Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cinema Reborn: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Interview

[Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is a personal, gentle and playful contemplation of reincarnation and transmigration of souls. I got a chance to sit down for an interview (via skype) with the acclaimed Thai director about the film, art, censorship and Thai independent cinema. Despite some technical hiccups prior to our interview, his generosity and thoughtful responses impressed me a great deal.]

So Where are you right now?

I'm in Mexico City, at the museum where I'm doing installations for Primitive that opens this Saturday.

Uncle Boonmee is part of Primitive, a multi-platform art project that you've been working on for a while. Can you tell me how it came about?

It was right after Syndromes and a Century I began thinking about it. It's a survey of the northeastern Thailand where I grew up. After Syndrome, I wanted to go back to my roots, where I came from. So I started to travel around doing small art projects and I didn't even know what the final project would be like. But the traveling process through the region was very important to me. It gradually snowballed to what it is now.

I saw A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantom of Nabua from Primitive. So they are all shot in places where you grew up?

Not exactly the same town, but in the same northeastern region near Thai-Lao border. Once a communist rebels' stronghold, the region holds important Thai history in my mind.

Is this an ongoing project that will go beyond Uncle Boonmee?

There is another project I'm planning to do in the same region but I need to differentiate the two. Primitive was about remembering the history of the region. The new one could be a fiction or a sculpture even. I don't know it yet.

Memories play an important role in your films and Uncle Boonmee is no exception. Reincarnation is also a common theme, mirrored in your notion of cinema being reborn. I'd like to know your take on the HD video revolution that is going on right now. This film was shot on Super 16mm?

Yes, Super 16. I am following the news very closely on digital technology. But Uncle Boonmee is, as you say, about memories of cinema that is either dying or transforming, so it had to be shot on film. For my installations projects, I shot them on video. Obviously video is much more spontaneous to capture something when staying with those teenagers for months. In terms of feature films, I don't think I'll use video just yet, because I don't think technology is there yet. The image quality of film is much better still. But we will see what kind of video cameras would be available in two or three years.

Some say that Uncle Boonmee is your action movie. It has ghosts, monkey spirits and a talking catfish...

Well, I'd say it's a very special action movie (laughs). That's fine by me, as long as it draws more audience to see the film. It's hard for me to judge how my work's going to be received. I view it differently when producers say, "oh this is going to be more accessible to audiences". In my mind, Uncle Boonmee is still similar kind of work I've always been doing. So it was quite a surprise for me that it had received better feedback and getting wider audience.

The whole time I was watching it, I was very taken by the glowing red eyes of the monkey spirits. Can you tell me how you achieved that, if you don't mind revealing the secret?

They are just simple LED lights. I wanted it to be low-tech. Just like the ghost (dead wife) scenes, where we used the old-fashioned mirror tricks. For the monkey scenes, we did a lot of tests. We didn't want it to look like a complete joke with a man in a monkey suit (laughs). I wanted to create that borderline in-between feeling.

Did winning the Palme d'Or make loosen Thai government censorship over Thai film industry at all?

Only for my film and not really changed for anyone else unfortunately. I think politically it was pretty bad for the Thai government at that time and they realized that they couldn't afford another controversy.

Was it released in Thailand?

Oh yeah. Thailand was the first country to get to see it. It was a big success!

So what's next?

I'm starting some art project on the Mekong River in the Thai-Lao region. It's about an ecological issue - how the constructions of dams in China, Laos and Thailand affect the livelihood of people there. There is also a short film (about 60-70 minutes) being done. It's called Mekong Motel. I am also raising money for a film by my editor (Lee Chatametikool), shooting in May. It's a co-production of Thai independent filmmakers, produced by me, Anocha (Anocha Suwichakornpong, director of Mundane History), and Aditya (Aditya Assarat, director of Wonderful Town).

There seems to be a healthy independent film movement in Thailand.

Hey, have you seen the poster for Uncle Boonmee's American Release?

Yes, of course. It's done by Chris Ware, no?

I've always been disappointed with the DVD covers of my films by Strand Releasing. So I wanted something different this time. I asked Marcus (Marcus Hu at Strand) if we could get a graphic designer for the poster. And first artist that popped into my head was Chris Ware. I love his work.

Uncle Boonmee Opens March 2 at Film Forum, NYC.

Click here for Animate Projects: Primitive

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fever Dream

Tropical Malady (2006) - Weerasethakul
tropical malady
I fell asleep the first time watching this a while ago. I don't know, maybe it was its languid pacing. Maybe it was Summer heat. Or I might have been distracted that day. Since this film is the only one I haven't seen all the way through by one of my favorite directors, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, here I decided to try again. And it rewarded me handsomely.

What starts out as a little gay-soldier-in-the-jungle romance, Tropical Malady transforms itself in the midway into a hypnotic tale about transmigration of soul and love story unlike any other. Last half of the film- encounter with a ghost/tiger spirit, is mindblowingly beautiful. There are also many connections, themes one can find in other Weerasethakul's work here- memories, spirits, animism, nature... Organic, playful, gentle and breathtakingly gorgeous in its bare to the bone cinematography, it really reaffirms Mr. unpronounceable as one of the most original voices in contemporary cinema.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Proxy War

Summer Wars (2009) - Hosoda
Summer Wars
Summer Wars 2
Still haven't seen Social Network, but when it comes to internetz on the big screen, it fails miserably. What could be so exciting about people intensely hammering away at keyboard? The answer is obvious: it can only work in anime. And Mamoru Hosoda's Summer Wars answers with bright colors and cutesy style. In it, "Oz"- the network that is so vast and integral in our daily lives, when it gets hacked, the world is thrown into pandemonium. It's the Jinouchi Clan to save the world with the help of an emo programmer Kenji.

The digital animation of Oz and the avatars that inhabit the virtual world look very much like pop art sensation Takashi Murakami's work. Ah, circle of life, since Murakami's work totally rips off of anime. Also ironic is game of Hanafuda (Japanese card game) saving the day, since the game is socially and culturally looked down upon as crass, low brow entertainment. But behind the happy super fun exterior, Summer Wars actually has a story and a lesson in this internet age however slight it is. And I like that.

The Knack

The Knack... and How to Get It (1965) - Lester
the knack
the knack 2
Richard Lester's playful sex romp from the 60s can be hard to understand sometimes. But it doesn't make the film any less fun. Michael Crawford is Colin, a Ron Weasley-like school teacher who doesn't have the knack. He tries to learn from his suave, motorcycle riding housemate Tolen the ways of seduction but fails because he just doesn't have it. Enter Nancy Jones (Rita Tushingham), a new arrival in town, looking helplessly for YWCA, ends up with Colin and another of his eccentric housemate Tom while they are out to get a gigantic bed frame for Colin (just in case he scores). The following scenes are reminiscence of Jules et Jim but sillier.

With sight gags and plenty of physical comedy and playfulness, it strongly reminds me of early Woody Allen films. Fun film.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Crimes Don't See Colors

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) - Wise
Robert Ryan is Earle Slater, a bigoted ex-convict and WWII vet who's been living off of his working girlfriend (Shelley Winters). Even though emasculated and aging, he still has the fire in him. Harry Belafonte is Johnny Ingram, a divorced vibraphonist with a massive gambling debt. Enter Dave (Ed Begley), an ex-cop trying to organize a heist in upstate NY. He puts a squeeze on the two so they have no choice but to go along with the "one last shot at the greatness" deal.

With a cool title sequence, rapid cuts, zoom-ins, extreme closeups, jazzy score and old New York scenery (including Central Park merry-go-round), there are a lot to love in Odds Against Tomorrow. It patiently spends 2/3rd of the film on the characters before the heist. It even pauses for Slater and Ingram to hang (albeit separately) in pastoral area looking all contemplative before the heist which, of course, goes horribly wrong.

Belafonte, a darker, edgier side of Sidney Poitier, is mesmerizing as a conflicted anti-hero, so as Ryan in his aging grizzly man persona. Gloria Grahame shows up as saucy next door neighbor of Slater and their scene together is deliciously explosive.

Moral of the story? As the last line of the film indicates, crimes don't see no colors.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Family Business

We Are What We Are (2010) - Grau
The film starts with a disoriented old man dying in an urban shopping mall in modern day Mexico. Cops are called in when a mortician finds an undigested woman's middle finger in the old man's stomach.

It is difficult to review a film like We Are What We Are without revealing too much since much of the film's strength lies in keeping things under wraps. Let's just say it tells the disintegration of one of the most unusual families you will ever encounter and shows their determined, violent resolve to stay alive. Played with great urgency, acting in the film is excellent throughout. The anxious ridden family members are: Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro), the passive, sexually ambivalent older son. Julian (Alan Chávez), the hot-headed younger brother, their seductress sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitán of Sin Nombre) and their disapproving mom Patricia (played with gusto by Carmen Beato).

Director Jorge Michel Grau creates an amazingly suspenseful and assured first feature. It moves along briskly, not giving us enough time to think about its fuzzy details or logic. With the beautifully somber nighttime cinematography and effective sound design, it works like a good old-fashioned giallo with a grittier urban sprawl backdrop. I am partially in disagreement with We Are What We Are being sold as a cannibal movie. Just don't expect another Texas Chainsaw Massacre here. One can even draw the parallels between the family and the ancient Maya ritual involving human sacrifice. Watching the film is a visceral and tense experience. It is an inventive genre exercise done masterfully. Grau is a real talent and I can't wait to see what he will come up with next.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Carpathian Rhapsody

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) - Parajanov
In pictures:
This simple Ukrainian folklore of star crossed lovers, Ivan and Marichka, against the stunning Carpathian mountain backdrop is told in truly cinematic fashion: astounding camera movements and colors, colors, colors. Interesting display of the regional culture steeped in both Christian and pagan rituals. A visual feast.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Violence That is Pure and Clean

Cockfighter (1974) - Hellman
What makes a man? A set of balls? Perhaps a cock? Is it not what he says but what he does?

After losing a cockfight by shooting his mouth off against his long time rival (Harry Dean Stanton), Frank (Warren Oates) takes a vow of silence until he claims 'The Cockfighter of the Year' medal. For him, cockfighting is not about money, women, nor about cocks. It's not even about winning. It's his love for its simplicity - you give all you have in that ring, fight to the death, albeit second-hand. He wagers with his car, trailer, girlfriend, house, everything. Women don't understand him. They don't understand the violence that is pure and clean. No wonder his attitude toward them is take-it-or-leave-it.

There are two hilarious scenes that stick out- one with young Ed Begley Jr. as a hick farmboy who doesn't take a defeat well. And a stickup by group of presidential masked gunman at the motel where a makeshift cockfight takes place. Everyone has to take their pants off.

Laurie Bird reprises her role in Two Lane Blacktop here and Harry Dean is always dependable as leathery lowlife. But the film totally belongs to Oates. Relying on his body language and that good old toothy smile, he demonstrates his acting range as a single minded Hellman anti-hero without being someone other than Warren Oates.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Keep That Coffee Hot

The Big Heat (1953) - Lang
Gloria Grahame, ooh la la. Who does she remind me of? Julietta Macina if she was ever young and sexy, maybe? It's a very difficult task to make a ditzy girl sexy and she does it here.

The big heat tells a tough cop, Bannion (Glenn Ford) in a sewer city. While investigating a cop's suicide, for some reason, Bannion can't keep his big mouth shut so everyone around him ends up dead, including his wholesome beer and steak dinner sharing wife, blown up by the bigwig Lagana's goons.

Enter Debbie (Grahame), a pretty young thang that belongs to Lagana's right hand man Vince (Lee Marvin). She sticks with the busyhand because she likes money and mink coats. But after Vince gets a shakedown by Bannion, Debbie walks up to Bannion and they 'talk'. Vince in turn throws a hot coffee in her pretty face.

Morally mucky film by Lang where its straight-shooting protag unknowingly direct everyone to their demise in order for him to get to the big fish, The Big Heat is perhaps the dirtiest noir I've seen so far. And Grahame is there to make guys think dirty. Bravo.