When Apichatpong Weerasethakul was growing up in Thailand, he learned about movies the way kids everywhere did in the 1980s: pushing cassette after cassette into the family VCR. Beyond Spielberg and other recommended imports like Bonnie and Clyde, beyond hip B-horror movies like Evil Dead, beyond Thai films, he searched through bins in Bangkok for videos, most of them now long forgotten, that spoke to his developing sensibility. "Give me something different," he'd tell the storekeeper.
Sitting in the lobby of the Hudson Hotel last fall while in town for the New York Film Festival, the director, 40, was trying to recall the title of an Ellen Barkin film he liked from those formative years. "She was wearing red, and it also had Jodie Foster," he remembers. "It was all about dreams." The title he was fishing for was Siesta (1987), a bizarre sex-thriller that, upon further review, makes complete sense as inspiration for a young and adventurous Weerasethakul. Like his latest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which opens at the Sundance Kabuki on March 4, Siesta obscures the line between life and death, dreams and reality, logic and absurdity. Except Weerasethakul's version of "something different" is no obscure curio but, instead, the reigning Palme d'Or winner. Unassumingly transgressive, funny, and humane, Uncle Boonmee is surely the loveliest film to ever feature catfish-provided cunnilingus and a Jawa-eyed ghost-monkey biped.
After five formally promiscuous features, it's safe to say that Weerasethakul understands life, time, and cinema as fluid. His first film, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), is a wholly unique hybrid, part documentary field study and part free-associative fiction; the film marked the first of many times that he would integrate Western art-world experimentation in unambiguously Thai settings. Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006) both feature narrative disruptions, with action destabilized and reset, as in an oil-on-canvas diptych. Uncle Boonmee sticks to a single canvas, but the surface keeps changing. Characters transform into spirits, monkeys, tigers, and monks, and they go to and from the Great Beyond with surprising ease. Weerasethakul's career is much the same, as he switches between feature films and art projects, each in turn toggling between narrative and nonnarrative, the quotidian and the mystifying.
It's easy to imagine the younger incarnation of the soft-spoken Weerasethakul glued to the VCR or poring over books about supernatural phenomenon like Bigfoot (who's referenced in Uncle Boonmee). But it's harder to picture him running a film set. "I am a shy person," he says, so quietly that I have to lean in to hear him above the other voices in the lobby. "And I like film. I know this conflict. The word 'director' demands that you direct," he continues. "Which I don't feel comfortable with."
This unease explains why the Art Institute of Chicago, with its emphasis on avant-garde cinema, was an ideal place for Weerasethakul to learn filmmaking (he graduated in 1997). "It was like painting or sculpture in the classical way, the way you do it by yourself," he explains. But further exposure to the films of Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien opened his mind to how narrative features could also be experimental. Back in Thailand, with no real independent film scene to draw from, he cobbled together a crew of unemployed novices — which suited him just fine. "It wasn't like I was working with professionals, so I didn't have that fear," he says. "Instead, I had this gathering of friends." The same crew members who helped him on Mysterious Object at Noon are still with him today, and witnessed his gradual evolution into a director who was comfortable being in control. "I learned to be a monster sometimes," he explains. "And they understand."
Yet the inward-looking artist remains. Though the films of Weerasethakul, the most celebrated filmmaker ever to emerge from Thailand, are immersed in the villages, jungles, caves, and waterfalls of his native land, they're also precisely articulated expressions of his own inner world. "I know exactly what I want, what I want to provoke in myself," he says. "Because [my work is] for me. It's not created for someone else. It's my own personal diary." You never know where his films are going, where the camera is headed: During a long scene in Uncle Boonmee, we follow characters, equipped with only a flashlight, down into a dark cave—yet you feel protected. Weerasethakul's films are uncommonly tactile, in touch with the physical world but also coiled in the head, with heartbeats and crickets alternating in rhythm.
Weerasethakul related this dichotomy to his own spiritual struggle, between the life of the artist and the pursuit of Buddhist enlightenment. He is committed to the former, but haunted by the latter. "Meditation is really about — it's a cliché, but it's true — this letting go," he explains. "But being a director, you demand a lot, and you have to attach. It's a conflict. I think if you meditate, you really don't need movies. You don't need to escape. To make movies, to make art, is superficial." Should we worry about losing one of the world's finest filmmakers to a life of private contemplation? "I doubt I will become an advanced meditator," he says, laughing at his equivocation, the core contradiction of his art of perpetual transformation, before concluding, "because of the movies."