probably wouldn’t have liked the way it turned out. Also the film deals with turning 30 and I wasn’t there yet. Now that I’m past 30, I understand the conflicts and feelings more thoroughly. I better understand the difference between 18 and 30 and the changes in between. Also the actual period itself; as we gain distance from 1997, the consequences of that era on the present social or political scene become clearer.

Apichatpong: I am interested in your film because of this aspect too you know; that many can identify with them, a certain generation can identify with it, someone like me, though I might be a bit old.

Lee: No you’re not, we’re still the same generation.

Apichatpong: Thai movies now serve teenagers only and I think it is interesting that your film can relate to a different generation. I found similarities with your short film Miami Strips, Hollywood Dreams.

Lee: Miami Strips was about pastiche; putting together lots of different things and experimenting with editing and storytelling. In a way, this film expands on that. In Miami Strips I depicted a luk krueng kid whose mom is Thai, who has never known his American GI dad. The only way he could travel to America was through his imagination. With Concrete Clouds, I wanted to explore the opposite: a luk krueng with a Thai dad who has the physical means to travel and live abroad.
Apichatpong: Usually, the dad is foreign and the mom is Thai, but not in this case or your case. You know, thinking about it, after reading the script, there are some elements of you in there, and you do include some of your own memories and feelings.

Lee: Yes, a little bit. These memories I have of growing up. Places that seemed so far in Bangkok are so close now. Or rooms that were big have become so suffocating. And my grandfather’s funeral when I was four – a traditional Chinese funeral. My memories of it are very dramatic with huge fires and everything.

Apichatpong: It’s because you were little!

Lee: Yes! Also, how love changes over time, how when you are young you get butterflies in your stomach while on a date but as you grow older you don’t anymore. I always wondered why. And whether that first feeling was even real or not.

I’m curious about a character who confuses that old feeling with true love and wants to rediscover it because he believes that it will solve his problems and make him happy. But ultimately, when he finds it, is it real?

After I read the script, it has a melancholy to it where it was no longer just about the characters but a critique on Thai society, people and the hopelessness of it all.

When I read it now I can see the parallels. I actually just wanted to create hopeless characters who have a chance to change but who fail to grasp the opportunity and once that moment is gone it is very hard to recapture it. I guess, in a way, it is like our society; we have the chance to move forward but we often ignore it until it is too late.  

Apichatpong: Well, it is universal, something that we cannot go back to.