By Kong Rithdee
The book is old and esoteric. In monkish, typewritten prose it details the various past lives of a man called Boonmee who suffered the cycle of death and rebirth until he assumed his present incarnation, as a human of the Northeast. When Apichatpong Weerasethakul came across that obscure sermon book, written by a monk from a temple near his house in Isan, the filmmaker dug its sense of everyday arcanum and knew it was material for a movie.
''I read the book even before I made Tropical Malady,'' he says. ''But I only got the chance to do it now.''
Tropical Malady, finished in 2004, was the first Thai film to be invited into the competition of Cannes Film Festival, the most influential and esteemed cine-event. Now Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives will be the second.
Apichatpong's fifth feature _ loosely inspired by the monk's book but assuming its own formalist reincarnation _ will join the exclusive ranks of the world's top arthouse films on Cannes' red carpet, to be rolled out during May 12 to 23.
''The title of the film suggests that it would be made up of different chapters as we follow the various past lives of the character, Boonmee,'' says the filmmaker. ''But it's a simple, honest film. It has the quality of old movies, and more than any of my previous films, this one has a narrative form.''
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (or Loong Boonmee Raluek Chart in Thai) recounts the story of the title character who's dying of kidney failure and the strange visitations from what looks to be the ghost of his wife. The film revisits Apichatpong's themes of memory and its mysterious resonance in life. It shows how memory sends ripples through our consciousness, and through the evolution of cinema as a lifeform itself.
His previous films Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century have been interpreted as refracted, structuralist representations of the concept of multiple lives lived through different planes of memory _ real, inherited, or cinematic. In short, his cinema is often the cinema of reincarnation.''I try to link my personal interests with the movies I make,'' says Apichatpong. ''What I'm interested in are fantastical beings, ghosts, memories, spirits. The curiosity about the existence of those things is in our nature. To me, birth and death are not opposites, they're both parts of our memory. The ability to recall our previous incarnations is relevant to the curiosity about ghosts or the prospects of future lives.
''What got me thinking is Marcel Proust and his books. When you get older, your memory about your childhood becomes clearer. That shows how our memory goes in cycles.''
Apichatpong shot the film on Super 16mm camera for almost three months in the Northeast. At a time when most directors either go digital or stick with the good old 35mm, his choice of medium is unusual.
''It's because of the budget,'' he says. ''I could shoot either digital or 16mm, but not 35mm. Because everybody is going digital, film is becoming primitive. But the extinction of this medium _ film _ is related to the concept of Uncle Boonmee, which talks about the extinction of belief, and it concerns my idea about the extinction of old movies, the kind that nobody wants to make any more.''
As if reflecting its notion of multiple avatars, the film Uncle Boonmee is part of Apichatpong's multi-platform project called Primitive that involves installation art, video, short films, a mock spacecraft, and now a feature presentation. His exhibition, which toured various European museums and galleries last year, is based on Apichatpong's experience in the northeastern village of Na Bua in Nakhon Phanom, where a brutal communist crackdown took place in the 1960s.
The theme of memory _ history ? _ and its haunting, comforting, perplexing eddies are thus entangled in the intricate structure of the whole enterprise.
''I think the entire project is my attempt to look at the Northeast,'' says Apichatpong. ''I want to look at the history of the place, not politically, but through my own encounter with it.
''In the Primitive exhibition, I filmed the people of Na Bua village. The people there do not want to recall even one past experience, not to mention many past lives, because it's too painful. Uncle Boonmee's memory represents another branch and he wants to recall so many past lives. They're different, and I'm not here to judge.''
As of now, it's unclear whether Uncle Boonmee will be released in Thailand. Apichatpong has made the film mainly with the support of European backers _ plus 3.5 million baht promised by the Thai Ministry of Culture. In 2007 when Apichatpong released his previous movie, Syndromes and a Century, the censorship board (now the rating board) ordered him to cut four innocuous scenes, prompting a major protest from film professionals and audiences.