In the mix: Uncle Boonmee

Still from Uncle Boonmee
By Frances Morgan

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was one of 2010's most critically acclaimed cinema releases. The deceptively simple story of a terminally ill farmer's final days, it was the first Thai film to win the Palme D'Or prize at Cannes and received a special screening at the London Film Festival.

While Uncle Boonmee will have introduced the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul to many UK filmgoers, the director, born in 1970, has been amassing an equally striking body of work this decade, in particular 2004's Tropical Malady. His films tell elliptical, often dreamlike stories, which are tinged with supernatural or mythical elements. Yet they're also about place, history and memory, and their underlying charge is political as well as mystical, examining and criticising Thailand's troubled history and identity.

Weersethakul's films are highly atmospheric, drawing us deeply into environments both mundane and magical. In Uncle Boonmee, sound plays a vital part in creating these suggestive, uncanny atmospheres. Set in a remote part of North-Eastern Thailand among dense forests and farmland, it is soundtracked by a powerful mix of ambient sound and semi-improvised drones and electronics. The overriding theme of multiple lives is mirrored in the constant, busy recordings of nature, while the patterns inherent in these sounds are emphasised, to hypnotic effect.

Sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanmitr has worked with Weerasethakul on Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, as well as numerous other films and sound installations, and is a co-founder of the SOL art space in Bangkok. I asked him about creating Uncle Boonmee's unique soundscape.

 

 

FM: The sound design of Uncle Boonmee is very striking, and sound plays an integral role in the film. At what point in the filmmaking process did you start to think about sound design, and how do you work with the director to achieve the right sonic atmosphere in the film?

AK: Normally, Apichatpong, [editor] Lee Chatamethikul and I start working on sound design – ambience, effects and drone sound – during the very first cut. Then, after about the second or the third cut, we put the music or score in. Apichatpong would put the ambient sound which he liked on to the cut, then I'd tweak it after, and add more layers.

 

The predominant sound in the film is that of the natural world: insects, birds, water and weather. While this is in the background of many films, in Uncle Boonmee it is brought to the foreground. Do you have a fascination with nature?

Yes, I do really like to listen to natural sound, it's such a relief and mysterious at the same time. It is a very subconscious element for me.

For the sound of this film, the first thing was to make it be realistic, then tweak later. I like to make the sound either hidden or abrupt, depending on the feeling and rhythm. Sometimes I just throw the sound in there just to see what happens. It's like, expect the unexpected! I think the sound of  birds, crickets, or even water are loud in the real life – although colder countries don’t have as many crickets as warmer countries. Some people like to mix the nature sound low because it could disrupt the dialogue; I just feel that the loud ambience might make it more realistic. It's all about people’s perception: it [nature] is around you, but you do not recognize it.

Also, there is one cricket sound which is hidden in the film somewhere and is also in most of Apichatpong's films since Tropical Malady. That's a small thing that I like to do on his films.

 

The remote location in which Uncle Boonmee is shot has a very unique visual and sonic character – was it important to you to capture the sound of this place, and what was the process like of recording it?

A lot of the ambient sounds that were used in this film were recorded on or nearby our location. They were done by my assistant sound editor who was the production sound recordist, Chalermrat Kaweewattana. Normally the sound was recorded by stereo microphone on a digital recorder. Chalermrat told me that some of the sound which he recorded from the location, he didn't even monitor while recording because when he did it, everyone had left, it was very dark with no light at all and something was moving behind the bush...so he decided to place the microphone where he wanted and then waited inside the van with his boom operator! 

I think it's quite important to have the sound from the real location, but not always necessary. Most of the sound from the jungle scene is from Ratchaburi, in the west of Thailand. The long cricket sound from the cave to the temple scene was accidentally captured. It was the first take of recording on that day. I was very lucky to capture a very clean and clear sound of that kind of cricket. After that, for the second or the third take, the cricket had gone somewhere else and was not that close anymore.

Still from Uncle Boonmee/ghost

I felt that the constant sound of natural life, especially at night time, was a reminder of the themes in the film about multiple lives and the presence of ghosts – do you think these sounds add to the supernatural elements of the film?

I think the night sound always gave me the feeling of mysterious peacefulness. It could make people sleepy, but also anxious somehow.

When I did the recording of the ambient sound in the jungle or in the middle of nowhere at night, I felt scared and joyful at the same time. It was dark and the insects were singing louder and louder – I felt that there was something there which I wouldn't have known [before]. It's a whole new supernatural world for me.

 

In the scene where Boonmee’s son is telling the story of how he came to be a monkey ghost, there is a soundtrack of low electronic tones. What is the music or sound that is used here, and why did you use it?

The music is improvised by Koichi Shimizu and Thom AJ Madson. For me, this music gives the feeling of secrecy, agitation, tranquility and imperfection, which somehow just fit right into the scene. It's a sound from the guitar passing through tons of analogue effects, then mixed again with more drones added to it.

 

I’ve read that Uncle Boonmee is influenced by old Thai films and TV dramas, in particular the supernatural elements. This seems primarily to be a visual influence, but what about the sound and music of these older films? Can we hear as well as see elements of them?

I think what you can hear from this film is the simplicity of the sound, which is influenced by the older Thai cinema. We were trying to make it so there was not too much or too little of anything.

One of the most striking sequences in the film is the journey through the cave in which Boonmee dies. The sound in this sequence is interesting – it’s recorded and mixed so that we really feel the pressure and space of the woods and the cave. How did you go about recording and mixing this sequence?

Yes, the [journey from the] jungle to the cave scene is one of my favourite sound [designs] I've ever done. There were many layers of natural sound plus a drone behind it. The drone sound was from a fan, which was recorded from Apichatpong's short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. I used this sound at the end of that short film, then for this film I processed it. It was transformed. 

In the cave, the sound was layered with not so many tracks, I just wanted to keep it very simple. There’s not much surround panning, no bats flying in the surround speakers, just constant hum all the way, to be more like meditation. I really like the sound on the still photo scene too [a sequence of still images, representing Boonmee’s memories, from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Primitive project, in which he examined the history of Nabua in North-Eastern Thailand]. It gave me the space to think about many of the themes in this film.

Still from Uncle Boonmee/waterfall