Apichatpong Weerasethakul
© Getty Images

“I like the idea of the transmigration of souls,” the Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul tells me on a sunny day on a Cannes terrace. “But I can’t say I believe in something till it is proven.”

It was virtually proven two days later. Apichatpong’s soul transmigrated into that of a Golden Palm winner. He became that coveted beast, a Cannes victor: an animal that can flick its paw at distributors worldwide, saying, “Show my film.” The success of the fabulous – in every sense – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is payday for those critics who loved Tropical Malady (2004), this director’s hypnotic diptych of jungle stories, and compensation for those critics (including me) who were bemused by his previous film, the cryptic Syndromes and a Century (2006).

That collection of runic tableaux, set in and around a hospital, was in part a commemoration of Apichatpong’s father, who died of kidney disease. The new movie transposes that parent, or “transmigrates” him, into a more bewitching, while scarcely less challenging, set of stories: six episodes linked by dream logic while differentiated by visual styles. They take us from domestic scenes spiked with the supernatural – the ailing Uncle Boonmee visited by his dead wife and monkey-ghost son – to folk tales, flashbacks and fantasy excursions. The later sections extend the living world into the afterworld, or bring the past and future into collision with the present.

Magical realism? More magical magic. More an attempt to re-landscape the viewer’s own imagination. “The function of film is to implant memories, and a sense of other lives, in our own,” says the film-maker, whose cropped-pate features and ascetic otherworldly air suggest a Buddhist let loose in the French Riviera fleshpots.

“We need these stories. We have needed them since we were in a cave and played with shadows. In the films and comic books I grew up with, the spirit world coexisted easily with the human world. In these tales, dying doesn’t mean going away for ever. The husband, Uncle Boonmee, is surprised a little bit [when his dead wife materialises at the dinner table], but then it’s OK,” he laughs, “and they carry on.”

The same when the ghost-monkey son, a tall, startling figure with hair-covered body and glowing red eyes, ascends the stairs to the dining veranda. A moment from a primitive B-horror movie, made immediate and epiphanic.

“I am copying old film styles, because my film is not only about Boonmee but about my own life. I want to present the memory of filmmaking itself, the cinema I grew up with.” In the press booklet accompanying the Cannes showing of Uncle Boonmee Apichatpong put it more science-fictionally: “I am interested in exploring the innards of the time machine.”

“It’s about the connections between different times,” he explains, “between ‘real’ time and the time in the audience’s minds, between the real past and the past of primitive film fantasy. Like, when we go to the jungle we have this fake jungle of day for night (the process where night scenes are shot in underexposed daylight). It’s not a contemporary jungle, it’s a jungle from an old movie.”

Mixing styles and sources, the director’s memories, joined with the tales of Uncle Boonmee, an old man who lived in Apichatpong’s north-east Thailand and who shortly before he died published his memories of “previous lives” (animal and human), seem simultaneously like divings inward into a deep subjective inner-space and excursions outward into a universal land of imagination, filled with archetypes of folklore or filmlore.

At the same time, the movie is anchored in precise locality. “People across Thailand don’t know Uncle Boonmee’s book. It was self-published, it was read only in the north-east, where I grew up. It’s a very distinct place. Before Siam became Thailand the country had several communities, tribes, and the north-east has more the influence of Laos and Cambodia. It’s a very animistic society, more Hindu. More about magic, sorcery, witchcraft. For this film I use a dialect of the area, very close to Laotian. So if you showed this film in Bangkok, many or most people might not understand.”

Curiouser and curiouser. Apichatpong is used to his films not being seen in Thailand. Or shown patchily at best. Syndromes and a Century fell foul of a government ban, for no other reason than an episode with a guitar-playing monk. The monk in the movie was also gay. But the gayness, which permeated Tropical Malady too, caused no censorship problem, the director says. (This is Thailand. Who can figure?)

“Censorship can be very bad. The government bans books, movies. Even here in Cannes, if you write or say something bad or against the government you can be blacklisted and put in jail.” (At one point Apichatpong says something innocent to my ears, followed by: “Don’t print that or I’ll be dead.”)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives captures some of the bewildering contradictions of a land steeped in history and ancient beliefs while, in the past 50 years at least, regularly riven by conflict. The north-east’s communist-sympathising past is alluded to. Boonmee wonders aloud if he is being punished “for killing too many communists”.

Yet in the same reel we can be dabbling with a fairytale princess and a catfish who make love under a waterfall (and who might, says Apichatpong, both be past incarnations of Boonmee) or watching, near the end, an astonishing moment when two characters – or a pair of identical fleshly simulacra – depart their hotel-dwelling bodies to go out and have a meal.

“We originally had a lot of voice-over to explain the story, and the connections and disconnections. But after a while we thought, ‘No, we have to respect the audience.’ Otherwise it becomes boring. So I devised a new structure to make the film more abstract and to have these purely imaginative connections. The challenge was how to make the film abstract but not pretentious or over-intellectual. I wanted to maintain a naivety and innocence, to the point where you feel you’re watching something simple – a children’s movie or children’s book – and at the same time something your mind can work on.”

The film is the main component of a larger multimedia endeavour, now completed, called Primitive Project. Centred on north-east Thailand, including one village where Apichatpong filmed and co-created art events and objects with local youngsters (including a giant spacecraft), the project’s agenda incorporated the director’s search for the roots of Boonmee’s stories.

“I travelled without any plan along the Mekong River. I was looking for relatives of Uncle Boonmee. So many people in this area want to forget the past. The wars, the killing, the raping. But here was a guy who wanted to remember everything. For me he symbolises the life of the past. The moment in the film when you see me working with the kids in the village, that’s when Boonmee’s life and memories merge with my own.”

The miracle of the movie is that those two sets of experiences then merge, or seem to, with our own. It speaks to Apichatpong’s belief in the enduring power of movies. “Cinema is man’s way to create alternative universes, to build other lives, inside our imaginations.”

‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives’ opens in the UK on November 19

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