When Apicatpong Weerasathakul became the first Thai director to win the Palme D’or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it was a major news story, not only because of the difficulties that the director experienced trying to get a travel visa to accept the award in person.
It’s very possible that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives —which begins an exclusive engagement Thursday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox — is the most radical and challenging film to be so honoured at Cannes. As such, it has left commentators demanding an explanation of its enigmatic contents.
“Of course I have my own feelings about (what the movie means)," says the 40-year-old filmmaker. “But I don't want to put a frame around these ideas, because I want the audience’s mind to be open and fresh. But it does seem like waste of time to fly here and then not say anything about my movie."
Apichatpong explains that his film’s elegantly structured account of a dying farmer visited by spirits is informed by Thai beliefs about reincarnation and spirituality, and that the casual nature of the story’s supernatural elements — like the glowing-eyed monkey-ghost that has become the movie’s signature image — reflects a larger cultural attitude.
“It is very prevalent in our fables that people’s loved ones can come back from the dead and visit them,” he says. “There is no line separating the living and the dead."
Even as it combines these genre elements with a pointed political critique, Uncle Boonmee is for its creator first and foremost a personal film.
“In many ways, the film is about me saying farewell, about memories of my father, who died of the same thing that [is making Boonmee] sick. I hope that people can relate to them because we all share certain experiences.”